Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Importance of Screenplay Formatting - Part 2

I  hate spending time on this, yet it amusing... and informative.
I'm a story guy. I format screenplays out of necessity. "Structure" (a type of format) is far more important. Yet getting screenplays read by gatekeepers (especially at competitions) seems to be about format and style, and not the story, not the structure—legalism encroaches on art — flat boxes disguised as 3-dimentional curves.

Last year my post "Importance of Screenplay Formats" garnered some pushback. My original intent was to suggest that the story was more important than the format, and yet how some gurus and experts will tell you how utterly important correct format is if anyone is going to read anything you wrote. And there is truth in their assertion. I just question if anyone OF WORTH will read it.

I realize that some folks take pride in measuring indentations and circling in red the use of gerunds, adverbs, scene numbers, and SOUND EFFECTS that are not capitalized. But the sign on my bully pulpit still says: FORGET FORMATTING, just write a good story.

This mantra reminds me of Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, the prolific novelist (and source for a handful of movies, e.g. GET SHORTY) who famous said, (channeling a character from GET SHORTY):
Write the story, then get somebody to add the commas and shit.
Such elegance... and truth.

Yes, a properly formatted script will tell the studio, or any knowledgeable production manager, how long and how much money a script will take to produce. But do you think the delicacies of schedule and budget should effect your story, unless you're writing to a particularly small budget? 

I work on enough scripts that get made by studios, and I have not seen one yet that closely follows the "so called standards."  Yes, they roughly follow. But depending on who you talk to the standards are different. I've seen students criticize the format rules in Christopher Riley's The Hollywood Standard because they weren't like their USC Extension instructor's hand out.

Another thing I hear is this:
When you're famous and have mastered the art of the craft, you can break the rules.
Yes, that too is true. But young artists would be wise to copy the masters -- and that applies to screenwriting as well.

Is it possible for writers trying to break into Hollywood to be minutely concerned with formatting that the story suffers and doesn't rise to the bar? That's an interesting Catch-22.  
Write a good story, let someone else format it. 
To test the structure of my bully pulpit, since I jump up and down on it from time to time, I picked a Hollywood script that I did not work on and one that was successful at the theaters. While reading it I made a list of formatting or writing constructions that would typically cause a reader to stop by page five and throw it into the trash. What follows are 13 of the kind of problems that gurus and contest readers warn will get you rejected immediately.   But yet...well, look at this list, first:
  1. Describing what music should play in the background of the movie and listing it by artist and song.
  2. Repeated use of the phrase, "we hear...." or "we see..." in action description.
  3. Repeated use of pedantic verbs in the action description like "he looks," and "she walks."
  4. Describing camera movement, and then doing so in lower case.
  5. Use of a voice over narrator to tell the story. (Show, don't tell.)
  6. Use of bad grammar, (e.g. use of masculine pronoun with a female antecedent.)
  7. Numbering scenes.  (Never do this, we're told, even if it helps annotate feedback.)
  8. No visual scene description when entering a new space.
  9. Repeated and frequent use of gerunds (ing) and adverbs (ly) in action description.
  10. Not formatting "INTERCUTS."
  11. Not formatting "MONTAGES."
  12. A character does not "begin" to do anything, especially "watch" a "sound". 
  13. SOUND EFFECTS are not capitalized.

And what is the script that would be instantly rejected by so called value readers?  STRANGER THAN FICTION (Newmarket Press), by Zach Helm. It was this early version of the script that producer Lindsay Doran initially passed around town, instantly garnering interest from multiple directors and studios begging for the right to participate. Marc Forster and Columbia won. It stars a few names you may have heard of: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Tony Hale, Tom Hulce, and Linda Hunt.

Do you think these attachments cared about the bad style and formatting? Evidently not.

And how did Zach and Lindsay do it?

A GREAT STORY. The script, even in its early form, is a wonderful read.

Copy the masters. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Blind Side - Honor vs. Courage


Written and Directed by JOHN LEE HANCOCK

Book: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

Lee Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock)

Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw)

Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron)

S.J. Tuohy (Jae Head)

Collins Tuohy (Lily Collins)

Coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon)
Miss Sue (Kathy Bates) 

In my workshops I talk a little about THE BLIND SIDE and express my awe at the delicacy of the shallow but poignant arc the characters' journey takes. Today, I was asked by a friend and client about the film's moral premise and how Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade plays into the story. I had some notes, which I will share below, and perhaps expand on this at some time in the future.

The conflict of values in the story deals with COURAGE vs. HONOR. These both sound like virtues. But as we discover in Act 3, when Michael writes a critical essay, there's a difference. In the Act 3 sequence we discover that the entire movie is about the difference between having raw courage with no honor (which is what the characters in Hert Village demonstrate and temp Michael with), and  having the courage to seek that which is honorable (which is what Lee Anne Touhy teaches Michael).

Here is the poem that Michael critiques, and then a side-by-side script of Michael's essay from the movie that explains the moral premise. At the end I take a stab at the moral premise statement, which I argue EVERY character in the movie deals with in their own unique arc, from the drug dealer at Hert Village, to Lee Anne, to Michael, to the coach and even the English teacher who grades Michael's essay, giving him the GPA that allows him to get into college.

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Some notes:

In football, Michael plays the blind side (left) tackle who protects the (right-handed) QB from what he can't see. 

Who is the Blind Side tackle in the story? Is it Lee Anne for protecting Michael Oher from what he can't see? ALSO, Michael says several times he has Lee Anne's back. So, he protects her when they go to the projects. Although she sees perhaps more clearly than Michael and is 'packing.'

At 100 min, after a short inspirational talk with Sean about how The Charge of the Light Brigade is really about LSU vs. Ole Miss football game (or so Sean leads us to think), Michael begins to write his essay, and we discover the inner secrets of what the movie is really about, and what ALL the characters struggle with, some unsuccessfully ending in death, and some with great success ending in a purposeful life.

Picture and notes
Michael's V.O. of his essay about
Tennyson's poem.
Michael writes his essay at a table in the Tuohy's home.
Courage is a hard thing to figure. You can have courage based on a dumb idea or a mistake but you're not suppose to question adults,
Montage of Michael's football coach, teachers, principal.
 or your coach or your teacher because they make the rules. Maybe they know best, but maybe they don't.
Michael walks past the gang bangers at Hert Village to join the other side. The gang is all about having courage to rebel against adult authority. There's no honor in their courage. The valley of Death to Michael is Hurt Village, which he is walking through.
It all depends on who you are, where you come from. Didn't at least one of the 600 guys think about giving up and joining with the other side (Michael Oher is that one guy.) All his buddies area dead. I mean, valley of Death that's pretty salty stuff.
CUT TO image of high school entrance arch, on which is written: "Wingate Christian School: With Men This is Possible, With God All Things Are Possible".
That's why courage is tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do?
Lee Anne's mode of operation is always telling others what to do. She is the one in charge. Michael WALKS THROUGH ARCHWAY.
Sometimes you might not even know why you're doing something.
Michael walks into strange classroom with all smaller white kids…his first day. Does he have the courage to seek honor?
I mean any fool can have courage.
Michael sleeps on couch in Touhy's home... an unusual place for him to be.
But honor, that's the real reason you either do something or you don't.
Michael at laundry matt at night with his bag and shirt.
It's who you are and maybe who you want to be.
Sitting in the Laundry Matt reading his biology text book.
If you die trying for something important, then you have both honor and courage, and that's pretty good.
Michael rests his head back on the laundry machine after contemplating his text book. Cut to literature teacher reading essay.
I think that's what the writer was saying. That you should hope for courage and try for honor. And maybe even pray that the people telling you want to do have some too.
Michael's English teacher puts down paper and contemplates his own courage and honor when he earlier rejected Michael's attempts.

Lee Anne, Michael, and Michael's teachers all…. Hope for courage but try for honor….the moral premise arc!

Embracing courage without honor leads to a lost life and dread; but

Seeking honor with courage leads to a fulfilled life and purpose.