Category Archives: Criticism

If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You…

Kipling was one hell of a writer, not a filmmaker. As you so well know, writing is a solitary event. A novelist may deal with an editor or publisher, but, unless you need a new typewriter ribbon or more ink for your pen, you don’t rub up against many people.

Filmmaking is not like that. You’re in the soup with a lot of other people. Your agent, producer, director, sound person, DP, actors, caterer, editor, colorist, sales rep… are your collaborators. They have your best interest at heart. Listen to them even if, from time to time you must ignore Kipling and his legendary poem, “If.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

In the film department I run, I see this a bunch: despite the best and repeated advice of their crew and teacher, filmmakers at times insist on doing it “their way” and fly the entire operation into the ground.

This is a thin line to walk and I get the degree of difficulty in successfully negotiating the “But they just don’t understand what I’m trying to do!” aspect of filmmaking.

Your crew is your first audience. There’s no way they can see inside your head to understand what you planned and hope for, but they can see the script, they can see the dailies, and they can see the rough cut. They can see your mistakes and if you absolutely won’t be swayed from the gleaming railroad tracks running oh-so-straight across the desert toward distant Paradise, there’s a chance those tracks will drop your train into a deep canyon.

Talking to someone who won’t listen is as rewarding as talking to a wall. At some point your crew may give up trying to give you advice.

When I was in film school, we were required to crew on a 480 (15 minute thesis film) before we were allowed to direct one. The semester before I directed, I was a cinematographer. Together, all the crews watched all the dailies for all the films. All the teachers were in the theater and gave notes as we watched each crew’s footage or cuts and the directors’ reasons for and defense of their choices.

One film was about a Sikh’s decision to cut his hair. The director had a scene where the man is in his bathroom and his girlfriend is waiting in the hall. He takes off his turban and his long hair comes down past his shoulders. He takes one hair between two fingers and pulls it down in front of his face. Holding nail scissors, he looks at the solitary hair and his face in the mirror and… cuts the hair. Nothing happens. Lightning does not strike him and, using the scissors, he hacks at all of his hair, chopping, chopping, chopping.

The scissors were too small to do the job right and the lame attempt to cut all that hair looked ridiculous. Everybody told the director that he had absolute gold if he went from the shot of the one hair being cut, to the hero’s tense wait for lighting to strike, to the girlfriend waiting in the hall, and to the man coming out of the bathroom with short hair. We all felt that, if he showed the character taking the scissors to the rest of his hair, it would be a disastrous mistake. He disagreed. He stuck to his artistic guns and did it precisely like he had always wanted. In the final film, the scene didn’t work. By then, of course, it was too late.

Next semester, when it was my turn to direct, I told my editor that if everyone told me I was doing something wrong, to make sure I listened.

If you’re making a film based on events that happened to them, you are constantly in danger of falling out of the life boat into heavy seas. Creating narrative based on personal history clouds the mind. It takes experience to understand how that, just because something was dramatic when it happened to you, it may not succeed dramatically when it gets to the screen. Be aware: real-life-into-drama can be quicksand.

My 480 was about a girlfriend I’d had in Paris. And a woman I’d dated in Los Angeles. And a French friend I yearned for but who had no romantic interest in me. Claude Lelouch was my favorite director and I wrapped these three stories around each other to tell my story like Lelouch.

It didn’t work. The only one who could follow the complex story structure was me… but I loved it. It was exactly what I’d written and shot. Everything I’d hoped for.

Late in the semester, when we were about to lock picture, my crew and editor said I needed to strongly consider cutting the thread about unrequited love. Nearly one third of the film.

The three part intercutting structure was vitally important. Losing the “friend in Paris” scenes would wreck what I’d been writing, planning and working on for a year. I really, really, really didn’t want to let go of my initial idea.

Luckily, I remembered the previous semester’s director and The Advice Not Taken. As wrenching as the decision was to go against my instincts, I decided that, because everyone was telling me I was wrong, I’d better listen. I told the editor to cut the character. Away she went.

Suddenly the film made perfect sense, worked nicely, and did well for me.

Decades later, I cannot remember anything about that missing story thread except the super cool modern house in the Hollywood Hills we shot in. It’s as if that character’s story never existed. I’d been wrong when everyone around me was right. My team helped me save my film.

If you’re making a film or writing something and everybody’s telling you you’re wrong, there’s a slim chance they could be wrong and holding on to your original plan might be the correct decision. Most likely though, they’re right and you’re not.

When that many people tell you you’ve made a mistake, listen very, very, very carefully.

When you’ve shown your film to an audience or given your writing to an agent, it’s out of your hands and there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. As Ken Robinson, my teacher at USC, told us, “You don’t get to stand next to the screen and explain it.”

I dedicated both my books to the man who gave me that piece of wisdom.

And now, I give it to you.

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Got a film in progress you need notes on?

Up top, I added a new page. NOTES ON ROUGH CUT.

I’ve directed a dozen shorts and have been teaching filmmaking for a long time. A rough cut of a film is a lot like a screenplay… there’s story and character and pace and clarity and everything else. Filmmakers need help just like writers.

So, if you’re in need of someone from outside your editing room (or your own personal head) to give you notes, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Take a look at the notes I posted and, if you think I can help, let me know.

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In Praise of Typewriters – II

Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…

You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.

Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.

The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.

I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.

The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…

And the relevant quote…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”

Again, boiled down…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”

John Mayer

If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.

If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.

One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.

The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”

After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”

If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.

Spend $300. Change your life.

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Complaints on Confusing Names in NETWORK

Pointed out to me by my student Haley Crutcher.  I’m not a fan of confusing names.  Here from master writer Paddy Chayefsky, are some beauts.  Thank you, Haley!

 

Harry & Howard & Hackett & Haywood & Herron

Howard Beale & unimportant Howard  K. Smith. Harry Hunter & unimportant Harry Reasoner.  BTW, these are all four in same paragraph description on p.1.

Willie Stein and Milton Steinman

Louise & Laureen & Lennie

Robert then Bob McDonough

Bob & Bill & Barbara

Max & Milton & Michael

Jack & Joe & George & John

Lou & Lew… Are they the same person?! I still don’t know.

Roughly 30 first and last names/descriptions to remember. Repetitive caps (although sometimes useful, mostly confusing). Who the capital H is important to remember?! Pay attention.

Women’s descriptions either best ass, chunky, handsome (Laureen),  or didn’t get names (secretaries/housekeeper)

Some last names used and some first names. Harry Hunter is Harry to everyone else, but his dialogue is under Hunter, even though at first his dialogue is under Harry Hunter.

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You Don’t Know What You’re Writing About Until the End!

Supposedly you have gotten into this writing dodge because you’re a storyteller. You have something gnawing inside you, burning, chewing at your guts that you can’t wait to get out into the world. To share with others. To make people feel, strongly. Something! Anything! What story do you cease to exist if you don’t tell? Why?!

Writing teachers will say, “Figure out your theme, tape it above your computer and write about that.” As if it were anywhere near that easy!

I think the opposite is true, especially if you’re telling a tale that is “about” something. Something, hopefully, that has profound meaning for you and thereby, everyone. If you do a piece of writing the correct way, it will be to some degree a journey of exploration and discovery, perhaps self-discovery. That journey must be free form, fluid, and wide open to change.

In seeming contradiction to that, I also advocate use of an outline. In Your Screenplay Sucks!, I talked about how important it is to delay writing pages until you have pounded your outline to death.

The earlier it is in your writing career, the tighter the outline should be before you write actual screenplay pages. If your outline is on the money, your overall writing time will be shorter. If you really think about what you’re doing before you write FADE IN:, you’ll waste less time in revision mode.

Even then, you still can’t know what it is you’re really writing about until you have a draft.

Deeper into your writing career, I advocate for a more free-form version of the outline, precisely what Robert Olen Butler tells you to do in his magnificent book From Where You Dream.

https://www.amazon.com/Where-You-Dream-Process-Writing/dp/0802142575

Presumably, as you’re working on your script, your characters are alive and malleable. You may think of something halfway through the script that never occurred to you when you started. That’s fine! Change and improvement are wonderful. Foolish changes, sad to say, will send you off in the wrong direction. But, as this is a process, you can always figure out a way to get back on the path.

As you write pages with action description and dialogue and character and all that stuff, the journey your hero is on as well as the journey you are on will begin to deviate from whatever you thought that journey was going to be when you set out to write the outline, followed by pages. Things happen. Better ideas! Something changes on page 5 that will affect page 50. This stuff is normal. Do not reject change in favor of your “carved in stone” outline.

As you churn forward, writing, do not change the pages behind you (rule of thumb, nothing is law except, “Don’t be boring.”) but drop your “changes” ideas in a file and when you’re done with the first pass, go back and perform surgery on your patient.

Only as you move toward the end of the draft can you look back and see from whence you came and truly begin to understand what your story is about. Begin to understand why you are telling this story. Begin to understand what your character’s real problem is. Begin to understand what your problem is.

“I have a problem. I make a movie about it. It’s not a problem anymore.”

supposedly Andy Warhol

At the beginning of the journey, you can certainly think you know what the hero’s problem is, but you may be wrong about even something as fundamental as that. You certainly may not know what the solution to the problem is. Not at the beginning. You find this along the way. Hey, the writing teachers are right when they say it’s a journey! Your first pass is not your tenth draft! Embrace that you will fail for a while and don’t sweat it. Press on and feel good about it.

You may decide at the beginning that your movie is about a man in a divorce. You may change your mind partway through when you discover the main character is really his wife. The reason you’re telling the story can shift and that moment, that epiphany about why you’re really here, is fun! When you gasp and yell, “So that’s why I’m writing this!”, that’s a mind-blowingly wonderful feeling.

I don’t think you can get that feeling unless you stay open to change through the writing process. At last, perhaps suddenly, the truth will be revealed to you and you go back into the story and fix all the things you need to repair that will lead to the point you now know you’re trying to make.

The point you can only understand how to make after you’ve done a LOT of writing.

Once you figure out what your story is about, it may only be a matter of going back to the beginning to do some gentle spadework to alter this or that or these five scenes to help point the reader in the direction the story needs to go. Or, maybe it takes dynamite and a crane, a ton of heavy lifting, to blow it up and start all over again. Once you know what you really, really are there for, rewriting becomes much easier. And on target.

Scenes that don’t fit the new “theme” shout, “Hey, dummy! I don’t belong here! Get rid of me!” They can’t do that at the beginning of the writing process because they are locked into whatever your original thoughts were. Once all the players (your story and your characters and you) know why you’re really at the party, then you can roll up your sleeves and get some really good work done.

So, don’t sweat it if, up front, you don’t have a clue why the heck you’re sitting there writing.

If you have any examples of this, please send them to me and I will post them. Have you figured out much later in the game than you had first anticipated what your story was about?

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A Letter to Me as a Young Writer

Next weekend, I’m doing a workshop for young writers. All the teachers have been asked to send in a letter “to themselves as a young writer.” Here’s mine.

What I Really, Really Wish I’d Been Told as a Young Writer…

by William M. Akers
yourscreenplaysucks.com

It’s never easy. Even when it seems easy… at some point, it’s going to get difficult.

Treat your craft with respect. Work hard at it.

Never write something you don’t care about. Well, that’s not true… sometimes you have to do homework.

Nobody wants to read what you’ve written. Your teacher doesn’t. Your parents might. When you have a boss, she is only going to want it to be clear and concise. Heaping more big words on the page for a higher grade is not a way to learn to write.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. This is difficult for everybody. You don’t know that because you’re alone in your room fighting your own demons.

Everybody worries whether they’ve got talent. Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park and 29 other books, worried he was untalented. In his office bookcase, he had every book he wrote in every language it’d been translated into so he could sit at his desk and look at all he had done and think, “I did that. I can get through the next one.”

You’re never going to figure out how to do it. Every project is a new project with its own invisible rules. For decades I thought I would come up with “my method.” When I finally realized there was never going to be a “method,” my life as a writer got much simpler.

Write about what you’re interested in. I knew nothing about the fall of Saigon, but I made a lot of money because I sold a screenplay based on something I knew nothing about, that fascinated me.

Welcome notes. Do not argue with someone kind enough to give you suggestions on how to improve your work.

It will never be perfect. One reason some people don’t write is because they’re afraid it won’t be perfect. Art & Fear by David Bayles asks “What in your life, up to now, have you ever done that was perfect? Nothing, right? This won’t be perfect either. So just get on with it.”

Keep a diary. Even a simple one. You think you’ll remember stuff but you won’t. It will make a gigantic difference when you’re older.

You’ve got to learn two things. How to write a sentence that’s clean and clear. And how to figure out what you want to say. Technique and emotion. Two worlds to conquer.

It will take years to get good at this! Don’t worry about it if you’re not great now. The wonderful thing about writing is: the more you do it, the better you get!

Don’t despair. If you do despair, at least write about it.

Enjoy the process. On some level, doing it has to be fun. If getting published is the only thing that will make you happy, figure out something else to do with your time. The process of creating the work had better be the reward.

Learn to be businesslike. If you’re not businesslike, people won’t be interested in working with you.

Never miss a deadline. Be early for everything. Selfish people and idiots are late.

No matter how much trouble your writing is in, if you sit down and work on it, eventually you will solve the problem.

Try to write comedy. It’s the hardest thing there is but, who knows, you might be great at it.

Impress your teachers. If they think you’re worth it, they will move heaven and earth to help you.

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“I hate to read.”

This is perhaps a new wrinkle on a familiar theme. But it may make you look at your work a tad differently.

A former student of mine does development for a company in Los Angeles. A small company, with four employees, but they make movies and television. They get things done. She reads scripts, sits down with writers and gives notes. She prepares pitches, breaks down stories… all the things a creative exec does. It’s all about story and she’s great at it. They are sooo lucky to have her.

I was talking to her about her workload and scripts that come in, etc. Asked her if she wasn’t amazed by the number of bad screenplays that have agency reputation. Always a conundrum for a writer… if it’s so bloody difficult to get an agent, why are so many agents sending out horrible screenplays? I asked her about reading. She leaned forward, and with a degree of viciousness I had never seen in her, said…

“I HATE to read.”

It’s the last thing she wants to do, because so many of the scripts are terrible. She’d be happy if she never read another script, ever.

I thought about you, dear reader, and the work you are doing. Writing a screenplay, planning to send it out there to sell. I know you’ve imagined the reader, on a lounge chair by the pool, flipping through the pages of your script. Making the occasional note. Ooohing and aahing at the good stuff. And at the end, marking “Consider.”

That is one image. If you write toward that benign image, I don’t think you’ll get as far as if you write toward the image of a reader who HATES to read.

Imagine you are giving your script to someone, a reader, an agent, a producer, who, whey they turn to the title page, is already angry. They turn to page 1, pissed off. As they read your first slug line and first paragraph of action description, they are fuming because they would rather be doing anything than reading your damned screenplay.

How does that make you feel?

Intimidated?
Nervous? Fearful?
Thinking you’d better go back and rewrite that first paragraph?

Imagine someone sitting down to read who has steam coming from their collar… already upset with you… and your job is to make them happy. Wouldn’t you do EVERYTHING you could to calm them down? No extra lines of dialogue. No extra words in the slug lines. No shilly shallying around with the first act… etc., etc. All those things that are so difficult to do, and when they aren’t done well, make the reader loathe you.

Because they hate to read but have to read your script, do five more drafts so that it is perfect.
Make them smile at your intense professionalism.
Make your prose interesting.
Make your story work.

Do the job.
Do not assume your grandmother is sitting down to read your script, all warm and loving.
Assume it’s Tina Turner from TOMMY. Or Maleficent. Or that horrid teacher you had in fifth grade. Or your ex-wife’s mother, who never, ever liked you and now says, “I told you so,” with every breath.

Someone who scares you and will perhaps prod you into doing one more draft. Or five.

Good luck!

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Is anything about writing easy? The Little Voice in Your Head…

I have a tiny little voice in the back of my head. Sadly, it does not give me football scores before the games. It does warn me when there is something wrong with my writing.

But, it is SO quiet. So distant. So almost not there…

I ignore it a lot.

Can’t do that. Not ever, because it’s always, always, always right.

Generally, what happens is… it says, so softly as to be inaudible, “This isn’t working.” And, generally, I drown it out with, “It’ll be fine.” You think by now, I’d have learned. When the tiny voice tells you something isn’t working, and you think it will be fine anyway, most likely you are wrong. But it may take draft after draft after draft before you realize that the thing is NEVER going to work, and you’re going to have to buckle down and do the work and fix it.

As long as you do the work before you hand in your writing, you’ll be fine.

This thing I’m working on, has two scenes in a bath house. As I write this down, it seems so obvious, but I can tell you, it wasn’t. The little voice would tickle me and say, “One of those scenes is kinda like the other one.” And I would tamp the voice down… which is VERY EASY TO DO, as I weigh a lot and the voice is thin as smoke. Finally, after getting notes from a friend, I saw that the two scenes were basically saying the same thing, so I combined them into one. Saved some pages. Saved some dead weight. Saved some useless repetition. And finally shut the voice up.

The instant I made the change, I knew the scene worked. At last I felt better.

Disregard the Little Voice at your peril. Find a way to listen. Which is a lot more difficult than you may think.

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UNWILLING Suspension of Disbelief

Recently went to a screening of student films. If you are a student, you want to try very hard NOT to make a student film. One hallmark of student films is the unwilling suspension of disbelief that often must occur for the story to work.

The student filmmaker sometimes asks the audience to buy something that is impossible or ridiculous or just idiotic. The student filmmaker often asks the viewer to make excuses for the student filmmaker’s youth and lack of money.

This is great when you are in sixth grade. Fine. No problem. I get it. You tape a sign saying “Nuclear Reactor Room” to your bedroom door, shoot your movie, show it to your buddies, and it’s fantastic. Everyone has a good time, and understands the rules. No problemo. However. Unwilling suspension of disbelief must fall by the wayside fairly soon, though, if the filmmaker is to advance in her learning.

In one scene I saw the other night, a group of people were held captive by an evil scientist. The door was locked, and they repeatedly threw themselves against it in a vain effort to break it down so they could escape. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. However, the hinges were on the inside of the room. The INSIDE. That means the door opens inward. There was no way that door was going to bust open, unless one clever character suddenly found a Mack truck under a blanket in the room. The filmmakers were asking the viewer to accept the fact that the door might break down.

They were asking us to pretend.

You can’t do that. You can’t do it in filmmaking and you can’t do it in writing. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s binary. It is right. Or it is not right. There is zero gray area.

You’re pregnant. You’re not pregnant. Easy to tell which.

Hoping is NOT going to make it work on the page.

Do not hope we’ll get it.
Do not hope we’ll pretend it works, when, deep in your guts, you know it doesn’t. Do the work and rewrite your scene until it is right.

And when it is, you’ll know.
And it will feel very very good.

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Comment from a client… Unearned Gift & Off Screen Action

This will be two complete chapters in the sequel to my book.

Got this email from a client. I had critiqued his Middle Grade children’s novel. He felt like he was channeling me…

I had crit group this last Wednesday. I found myself repeating your comments about my writing. “The action is being done by the secondary characters, giving the solution to the main character at no cost.”

The hero is the guy who has to win the day. Don’t give the cool stuff to someone who’s not the hero, or not a lot of it. Let the hero win the battles himself.

And, does the main character earn every rung on the ladder that you give him as he climbs toward the solution to the Problem? If he finds it on the ground with no effort, perhaps rethink.

Very bad writing in Disney’s PINOCCHIO… When Pinocchio comes home and Gepetto is not there… and there are no clues to lead Pinocchio toward his beloved father… the Blue Fairy drops a note and tells Pinocchio where to look for him. He should have searched and found a clue.

There. Two chapters I now don’t have to think up!

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