Screenwriting Tips from Oaxaca Film Festival
One reason Movie Magazine ranks the Oaxaca Film Festival so highly is because of the attention the festival pays to writers. In most film festivals, screenwriting is the also-ran category, added more for entry fees than for the advancement of writers. Oaxaca turns that on its head. This year, the festival’s fifth, there were two days of workshops and pitch opportunities, in addition to the (ahem) networking screenwriters do at the after-film parties.
Here are a few tips I picked up:
#1 From Dove Sussman (just sold a script for a big Clive Owens film) — dive into the setting. Make the setting a character. Start by imagining its streets, its bars, its scary places. It’ll inform how your characters act and react.
#2 Also from Dove — try speedwriting. To unblock you. To prep for his Oaxaca Film Fest workshop, he and a pal in Puerto Escondito wrote a screenplay. In one night. Mezcal might have been involved but hey, whatever releases the creative juices.
#3 Backed up by screenwriter and writing guru Jacob Krueguer – if you’ve always been methodical, try blitz writing. If you’ve never worked with a partner, give it a shot. You might be in a rut.
#4 Jacob again — figure out what the main character wants and make him try to get it in every scene. While being tormented, tested and thwarted every step of the way.
#5 Jacob again — make sure you do a “reader’s draft” — checking your “me” draft against what a coverage reader will be thinking about. Make the screenplay easy to skim. Cut down on lengthy exposition.
Heard and understood.
How to Sell a Screenplay
Five years after moving to Beaufort from LA, Haden Yelin is figuring out that if you brush aside a clump of Spanish Moss here you’ll find a writer (who is probably also an artist or a photographer.) Which is why there’s likely to be a good turnout for her Valentine’s Day presentation at the Beaufort International Film Festival: How To Sell Your Screenplay. (it starts at 6pm, just before the screenwriter’s wine-and-cheese table read session)
If you check out H. Haden Yelin’s IMDB page you’ll find dozens of TV movies she’s written. And more importantly sold and produced. You might even remember the big-name stars that have appeared in them, like Louis Gossett Jr. in the CBS movie “A Father for Charlie” which got Haden her Writer’s Guild nomination for long form writing.
But I wanted to meet her because a producer I worked with last year and greatly admire, Sunta Izzicupo, told me Haden is a lovely and talented person. She forgot to tell me how funny, sweet and encouraging she is as well.
Here’s an example. Over a long cup of coffee on a rainy afternoon, this uber-successful writer confesses to Facebook and blogging-phobia, answers just about every screenwriting question I can think of, changes my whole way of envisioning a lead character, makes me laugh a hundred times, gives me a copy of her only screenplay that survived a recent cross-country mass storage drive disaster AND a copy of her first self-published novel and when I get home there’s an email from her hoping she wasn’t too discouraging about breaking into the business.
Even when she’s funny and self-deprecating I recognize the straightforward truth of what she means. TV movies of the week are virtually non-existent anymore and with their demise disappeared a steady stream of work for writers. Cable channels have less mainstream and more fickle tastes, as I found out when Sunta couldn’t close a sale on my true-story drama because Lifetime wanted stories “ripped from the headlines.”
But Haden thinks the pendulum will swing back again. “Ugh those reality shows are shapeless blobs,” she moans. “Scripted but vulgar and vicious. Surely people will become more sophisticated in time and get tired of the Kardashians.”
While she waits for that pendulum to swing back, she’s trying her hand at writing fiction instead. She chose to self-publish “The Conjurer” (set locally, btw) so that “like it or lump it, the only fingerprints on it are mine. I never doubted I would learn from a good editor. But the trick is would I get a good editor?”
She says screenplays are like paintings – very structured and disciplined. Books are like sculpture. “They’re three dimensional. You’re dealing, as a writer, with more than just what is seen or heard on screen. You get to describe feelings and thoughts as well as beats of action.”
She wrote her book in the same amount of time as it takes her to do a draft screenplay: six weeks. “That’s my attention span,” continues the self-deprecating humor of a veteran, disciplined, Hollywood “A-list” screenwriter. And then she grills me about the book I’ve just finished writing (The Byrne Miller rememoir my blog readers know well) as though we’re writers of equal standing.
I have to admit we do share one common trait. I tend to write until I get stuck on a transition or timeline problem. It isn’t until I’ve taken a nap with Rosie purring on my lap that the answer comes to me. Haden has a similar problem-solving ritual.
“I write my characters into a predicament that I don’t know the outcome of, then I go off to play mahjong on the computer and somehow the solution presents itself out of the muddle of my mind.”
Me: “So that’s the secret. Mahjohg is like a Ouija board for writers block?”
Haden: “Let the universe bring you the answers.”
Might be time to give up Facebook and start playing mahjong. I, for one, am grateful that the universe somehow brought H. Haden Yelin to Beaufort and BIFF’s screenwriting community.
I’ve been dealing with a lot of flashbacks this week. Not the kind cool people who came of age in the ‘60s have, but the kind that make you wish you had paid more attention to grammar in high school.
I know why screenwriting “gurus” like Robert McKee strongly advise against using flashbacks in screenplays. Unless you’re really good at it, flashback sequences are clumsy excuses for not setting up the backstory when you should have. As you type you can practically hear the little musical interlude notes familiar to viewers of bad soap operas in the ‘80s, the kind of music that accompany cheesy visual effects like fuzzy ripples across the screen.
But when you’re writing about a compelling woman whose life spanned from 1909 to 2001, flashbacks are unavoidable. Without them, my book about Byrne Miller would be a three-volume biography instead of a memoir. What I’ve discovered, as I’m getting the manuscript ready for proofreading, is that many of my chapters start in a particular point in time and then float back to an earlier incident to reveal some juicy part of her even earlier past. It all feels pretty seamless, except for the grammar. I’ve been struggling with how long, within each flashback, I’m supposed to use the clunky past perfect tense – remember helping verbs? Not so helpful, when a flashback sequence is pages long.
Here’s where it pays to have brilliant poets and college writing professors as friends. Quitman Marshall put my mind at rest this afternoon when he told me that the reader only needs one grammatical cue that it’s a flashback – a simple she had worried, briefly, if two inches of cloth was enough costume to prevent arrest for indecency. Then I can revert right back to standard past tense. “Now that’s how to fill a costume,” the wardrobe mistress said when Byrne emerged from behind the curtain.
Thanks Q – I feel all buttoned up now. Cue the music!
Selling the South in 90 Seconds
I’m a native Oregonian. I gagged the first time I tried boiled peanuts. When I applied for my first TV job, I honestly couldn’t point out South Carolina from Alabama on a map. And yet here I am, wooing Hollywood execs on Southern Charm. At least my take on it, a la “The Wedding Photographer,” the romantic comedy I started pitching at a festival last weekend in LA. My logline (the three sentences you’d read on the Netflix envelope if it gets made) goes like this:
When his own picture-perfect wedding proposal is rejected, a hip Chicago studio photographer tries to cure himself of romance by shooting a season of weddings in the Deep South. Think hair-of-the-dog, but for saps. He doesn’t count on falling for the one bridesmaid who calls his bluff.
What was a blast was explaining how the script makes you fall in love with the South as much as any one character. I told them that it’s a lushly beautiful setting, quirky and inherently romantic. That nothing matters more than family, tradition and love. Of course I let it slip that when the hero hooks up with the girl – skinny-dipping in a tidal creek filled with bioluminescence – it’ll do for this movie generation what “Ghost” did for throwing pots or “Dirty Dancing” did for learning to dance on a log in a lake. The reaction was good – of the 33 producers I pitched, all but three asked for my one-sheet (the faux movie poster by Paul Nurnberg starring Jenny Rone and Todd Wood). Seven asked to read the script right off the bat – which sounds great until I realized I have no idea if they have two dimes to rub together.
Those of you who follow this blog know these pitch festivals are like speed dating. Only this one, InkTip, is speed group dating. You stumble around a convention ballroom, squinting up at tiny signs indicating which productions companies are looking for your genre. There are usually three or four companies per table, but of course the one you’re really interested in never shows so you end up pitching to companies you’ve never heard of. My favorites, just going by the crazy names, were Bugeater Films, Clownfish Productions and Purple Octopus Inc. I decided against pitching ShoeZart inc, apparently known for the film “Scorpio Men on Prozac” and Weirdsmobile Productions who wanted Sci-fi in the vein of their other film, “Chastity Bites.” Can’t see either of those wanting to shoot a romantic comedy in Beaufort, can you?
What I really won at BIFF
A week ago today I got to hear an excerpt of my latest screenplay on stage for the first time – at the Beaufort International Film Festival screenwriting finalist’s table read. I knew the staged reading of “The Wedding Photographer” would go better than last year’s screenplay when even a scene description got a belly laugh from the audience. I had the crowd at “Interior – Harold’s Country Club – night.”
Part of that is due to the fact that admission included wine – and lots of it. But mostly it’s because we all love to hear a love story about people and places we know. My job for the rewrite is to make the story resonate beyond Beaufort, to audiences with no idea why a wedding at Harold’s Country Club is funny. And I found fresh inspiration from an honoree much more deserving than me: the academy-award winning film editor Craig McKay.
I thought I knew his work – blockbusters like “Silence of the Lambs,” “Reds” and “Philadelphia.” But it was during the workshop he gave at BIFF that I learned he edited what I consider the best coming-of-age movie ever: “Sin Nombre.” It’s a gritty, low-budget, independent film about immigration that thrusts you into the beauty and pain of life. You’d swear the same person both shot and edited the film – the end result is so rushing, fluid, surprising and lingering. After listening to McKay describe his work, I realized he’s the visual equivalent of a poet. There’s a rhythm to every decision he makes in the edit suite, a conciseness that only appears spontaneous. He simply calls it storytelling.
“Hollywood had its worst year ever last year,” McKay told the audience at USCB when he accepted his Jean Ribaut award for excellence in film editing. “They stopped telling stories.” Luckily for me and countless others starting out in this business, McKay hasn’t. He really believes independent film is the future, that without the scripts and shorts and features competing for audiences at film festivals like Beaufort’s, audiences would stop coming to the movies.
So he told stories during the workshop. He told them during his humble acceptance speech and he told them at after-parties where everyone else was schmoozing or celebrating. He is the kind of guy I felt comfortable asking how and when to break the linear timeline in a script. I asked because so many movies start in the middle or at the end, tumble through out-of-sequence back stories and leave the viewer scrambling to figure out where the story starts. I wasn’t expecting his answer.
“Most of the time it’s to cover up a bad story,” he said. He was far too gracious and smart to give examples. He still edits two or three movies a year, between producing his own humanitarian documentaries. “But when it is planned it can be brilliant. Be clear about what you’re doing but don’t give away what is still to come.”
I’m still editing that inside my head.
Screenplays, weddings and wine
I promise, my annual “don’t miss these films” blog about the Beaufort International Film Festival is coming soon. But in the meantime, I thought I’d whet your appetites for the second annual screenplay table-read event at BIFF. (Thursday, Februrary 16th at 7:30pm)
If you didn’t make it to last year’s event, or have no idea what a table-read is all about, check out this audio podcast my friend Burton Sauls has put together. It’s me, doing a 10-minute play-by-play of the excitement and controversy leading up to the inaugural table-read last year. (Burton is developing a series of these kinds of podcasts from various events and musings of Beaufort’s artists and citizens so potential visitors can “preview” this crazy place and hopefully come and spend lots of money on vacations.)
This year I’m lucky enough to have another screenplay in the finals, “The Wedding Photographer.” And although I won’t have to worry about getting struck by lightning in a church, this year’s table-read should be even more exciting. First, it’s going to be at USCB’s big theatre with the actors on stage. Second, there are rumors some movie-star types might read, although if we’re lucky enough to get the same Shakespearean actors as last year I’ll be just as thrilled. They’re that good. Third, the talented director Gary Weeks (an audience favorite two festivals ago with a dark, Georgia-based, post-apocalyptic film you may remember) has two screenplays in the read. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only local screenwriter this time – there are Hilton Head finalists I’m looking forward to meeting. Lastly, just like last year, the $15 ticket includes wine and all the questions you care to ask the attending writers (and they’re all attending).
So, about “The Wedding Photographer.” What fun it was to write a comedy instead of my usual, much darker fare. The idea came during our morning walk downtown when I saw an intensely uncomfortable young couple posing for what must have been an engagement announcement shoot. Gary and I both laughed out loud, because the night before we’d talked to our good friend Tom Kwas in Milwaukee. Tom once had a thriving studio photography practice in the Midwest and has made the most treasured photographs of our family through the years. He’s incredibly cynical and teases us mercilessly every time South Carolina or its governors are making headlines, but under all the witty sarcasm he’s the sweetest man on earth. So the thought of Tom, transplanted to the Deep South, making wedding photos of Southern bridezillas, cracked us up. And gave me the idea for a screenplay.
Having no first-hand experience in wedding photography, I needed to do some research. Which is where Susan DeLoach came to the rescue. She is one of the most sought-after wedding photographers in the area and she graciously allowed me to tag along to a few shoots as her “assistant.” I was amazed at the skill and talent involved, not all of it technical. Susan is part artist, part big sister and part therapist for stressed out brides and their families. Those shoots were invaluable in helping me learn the terms and process, but utterly useless for character development. You see, Susan could not be a better example of Southern etiquette and grace and my protagonist has to hate the South and turn into a wedding photographer who makes brides cry. Until, of course, he meets the right woman.
I barely finished the first draft of “The Wedding Photographer” in time for the BIFF entry deadline, so I’m sure that other finalist scripts are much more polished and deserving of the Jean Ribaut award. But I love my characters and the lessons the South teaches them all. The best part was setting it entirely in Beaufort and working in references to the people and places that make this place so unique. Harold’s Country Club, for example. If you come to the reading, perhaps you’ll recognize out a few more. And hopefully your presence and support will help convince one of the talented producers, actors or directors in attendance to actually consider making “The Wedding Photographer” happen.
Three cheers for low-budget screenplays
Back again from a whirlwind trip out to Burbank for a screenplay pitch fest. I had to share the funniest part about InkTip. Some 300 companies came to hear pitches — fabulous. They have great names — like Flying Wong Productions, Twisted Pictures and No Suck Comedy, Inc. It’s just that some of them ask for ridiculously low-budget features. For example, in this line you could pitch to three companies at once.
Another alternate reality at work this time was the age differential. Most working writers in Hollywood are around 30 years old. The average age of writers pitching scripts at InkTip? Their fathers. Or grandfathers. Maybe all the younger writers were on summer vacation from film school, but it made for lots of discussion about World War 2 films in the cattle lines.
Many of you cringed at the speed-dating format of the last pitch fest I blogged about, so how about a sequel? InkTip takes pay-to-pitch to a new level. You get the same five minutes of face time in a cavernous hotel ballroom but you pitch to three or four companies at once. Now I know what an American Idol audition must be like.
This format is actually better, once you get the eye contact dilemma down. If you can tell your script isn’t right for one exec (as in, they text while you talk or munch on candy the desperate writer before you left on their table) you just ignore them and find a face with alert eyes. I did miss the cowbell though. This time they just dimmed the lights at four minutes and thirty seconds into your pitch and had bouncers drag you away if the producers were still asking questions. Which happened to me several times. Which is a good sign, I guess. I had requests to read three of my four babies – even the drama I thought Hollywood had given up on.
In the end, that was the best part about InkTip. At my first pitch fest, last year, I got the message that “Mask of the Innocent,” and “The Scarlet Registry” are too dark and gritty. Drama was a dirty word. But films like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River are breathing new life into production companies – or at least a new willingness to read scripts that aren’t “tent-pole” or “high-concept.” Three cheers for indie producers with big dreams! They end up making Oscar-nominated films and hopefully one day mine will be one of them.
When Horror Presents Itself…
I’m on a comedy-writing roll. Mostly because I love it, but also because all the screenwriting gurus say you need to pick one genre and stick to it. Or as a manager I met at a pitch fest told me “You have to be in a box before I can get you out of it.” – Christopher Pratt.
Still, I’m tempted to try horror next. Purely because of a shoot I just wrapped in Muscatatuck, Indiana. Don’t get all insulted, Hoosiers, this isn’t a statement about your state. It’s just that one of the premiere military training centers in the world also happens to rent out its facility to filmmakers. The Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, which used to be a state mental asylum, is literally a 1,000 acre Disneyland of Disasters. All the old, art-deco hospital buildings double now as “embassies” and other “assets” military types need to train to defend.
They call it a full-immersion contemporary urban training environment. Which means they’ve built things like parking garages that collapse on command, to practice difficult urban search and rescue techniques. There’s an oil refinery that can explode at the push of a button, a pre-flooded suburb, and 1,866 feet of tunnels dug under an old prison.
While we were there shooting a project for FEMA, so were the Israeli Defense Forces. That’s how cutting edge it is. But what fascinated me the most was the creepy factor. There’s a haunting, man-made reservoir on the border of the property, surrounded by deep woods and FEMA trailers. Yes, the post-Katrina kind rejected for mold issues and now deemed toxic. We four-wheeled through the woods on Kubota go-carts only to find a trailer graveyard, doors swinging open with scary creaks.
Then there’s the Mental Hospital Museum. We used it as headquarters for our shoot, trying to ignore the 1950s–era instruments hanging from its walls. Hard to do when your laptop is set up under a straight jacket, very Silence of the Lambs. Even better is the automatic spoon machine used to feed the patients in the jacket. I couldn’t resist this photo.
The director says when he was charged with curating the collection, it looked as if all the patients up and left in the middle of the night. (note – there is an unmarked cemetery right off base…hmmm) He says you could get the place up and running again in a couple of months – if there was ever a need to return to mid-Reagan-era mental healthcare. Which is, of course, when mental patients all over the country were booted out to fend for themselves. See, I wasn’t kidding about the horror part.
Only if it was a movie, you could happily munch popcorn while you scream. Even the logo works. “Defend the homeland. Win the peace. As real as it gets.”
What I did at Camp Hollywood
They say screenplay pitch festivals in LA are a lot like speed dating. Not having tried seducing anyone before a five-minute buzzer cuts me off, I can’t actually vouch for the analogy. But there was a woman with a cow bell. Literally, at the Great American Pitch Fest in Burbank Sunday, a 50-something woman presided over a cavernous convention center hall with a cowbell. Which she rang, with Christopher Walken enthusiasm, every five minutes, for six hours.
You’d think, given that her job was to keep five hundred would-be Nora Ephrons and Judd Apatows moving right along, she would signal your time’s up with the clap of a sync slate. Or a flashing red applause light and canned clapping. But the cow bell was the perfect cue. We were, afterall, being herded — shuffled out a side gate to what organizers affectionately called the bull pen, to wait in line to do it all over again.
Waiting in line was the most entertaining part. It’s where I met a woman from Texas, I’ll call her Lanky, who wasn’t satisfied pitching her epic to the 120 production company execs there to listen in five-minute increments. She had to pitch me too – how the one true God was still to come and we’re all just circles of light waiting to receive the signal. I think her movie was the signal, but I didn’t really want clarification.
Then there was the couple in their sixties who carried around a miniature Siberian all day. I had to ask. The dog was part of the pitch. Again, no need to know more. Those lines were long and once a conversation like that starts it’s hard to stop.
I liked the whisperers the best. Nervous writers, mostly from other parts of the country, who kept reciting their pitches to themselves in line. This is when you’d think blue-tooth headsets would be a good disguise. Except when you still whisper. Kinda gives you away.
Like the woman from North Carolina, who bonded with me because we’re both from states that end in the word Carolina. She looked nervous, so I told her she looked like Isabella Rossellini. She told me that her screenplay was a riches-to-rags story, about how she and her apparently unlucky husband had to leave New Jersey and wound up in the sticks. (Charlotte – her description, not mine) Then she took a cell phone call from her husband, who told her that her whole church was praying for her. Right at that very moment, three time zones away.
“I’d lead with that when you pitch those producers,” I suggested. “You might be the only writer here with God on your side.” She fiddled with her pearl necklace and replied, “Right, and have everybody here think I’m a hick?”
I really felt for the couple from Japan pitching an animated short film. Which they’d already made. What they needed was distribution, and maybe a translator who could have explained they were playing in the wrong sandbox, wasting their time and energy. They looked dazed and disappointed, like I’m sure I did at my first pitch fest, when I found out that nobody in Hollywood wants to buy dramas unless they’ve already been a best-selling novel.
“But what about all the Oscar nominated dramas?” I sputtered – back in October. Then I checked. They’re always adaptations. Turns out my first two screenplays are destined only for “good-for-you” film festival awards.
This pitch fest was more productive. I took what I learned at the first one, swallowed my pride and spent the next four months creating something commercial. Which also turned out to be way more fun – both to write, and pitch. I had no trouble describing my R-rated, female-lead comedy, called “Free Corona,” before the cow bell rang. Although now that I’m back home I keep wondering if I should have had an actual Corona in my hand. Or better yet, one for each of the patient executives who had to listen to Lanky’s epic before they got to me. R-rated comedy and free beer … maybe that writer from Charlotte would have sent some prayers my way.
I didn’t get struck by lightning!
Tables, in Beaufort, South Carolina at least, have better reasons for existence than for actors to sit around them reading. As soon as director Bruce Doneff realized that we were going to have a big audience for last night’s table read of the Beaufort International Film Festival screenplay finalists, he made an executive decision. The microphone-less actors were going to have to stand and project. So he moved the table from the stage to the back of the house, draped it in lovely black fabric and stacked it with bottles of wine. It was one of three great decisions he made.
The second was to invite the actor Benjamin Busch down to the front row and get him to explain how table reads usually work — to the players and the audience that quickly filled in from the French film next door, once word of the wine got out. When dozens of film buffs aren’t paying $15 each to hear unpublished screenplays read aloud for the first time, table reads are apparently intimate, intimidating affairs. Usually only the writer, director and producers are in the room with the actors, who’ve never seen the script before. It’s when writers discover that dialog falls flat, directors discover they need more rehearsal time and producers discover that some cast members just aren’t going to click and need to be replaced.
Thankfully, ours was nothing like that. I’ll take a crowded audience of film buffs with glasses of wine in their hands any day. They didn’t seem to mind the tradeoff of conversational delivery for actually being able to hear in the back row. But I was nervous. I’ve sat, mumbling the dialog of my screenplays to myself, in front of my computer, for days. I rarely project. I never use body language. I don’t use high voices for females and my best Johnny Cash for males. So watching the rehearsal was like watching a Shakespearean adaptation of my dark, disturbing drama. It worked brilliantly for the screenplay before mine, about moonshiners and revenuers, but would it ring true on a modern-day drama about a sex offender?
Which brings me to the third great decision Bruce Doneff, the evening’s director and MC, made. He announced a five-minute intermission before my screenplay and encouraged everyone to get another glass of wine. His hope was that a good buzz would make the adult language in “The Scarlet Registry” easier to swallow. The actress who volunteered to play my protagonist’s wife, the brave and talented Suzanne Larson, had the distinction of dropping the first F-bomb in the festival’s history. Did I mention that the theatre is actually owned by a church, which holds services there every Sunday?
So I had a glass of wine myself, then got up in front of more people than I ever expected and gave the set-up for the excerpt. I didn’t go into a lengthy explanation of how it came to be, or warn the one 14 year-old-in-the-second-row-I-had-never-seen-before! about the subject matter. And because I didn’t muddy the waters, I had the most surprising revelation.
The first scene the actors read from, the one where a young girl sees her father doing something no girl wants to see, was unintentionally funny! If I hadn’t heard a real live audience laughing I wouldn’t have believed it. I was racing through possibilities – I should give the protagonist a more serious name, change the scene descriptions to avoid slang, definitely eliminate the girl screaming. But afterward, the director of a brilliant short in the festival, Seth Boggess, gave me something else to think about. He liked the fact that the scene came across as funny. He said the other scenes are so dark it needed some comic relief. And he might be right. It certainly jives with what the up-and-coming production company types told me in LA.
I know the screenplay needs work; all writing is re-writing, right? And yes, Busch was right. There’s nothing like a reading to show where I’ve given characters too much exposition. But the table read was just the motivation I need to keep going. The audience seemed to “get” my attempt to create nuanced characters and they asked good questions.
And the best question of all came from one of the filmmakers debuting her film this year at B.I.F.F: Natasha Warloe. She’s always looking for new material, would I let her read the whole script?