Friday, August 22, 2008

3 Most Common Bad Screenwriter Mistakes

Come on, ya dummies. Stop doing this.

Oh, I don't mean you. I mean the other bad screenwriters. The dummies. I'm sure your script is great. You probably don't need any advice. But just keep reading in case you have “a friend” who does.

Okay, I'm sorry for being cynical. It's just that for the past four months or so, I have been semi-employed (by a somewhat shady company which shall remain unnamed) to provide professional analysis and feedback to dozens and dozens of amateur screenwriters on their latest attempts at penning becoming a “professional screenwriter.”. I've been employed (using various meanings of that word) as a script reader for three different industry organizations in the past, but the scripts I receive from this current company are something completely different altogether. Let's just say that after reading only my fourth submission, the phrase “This is the worst thing I have ever read” lost all meaning. Some merely give me a headache. Others make me want to lower my head, take a running start, and make a hole in the drywall.

However, when I recently decided to cull all the advice I had previously given to these writers on the hundreds of different screenplay problems I had encountered into one source to make it simpler for me to write these critiques in the future, I noticed that there were three screenplay problems that I consistently ran into again and again and again. These three problems stood head and shoulders above the rest when it came to the frequency which I had to communicate these concepts to these, many first-time writers. They are not hard to understand concepts, but somehow they are continually overlooked or misunderstood.

To help you understood these three most common screenwriting mistakes, and in vain hope of lessening the amount of hopelessly miswritten screenplays circulating out there, I present them to you here. Remember, most screenwriters who make these mistakes and don't even know it.

Not you. I mean the other bad screenwriters.

1. Lack of a Story Spine
In most, if not all of the scripts I read with story problems, this is the culprit. It either has an incomplete story spine, or it is missing one entirely. Let me make this clear. A strong story spine is the most important element in a competent screenplay. I'll repeat that: A STRONG STORY SPINE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT IN A COMPETENT SCREENPLAY. It is not optional. If you don't have one, you do not have a screenplay worth reading. Your script will be an invertebrate. A slug. A worm. An unevolved immobile glob sitting at the bottom of the filmic food chain. Considering this, it is very surprising how many of the how-to books on screenwriting, written by so-called “script gurus” either dedicate less than a page to story spine or do not mention it at all. This is why you're never going to learn to become a great screenwriter by reading a book.

The story spine is a simple concept. Imagine two points on a map. Point A is where the protagonist is at at the beginning of the story. Not only where he/she is physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and situationally. Point B is the protagonist's goal, where the character wants to be and what they ultimately want to achieve by the end of the film. Now draw a line connecting Point A to Point B. This line is your SPINE. It is the path your protagonist takes in his/her journey from A to B. A script with a story spine only includes content that is on that spine, that is part of the forward journey to the goal. This works to unify the action of your story, making sure that everything that happens is orientated towards the character's forward journey and so the protagonist stays on the correct path.

Just as how you would imagine time as a straight line, constantly moving forward at a steady pace as you sit in a theater and watch a film, so must the protagonist be continually advancing forward on his/her line, moving further into the developing story at a constant pace as screen time advances.

Okay, I exaggerated. The story spine is not exactly THAT simple. It needs more than two points and a line. There are certain elements that make up this spine that must be present for the story spine to truly exist. First, there must be a PROBLEM for the protagonist. Because there is a problem, it is no longer safe or reasonable to the protagonist to stay in Point A. They must leave. And the only way to get past this problem and achieve comfort and happiness again is to archive the goal, to get to Point B. But the problem is usually not enough to force the protagonist to leave the comfort of Point A and make a difficult journey to Point B. There needs to be a MOTIVE. Something needs to force to protagonist to begin the journey and not stop until he/she reaches the final destination. But the journey to the goal can't be easy. There's nothing interesting about watching things that are easily done. Along the path of the spine there must be CONFLICT. Think of your path from Point A to Point B as a journey straight uphill, filled with treacherous obstacles that get in the protagonist's way. The protagonist has to struggle is they want to complete his/her journey. Since this journey is suddenly so hard, what is keeping the protagonist from giving up and just going back home, back to Point A where they started? To counteract the force of conflict, there must be STAKES. Stakes are something bad that will happen if the protagonist gives up or fails. Or possibly a great reward at the end of the journey at Point B that the protagonist cannot go back to living without. Conflict pushes them back on their journey, but the power of motive and stakes keeps pushing them forward.

A complete story spine must include all of these elements: problem, goal, motive, conflict, and stakes. If your script is missing even one of these, your spine is broken and your screenplay will lack the level of drama necessary to create a worthwhile and readable story.

2. Useless Dialogue

Unneeded dialogue is the enemy of a dramatic script. In over half the scripts I receive to critique, there are pages and pages of useless, pointless, waste dialogue. They talk about what they plan to have for lunch, meaningless stuff that happened in their day, trivial chit-chat where characters seem to be speaking just for the sake of saying things and filling up a page. Guess what? The audience DOESN'T CARE about any of this! All the audience wants to know is what is going to happen next. The audience has questions, and they want answers. And they aren't going to wait for very long to get them. If you waste too much time on material that doesn't keep the story moving, the audience is going to start asking the worst question possible, which is “Why am I watching this?” In a truly well-written screenplay, everything, every action, every image, every line of dialogue exists purely to provide NEW INFORMATION to the audience. New information that moves the story forward. Any time your story is not moving forward, that means it is standing still.

Then you have scripts where the writer seems to understand this concept, but still buries their scenes in gobs and globs of unnecessary dialogue to do this. Characters talk for two pages when what they need to say could be expressed in two lines. They discuss things that the audience has just seen happen or already knows. They talk about stuff that could much easier be shown visually. Dialogue is the least effective way to get across information. It should only be used when the information cannot be expressed through action or visuals. And when dialogue is used, the goal should be efficiency. When a character is TALKING, that is time spent where they are not DOING, and the story is slowed down. Writing a scene should be like guerrilla warfare. Attack your scene while it is already in progress, get to your objective as quickly with the most impact possible, and once the objective is achieved, get the hell out of there.

3. Writing What Can't Be Seen or Heard.

The #1 rule of screenwriting is to WRITE FROM THE AUDIENCE'S PERSPECTIVE. Know how your writing will be experienced by the people who will ultimately watch it. But some persons attempting a run at screenwriting are writing from a place that is so detached from the end ultimate user of their product that they disregard this rule to its most basic degree.

Imagine you right now are sitting in a movie theater, watching a film. In what ways is information necessary to understand and enjoy the film being communicated to you? An audience member only receives information in two ways, #1 from the images they SEE on the screen, or #2 what they HEAR on the soundtrack through dialogue or sound effects. (Unless you're in any of the theaters I've been in the last five years, then you would have to add cell phones, text messages, and that jerk sitting next to you who won't shut up.) These are the cinema's only two tools of communication: sight and sound.

Now, here's a except from a script I recently had to critique:

FRANK HARDY is an 8th generation Hardy, and has lived in Hardytown, California his entire life. His family founded Hardytown. He served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, and carried out missions in other parts of the world. His wife SAMANTHA is in her early thirties She is from Memphis, Tennessee and teaches fourth grade. Their daughter, NICOLE, is 15 years old and is bot (sic) crazy. JOHNNY is eight. It is a Tuesday morning, and the first day of a new school year. The four are finishing breakfast at the kitchen table.

It's real super that the writer chose to create detailed backgrounds for his characters, but how the F@#& IS THE AUDIENCE GOING TO KNOW ANY OF THIS??? How will the audience know that the father served in Iraq? How will they know that the mother is a schoolteacher? How will they know it is the first day of school? All the audience can see is an average family uneventfully having breakfast. Not only is all this character information lost on the audience, it comes back to bite the writer in the ass. Later on in the story, the audience will become confused, wondering “Why is the father so good at hand-to-hand combat?” “Why is the mother always mentioning going to the school?” -all because important information was not presented in a way that the audience could receive.

This also includes what the character is thinking, what emotion the character is experiencing, what a character remembers, who is related to whom, if a character's feet are cold... If you need the audience to know something, you must either come up with a way that we can physically see the evidence on the screen, or somehow work it into the dialogue or sound effects.

Now, please. Stop doing these. I have enough holes in my drywall the way it is.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Filmmaker Interview: Michael Shu

Michael Shu is a filmmaker and editor born and raised in Cupertino, California. I originally met Michael as an actor in one of my own USC student films. Since then, Michael has returned to writing and directing with his short film
War of the Wolves: Reunion, a samurai melodrama set in the violent last days of feudal era Japan.

"I was born in Silicon Valley, the San Jose area. Born and raised there. My parents are both from Taiwan, but I consider myself All-American. While I was growing up, I was always into movies. And, actually for a while I thought they were all real, because the good ones really pull you into them. So, when I started to learn about the filmmaking process, I was like “Oh wow, they're able to do that kind of stuff? I would really like to do that. Be able to make a movie where you felt like you were in it.”

The samurai genre was an easy choice for Michael's first film in several years. Over the past years, Japanese swordsmanship has become a passion for Michael large enough to rival his love of cinema.

"When I was a [college] sophomore, I started the Japanese sword art of shinkendo. It's a relatively new sword art that is distilled from a lot of traditional Japanese swordsmanship schools. Under my sensei, Obata Toshishiro, I learned a great deal about the samurai culture. That's what I have been doing for, I think its the sixth year now. Throughout college I was really dedicated to it. I did a lot of demonstrations, a lot of seminars, and stuff like that. I became advanced really quickly because I spent so much time doing it. And now I'm an instructor at USC for the Japanese swordsmanship class."

"That's why I decided to create War of the Wolves, because it was something I was very close to- the samurai period. What influenced me to make it on this particular time period, around the 1860's, was because that was kind of when there was a real revolution going on in Japan of going from the samurai to a modernized government. There was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of conflict. The samurai weren't going to go down without a fight..."

"I was influenced a lot by samurai movies and anime. Those were the two main things. In a lot of these samurai movies -and in anime- there is always an underlying story of a great struggle of one person trying to overcome all odds. Usually it is really dramatic in anime, but then a little more subdued in these old time samurai movies. I kind of wanted to find the stylistic balance between those. I wanted to make this film as something I created of my own based upon these two genres, the anime samurai films and the live action samurai films of old and of modern."

"The story of War of the Wolves, a very vague way of saying it, you know sometimes people like to have very vague descriptions of their films, it is about loyalty. Three different kinds of loyalty that our main character is torn between. Loyalty to the people he serves as a samurai, loyalty to his family, and finally, loyalty to himself and his own morals and wanting to do what he feels is right. So, War of the Wolves is pretty much the story of a man who must throughout the film choose between the three. He is always torn between them as the events unfold. Violent events."

"The short film is really just a small snippet of that story. From budget constraints I couldn't really bring the full action and wartime feel to it, so I had to restrict myself to a conversation between the main character and his brother and a person he chose to save the life of against the wishes of the people he served...I originally developed this short to kind of promote the production of the full feature. That was my original intent, but that has changed a little but over time. I now believe that this is a little more of a stand alone showcase of all the talents involved... Originally, I just wanted to quickly shoot it, just one day or something like that at a Japanese garden, but then it just grew with Obata Sensei joining the crew, and me wanting to upgrade to HD. And with [cinematographer] John Matysiak, I was able to achieve the visual style, the very cinematic look, the film has right now. We just used an HVX200 with 35mm lenses in order to lend it that look. So I would say that this is a pretty good example of what you could achieve with just digital filmmaking."

"I hope that the digital revolution could be brought further. I'm a real proponent of digital filmmaking. I want to make all my future movies using the same format. I grew up on digital filmmaking, so I'm one of the “new young people.”

To make this film authentic to its source, Michael chose to shoot the dialog in Japanese. Only, there was one problem.

Michael was fortunate enough to have his sensei and shinkendo founder Obata Toshishiro, (Obata Sensei), join the crew as fight choreographer. His addition added a great amount of experience and authenticity to the production.

"Obata Sensei actually was an instructor-choreographer for the Wakakoma group in Japan. They were pretty much the original martial arts choreography group in Japan before others started to pop up. What they did was use real martial arts and adapt it for the screen. Nowadays in Japan you will see some real cheesy kung-fu-ish kind of swordsmanship, but Wakakoma took real sword techniques and adapted them for film. That's what happened with this film, War of the Wolves. That was what I was trying to go for. I am a practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship, so I did not want to have really cheesy stuff. This was supposed to be a realistic film."

But to much of the younger generation of filmlovers, he is also a minor celebrity.

(laughs) "Yes, Obata Tosishiro Sensei was “Master Tatsu” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1 & 2. He was also in Showdown in Little Tokyo, playing opposite Branden Lee. I think Dolph Lundgren killed him or something in that. He got killed a few times if you watch some of his movies. He was in Black Rain with Michael Douglas... That's what he did in his first few years in America until he gain enough money I guess to start a dojo.

I actually didn't know that he was Master Tatsu until a month into my training with him because, you know, he's aged somewhat. When I saw a picture of him it all clicked, and I was like “Oh my God, you're like one of my childhood memories.” Getting to know him as a person though, he's just my sensei now. He's not like a star or anything, he's a guy I really respect for how much knowledge and skill he has. So, I really appreciate him lending all his knowledge and experience to my film."

Most of this film was shot in the Earl Burns Miller Japanese garden at Cal State Long Beach. But for the battle sequences, the crew decided on a more dramatic location- which proved to be problematic.

"We had these flashbacks of war scenes and John Matysiak, the cinematographer, recommended that we go to Mount Baldy, which was snowing at the time, to have a real high production value-ish kind of look to it during the battle scenes.

"It was really cold there, but there was a little bit of snow melting and refreezing, so the ground was very slippery. So, all the fancy choreography my sensei helped me create was a little bit impossible to do because even for the simple movements a lot of people were slipping and falling down on their faces. That was a bit of a compromise we had to make. It was like, how many botched takes are we going to do before we move on? So we weren't able to do a whole lot there. You can see in some of the behind the scenes choreography that there was some really cool stuff there, but we were kind of left with just simple stuff. It was like “SWING”, and that's the end of the choreography.

"Another thing that bummed us out was that we got a permit for this huge snow field, and a bunch of kids were there sliding down the slopes. Even though it was a Monday, we had no idea that on Lincoln's birthday there was going to be such an amount of people having the day off. Parents and kids all making a bunch of noise and sliding down, and almost hitting out equipment with their sleds and stuff like that. It was all pretty horrible. We were limited to a 90 degree field of view to shoot in when we paid for this huge area."

Besides such setbacks, Michael avoids becoming cynical. He realizes that filmmaking is a long road of sacrifices, and if you want to succeed as a filmmaker, you have to be in it for the long haul.

"I like to look at success torture stories like Ang Lee. Seven years of trying to get into the film world. And his wife stayed with him! And he didn't die of starvation or something like that. So, I hope that if I stay persistent, failure after failure, I could get there. And I'm ready to face that. All I really want to do right now is make good films. And not make a crappy film. People say that you have three crappy films that you have to make before you make a good one. I want to get them out of the way as soon as possible!"

War of the Wolves: Reunion has recently screened at the 2008 Cinegear Expo and last July's Dances With Films Film Festival. For information on future screenings visit the film's official website at