Friday, July 31, 2009

Will Chandler: Blogging from Southampton

Will Chandler will be blogging from the Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriting Conference over the weekend.

This morning, at the Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriting Conference, I had a great time sitting in on a workshop with Frank Pugliese, Obie Award-winning playwright for Aven’U Boys and screenwriter on dozens of projects, including Shot in the Heart. He worked with students, listening to their ideas and asking probing questions. Pugliese reminded students that, if their scripts were instead formatted as standard prose text, “A screenplay is roughly 35 pages long. When you think about that real estate, that’s not a lot to work with. ... Your story needs to be really simple and small, but expansive in the same moment.”

When a student was struggling with her adaptation of a true story, Pugliese asked what she thought made a successful script adaptation of a novel. The student suggested that it happens when the screenwriter understands the essence of what the story is and serves that while letting the rest fall away. Pugliese agreed, affirming “Novels don’t tend to make great screenplays, it’s more like pieces of novels make great screenplays. The screenwriter finds the section of the novel that best illustrates the central theme of the book and uses that.”

With his extensive background in theater, Pugliese added that adapting a play for the screen is equally challenging. “Playwriting is about form and rhythm, screenplays have to translate that into pictures. The foundation of screenplays is about images ... and you have to juxtapose images as part of storytelling.”

Sharing some of his own secrets, Pugliese told students that when he’s working on a project, he keeps a notebook, filled with themes and ideas, but after he has outlined his story and begins to write, he closes the notebook and puts it away. He suggested that by the time he is ready to begin writing, his characters, their conflicts and motivations, and the story itself have been so internalized that releasing his notebook allows his characters more freedom to breath and come to life. To pore over notes while writing can kill spontaneity and make the writing feel flat.

Pugliese reminded students that “Films have a hunger for movement and a hunger for story. All of my characters are trying to do something. Even if they’re static, they’re active in trying to remain static.”

The 2009 Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriting Conference is in only its second year, but its outstanding faculty are all working screenwriters who also teach at NYU, Columbia, USC and UCLA. Some of this year’s teachers are Andrew Bienen (Boys Don’t Cry), Christina Lazaridi (Academy Award-nominee for One Day Crossing), Malia Scotch Marmo (Once Around, Hook) Ken Friedman (Heart Like a Wheel), Stephen Molton (Live by the Sword) and actor Peter Riegert (writer-producer-director of King of the Corner).

Each three-day workshop focuses on a key element of screenwriting, from story development to scene structure or adaptation. In the afternoons, a wide variety of elective courses are offered, from quick ways to outline your script to developing the psychological underpinnings of your characters.

Tomorrow I’ll be sitting in on “Understanding Film Structure” with Christina Lazaridi and at night there’s an interview with Peter Hedges (Academy Award nominee for About a Boy).


Will Chandler, an AMPAS Nicholl Fellowship screenwriter, is the director of the Young American Writers Project (YAWP) through the M.F.A. in Writing & Literature Program at Stony Brook Southampton University. YAWP sends artists into schools across Long Island to teach screenwriting, playwriting, fiction, poetry, and personal essay. Chandler is also a screenwriter, having worked for a variety of studios and production companies as well as selling scripts on spec. Chandler also works as a script doctor with private clients. More information:,

Friday, July 24, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #1

Having taught story analysis for film in the classroom and online through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, I’ve trained a number of students who have gone on to cover screenplays for studios, production companies, and Sundance Institute. One of the tools used in the course is a top-10 list of professional screenwriting skills industry readers look for when evaluating material and writers. I call these methods “in-between details,” which are neither at the heart of premise, plot or characterization nor important issues of formatting and presentation -- they exist somewhere between the two. These in-between details often make a critical first impression, the following among the most significant, elaborated upon with examples and illustrations, which I believe can be quickly utilized. Lessons will be posted on Fridays.

#1 The First Page
Does the screenplay grab you in the first page, ideally the first sentence? It doesn’t have to be a bomb going off, but some aspect of characterization or plot which foreshadows or puts into motion a larger hook to come (mother packing bags at outset of Kramer vs. Kramer sets up walking out on marriage). Also, does it begin in the right place? Sometimes the perfect opening may be buried pages into the text -- keep an eye out for it.

Sometimes a central conflict, in terms of plot, is established on the first page, other times it may not appear until much later (ideally by the end of the first act, or your narrative will probably remain unfocused). In any case, the bottom of the first page should establish some conflict or question mark, regarding plot or characterization. If a screenplay hasn’t grabbed you in some way by the bottom of the first page, it’s in big trouble. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Joker robbing a bank or a shark eating a girl -- it can be a much more personal yet dramatic action, such as the mother leaving her son in Kramer vs. Kramer. There are two main ways to make sure you achieve this. First, distill your opening scenes as much as possible. Sometimes writers start with a three-page scene that would be much more powerful if condensed to just one. Occasionally, the opposite is the case -- certain scenes are rushed through that could use more time and detail. Usually, however, the trend is to overwrite in early drafts, so I’d suggest be on the lookout for that occurrence, particularly in opening pages.

Second, as noted, look carefully at the first five to 10 pages of your screenplay, or equivalent in the outline. It’s amazing how many scripts I’ve seen where just starting on page five, for instance, can make a huge difference. When Frank Capra screened Lost Horizon, the audience was bored throughout the first 10 minutes of expository scenes, so he took the first reel (each reel equals 10 minutes) and threw it into the studio incinerator, literally blowing it up. Don’t wait so long to get to that point of realization, if such is the case with your screenplay. If the opening pages contain potentially extraneous scenes or information, consider hitting the delete key.
Barney Lichtenstein, former story analyst for Amblin Entertainment, New Line Cinema, and Largo Entertainment, teaches story analysis online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, and periodically assists with the training of new story analysts for the Sundance Institute and major production companies. He has served as a story editor for a multi-award-winning installment of the PBS series P.O.V., and for Voices, which won the Peabody Award, and is recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting, 2006. Mr. Lichtenstein will be conducting a one day screenwriting seminar in September at UCLA Extension, comparing narrative structures of three 2008 Academy Award-nominated screenplays. Please click here for more information.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mystery Man: Fahrenheit 451

Burn, baby, burn!

So I did a lot of flying around the last few weeks, and I had the chance to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was phenomenal. I loved it! When I’m involved in a big project, as I was last month, I’m riddled with ADD. It’s a struggle to focus on anything other than the project, but F451 held my attention from beginning to end, an amazing feat. It’s actually quite short, about 173 pages. One could easily get through it in one sitting (or a long flight). Then I watched the 1966 film adaptation by Francois Truffaut, which I’ll cover in a bit. You can also see the film instantly on Netflix. After that, I sat down to read Frank Darabont’s September, 2005, screenplay adaptation.


There are many aspects about the book that I loved. In fact, it evoked a wide range of screenwriting thoughts.

You can get a summary of the story

First, I loved Ray Bradbury’s style. Wherever the story took him, he always capitalized on the heightened emotions of the moment, which is what we do, too. Consider these opening paragraphs:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

Here’s another aspect I loved – the protagonist. Did Bradbury tell his story from the perspective of a sad, sympathetic victim who had all of his (or her) books burnt by the firemen? No. Bradbury gave us Guy Montag, a man who on the surface is very unsympathetic in his actions because he’s one of the bad guys! He’s a fireman who burns books!

But by giving us Montag, Bradbury cuts deeper into the heart. While Montag puts on a strong façade with his concentrated vigor about his job and seemingly unwavering belief in what he does, Bradbury carefully charts his inner turmoil and feelings of despair and need for something more out of life. That is the great power and glory of literature, and that is what’s at the heart of F451, the loss without books, the lack of creativity, imagination, free thinking, intellectual satisfaction, a sense of higher purpose and meaning to life.

This is also the very reason F451 would be a difficult book to adapt for the big screen because what makes the book so powerful is the inner turmoil of Montag which cannot so easily be seen on the surface.

So let me ask a question – is Guy Montag empathetic or sympathetic? Do I feel sorry for the fireman who burns books? Nope. At least, not until I understand him and his little world and the feelings he’s feelings. Only then can I appreciate the point of Bradbury’s tale, and root for Montag’s transformation. But that’s the essence of a transformational arc, isn’t it? One must be unsympathetic to a large degree before one can transform, am I wrong? Let me ask another question: is Guy Montag “like me?” No, not at all. Have I ever been in his shoes? Nope. I can’t say I’ve ever burned books or been part of an evil force like the firemen. But can I put myself in his shoes and understand his feelings? Yes. THAT is the power of great writing.

Another aspect I loved – elements of
visual storytelling. In the opening, Montag walks home, encounters little Clarisse, a neighbor and teenager, who challenges his thinking about life, about burning books, and asks him the all-important question, “Are you happy?” Montag goes home, which is dark and dreary, to find his wife nearly-dead after taking too many pills. The medics revive her. As she’s resting peacefully, Montag looks out his window and sees Clarisse’s home. I loved the visual contrast between his home and hers:

Laughter blew across the moon-colored lawn from the house of Clarisse and her father and mother and the uncle who smiled so quietly and so earnestly. Above all, their laughter was relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way, coming from the house that was so brightly lit this late at night while all the other houses were kept to themselves in the darkness. Montag heard voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.

Another visual aspect that cannot go un-mentioned is what saves Montag toward the end. When he falls under the spell of books, when Captain Beatty catches him, when all hell breaks loose, when Montag finds himself on the run, the whole city looking for him, and the mechanical hounds are hot on his trail, what saves Montag? Water. The river. The antithesis of fire. Montag’s visual baptism of renewal.

Another aspect I loved – the
subtext in the dialogue. Bradbury didn’t write heaping volumes, but careful consideration went into the few scenes he gave us. There were quiet moments of subtext, more specifically, denial about the emptiness they’re feeling, like the conversation Montag had with his wife, Mildred, the morning after her near-death experience from taking too many pills.

She watched his lips casually. “What about last night?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“What? Did we have a wild party or something? Feel like I’ve a hangover. God, I’m hungry. Who was here?”

“A few people,” he said.

Their lives were a lie. He was feeding the lie. She was ingesting the lie and embracing status quo. And when, toward the end of part one, Montag sought to address their emptiness by reading books, Bradbury gives us a scene between Montag and Mildred of heart-wrenching high drama where Montag tries to convince her to go on this journey with him to read books and figure out for themselves if they’re evil.

Post continues at


Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.

This post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Meet the Reader: How Not to Spec

Between contests and my usual work load, I have been reading a lot of spec scripts lately. In doing so, I noticed a number of things coming up over and over again that motivated me to formulate a little list of things that you probably shouldn’t do when writing a spec.

1. Don’t write adaptations of material you don’t own the rights to. Adaptation rights can be very difficult and expensive to acquire -- often far beyond the means of a humble spec-script writer. A number of people plow ahead anyway, seemingly in the hope that if a producer or studio takes a liking to their script, then the prodco will go to the trouble (and spend the money) to acquire the underlying rights. It won’t. It’s too much hassle. It’s much easier to simply pass on your script, which is what the prodco will do.

[Or you could adapt a work in the public domain. - Ed.]

2. Don’t write sequels to popular films. You may have a great idea for a follow-up to a popular film -- don’t waste a moment of your life writing it down. I think spec script writers that do are almost irrationally optimistic -- thinking that if they can get their script to the producers that control the rights to the parent film, then the producers will see how brilliant it is and decide right then and there to make it the next entry in the series. This will not happen. Sequels are big business and they’re developed in-house by a handpicked stable of highly-experienced, highly-paid writers. Outside scripts stand no chance whatsoever. This is simply a fact. Accept it.

3. Don’t write sequels to your own scripts. Sequels are only made if the first film is a terrific success. Since a spec script by definition has not been made and thus can not have become a terrific success, there is no way to tell if a sequel is warranted. So if you write a follow-up to your own unproduced work, people are either going to think that you’re arrogant or naïve. Either way, they’re not going to take you seriously.

4. By the same token, do not write trilogies or 16-part epics (that last one’s not a joke, I once had to wade through a 16-part sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza. It was a painful, painful experience.

5. Don’t put your production company name on the cover of the script, especially if you don’t really have a production company (they’re actually legal entities, not just a name that your arbitrarily slap onto a cover page -- e.g. Joe Blow Entertainment). This is usually done to make it seem as if the writer is a serious player and not just another aspirant (“Hey, this guy must be for real -- he’s got his own production company!”), but if you’re writing a spec, it usually means you are an aspirant. Trying to make people think you are more than you are isn’t going to fool anyone and you’ll just make yourself look less so by trying.

The bottom line here -- when writing a spec, craft a good, original story and then let it speak for itself. If you’ve done your job well, then trust me -- it will speak volumes.


Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Discussing July/August With Andrew Shearer

There seems to be a common concern in the July/August edition of Script magazine that original screenwriting in Hollywood is an endangered product. Editor-in-Chief Shelly Mellott mentions her concern over unique films like Away We Go and The Hurt Locker receiving proper attention. In Ray Morton’s article, “Going Global: Screenwriting in the International Marketplace,” he talks about how Hollywood is importing more and more remakes from overseas, once they’ve proven themselves in foreign markets. And of course we’re all aware that every third movie in the multiplex these days is a comic-book adaptation -- and now we’re on to toys!

But who’s to blame? The studios? In Morton’s article, he quotes screenwriter Don Handfield, “I wish these networks and the studios would take more chances on homegrown entertainment, stuff that might be a little more off the wall, instead of saying, ‘This was a hit in a foreign country so let’s adapt it.’” But you know what? I’m kind of tired of hearing writers bitch because I’m finding more and more that we don’t even go see the movies we claim to want the studios to make.

Last year, I saw an amazing, original, important film, Stop-Loss, in the theater. I tried to get anyone and everyone -- friends, writers -- to watch it. I couldn’t, even on DVD. Finally, after an entire year, one friend finally watched it (and loved it) -- after a year. Mark Boal’s article “Writers on Writing: The Hurt Locker,” about his journey to Iraq which inspired his screenplay, is electrifying. The film is playing in Los Angeles and New York right now and opened to stellar reviews across the board, the best reviews I’ve seen this year. Who of us will go see it? How many of us will go see the enticing Away We Go? It’s made $4 million over 4 weeks with a budget of $17 million. Why would a studio continue to make that kind of movie with a performance like that?

I read an article in Variety recently about the films bought from Cannes last year and their severe underperformance at the box office (Waltz with Bashir, Che, Synecdoche, New York). Maybe that’s why films at Sundance this year had such a hard time selling. What I’m saying is that I find that many of the people who claim to want these films made don’t make the time to go support them, despite many of the movies being wonderful films. And if the studio can’t make box-office profit, how can they make the films? What’s the solution? How can we keep unique writing thriving in Hollywood? And how can I get you whiners to go see The Hurt Locker and Away We Go?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.