Month: April 2014

Obstacles

Rejection letters from past projects.

Rejection letters from past projects.

I have been writing scripts since 2007. The first one I tried writing was to be my “Reservoir Dogs.” Cheap, simple, effective. It was called “Out of Order” and was that ever a fitting title if ever there was one. I didn’t know thing one about formatting, introducing characters, writing effective dialogue or really anything for that matter. All I wanted to do was get a story from my head and onto the page. In that sense, I succeeded.

All that mess aside, I wrote a mere 17 pages. That includes the title page. The whole reason I started writing when I did was because it was at this point in time where I enrolled in an internet-based home school program. One of the perks of this program was that every student was issued a laptop. This was a new concept to me: a portable computer. Every single computer my family’s had has been a big, bulky desktop. Any time I had an idea for a movie or a scene, I would have to try and remember it or write it down because my computer might be turned off or something. The ability to have a computer at my side was damn near mind blowing.

I wrote the pages in Word in Courier New. Sluglines and action flush left, character prompts and dialogue centered. All completely wrong, but how would I have known back then? I don’t even think I’d read an actual script at that point in time. For me back then, it was most important to get the unadulterated thought down on page as soon as possible.

My first completed project was at the start of 2010. A sitcom pilot called “Nothing Like This.” It was a fun undertaking. Naturally, I thought once I completed it, every agent in Hollywood would be dying to represent me. Ignorance is bliss they say.

So, me being the resourceful type, I utilized my library system and got as many books on querying as possible. One main book I borrowed was just a collection of literary agents. Literally. In this book, about an inch and a quarter thick, there was a mere six or seven listings for agents that represented scripts. Naturally, all of them received a query letter from me. Not a single read request.

It may sound weird, but rejection from agents is one of those things every screenwriter should have to face. As early as possible, too. It is this event that will truly test the perseverance necessary for any writer to succeed. The earlier they find out whether or not they can handle rejection, the better. It is perfectly natural after each rejection to have a small down period, because let’s face it: rejection, of any kind, sucks. You have to avoid dwelling on it for long, though. Too long, and you risk giving up entirely. Simply put, you just have to do better next time.

So how do you improve? Simple. Practice. Over the years, I read a bunch of screenwriting books, visited a ton of sites and continued writing. Thanks to practicing, I improved as a writer. I learned a lot about character development, setups and payoffs, 3-act structure, and subtlety. I’m not at a professional level yet, but with practice, I will be one day.

Over the years, the quality of writing has gone up. As has the ability to craft query letters, summaries, outlines, and effective loglines. I’ve even had a couple read requests for a few projects. That’s always an adrenaline rush when I have to prepare a script package. It’s that feeling among many others that keeps me at it.

The biggest silver lining happened about 6-9 months after my first batch of query letters were sent out. I received a rejection letter for my first project from the biggest agency in town, William Morris Endeavor. They sent it on company letterhead and it was so cool. Me, an aspiring screenwriter from the middle of Wisconsin, got a rejection letter from the biggest agency in Hollywood. I finally felt like a real writer that day.

I’ve lost count of how many letters I’ve sent out over the years. Some were returned due to the agency no longer being at that address, some were answered by a form letter, some got a handwritten note, and most went unanswered altogether. WME being the biggest agency in town, I never expected to hear back from them. But to know that the biggest agency in town sent me a quick letter rejecting my material was pretty big for me.

All I can do now is work harder. I can only get better.

The coolest letterhead I've ever seen.

The coolest letterhead I’ve ever seen.

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I Got to See “Nebraska”

I love the UW Cinematheque. I mean, I LOVE the UW Cinematheque. These guys are awesome! Over the years, I’ve gotten to see some A-Class films. Usually on 35mm, too. Oh, and did I mention… for free!! How cool is that? I’m not trying to brag or anything, I’m just really happy I found out about this when I did. Among the films I’ve gotten to see: “The Third Man,” “The Bicycle Thief,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Rope,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho.” But this isn’t about those. No, this is about an event I attended earlier this month. A special presentation of Alexander Payne’s latest film, “Nebraska.” On 35mm. For free. Oh, and Alexander Payne himself IN ATTENDANCE!

I got to see this film with who I consider to be one of my two best friends. It was this friend, who just so happened to introduce me to the works of Alexander Payne. The exact title is up in the air, but discussion after the screening prompted us to believe it was “Election” that we both saw first. We have both been fans for the better part of a decade now, and Alexander Payne is one of the few directors who, in our opinions, has never made a bad film and who retains a perfect track record with us. As another bit of coincidence would have it, this friend and I saw his last film, “The Descendants” on my birthday of that year. Possibly on 35mm, I’m not certain.

The day they made the announcement, you couldn’t imagine just how stoked I was. The movie was one thing. But to have the man himself there? That was better than my birthday and Christmas combined!

The buildup to the event was enormous. The event itself was big. A huge turnout. I would imagine it was a packed house. They asked several times for people with open seats next to them to put their hand up. Then, after mad anticipation, Alexander Payne came out and introduced the film, thanking everyone for the huge turnout, and letting us know that since this was the first film he’d shot digitally, this was the first time outside of the lab that he was going to see a film print of it. Then the lights dimmed.

“Nebraska” was a terrific film. Like all of Payne’s works, it was witty, dramatic, and most importantly, heartfelt. The summary is quite simple. An elderly man (Bruce Dern’s Woody), aided by his son (Will Forte’s David), tries to claim a one million dollar sweepstakes he received in the mail.

It was a terrific romp. Bruce Dern, who briefly appeared in 2012’s “Django Unchained” stole damn near every scene he was in. Will Forte, formerly of Saturday Night Live, gives a great performance as well. I’m hoping he’ll be able to land a few roles akin to this in the future.

The film itself was fantastic. My only quips were a few scenes in the beginning that felt a little too on-the-nose and expositional. But thankfully, those are just in the first five or so minutes. From that point on, it becomes a journey trying to answer the question brought up in “Back to the Future”: How well do I know my own parents? Here, Forte’s David goes about his father’s boyhood town and learns about his dad’s past, both interesting and sometimes a little more than he needed to know. A truly great scene is near the end when the family visits Woody’s family’s home, which he remarks, his dad built himself. The scene is silent with members of the family exploring the now weathered remains. This is an example of nostalgia done right. The entire film is a case study in how you can create distinct and memorable characters.

Following the screening, Alexander came out and there was a short Q&A. It was only able to be a few minutes since there was a screening of another film afterward. He stated that he was glad the film played as well as it did as he was in high spirits. He much more energetic in person than one might expect from past interviews.

As luck would have it, I was one of the lucky few to ask a question. After the Q&A, my friend and I got to shake hands with him and thank him for coming. My friend’s friend who accompanied us to the event even got an autograph. I had hoped we might get a photo with him, but alas, time did not allow for it. We all left the event in high spirits and agreed that this was the highlight of the year.

Once again, Mr. Payne did not disappoint, adding yet another perfect title to his repertoire. The man’s record remains untarnished in my eyes. I cannot recommend the film enough. It’s a masterpiece worth watching over and over again. Like all of Mr. Payne’s films, it should be used as a learning tool for figuring out how to craft your own voice.

I cannot begin to thank the UW Cinematheque enough for this momentous event. I hope they are able to do more like this, but if not, this was a smashing success that I guarantee will live long in the memories of all those in attendance. With regard to Mr. Payne, I eagerly await his next undertaking.

Not pictured: a satisfied audience.

Screenwriting Book – Scriptshadow Secrets

Scriptshadow BookScriptshadow Secrets (500 Screenwriting Secrets Hidden Inside 50 Great Movies) by Carson Reeves

This is the book that really changed the way I watched movies. When I came across Carson’s site, I thought I knew all there was to know about movies. Boy, was I wrong. From character flaws, to inner goals to the use of GSU (Goals, Stakes and Urgency), Carson’s site is a resource no screenwriter should be without.

On his site, you’ll find several free examples of writing tips from a bunch of great films. (“The Godfather,” “GoodFellas,” “Trainspotting” and “The Big Lebowski” among them.) The examples gained from each movie go to prove that Carson knows his stuff. All the practices and techniques he’s described in the past come into play in EVERY script.

At the time of this writing, the Kindle edition of this book is available for $5. That is a mere fraction of what this opus should cost. This is a link to an excerpt from his book that he published on his site: Link.

Here is a list of all the movies he covers in his book:
Aliens, Stand By Me, Up, The Bourne Identity, District 9, The Proposal, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Good Will Hunting, Big, Avatar, Die Hard, Taken, American Beauty, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Star Wars, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future, Fargo, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Fugitive, The Hangover, Crash, Notting Hill, Inception, The Empire Strikes Back, Bridesmaids, Training Day, Jerry McGuire, The Social Network, Rocky, Pulp Fiction, The Goonies, Pretty Woman, Juno, Super 8, The Shawshank Redemption, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, When Harry Met Sally, Office Space, The Princess Bride, Psycho, The Ring, Titanic, The Matrix, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Star Trek, Taxi Driver and Terminator 2.

I can assure you that this is the most worthwhile screenwriting book worth having.

Available here: Link.