Friday, October 25, 2013

The experimental evolution of a script

My independent film company Either/Or Films recently produced a low-budget feature here in New Hampshire called Only Daughter.  A more accurate description might be "micro-budget," seeing the film was made for $20,000, almost all of it raised on IndieGoGo.   The film is currently making the rounds of several film festivals and last weekend won the Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at the Orlando Film Festival and Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress awards on "New Hampshire Night" at the New Hampshire Film Festival in Portsmouth.

What's interesting about the project from the writer's POV is that, although the actual screenplay was written (and the film directed) by my producing partner, Aaron Wiederspahn, it was developed by him and the principle actors over a period of several weeks.  This group got together on a regular basis and worked with the story idea and improvised possible scenes, trying various approaches to the developing material.  Then after this extensive group exploration, Aaron went off and wrote the actual script that was shot.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Your script and the art of carrot dangling

For more years than I care to remember, I have worked with playwrights and screenwriters on developing techniques that will help them create lively, compelling dialogue.  In many ways a writer's ear for good dialogue is simply there or not--an aspect of his or her raw talent that can't be taught or learned.  But there a few principles of good dialogue writing that I continue to put forth.  And there's one that seems to especially resonate with writers struggling to get better at their craft.  I call it the Art of Carrot Dangling.

Some years ago I asked my artist daughter to come up with a sketch that could help illustrate what I mean by such a term.  This is what she came up with:

Silly as this diagram might look, I think it holds a basic truth about the mechanics of how a script (both dialogue and descriptions of action) should function with an audience once it's brought to life in performance on the stage or screen.  You, the writer, are the driver of a horse-drawn wagon full of vegetables (the "goods" of the script) who's expertly manipulating a carrrot (the script in performance) tied to a long pole in front of the horse's nose (the audience)--the purpose of which is to keep the wagon moving to a stable down the road (your destination) so the horse can be fed the whole wagonload of vegetables (the story's ideas and content; what you ultimately want to communicate).

Monday, October 14, 2013

A successful scriptwriting workshop

This past summer I flew out to Santa Fe for the week-long Glen West Workshop run by Image Journal, a literary and arts quarterly currently in its 25th year. Over two hundred writers and other artists gathered to share their work and creative ideas in a glorious setting high on the New Mexico plateau.  Although the elevation of 7,000 feet set me back for a couple of days (my meager 2,000 feet in New England didn't give me a running chance not to be affected), it was the script writing workshop that I was invited to run that truly kept me going.  I thought it'd be interesting to share why it was so productive.

My approach to the workshop was to have all nine of my participating writers arrive the first day of the class with two or three story ideas--ideas that as of yet were not really developed beyond a simple description of a couple of sentences or a short paragraph.  That was it.  No writing samples to share or finished scripts to dissect or discuss and analyze.  Just a couple of simply stated story ideas that each student had a strong hunch might be something they'd like to develop into a play or screenplay.

We spent the first few days going around the room breaking down each idea into the basic structural components that in one way or another have to be present in any good script:
     --a single central character
     --his or her dominant want and need
     --the other principle characters that have to be in the story
     --the major conflict that the central character is facing that sets up his or her primary dilemma
     --how that conflict manifests itself in action
     --how the conflict is ultimately resolved
     --how the central character is changed by the end of the tale
     --and stating what the premise of the story might be (the statement it is ultimately making)

Friday, October 4, 2013

When a script doesn't do its job

The other night some friends and I watched writer/director Rahmin Bahrani's 2012 film At Any Price, an official selection at the Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals and starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron.  The story centers on a farmer in the Midwest who is involved in somewhat shady dealings wtth GMO seed sales and the big companies supplying them.  It's also a father/son story with the boy not wanting to follow in his father's footsteps as a farmer and instead become a race car driver.  As stories go, there are many twists and turns, but the movie ultimately doesn't work.

So why is this worth writing about?  Because it is an excellent example of what not to do with a screenplay.  And as Edward Albee, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, once told me, sometimes you can learn a lot by studying why a project doesn't lift off.