Tag Archives: Scenes

What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.


Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.


1961 Ferrari GT California

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Filed under character, Details, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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Filed under Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Beware your tics!

One thing you must hunt down are your own writing quirks. Like weeds in the yard, they just show up uninvited.

One of mine is “And”.

I start sentences with “And” ALL THE TIME. In dialogue. In action description. It’s just something I do, like breathing. Can’t help it. Where’s James Whitmore with the Miracle Gro weed killer when I need him?!

The good news is that I’m aware of my flaw. Wish it were the only one. What are writing tics you find yourself in need of eradicating?

Just went through a script I’m working on. Searched for “And” and made it case sensitive. Twenty of the little devils, or more, in the draft.

And they’re sure not there now.

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes

“Just in time delivery” is great in manufacturing. Sucks in storytelling.

This mostly happens where there is some kind of fantasy, a made-up world, sword and sorcery, where anything or anyone has a special power. I have no idea why this is. Just because you’re not writing sword and sorcery, however, doesn’t mean you’re not making the same mistake!

“Just in time manufacturing” means you don’t keep a pile of parts on your warehouse shelves waiting around to be used when called upon. When you’re running low, you ask the supplier to bring you more. The new stack of parts arrives the instant before you need them on your assembly line and you use them right then. Nothing is lying around taking up warehouse space when it is not needed.

It is also known as the Toyota production system because it was invented at Toyota.

This works great if you have a 50,000 square foot warehouse you are desperately trying not to lose money on. It doesn’t work in storytelling. Not at all.

The most common example is when there are special weapons or superpowers. When a character is in a pickle and is about to have his head chopped off by the Gorgon, he looks under the carpet and finds a magic sword and slices off the Gorgon’s head. The supersecret, fabulous thing was delivered to him just in the nick of time! Delivered by writer who did not have his act together.

You can’t gives the character the thing that he or she needs just as they need it. You cannot have a payoff with no setup. You have to gently set up the thing they need far in advance of their needing it, so when you do deliver it, the enraged audience does not scour the internet, looking for your home address.

This also works with characters. If suddenly towards the end of your story, during the incredibly tense riverfront standoff, the hero needs someone to be able to read lips, that character is magically sitting on the riverbank, reading a newspaper, waiting to be summoned at the climactic moment of the scene… to save the hero’s ass.

Little Mr. Lip Reader must be set up an hour earlier, so it is credible for him to be at the river, when he at last is needed.

A fabulously well done example of this is in Shane. You should have seen it, so I don’t care if I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

At the end, Shane, a retired gunfire is in a bar with the main bad guy and his hired gun, Wilson. There’s a shoot out. Shane kills Wilson and the boss. Shane is a very good shot. The entire conversation and shootout is witnessed by the little boy, on whose ranch Shane lives and works. As Shane is leaving the bar, the little boy looks up and sees a henchmen on the balcony, with a rifle aimed at Shane. The boy screams, “Shane! Look out!” Shane twirls around and shoots the guy.

It is totally, completely unbelievable that that little boy would be up this late at night, peeking under the door to the bar. But. The writer has to have him there to save Shane’s life. If the kid isn’t there, Shane dies, and there are no sequels and no merchandising.

So what did A.B. Guthrie, jr., the writer, do?

Working our way backwards, so that it is very clear the set up is set up correctly… Before the boy slides under the door to watch Shane talk to the bad guys…

Shane rides his horse across most of Wyoming. The boy runs after him. Shane rides and the boy follows, across what looks like ten to twenty miles of rugged Day For Night terrain.

Before that, at the ranch, Shane is on his horse riding towards town. The boy calls after him, “Shane, I’m sorry.” The boy’s mother tells him that Shane did not hear him. Now the boy has an excellent motivation to follow Shane across the Western landscape. He wants to apologize, but Shane didn’t hear him. What does the boy want to apologize for? It must be something extraordinarily powerful because it pushes him to run several miles after a man on a horse.

Before that, the boy is crouched down beside his mother and his returning-to-consciousness father, who’s lying in the dirt. The mother says, “you don’t hate Shane.”

Before that, Shane unties the father’s horse, slaps it and sends it away. As he’s walking past the boy, the child yells at him “you hit them with your gun! I hate you!” Shane has been idolized by the boy for most of the movie. “I hate you” is a terrible thing for Shane to hear.

Before that, Shane and the father get in an intense fistfight, ending with both of them leaning against a huge stump that they had pulled out of the ground together long before. It is a visual representation of their friendship. That closeness has been destroyed by the fistfight. The fistfight is so out of the ordinary, so strange, so horrible that all of the animals are jumping out of the corrals howling, screeching, and going crazy. The world is truly thrown out of joint by this horrific fight.

Before that, Shane tells the father he’s going into town to fight Wilson. The father feels it is his duty to go into town and fight for the honor of his farm. Shane knows that if the father faces Wilson, the father will die. But, because the father is a proud man he will not listen to reason. So, Shane has to fight him and eventually knock him out with his gun.

All of this setup, very carefully pieced together, exists only so we will not feel any kind of story bump when the boy saves Shane’s life at the end.

If you give a character a magic gizmo, you need to explain the rules of the gizmo as soon as it is introduced. Sort of like Q showing James Bond his gadgets. Q tells Bond all about them, so when they are used, nothing is a surprise.

What you cannot do, ever, is have the magic gizmo is appear out of the blue or suddenly do something we had no idea it was able to do… just in time for the hero or the bad guy or someone to use that hitherto un-set-up power.

This also applies to knowledge. Character traits. Special abilities that a person suddenly finds. But, at its lowest level (and the one that is easiest to spot) is the magic gizmo or talent arriving right when it is needed in the story. It has to be set up ahead of time, like in Shane.

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What’s up?! My talk on Beating Writers Block…

Been out of the country. Took students to London and Paris to make films. They made ’em. We came back. Didn’t lose a one!

On the 20th of June, I’m giving a conference call talk on Beating Writers Block. It’s at 10:25 a.m. Pacific time. And, it’s free. Sign up now…

http://www.networkisa.org/class.php?id=349

Working on a screenplay, which is different, I must say, than working on student homework. I can maybe sell the screenplay. Never found much of a market for used student homework, sad to say.
Working on the sequel to my children’s book. Or my novel for grownups. We’ll find out what it is when the book actually comes out in March. The first book is about the hero’s battle with his 5th grade homeroom teacher. The sequel is about his battle with his baseball coach.
Researching baseball, about which I know next to nothing. A long uphill event, that’s for sure.

Reading Cheryl Klein’s superb book on writing: Second Sight. It’s about children’s books, but boy oh boy does she understand story. You might find it helpful in your writing.

Dying to see MAD MAX. Have you seen it? What did you think?
I adored THE WOMAN IN GOLD. Best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

And, finally, have discovered wonderful author of witty English books: Barbara Pym. What a delight!

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If you allow us the opportunity to misunderstand your story, we’ll take that opportunity!!

I have a student who is writing a short film. The climax of the story involves the kids upstairs, getting their backpacks ready for school. They argue a little. Then they hear a huge crash from the kitchen. And another one. They run down stairs. Their mother is sitting in the kitchen amidst a pile of glass, crying. The father says he didn’t know the kids were there and leaves for work.

When I read the part about the huge crash, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

When I read the part about Mom sitting in a pile of broken dishes, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

You may have gotten it, but I did not.

Dad had been throwing the dishes at Mom. This was the big reveal that he is abusive and triggered her leaving. I missed it completely.

The writer knew exactly what she had in mind. She thought it was totally clear to the reader. I missed it. Is that the fault of the reader? I don’t think so. As my film school teacher said, “You can’t stand next to the screen and explain it.”

The writer’s job is to tell the story in such a way that the reader can only interpret it the way the writer intends. If you give the reader the chance to get it wrong, the reader will get it wrong.

This is also true in filmmaking. A shot that says exactly what the student means when they roll camera can take on a shockingly different meaning when they show dailies in class. “Oh my!” is what I hear from time to time. It meant one thing on the set and something else when screened for an audience.

Guess which one wins?

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Filed under Bad Writing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

The Judge… watch me judge…

You want my advice? I assume.

Do not write a movie that makes the reader / viewer feel bad at the end. Simple enough. I suffered through THE JUDGE last night. Lord, what on earth made someone greenlight that?

Odd, actually, to be watching a screener after the movie has already come and gone through the theaters like crap through a goose.

It’s no fun and ends on a downer note. Yuk. I should have stopped watching, but didn’t… Maybe because it was a holiday and I felt flush with time.

The story is excellent. Well, the story idea is. Robert Downey, jr. is a hot shot lawyer and Robert Duvall, his grumpy judge father, hits someone with a car and goes on trial. He’s the world’s worst client and it’s up to Downey to save his old man. They got along horribly for their whole lives, and now they’re forced together.

Over and over and over and over they have arguments, horrible arguments. Then they have wonderful, heartwarming moments where they bond. Some of those moments are truly lovely. Well worth the price (well, for me, free) of admission. But Duvall keeps acting like a jerk. Downey keeps acting like a jerk. And it’s no fun at all to participate in and goes on and on past the point of numbness. Seems a huge chunk of that back and forth could have been cut.

Finally, Duvall decides that he must have done it and sort of confesses in the courtroom, destroying all the work his son did to save him. Downer. And he goes to jail. Downer. And once he gets out of jail and everything is hunky dory, Duvall dies. Another downer. They try to pick it up at the end and make you feel good because Downey ends up with a nice girlfriend, but it’s too damn late. Too much down, down, down, down, down, down.

And then it’s over. Ugh.

When you come up with an idea, try to make the reader feel at least slightly jolly at the end, or you’re done. It’s SO difficult to get a movie made these days, you’re shooting yourself in the foot or, more likely, the head, if you make the reader feel bad. Give them some hope. Make them feel good. Make them feel like it was worth their time — either in the theater or at their desk.

It takes eons to write a movie, so don’t base it on an idea that’s going to make the reader wish they hadn’t read it…

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