The sequel to our most-popular post: Ten Mistakes Every Screenwriter Makes
11. “I love subtlety, so long as it’s obvious.”
Thus spake Billy Wilder. The virtues of obscurity are few.
The earlier in a movie we know about the characters, and where the whole thing is going, the better. (According to Henry James, the more the characters know about themselves, the better, but then most of his characters are self-conscious to begin with.)
It used to be said that an audience will give you twenty minutes. Not anymore. If the music is working too hard during the credits—a sign of trouble to come—a friend of mine will turn to her husband: “Anytime, darling.” If my wife and I get impatient for the premise, we’ll resort to the Internet or Leonard Maltin to tell us what it is.
If there’s a big surprise in the story, figure out when you want the audience to figure it out. Some will get it sooner, some later, but it’s lazy not to care. You’re supposed to be in control of the material.
At HBO’s “The Hitchhiker,” which often featured supernatural events, story editor Richard Rothstein was fond of saying: “Is it live or is it Memorex?” Fantasy or reality? Make up your mind. Play fair. Most people don’t love to be fooled. (“The Sixth Sense” is a stellar counter-example…but then I walked out when Bruce Willis wasn’t behaving credibly. Hats off to everybody who figured out he was dead at this point. I’m slow to catch on to such things.)
The fake dream is a staple of storytelling, and often a groaner. A good one, maybe the best ever, was Kevin Bacon’s dream in John Hughes’ underpraised movie, “She’s Having a Baby.” He’s dreaming about this girl he met, she shows up at his house, quite plausibly, and then Elizabeth McGovern walks into his dream and tells him to wake up.
The last gasp of deliberate obscurity—in poetry, music, and painting—was the 50s. In the early 70s, I was hired to choose the poems and write the continuity for a CBS-TV program, aimed at teenagers, about American poetry. (Back then, the FCC was still keeping tabs on such things.) I had a hard time finding any poems from the 50s (apart from “Howl,” which wouldn’t have passed Standards & Practices). I settled for one John Berryman poem. (“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so…”)
Then all that changed. Atonal music went south. Pop Art thrived. European film kept the flame of obscurity going for a while, often blissfully (Godard, Bergman, Alain Resnais). And there’ve always been efforts at a “poetic” cinema—Maya Deren and Peter Greenaway et al. A poet’s opinion—Dylan Thomas’s: ”I like movies just as they are—if only they were better.”
But it’s not enough to be obvious—you have to keep being obvious. An old adage applies: You say things once for smart people, twice for dumb people, and three times for the critics.
12. Gibble Gabble.
You don’t see it as much anymore, and mostly on TV: the yak-and-track scene in which two or more characters speak in the jargon of the movie’s subject—medical jargon, law jargon, aerospace jargon, political jargon, whatever. The intent is to impress the audience with the movie’s authenticity. You sense right away you’re not supposed to be grasping all that’s being said—and where’s the fun in that?
Names can get on audience’s nerves as well. In life, people don’t call each other by name—unless they’re trying to sell them something. (“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”) As noted elsewhere, characters in movies will often refer to an off-screen character by name, and we’ll be totally in the dark about who “Jessica” is. On the other hand, when the other character is on screen, too often the dialogue will include their name. (“Jack, let me tell you something.”) On the third hand, whenever a character’s name is Charles or Charlie, that name gets said over and over again. (Two charming examples: Colleen Camp repeatedly calling John Ritter “Charles” in Peter Bogdanovich’s “They All Laughed”; Ray Liotta calling Jeff Daniels “Charlie” in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”)
Names are “handles” for actors—so are words like “Look,” “Listen,” “Hey,” “Yes, well,” ad infinitum. Actors will often insert them where they don’t exist, to help them past an alleged hiccup in the dialogue. They shouldn’t do this. Writers put them in to make the dialogue read better. They shouldn’t do this either.
Numbers can be as problematical as names. Phone numbers in movies (after the “555”) almost always contain four different digits. Room numbers, three different digits. The writer’s trying to achieve an effect of randomness…but is actually being anti-random: roughly 30% of all three-digit room numbers have a repeated digit, and nearly half of all four-digit clusters have repeats.
13. Research on parade.
One of the last things to go in a heavily researched script is the research. The writer has put in too much effort to give it up, enjoyed too many hours of procrastination, learned far too much not to pass the information along to the audience. And then the research crowds out the drama. (Lincoln is a current example.)
I remember all the hours I used to spend at UCLA researching this project and that. And the money I paid a translator to put a few lines of dialogue into Spanish. Now there’s Google and Google Translate. I don’t miss going to UCLA, and I’m not as wedded to the information I come up with. It only took a minute to find.
When I was researching “Carny,” back in 1979, I checked in at the UCLA computer center. I gave them the keyword: carnival. An hour or so later, the computer finished grinding out the results: a half dozen articles containing the phrase “the carnival atmosphere in the courtroom.” (But this was a quantum improvement over the situation back in 1960, when Harvard’s computer was the size of a small house, the program you wrote for Eng Sci 101 had to run perfectly or you went to the back of the line, and whenever the computer went haywire, a technician with a carpenter’s belt waded into the bowels of the machine to fix it. Shades of “Tron.”)
14. Busy business.
In the 90s, Shane Black made a name for himself with scripts for “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” He also created a vogue for cute description. (“I think we lost my mother on page 46.”) That’s over, as a quick glance at the Oscar-nominated scripts of recent years will show. Attention spans have gotten shorter, and so have the action paragraphs. Once the characters have been introduced and the thrust of the story is clear, most agents, execs, and producers only read the dialogue.
With parentheticals too—less is more, and nothing at all is best. A legendary soap actress had it in her contract that none of her lines could contain instructions on how to say them. Other actors make a practice of crossing out the parentheticals. If the line needs a “softly” or an “angrily,” there’s a good chance the line itself needs to be tweaked.
15. The ceremonial reading.
There are exceptions (for example, if you’re working with Judd Apatow or Mike Leigh), but don’t put any faith in the first cast reading of a screenplay. It’s usually the last reading as well, and has as much practical effect as the cast reading in “All That Jazz,” where all the actors are laughing their heads off while Roy Scheider checks out and goes temporarily deaf.
I can’t recall a single bit of feedback I ever got from a ceremonial reading.
Some screenwriters like to workshop their scripts. (In playwriting, it’s absolutely essential.) The simple act of hearing your words aloud can knock you off your high horse, unless, again, the whole thing is just a formality. And if a line sounds wrong around the table, it will sound a thousand times worse in the editing room. (Dick Pearce gave me this advice before I went off to direct my Hitchhiker episode.)
And don’t bum out when the script changes during production. Actors will revise. (Peter Weller rewrote every single word I wrote for his character in the TV movie “Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula.”) So will directors. (Steve Gyllenhaal made a special point of rewriting my dialogue a minute before he shot scenes in another TV movie, “Shattered Mind.”)
Now and then, your script will survive, more or less intact. The shooting script for a miniseries I wrote for USA, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” had no blue pages. Not a single change. I enjoyed watching it more than any other movie I’d written.
16. “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”
That was Allen Ginsberg’s plaintive question, in his greatest poem (“America”). These days, writers can’t expect to be handed assignments on the strength of their track record. Even writers with movies about to be released are told to generate their own material.
If you do happen to audition for a writing assignment, do as I say, not as I did. I managed to land a couple of jobs over the years, but mostly remember the time I told Bruce Berman at Warner Brothers that I thought the ending for “Fatal Attraction” ripped off “Diabolique” (so what if it did?), and the meeting at Paramount during which Stanley Jaffe asked me if I was better at structure or character, and I blurted, “Don’t they determine each other?”
One of the assignments I did land was the TV movie “Witness to the Execution.” The story I was given was about a pay-per-view network that televises an execution to save itself from going under. In order to get the job, I had to assure the producers (and therefore NBC) that I had no objections to the death penalty. Actually, I was against it, but I kept my mouth shut. In the script I wrote, the network exec (played by Sean Young) auditions a bunch of death-row inmates to see who’s the most telegenic. By the end of the story, everybody (including the inmate) wants to see the execution go forward—except for the network exec herself. The movie got me a couple of plaques from the Writer’s Guild, but was denounced on the floor of the Senate as liberal propaganda, and Blockbuster refused to stock it — because whatever the filmmakers’ intent, any time you show an execution in a movie it’s automatically taken as a statement against the death penalty.
17. You don’t always want credit.
At my first studio meeting, back in the late 70s, Chris Mankiewicz, as cynical a studio exec as I ever met, told me to buy a hat, so I’d have something to cover my face as I came out of screenings of movies I’d written.
I didn’t buy a hat until a couple of years ago, but before that I acquired something as useful, and in one instance, profitable: a pseudonym.
Back in the 80s, I was hired to write a TV pilot for a sci-fi series that was eventually shot in Canada. Canadian writers were hired to rewrite the script, but since they weren’t Writer’s Guild writers, they weren’t entitled to screen credit. Nothing of my script had survived. It felt weird to sign my name to it, so I created a pseudonym: Nolan Powers, after an evangelist character Gary Busey played in a Hitchhiker episode I’d written.
Several years later I wrote a TV movie for Gerry Abrams (father of J.J.). It was shot in Canada, and again, a Canadian was brought on to rewrite it. This time half my script survived, but I wasn’t willing to take all the blame. So I proposed to the Guild that I share credit with Nolan Powers. The Guild scratched their heads over that for a few days, then said no. So I went full pseudonym. The press kit came out — and my name was still there as the writer. Major violation, financial penalty, and I was $6000 richer. Eventually the situation was corrected, and Nolan Powers is listed on IMDb as the writer of “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
Of course, when you do deserve full credit, there will often be other people suing to share it. Some writers go slack at the thought of defending their work to the Writer’s Guild arbitrators. This is a major error. The more care taken with the arbitration letter, the more specific your arguments, the better chance you have to win. I’ve been challenged on several projects, and I’ve never had to give up a credit to anyone.
On one TV movie I wrote, “Kidnapped: In the Line of Duty,” the director changed exactly one speech and then asked for shared credit. (He also said, on the day I visited the set, in front of the crew, and me, “I didn’t write this shit.”) He lost the arbitration, and years later tried to friend me on Facebook—the only friend request I’ve ever denied.
At length I got fed up with these nuisance suits, and proposed a Three Strikes rule to the Guild: if you lose three arbitrations, you lose your privilege to sue. The Guild didn’t go for that either.
18. Bite your tongue.
You may hate the notes you’re getting, but don’t fight back. They may even be right. And if six people tell you you’re drunk, lie down. If they pass on your spec script personally, don’t ask why. As my wife tells her fellow producers, chances are they haven’t read it. They’re working off a reader’s notes. Man up. On to the next.
19. Plagiarism happens.
It’s the least of your worries, and you’re probably doing it without realizing it.
At the one of the post-production sessions for the animated musical “Hugo the Hippo” (my first screen credit, and the only movie I’ve ever written with its own website), the composer played and sang all the songs. “Wherever you go, Hugo, we go,” was one of the refrains. Some weeks later I was asked to write wild lines for the crowd scenes. I came up with one I thought was really terrific: “Wherever you go, Hugo, we go.”
If you do get caught plagiarizing, console yourself with T.S. Eliot’s adage: “Bad poets imitate, good poets steal.”
20. The zeitgeist.
From the Vanity Fair All-Star Comedy Issue:
Judd Apatow: In a weird way, you’ve always been a bit of a futurist.
Albert Brooks: I would read that early on. “He’s ahead of his time.” Then I learned that would in no way be a plus in this business. I realized I should at least take it as a compliment, because that’s all it was good for.
All proportions kept, but I know the feeling. Many writers do.
In the mid-70s, Harper & Row published my young adult novel, “It Looks Alive to Me!”, an adventure about New York’s Museum of Natural History coming to life, and a brainy kid who spends a night there. The book was bought for the movies, in perpetuity, by David Begelman, for 40 times what I made on the book. Later, the book almost became a Wonderful World of Disney TV movie, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that at the time, there was no CGI, so no way to do the feature properly.
But then my friend Marshall Brickman showed me a New Yorker article about all the nuclear material lying around ready to be grabbed by terrorists, and suggested there might be a movie about somebody who builds a homemade nuke. I said maybe it should be a kid like the kid in “It Looks Alive to Me!” We both sparked to the notion, but in the mid 70s, nobody was financing movies with kids at the center, so we shelved the idea.
Then, in the 80s, Marshall wrote and directed two movies, “Lovesick” and “Simon” (we’d cooked up the story on “Simon” together), and the Ladd Company was looking for his third. We walked around Central Park for a while, and the end result, “The Manhattan Project,” about a kid who builds a nuke and enters it in a science fair, with near-fatal consequences for the Eastern seaboard, was released in 1986. Problem was, by that time John Hughes had made “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club,” “War Games” was already a hit, and a market for teen movies was born. In 1985, no fewer than three movies with science-kid themes were released, known collectively as “My Real Weird Genius Science Project.” By the time “The Manhattan Project” came out, ten years after we’d had the original idea, the genre was exhausted. We were like a horse that finishes next year.
Three years or so later, I was hired to write a two-part miniseries for HBO about the TV business. Don Ohlmeyer was the producer, and also the model for the head of an imaginary TV network (a couple of years before Don actually became President of NBC). In the script, “Sweeps,” the network’s talk-show host gets wounded by a crazed fan. The co-stars of the network’s cop show join the police to find the stalker, the star of the network’s medical series helps treat the talk-show host—the entire network abandons scripted TV (“We’re Getting Real”), and starts airing highlights from “The Harry Channel,” a 24-hour cable show that takes place in Harry’s house, outfitted with cameras in every room. HBO eventually passed on “Sweeps”—too fanciful. Eight years later, Ron Howard directed “EdTV,” with Matthew McConaughey as a guy whose entire life is lived on television.
Well, these ideas are always in the ether, and the zeitgeist always catches up. In the 90s, TV movies were my bread and butter. Then the networks mostly stopped making them, in favor of the Reality TV that “Sweeps” had, in its modest, un-aired way, anticipated. I went back to writing novels, published a thriller called Out of Body, and started writing plays, nine of which have now been produced, in L.A., N.Y., and places in between. So no hard feelings, much fun along the way, and very few regrets.