Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meet the Reader: Feedback

Feedback is a vitally important element of the screenwriting process -- without it, you will never know if your work is connecting with readers and audiences the way you want it to. For this reason, you should incorporate the obtaining of feedback into your writing process from the very beginning.

Start by pitching your premise to a few trusted listeners before you start writing. A well-conceived concept should be able to be clearly explained in a few concise and tightly focused sentences. If you are unable to express your premise this succinctly, or if your listeners don’t understand your sentences, then you may have some fine-tuning to do before you begin scribbling.

Once you have completed an initial draft, give your script to a few people to read and comment upon. It’s important that the people you choose are ones who will be able to read and analyze your piece with an objective eye and who will give you honest and constructive criticism. For this reason, I recommend that you seek out fellow writers and industry colleagues rather than simply handing your work over to friends and family members. Your dear aunt Sally may be a lovely person, but the odds are that she doesn’t have a solid grasp of the three-act structure, character arcs, or visual expository techniques. Also, she probably won’t tell you if there’s anything in your script that she doesn’t like because she loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. So, go to Sally for chocolate chip cookies, but go to your professional compatriots for creative input.

(If you don’t happen to know any other writers or industry-types, trusted acquaintances who don’t mind being blunt will do.)

Getting good feedback should be a proactive process. Don’t just hand your script to a few friends and then sit back and wait for general, generic responses such as “I liked it -- it was good,” or “I hated it -- it was bad.” These sort of responses are not helpful because they are not specific. Instead, you should direct the obtaining of feedback just as you direct every other phase of your writing.

• To begin with, don’t prep your readers. Simply give them your script and ask them to read it cold, without you telling them what it’s about or what you’re trying to achieve. That way, their reactions will be completely pure and they won’t read anything into the piece that isn’t there or couch their responses to tell you what you are hoping to hear.

• When your analysts have finished reading your piece, ask them to tell you your story. If the tale they tell is the one you thought you were writing, then you’re in good shape. If it bears little or no resemblance to your saga, then you may have some work to do. Then, ask your analysts some specific questions about your piece -- ask them to identify the main character and describe his or her arc; next ask them to identify the main theme of the piece as well as the highlights of the story -- the most exciting action set pieces, the funniest comedic bits, the tensest suspense sequences, the most horrific scares, and the weepiest emotional moments. If the elements your readers identify are the ones you planned for, then your script is working. If they’re not, then it’s back to the word processor.

• Once your analysts have responded, analyze their analysis. If one person has a problem with some aspect of your script, then it could just be that person’s individual issue. However, if a number of people have the same problem, then it’s likely that the fault lies with the script and will need to be addressed.

The most important thing to do with feedback is to listen to it. Writing is really hard and by the time an author finishes a draft, he or she is in no mood to hear that there’s a problem with their brainchild. Many tend to rationalize away criticism because they just can’t bear the thought of opening the whole story up and starting all over again. Avoid this impulse at all costs, because if you don’t, you may sabotage yourself in the long run.

After you have made sense of your analysts’ assessments, revise your script based on them and then repeat this process each time you have completed a new draft so that you can make sure that you stay on track. When the script has been finished to your satisfaction, hold a table reading so that you can hear the dialogue spoken aloud to get a sense of how the scenes play and the characters interact when the piece is actually performed. You will discover that some of your material works much better than you ever could have dreamed when it is brought to life; and you will discover that some of your material doesn’t pop quite as well in 3-D as it did on the page.

When you think you are finally ready to send your baby out to potential buyers, consider first submitting it to a professional script consultant or a reputable coverage service. This way you can get an industry-level assessment of your piece prior to exposing it to the scrutiny of the industry. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression and you want to be sure that you’ve caught and addressed any red flags before handing your script over to the people that will ultimately decide its fate.
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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dwayne Alexander Smith: Screenwriting is Hard

Disclaimer: explicit language

I have a dear friend who, one day, called me up and asked me the most outrageous and absurd question that I have ever been asked about my screenwriting career. When he first asked me this question it sounded innocent, just a typical question that any aspiring screenwriter would ask a working professional about the business. But the more I thought about his question the clearer it became that this dear friend had just insulted me.

“How long does it take to get paid once you sell a screenplay?” That was it. That was his question. See what I mean? Doesn’t that sound innocent?

So I answered him … “It depends on who you sell it to. Some studios take longer to pay than others. Smaller companies can take forever. It just depends.”

My friend frowned. Not satisfied with my answer he decided to push further. “Does it take weeks? Months? What’s the average?”

“From the time I make the sale about a month,” I said. I also added a few more details like the payments came in steps connected to rewrites and not in one lump sum.

“And what’s the average amount a script could sell for?,” he then asked eagerly. “One hundred thousand? Two hundred grand? What?”

Okay, it was at this point in our conversation that I began to suspect that this was more than just an innocent inquiry about my pay schedule. “Why?,” I finally asked. “Why do you want to know this?”

My dear, dear pal looked at me with the most sincere expression ever and said oh so matter-of-factly … "Oh, I need to make some quick money so I figured I’d just write a horror film or a comedy or something and sell it real quick.”

I must have just stared at this motherfucker for two minutes straight. No words, just an astounded stare. Like I said earlier everything he asked sounded innocent … but this asshole had just spit in my face and in the face of the craft that I love so dearly.

You need to know a little more about this sucker to understand the scope of his insult.

He graduated from an Ivy League university. He teaches part time at another Ivy League school. He’s a decent screenwriter but all of his specs are artsy high-minded dramas that in my opinion are unsellable. Now are you beginning to see it? Here’s a translation of what this asshole was really saying to me:

“If Dwayne, a college dropout, can sell so many horror and comedy screenplays, then me, an Ivy Leaguer, can easily do the exact same thing any time I want. All I have to do is lower myself to his level and I’m in the money.”

See, he’s under the same delusion that a lot of wanna-bee screenwriters are also under. Screenwriting is easy. It must be easy. Look at all the stupid movies that get made. Anybody can write that crap. Would my friend be asking me that dumb shit if I was a brain surgeon, or a composer, or even a plumber? NO!

Here’s a tip: If you’re writing screenplays because you think it’s an easy way to get paid … YOU’RE AN IDIOT.

Yes, yes, yes … anybody can write a screenplay but not just anybody can write a good screenplay. Not just anybody can write a screenplay that can sell. Want to know why?

Because good screenwriting is a craft that takes years to learn and even longer to master … and even then you still might not sell shit if you don’t get lucky.

So, finally I stopped staring at my dear friend and calmly said: “If you need quick money you better get yourself another plan because …


Three months later my dear friend sold a horror spec for 750K and got signed to write Spielberg’s next movie. And if you believe that I have an artsy high-minded drama spec collecting dust in my desk drawer that I’m willing to sell you cheap.
Dwayne Alexander Smith is a professional screenwriter represented by Circle of Confusion. He's sold four spec screenplays and been hired by studios for numerous rewrites. In 2008 he was hired to adapt Jim Croce’s classic song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” into an action comedy. Most recently he created a hidden camera show called True Colors for Sony Television’s website

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meet the Reader: Friday Nights With Dad

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog entry about how -- thanks to DVD and cable TV -- it’s so much easier these days for movie fans to view their favorite films than it was when many of us were young. The post prompted a lot of discussions with different people about their early movie-viewing experiences, which in turn prompted me to consider my own early encounters with the cinema. Like many things in my life, those encounters sprang out of my relationship with my father.

My dad has been a movie fan for his entire life. Growing up in Queens, New York during the 1930s and 1940s, he was a fixture at his local neighborhood playhouse, The Corona Theatre, where he saw just about every movie Hollywood put out during its undisputed Golden Age. And he has retained great affection for film ever since (Gunga Din is an all-time favorite). When I was a kid, he would revisit these Golden-Age masterpieces and near-masterpieces (and sometimes not-so-masterpieces) when they were on TV. I would often join him in viewing them and he would tell me about the actors and their backgrounds, and the impact each picture had on him when it first came out -- and it was there on that couch that I first began to fall in love with the movies.

It was a frustrating romance, however, because, as anyone who was around in those pre-home- video days can tell you, watching movies on television could be a consternating experience. The screen was small and frequently fuzzy, the prints often dodgy, the story was interrupted constantly by an endless stream of commercials, and arbitrary cuts were made to the narrative in order to fit the picture into its allotted, always-too-short time slot (rendering the film sometimes impossible to follow).

Things improved when my parents moved us to New Canaan, Connecticut in the mid-1970s. A small, quintessential New England town, New Canaan had an excellent local library that would screen 16mm (remember 16mm?) prints of classic movies on Friday evenings during the fall, winter and spring. Here, finally, was a chance to see these great films in a rough approximation of they way they were intended to be seen -- on a relatively large screen, uninterrupted, and with the narrative intact. Needless to say, my dad and I both loved the idea and so began a Friday night tradition that lasted (on and off) for several years.

On designated evenings, I would eagerly wait until my dad arrived home from work on the 5:08 from Grand Central. He and my mom would indulge in their weekly treat of a Chinese dinner (with us kids having dined earlier on my mom’s patented race-car hot dogs and mac & cheese). Then my dad and I would put on our jackets (New England nights can be pretty chilly) and stroll the ¾ of a mile to the library, where we'd grab some good seats (of the folding-chair variety), settle in, and enjoy that week’s show.

We saw quite a few classics over the years, but three really stand out in my memory:

• The first was 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Frederic March in the title roles. Even then, I recognized how amazingly inventive the filmmaking in that picture was -- director Rouben Mamoulian’s delightful intoxication with the technical and artistic possibilities of cinema and his determination to push the creative envelope is evident in every frame of the film. Its effect on the audience that night was palpable. I also recall how racy the film (which was made in the years just before the Production Code was introduced) was, something that -- if the gasps coming from the audience were any indication -- the majority of that evening’s comfortably middle-class viewers were clearly unprepared for.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) -- one of the crown jewels of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British period -- was a thriller about an ordinary English couple whose child is kidnapped by villains seeking to silence them after the wife witnesses a murder. The film was dark and tense and chock-full of atmosphere and suspense and I was absolutely enthralled with it. Most critics and viewers prefer Hitchcock’s expansive, 1956 color remake starring James Stewart and Doris Day, but for me the much more modest and moodier version is the one to beat.

• The film that I remember best from our bibliotheque cinema was 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat in an Oscar-winning turn as a teacher at a British private school looking back on his long life and career. It’s a sweet, lovely, gloriously sentimental movie that I really enjoyed. What made my viewing of it so special was that it's one of my father’s all-time favorite movies. It had made a huge impression on him as a boy and he had told me about it many times, but this was the first opportunity I had to actually see the film. I loved it, but I think knowing it meant so much to my dad and seeing him have chance to enjoy it again endeared it to me all the more.

When the show was over, we would put our coats back on and talk about the picture all the way home. These were always grand times and, to tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed going to the movies quite as much as I did on those chilly Friday evenings so long ago.
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, November 10, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; …
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same …”
--"If," by Rudyard Kipling

Maybe, when he wasn’t writing classic short stories and novels like The Jungle Book, Kipling was secretly writing movie scripts. That might explain why his immortal poem, "If," is such useful advice for screenwriters. Trying to “keep your head” in this business is a never-ending challenge. But staying sane is critical to success. If you’re a movie star, producer, director, even an agent -- “crazy” might even be considered part of your job description. But if you’re a writer, it’s a luxury you can’t afford. If you want to succeed in this business, you need to be able to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”

Last month, I promised to tell you what I’ve learned during my long career as a writer and story analyst. I quoted one of my favorite philosophers, baseball great Yogi Berra. Well, I’m about to quote him again. In his inimitable style, Yogi once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental." The same can be said of finding success as a screenwriter.

Sure, talent and knowing your craft are the most important factors in whether you win or lose this game. But the mental discipline you bring to the process of writing and selling your script -- your attitude, in other words -- is critical.

Make no mistake: having a “zen” attitude to your career doesn’t mean being weak or passive. Quite the contrary. You must learn to apply your mental and physical energies in the right amounts, in the right way, and at the right time. You must be creative and assertive (but not obnoxious) in how you market yourself and your work. You do your homework, work hard, and, to use another baseball metaphor, you keep stepping up to the plate for another turn at bat -- even if you keep striking out. And when it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs and three men on base, and you’re up at bat, you can’t choke.

Let’s apply this “zen” idea to a real-world script marketing situation. Here, as in baseball, the pitch is all-important.

Whether you call it a pitch fest, a screenwriting expo, or a screenwriters’ conference, it boils down to this: a chance to pitch your story to producers. Unfortunately, for many writers, it’s also a situation tailor-made for getting a whopping case of the heebie-jeebies.

There you are, at some big glitzy hotel, surrounded by thousands of other desperate screenwriters hopped-up on Starbucks lattes, waiting anxiously to pitch your script to CAA or Disney. I’m going to give you some tips here for sharpening up your mental game so that next time you go to one of these events, you’ll hit one out of the park.

1) You have no competition. Really. I know it may seem like the entire cast of Ben-Hur is competing with you at this humongous pitch fest or expo. But the truth is that if you have a great pitch, producers will want to read your screenplay -- no matter how many other pitches they heard that week. They don’t have a quota that, once met, forces them to turn away good story ideas. And, trust me, most of the other pitches aren’t that great.

2) There are a lot of nervous, depressed writers at pitch conferences. They will want to bend your ear. If you let them, they will suck the life and spirit out of you like Edward in Twilight. Don’t let them. Steer clear of these blood-sucking vamps and leeches. Leave them to their misery so you can keep your own spirits up.

3) You know how they tell you that you will have five minutes to pitch your story to each producer? Well, you’ve really got only one minute. By the time you find your producer’s table, boot the seat’s previous occupant out of it, and exchange friendly small talk with the producer to ease into your pitch, you’ll have just one minute left. So plan for that, and make the most of it.

4) Ladies, wear comfortable shoes. I’m not kidding. You will be doing a lot of standing and waiting around. If you wear shoes that don’t hurt your feet or back you will have a leg-up, so to speak, on half the writers in the room.

5) Don’t overbook yourself. Instead of pitching to 10 producers before lunch, consider limiting appointments to no more than three or four, and resting between pitches.

6) Expect last-minute changes and be flexible. You may book time with a film company that produces highbrow Oscar-caliber movies set on English country estates -- but they might be a no-show. So you get offered instead a chance to pitch to a producer of horror movies about man-eating washing machines. What to do? Grab the opportunity, and re-jigger your pitch to fit the replacement producer. (“You see, it’s kind of like Sense and Sensibility, but set at a crazy Maytag factory in Hampshire …”)

7) Stash your business cards and pitch appointment tickets in that clear plastic name-tag holder that is already hanging around your neck. That way, you won’t lose your tickets, and when producers ask for your business card after listening to your wildly successful pitch, you’ll be ready. You won’t have to frantically hunt around in your purse or wallet for your card while the next “pitcher” is breathing down your neck.

8) If possible, learn everything you can about the companies you’ll be pitching to -- before you get to the pitch event. Know what movies they’ve made, and if you’re a fan it can’t hurt to single out one for praise when you meet each producer.

9) Always remember to thank any producer who listens to your pitch. If you’re polite in this business, you will impress some people and astonish the rest.

10) Know that if you fail to attract interest in your pitches at this event, this isn’t “the end” for your hopes of breaking in to the business. Yes, it might be a sign that your pitch or script needs work. But you can always rewrite it or start a new script, send out query letters, and go back to the pitch fest or expo again next year.

Keep pitching. See you next month.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emporer is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. Staton Rabin is available for consultations and can be reached at

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Soderbergh's Moneyball Script

Soderbergh opens his script with this sobering bit of news:

"Billy Beane's minor and major league career will be shown via filmed interviews with scouts, coaches, managers, players, and family members who were with him at the time. These interviews will comprise approximately ten percent of the film.

"Another ten percent of the film will consist of re-enactments of real events as remembered by the people playing themselves. The purpose of these scenes will be to provide set-up and perspective for subjects, situations, or relationships which currently appear in the screenplay without the requisite/normal amount of context.

"All that is to say an importation portion of this film will be written in the editing room. This isn't a cop-out; it's just a fact and entirely by design."

I will defend Soderbergh only this far: I'm guessing that he instinctively picked-up on the weaknesses of Zaillian's script, and he sought to, in an inventive way, make the experience more unique, emotional, personal, and generally, more realistic.

For that, I applaud him.

Having said that, Soderbergh should've retitled it 'FUBAR.' He re-shaped this flawed story into something so unnecessarily convoluted. His script contains not only the same problems as Zaillian's but also piles on more problems with weak, flat, phony dialogue and mountains of verbal exposition. Oh, the mountains of insufferable exposition, so high and so vast, they should be called "Soderberghs Himalayas."

Consider the differences between these two stories in how Billy met Paul DePodesta, a guy who is crucial in shaping Billy's new way of thinking about statistics. First, let's see Zaillian's scene. This starts on page 18. At this point, the team lost the division to the Yankees. They're about to lose their three best players. Their options are severely limited. You could cut the tension in Oakland with a knife. Billy had a heated discussion with his scouts and threw a chair. And now, Billy just had a very depressing meeting with the Indians' General Manager, who changed his mind about a deal after Paul, who worked for the Indians at the time, whispered something into the GM's ear. Billy has just left the office. He sees Paul.

Billy: You.

Paul: Excuse me?

Billy: Come here.
[Paul comes out into the hallway.]

Billy: Who the fuck are you?

Paul: I'm Paul, Mr. Beane.

Billy: I don't give a fuck about your name. What are you doing?

Paul: Um... I'm doing my job.

Billy: No, I'm doing my job. You - are fucking up my job. You just cost me a left-handed setup man.

Paul: I like Rincon.

Billy: You like Rincon. You like Rincon. Was I talking to you in there? [Billy leaves. Paul works up his courage.]

Paul: Rincon has nothing to do with your problem. Your problem is you can't replace Giambi with another first baseman like him, because there isn't another one like him.
[Billy stops walking.]

Following this moment, Paul and Billy eat at a Steakhouse. Paul enlightens Billy about what's wrong with current thinking about baseball statistics. Billy loves what he hears and hires Paul. Now, consider Soderbergh's approach. This moment starts on page 2 and PRECEDES the Inciting Incident of the Oakland A's losing the division to the Yankees.

Billy: JP said you're the guy I should be talking to.

Paul: JP is great.

Billy: JP is great. He said you just got promoted.

Paul: Yeah, I was advanced scouting and I just made Special Assistant to the GM.

Billy: Well, Cleveland's a monster franchise. I think John Hart and Mark Shapiro are super smart. They got a good thing going.

Paul: I have to say, it's nice knowing at the beginning of the year that you're probably going to the playoffs.

Billy: I'll bet.

Paul: I hear you extended.

Billy: Yeah, four years. It's good, you know, I can watch things happen. And we're close to getting a new stadium.

Paul: Which you need.

Billy: Which we definitely need. So let me ask you: can you work spreadsheets and all that stuff, like Excel? Can you manage a payroll?

Paul: Yeah.

Billy: Great, because I suck at that. And you're totally up to speed on all the league rules? I need to make sure I don't accidentally put someone on waivers or something.

Paul: I'm pretty familiar with all the league rules. Also, I used a software program to chart games when I was advancing. It might be worth buying. It's really helpful.

Billy: Is it expensive?

Paul: I know the guy who developed it, I'm sure we could work something out.

Billy: Great.

Paul: So let me ask you. Do you really think you can win with your payroll? No small market team has made the playoffs since the strike.

Billy: I will never use payroll as an excuse. Look, being a small market team, we're constantly being pushed to the edge of extinction by the big market teams. We can't do it the way the Yankees do it. They've got guns, and we've got bows and arrows. We've got to find a way to adapt or we're going to disappear, and I like a lot of the ideas coming out of statistical analysis. It could be our edge.

Paul: You know, I was playing blackjack once and a guy sitting next to me hit on seventeen and actually drew a four. And he's collecting his money, clearly thinking to himself: "This is a good strategy for playing blackjack." And that's when I realized: that's how most teams operate, they play like the guy walking into a casino, when they should be playing like the house.

Billy: (excited) Right, exactly. That's what we have to do. We have to be the house.

Paul: You've heard of Paul Drucker?

Billy: The management guy.

Paul: He's got a thing called the Naïve Question: "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?" And can I drop another name?

Billy: Hey, you're the Harvard grad, not me.

Paul: You've heard of him: Thomas Paine. "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

Billy: That's fantastic. Look, Paul, you should do this. We should do this. Before somebody else does. Somebody with money.

Paul: How comfortable are you looking crazy? I mean, people have dabbled in statistical analysis, but to run a whole team based on sabermetrics - no one's really done it before. Some of the decisions we make will look really strange.

Billy: (trying to close him) That's our edge, them thinking we're crazy. The longer they think we're crazy, the better. By the time they figure out what we're doing, we'll have beaten them. So let's do this, right?

Can you not see the huge difference between those two scenes? Zaillian's version crackles with energy. It's short, fast, and snappy. It exists in the context of a huge conflict, that is, the Oakland A's team is up shit's creek and Billy is driven to save the team. Soderbergh's scene lacked life because this came before the Inciting Incident and there's no conflict driving the story or Billy. Zaillian's exposition in the steakhouse scene isn't bad because it's in the context of a problem. We need this exposition to figure out how to save the team. Soderbergh's exposition feels false and flat and nearly puts you to sleep because there's no conflict yet. There's nothing driving what's happening between these characters.

So let's come full circle back to the scandal. I'm inclined to believe (up to a point) the Brad Pitt theory. No star at his level would stay on a project when the dialogue has been butchered this badly. I do not for a minute blame the studio for pulling the plug on Soderbergh. I certainly would've done the same.

However, I will not give one shit about this project unless someone tells me that Aaron Sorkin (and his team of writers) fixed the problems in Zaillian's script and focused on the character's journey.

For An Intro to the Moneyball Disaster, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 1, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 2, Click here.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Discussing November/December With Andrew Shearer

Attention blossoming screenwriters who think screenwriting is a solitary art form: Read Script’s article Anything but Elementary: Sherlock Holmes by Ray Morton with additional reporting by Bob Verini, and realize, as Editor in Chief Shelly Mellott put it, “It is better when we all work together.” Morton’s article breaks down four different credited writers’ contributions on the new Sherlock Holmes movie, as well as how various directors contributed at different stages of the project and how much Robert Downey Jr. contributed on his own, too.

I think it’s an illuminating exercise to see how one writer can be brought on to solve a particular problem another writer couldn’t. Sometimes, it takes more than one perspective, more than one brain. Sometimes four. I hear writers complain all the time about how scripts get “rewritten by other writers” and about how they could “never work with a partner” and sometimes it seems like any time they have to leave the confines of their room and their laptop, they might breakdown because they have to actually speak to another human. If you want to write solo, people, write a novel!

Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing alone all day, huddled up in a room with the shades barely drawn -- we all do it. But my point is if you’re writing screenplays for the movies, you’re eventually going to have to collaborate. That means taking notes from directors, producers, maybe even working with another writer. Personally, I love getting rewritten! I get rewritten everyday by my writing partner. The best challenge in the world is to write something that doesn’t get sent back to me rewritten, but that comes back untouched. That’s when I know I’m on my game.

I echo Derek Haas’ sentiments he shared in Script Girl’s column about writing with his partner, “Working together makes us better at collaborating …” Now, I’m not saying you have to have a partner to be a good screenwriter obviously, but I am saying you have to be a good collaborator to be successful in the screenwriting business. In order to fund my writing career, I worked as an editor for many years in Los Angeles, and nothing annoyed me more than other editors who said “I can’t stand when the director stands over your back giving notes.” But they’re the director! Of course they should be doing that! Personally, as an editor, that’s a lot more exciting to me than sitting in a room editing by myself.

My point in all of this isn’t to say that we should all be happy when we get rewritten because I’m sure it burns really badly when you’re feeling wonderful about your work only to see it turned into a big, steaming pile of shit based on some seriously misguided studio notes -- handed down to the new writer who just replaced you. My point is you need to step out of the cave. Bounce your ideas off your peers, get notes, and practice collaboration. Because the people getting these jobs today are the ones who learned this a long time ago.

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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 2

There is a lot of entertainment value in the story. You have a baseball team losing its best players. The A’s do not have enough money to buy solid replacements. You have a protagonist with a clear goal of getting this team out of the cellar and engineering a winning season, and interesting enough, he does so with “bad” players. You have a strong masculine physical lead role. You have fast scenes with fast, smart, snappy dialogue, which I’m sure Pitt couldn’t wait to rattle off in front of cameras.

Those factors alone make the script passable, but the story as a whole gives me pause. Not only that, the idea of adapting this book, which was essentially about statistics and how scouts changed the way they viewed the statistical value of players, also gives me pause.

Why? There’s no theme or strong emotional hook to this concept. There’s too much emphasis on statistics and not enough on characters. After its all over, when you think, “so what was that all about?” you realize that this story essentially amounts to the audience saying, “oh, isn’t it interesting how the Oakland A’s re-thought the statistical game and came up with a winning team with undervalued players on a tight budget.” That’s not a movie. That’s an article for Sports Illustrated. That’s a made-for-TV-event targeted to the most hardcore-statistics-lovin’- baseball-fanatics. For a movie that’ll get distributed around the world, this kind of anecdote about a change in the way we view statistics is at best a side note for what should be a bigger story, for what should be a gripping theme and emotional hook, which should be centered on the character’s journey. We don’t have that here.

What do we have? We have 128 pages of Billy Beane playing hardball with his scouts, with the owner, with the coach, with Paul the economist, and he’s doing what he can to change the way people think about statistics to create a winning team. We have flashbacks to Billy’s past that only serve to show how the emphasis on Billy’s personal statistics during his brief attempt at playing baseball shaped his thinking as an executive and helped bring about change to how the scouts view statistics. Okay, so what? That’s just exposition. Billy goes through women as often as he goes through baseball players, which never changes, and from what I’ve read isn’t historically accurate either. So I have to ask, “How does that serve the story?” We’re occasionally shown Billy hanging out with his daughter, which likewise does nothing to advance the story but only serves to show a different side of Billy. Of course, I’m all for character depth and I do not believe it essential that every character arcs.

But in the end, you walk away feeling not as exhilarated as you had hoped because there’s an emphasis on the intellect over the emotion. That’s really evident toward the end when the story loses steam and fails to deliver the emotional goods as it should. The fact that there’s Bill James occasionally popping up to explain statistics to us only illustrates my point that there’s too much emphasis on things other than the character’s journey. James reminded me of the motivational coach in Jerry Maguire whose words had so much more heart and who existed solely to support the character’s journey.

Consider the greatest baseball films ever made. Pride of the Yankees, a favorite of mine about Lou Gehrig -- that’s a character’s journey. The Natural -- character’s journey. Field of Dreams -- character’s journey. Major League, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own -- all about the character’s journey.

What’s my mantra? Characters come first.

It’s so strange that throughout this script, various characters repeatedly talk about and watch The Natural, which only made me prefer that story over this one and which also reminded me that the best stories stay focused on the character’s journey. We know the theme in The Natural -- dreams deferred. Would you still pursue your dreams when the world thinks you’re past your prime? Great! I’m there rooting for Roy Hobbs like the rest of the world. But what’s the theme of Moneyball? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that statistics is not a theme. That’s a intellectual argument. If it was up to me, I’d de-emphasize statistics and emphasize something entirely different that gives us a strong theme and an emotional hook. Say, a theme about failure. How often and how long can you endure failure before you give up your dreams? Thus, we’d be rooting for Billy to “never give up your dreams.”

When you cannot easily articulate your theme, when the emphasis on a script is on something factual or on anything other than the character’s journey, it is an inevitability as sure as death and taxes that despite great scenes and snappy dialogue, the story will fall flat in the end.

Tomorrow: Soderbergh's Moneyball script

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.