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The Director’s Chair Issue #117 – April 18, 2011 (Interview with a Screenwriter-Pt. 1)

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THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
Free Monthly Ezine for Film and Television Directors

April 18, 2011                Scene 12 – Take 4
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Published once a month.

Publisher: Peter D. Marshall
Email: mailto:pdm@actioncutprint.com
Website: http://actioncutprint.com
Blog: http://filmdirectingtips.com

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Dear Filmmaker,

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Contents
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1. Introduction
2. Two Bonuses for Subscribing to The Director’s Chair
3. How to Unsubscribe from The Director’s Chair
4. FEATURE ARTICLE: Interview with a Screenwriter-Part 1
5. Write an Article for The Director’s Chair
6. Subscriber Shameless Self-Promotion
7. Links of Interest
8. Blog – Film Directing Tips
9. Filmmaking Workshops
10. Product Promotion and Film Workshops
11. Suggestions and Comments
12. Share this Ezine
13. Reprint this Ezine
14. Copyright Information

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1. Introduction
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Welcome to Issue #117 of The Director’s Chair April 18, 2011

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2) Feature Article – The feature article this month is called
“Interview with a Screenwriter-Part 1. This is Part One of an
interview I did with screenwriter and script consultant Michael
Bruce Adams. (Read full article below.)

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4. FEATURE ARTICLE: Interview with a Screenwriter-Part 1
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This is Part One of an interview I did with screenwriter
and script consultant Michael Bruce Adams.

PETER – Mike, can you please tell me your background?

MIKE – I took Physical Education and Psychology at UBC. After
that I was in advertising and marketing for three years.

I worked in the film industry for ten years as a camera
assistant. This is where Peter and I met. I was brand new
working as a Production Assistant and Peter was the 1st AD.
Your advice has been something that I kept with me and used
since that time. You told me that no matter what job I was
doing do the best job I could. And you told me to build a
philosophy for what I was doing.

I’ve been writing for twelve years, written or co-written 19
feature length screenplays. I’ve been consulting for eight
years. My clients range from producers looking for new
material or a complete rewrite on an existing project, to new
writers looking for help with their first script. I have
clients in Europe, Canada and the US.

PETER – What is a screenwriter?

MIKE – A screenwriter is a storyteller. More specifically, a
screenwriter ignites the spark to a storytelling process. They
provide the source work to a storytelling team.

PETER – Where do you get your ideas?

MIKE – It depends on the project, but usually an idea will
come to mind from a memory or something I read, or it could be
given to me as a synopsis by another filmmaker.

But the work doesn’t really begin for me until I can find my
own spark, one scene or image related to this idea I’ve got
that charges me emotionally, motivates my imagination. Until I
have that, I can work the idea all I want, but the story will
never reveal itself. Once I have the spark, I use that as a
springboard into the research and that’s where the story
really comes to light.

PETER – Do you research every script?

MIKE – Absolutely. Research is how you build the world your
characters will eventually bring to life. Some projects are
easier to research; the old adage ‘write what you know’ plays
a huge role here. Not that I’m advocating that, but as a new
writer, telling stories that are close to your heart or past
experiences means that YOU are the prime research material,
what could be easier… right. It’s also very safe.

Those experiences are a good place to start as a new
screenwriter, but, the nature of screenwriting means that we
have to go beyond that safety zone. And going beyond the
safety zone is the joy of being a screenwriter. We get to
experience emotions that we wouldn’t ordinarily allow
ourselves to experience, and create situations that we would
never physically enter into.

If we’re good at creating these worlds and we enter them
honestly with our characters, we will experience everything
our characters do with emotions just as intense.

This is the gift, and the curse of being a screenwriter. Those
who don’t have the courage to dig deep enough into their own
emotional well rarely create anything out of the safety zone,
and those types of projects just don’t resonate with
audiences. Research is a gathering of knowledge, and an
emotional mining process. It’s a search for truth.

PETER – I talk a lot about truth as well. Directors (listening
for truth) Actors (truth in performance). Why is truth so
important for an artist?

MIKE – Well, philosophically one could argue that there is no
truth, but ultimately, for the artist, truth equals the
ability to connect, to relate, in our case, to an audience.
There’s a great story about two men in a modern art gallery
standing in front of a grey, rectangular panel six and half
feet tall and two feet wide. One guy says, “I just can’t
relate to this, this isn’t art”. And the other guy says.
“Well, to me this represents the grayness of our existence, a
celebration of the mundane. It’s brilliant”. And at that point
the drill bit for the new doorknob pops through the panel from
the other side.

So I guess in one sense any art that connects with someone is
a success. But in film, we have to find a way to connect with
as many people as possible, and the only way we can do that is
to create our art with truthful human emotions. So as
screenwriters, we’re not talking about truth in plot or
setting, we’re talking about relating truthful human responses
to the situations we place our characters in. We have to
believe them. It’s our responsibility to become the audience
and maintain that perspective all the way through the creative
process.

A terrific yardstick to measure the success of this is in teen
comedies. By basing the comedy on the truth in human nature,
that we can all relate to, a straight up genre picture can
become so much more and create a huge fan response. AMERICAN
PIE, HEATHERS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME are great examples of
putting a little bit more effort and craft into a genre
picture and getting a great result.

PETER – So what you’re saying is that knowing the truth of a
scene translates into motivation for the character?

MIKE – Exactly, and the opposite is also true. Characters that
have truthful motivation for their actions bring out the truth
in a scene. I love watching actors create characters. Most of
them will get into their make-up and wardrobe then walk the
sets, handle the props. You can see the wheels turning in
there. The physical transformation brings on inspiration.

A few work on another level, using method techniques brought
with great power to the craft by people like Lee Strasberg.
They go through a similar research process that great
screenwriters do. They search for the world of the character
as suggested by the source material, the screenplay. So the
screenwriter has to do their homework. The actors live in that
character’s world until it is a part of them. This is beyond
touching props and walking the sets. Believe me, these actors
will let you know if you’ve done a crap job on your research.

This is where motivation starts. Motivation, quite simply, is
the honest response of a character to any situation, after
taking into account the entire emotional history and
personality of that character.

PETER – And that’s what we as writers and directors are
responsible for creating.

MIKE – Without exception. The actors should be able to ask
about or discuss any point of a character’s psyche with us,
and they should expect intelligent answers.

Writers must create the ability to become their own characters
so that they can respond truthfully, as their characters, in
the story. This seems like a monumental task considering you
have to be able to do this for every character, but you’d be
surprised how quickly you can learn to do it and how
satisfying the process can be.

When you get good at this, it opens up a whole new world of
creativity. Imagine trying to work through a frustrating plot
problem; as Joe screenwriter you may only be able to come up
with one or two options, but as Larry Protagonist the
freewheeling, sharp as a tack star of your current screenplay,
you can probably come up with three or four completely new
ideas. It sounds a little goofy but it really works.

PETER – What about all the screenwriting books and magazines
out there? Can you discuss their value and what are some of
your favorites?

MIKE – There are an endless number of resources for the
screenwriter, which is terrific; it shows the massive amount
of interest in our craft. Most of them seem to be about the
business side and we can boil all that down to three words:
get an agent. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. In order to
get an agent you have to provide them with a screenplay that
they can sell.  Being a nice energetic person with lots of
potential isn’t enough.

PETER – So what about the other side, the writing?

MIKE – My favorite magazine is SCENARIO magazine but I think
it’s out of print so you might have to look for back issues.
SCRIPT magazine is doing a great job of giving an overall
sense of the industry with some good interviews with
filmmakers.

For books, I like THE HERO WITH 1000 FACES, and THE POWER OF
MYTH by Joseph Campbell, and along the same lines, Christopher
Volgler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. These three books will give
you a fantastic background for classic story structure and an
in-depth look at ‘the Hero’s Journey’. Walter Murch’s book IN
THE BLINK OF AN EYE is about as inspirational book I’ve ever
come across for any filmmaker. But above all that, for the
screenwriter, the craft demands that you are a fan of the
written word. Read as many novels as you can.

Read the novels of Charles Bukowski, James Ellroy, Lindsey
Davis, Raymond Chandler, Hunter Thompson, Neil Gaiman, John
Fante, Cormac McCarthy and Frank Miller and anybody else that
moves you. Get a sense of the different styles, why they work
for you, or not. Read screenplays. Take note of the date they
were written. Watch how style changes with not only each
project but with the times as well. Today, more often than not
we’ve got Accountants, who are not trained in story craft,
reading our scripts and giving the green or red light.

How has that changed the style of successful scriptwriters?
Look how the words are laid out on the page. I think you’ll
see a whole lot more white space today than, say, ten years
ago. Get a sense of how a comedy flows on the page as opposed
to an action picture. To me this is the vital reading for the
screenwriter. You want to read as much as you write, more if
you can. You got to feed the brain.

There is no one way to write a great screenplay, but there are
some terrific habits you can pick up from the books and there
are some universal laws to the storytelling craft that we
should all be aware of.

PETER – What universal laws?

MIKE – The human psyche responds best to drama presented
within a definite storytelling pattern, as exemplified in ‘the
Hero’s Journey’. Aristotle was the first to define this in
what we now know as the classic three-act dramatic structure
or cycle, but it’s been around for as long as we have. From
the epic of Gilgamesh written on Sumerian clay tablets 4000
years ago to the caves of Lascaux, France where 20,000 years
ago our forefathers painted their hunting adventures on cave
walls. It’s amazing to dig into the storytelling mythology and
discover that every myth we have, from all cultures, basically
relates to this cycle.

Imagine the Paleolithic hunters 20,000 years ago, and the
village has run out of meat. In act 1, the village discovers
it’s lack of food, the hunters prepare to leave and say
goodbye to their families. In act 2, the hunters venture into
the wilderness to face the beast. In act 3, they kill an
animal, celebrate their good fortune and return home with
their bounty. This cycle is ingrained in every event of our
human existence.

Joseph Campbell in the first half of the 20th century
committed his life to the study of comparative mythology and
gave us the seminal work, THE HERO WITH 1000 FACES, which
shows us this cycle throughout human history.

People from JRR Tolkien to George Lucas have cited Campbell’s
work as defining this Hero’s Journey as the classic human
myth, and, along with Sigmund Freud, identifying the classic
archetypes that are essentially the building blocks of the
human psyche.

We see this influence throughout THE LORD OF THE RINGS and
it’s futuristic counterpart STAR WARS. Christopher Vogler, an
exec at Disney in the late 70’s was so influenced by
Campbell’s work that he was inspired to condense Campbell’s
theory of the Hero’s Journey down to a seven-page memo that
was distributed to all story people at Disney as a creative
guide.

Vogler understood the power that mythology brings to modern
storytelling. Later he expanded that memo into an
indispensable book entitled THE WRITER’S JOURNEY that has
become the industry standard for crafting story. It’s no
surprise to discover that a story told with these mythic
sensitivities in mind connects with audiences. As we stray
further from the classic journey structure, we begin to lose
our audience.

PETER – Can you explain that in more detail – “lose our
audience”?

MIKE – We act out this dramatic cycle a thousand times a day
in everything we do from brushing our teeth to preparing a
meal. We don’t even think about it, it’s internalized deep in
the human psyche.

If filmmakers tell a story without a complete dramatic cycle,
the audience feels unfulfilled. Now, this works in degrees. We
might look at Hollywood formulaic action pictures as those
that adhere most religiously to the classic story structure.
You can check off on a list all the things that are supposed
to happen to the hero and there they are. If we then look at
some of the independent films out there, we find that the
elements that make up each act or stage of the classic
dramatic structure may be non-existent or exist on a very
subtle level. So again we risk leaving audiences unfulfilled.

Then we have the concept of the anti-hero to deal with. A
classic structure depends on a classic hero, that is, a
protagonist that we can relate to for his or her positive
qualities or that we can empathize with as being just like us.
The anti-hero that we see in films like HUSTLE & FLOW or
GOODFELLAS doesn’t fit that mold. They are outcast or outside
of society norms, or have character flaws so significant that
we feel that we cannot relate to them.

Unless we convince an audience that their patience with these
characters will ultimately be rewarded by either the
destruction of the character or the redemption, then we will
lose them. Watch the WOODSMAN for taking an extreme example of
an anti-hero and creating one of the best, most impactful
independent films of 2005.

Personally, I find that the most rewarding films are the ones
that push the classic dramatic structure to the edge and still
pay due care and attention to the elements of building the
story. More often than not, it’s the way a story is told,
rather than how it’s built, that can make a story sing.

PETER – Can you explain the difference?

MIKE – Yes. Let me clarify; we’re talking about two things
here, how a story is built and how a story is told. When we
talk about how a story is built, this is where the classic
dramatic structure comes into play. When we talk about how a
story is told we’re basically looking at two styles, linear or
non-linear.

Linear style is when we tell a story from start to finish in
proper chronological order. The non-linear style breaks the
story apart and tells it out of order using flashbacks and
flash forwards. THE ENGLISH PATIENT, PULP FICTION and the
French film IRREVERSIBLE are excellent examples of non-linear
style of telling a story and yet each are strongly rooted in
the mythic story building structure. Artful writers, directors
and editors can pull and push and chop at the style of a film
in ways that make a story even more poignant and resounding.
Innovative filmmakers have proved it time and time again that
standard linear structure is not vital to connecting with the
audience.

Walter Murch in his book, IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, beautifully
describes the craft of film and sound editing, and more to the
point, the craft of constructing and deconstructing a story
for the maximum emotional impact. But the best filmmakers,
Murch, Coppela, Stone, Scorsese, Scott, are doing it with a
lifetime of storytelling experience under their belts. So how
do we compete with that?

What we have to do as writers is to learn the craft of
storytelling from the bottom up. We have to absorb all the
classic dramatic theory we can and truly take it in. Only then
can we take our stories and turn them on their heads. Story
theory is the tools of our trade. Conversely, if we depend too
heavily on the classic structure and ritualize it to the point
where we’re mapping out plot points and character arc by page
number, then I think we’ve really lost the ability to create
truthfully and I think our audiences are very aware of that.

PETER – Okay, Michael, here’s a question for you; I’m a
filmmaker and I’ve never written a screenplay, but I have a
story that I really want to tell, and I want to write it.
Where do I begin?

MIKE – The writing process is as individual as each writer is
from another. As well, each project demands a certain unique
perspective. That being said, I’ve found that there are some
really effective ways to begin a new project.

My favorite is to write down the idea in a few pages, usually
between 5 and 10, as a treatment. This gives you an overall
idea where you’re taking your story along with a loose plot
outline and the beginnings of character development.

PETER – Can you explain this process in more detail?

MIKE – I like to do this in short story form with some
dialogue and a strong first person narrative, as if I’m
listening to my protagonist tell me the story. I do this until
I get one scene, the ‘eureka scene’, that begs me to write it
out completely, one scene that compels me emotionally to
springboard the rest of the piece on, one scene that contains
the most powerful emotional theme of my piece. I flush that
scene out in my story until that emotional truth resonates in
me. This is usually indicated by goose bumps, possibly tears
and some inner dialog that usually goes, ”Wow, where did that
come from?”

PETER – There’s that word truth again!

MIKE – Yes, finding that kernel of truth is vital to a strong
beginning. This will be the emotional compass for the rest of
your writing journey. The exercise is great for that plus,
it’s a nice organic way to bring out the themes and associate
them directly to our characters, rather than starting off with
only a subject saying, ‘I want to do a piece on racial hatred’
or “adolescent angst’ or ‘baseball’ or whatever. With this
technique you have a context in plot and emotion for your
themes. Already, you’re steps ahead in the process. Now the
research begins.

PETER – What if you don’t have an idea, only a subject, like
‘baseball’ for example?

MIKE  – No problem, you back track a bit. First off, you want
to find a more specific topic. Narrow it down to ‘sandlot
baseball’ or ‘professional baseball’ or ‘little league
baseball’. Then you get into the research. There’s a reason
for this, I think if you commit too early to a very specific
idea, without having done your research, you’re not as open to
other ideas that might show themselves and be potentially
stronger. That’s why it’s so important to have an emotion
theme, but not necessarily a plot, before you dig into the
research. There is strength and flexibility in the emotion of
a story but plot tends to be brittle and uncompromising,
particularly at the research stage.

PETER – I’ve discussed many times how important research is
for a director. I imagine it’s probably a similar task for a
writer?

MIKE – I would think the processes are almost exactly the
same. For me, research starts with getting my hands on every
film, book, article and TV show that’s related to my subject.
You want to ingest all this material for two reasons; first,
you can see what has been done before so you can avoid telling
similar stories, second, all the people that created these
works have, theoretically, done their homework so you’re
getting the benefit of all their experience, plus you get
these wonderful direction markers for where to focus your own
in10 depth research. As you’re watching and reading, you’re
dreaming up fresh ideas, fresh perspectives on the subject.

I know people, writers and directors, who refuse to watch or
read any material associated with the subject of their project
for fear of influencing their own creative process. While I
respect this sentiment, I just don’t find it practical.

When we choose to tell a story about a certain subject or
within a certain world, we have a responsibility to the
audience to tell that story with authenticity, truth and
hopefully a fresh perspective. How can we do that without
understanding how the subject has been handled and presented
before?

PETER – I agree. I don’t think any intelligent director would
start to prep a film about WWII, for instance, without going
out and renting WWII movies and documentaries and reading
every WWII book they can get their hands on.

MIKE – Right. And as you’re going through this material,
you’re jotting down ideas and you’re going to eventually hit
on some things that tickles your intuition, little stories
within that world that compel you to dig. Ultimately you’re
looking for the idea that compels you to write the treatment
as we discussed before. You’re going to narrow in on specific
ideas and work them until you find your eureka scene. Then you
finish your treatment and continue your research.

PETER – How can we reach you if we need your services?

MIKE – Easiest way is by e-mail. My address is
solperro@shaw.ca and Producers and Directors who are looking
for new scripts or help with an existing project can call me
as well at area code (604) 813-2552.

Watch for Part Two of this interview next month.

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5. Do You Want To Write An Article For The Director’s Chair?
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If you would like to contribute articles, tips, links of
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6. Subscriber Shameless Self-Promotion (Free Advertising)
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The Director’s Chair gives you an incredible opportunity to
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7. Links of Interest
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1) Celebrating its 17th year, Encounters Bristol International
Film Festival is now the leading UK gateway to the world’s
most prestigious short film and animation awards including the
Academy Awards®, the BAFTAs, the European Film Awards and the
Cartoon d’Or.

One of the best-known showcases and meeting points for
emerging talent, the festival seeks to promote the short form
as a means to develop and progress the next generation of
filmmakers and animators.

17th Encounters Bristol International Film Festival November
16-20, 2011 http://www.encounters-festival.org.uk

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9. Filmmaking Workshops – Peter D. Marshall
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I have worked in the Film and Television Industry for over
37 years – as a Film Director, Television Producer, First
Assistant Director and Series Creative Consultant. I’ve been
asked many times to share my Film and TV production
knowledge with others. As a result, I developed several
workshops that I have successfully presented over the past
15 years.

To find out more about these workshops, just click on the
link below. If you are interested in any of these four
workshops for yourself or your organization, please contact
me to discuss how we can bring these workshops to you.
http://actioncutprint.com/workshops

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10. Product Promotion And Film Workshops
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From time to time, I will contact you to inform you of film
workshops, filmmaking products or Online courses that I feel
are beneficial to filmmakers like yourself. Of course, you are
under no obligation to purchase anything – I only offer this
information as a service to subscribers of this free ezine.

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14. Copyright Information
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