Over the past few months I’ve been watching a shift play out in the world of aspiring screenwriters. A new set of gurus are challenging the old guard, generating a discussion about the true nature of what it takes to become an effective story teller.
Used to be that if you wanted to learn about the ins and outs of writing for Film and TV, outside of the usual academic routes, your best options lay in books and seminars of instructors like Syd Field, Michael Hague, and Robert McKee. I have a great amount of respect for these guys and very much enjoyed reading and learning from their books, but they all share one common aspect with many college professors, and that is they don’t actually work in the industry as screenwriters. Does that prevent them from being good instructors? Not if you ask me, but if you happen to pose the same question to Brian Koppelman, the scribe behind such movies as Rounders, The Knockaround Guys and Runaway Jury, his six second answer comes down to this:
(Click on upper right for sound / mute.)
This Vine clip by Koppelman was the first of his fascinating and addictive Six Second Screenwriting Lessons series, which, is now up to over a 190 clips as of this post. Drawing from his experience as a working scribe, Koppelman has used these Vine bits to come out strongly against what he calls “the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex,” by which he means the instructors mentioned above.
He is not alone, fellow writers John August and Craig Mazin, hosts of the Scriptnotes podcast have taken a similar tone when asked repeatedly about what books they would recommend for beginning writers. Mazin has compared the authors of “how-to” books to “reverse engineers” who never managed to actually build a house.
I finally finished my new screenplay that I’ve been working on for over a year. It turned out to be a unique experience, insofar as it was the first time I used four different screenwriting apps to find the right workflow to get my ideas on the page.
I could’ve stuck with Final Draft. Despite the many complaints by others, I don’t have any major issues with FD, but I seem to be on the permanent lookout for a more effective outlining solution than FD can offer. So for this project, in search of the best outlining and drafting workflow, I played around with some of the new apps available. Here’s my rundown of the various tools I used with their pros and cons. If you’re anything like me and geek out about writing tools, some of my experience might be of interest.
First, the issue at hand:
When I work on a story, I do my best to start with as good an outline as I can, and sometimes I manage to make it very detailed, but depending on the project, the outline may be quite broad before I jump into the draft itself. In almost all cases, I end up doing further outlining and inserting story elements once I’m in the draft. In this last screenplay for example, I got a bit stuck with my outlining at about the midpoint of the story, so I decided to start working on parts of the draft anyway. That, in turn, got the juices flowing and the characters connecting, and it allowed me to find the way through the rest of the story.
Having spent over a month sequestered in an edit bay, I’m happy to announce that the first picture lock is now complete on my feature. Though it’s not the final version of the film, it is at least close enough that we can start mixing sound and working with music for it.
So far, editing has been the most fun part of this endeavor. After over a year of development and the pressures of the prep and the shoot, this is where the pieces of the story are finally put together—though in most cases this process resembles more of what I would call a Lego approach as opposed to an Ikea one. I mean a director might think he’s handing the editor an Ikea furniture kit—the prefab pieces of the scenes, going with the assembly instructions laid out in the screenplay—however, what you really have is a Lego set. Provided that the pieces are all there, you could assemble the same thing that’s in the instructions, but you can also get creative with it and take those elements to build something even better along the lines of the original concept. This Lego approach is where the fun comes in. There are cases where this can also be the director’s nightmare, when such last minute re-imaginations of the story are absolutely necessary in the cutting room just to ensure the damn thing makes sense, but thankfully I was spared of that—well, so far at least.
With this movie, we were lucky enough not to have to get too creative with the editing; the pieces and the blueprint came together quite well if you ask me. But we were also fortunate to have enough material to have some fun Lego time as well, and build on what we originally planned—thanks in no small part to the talents of our wonderful editor, David E. K. Abramson. The result? It’s not a book case and it’s not a plastic Death Star, what it is, is finally, a movie.
I’m looking forward to sharing the results with everyone soon.
No, not to burn it, though that is a tempting proposition at times.
I’m just in rewrite frenzy again. I’ve been developing this story for 18 months. It’s been shaped over various drafts and rounds of feedback, but it has not yet passed through the ultimate test: the pre-production process. And now, as we’re beginning to put the pieces of the actual movie together, the script I was so happy with a month ago is presenting me with some new challenges as it starts its journey from a semi abstract telling of a story, to an exact blueprint of a film production. Of course this is a good problem to have so I’m not complaining, just typing away—until the next round of notes comes in, and the one after that.
As the old saying goes: “The script is never finished. Only the film.”