Your Screenplay Opening

A spec screenplay vs a production screenplay.

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Some screenwriters think that just about every screenplay should open with a bang of some kind: perhaps a literal explosion, or a murder, or a chase.

Those may well be good choices for certain stories, but my take on this is that what an opening actually needs to do is to prompt two questions and one feeling in your audience.

The questions are simple:

1. Who are these people?
2. What’s going on?

I’m not saying that your first scene has to answer these questions, just to raise them. They might be answered in the second scene or the third scene, or sometimes not until the very end in the case of a mystery.

The feeling should be some kind of emotional involvement. Often at this point it’s just curiosity but sometimes it’s sympathy—even when we don’t know who is being chased, usually our sympathy automatically goes to the one running away.

Sometimes it’s empathy—a character experiencing something that’s happened to us, too, so we relate. It could be somebody floundering at a job interview, or being asked for a date she obviously doesn’t want to go on, or somebody getting a big bill at a restaurant and realizing he’s lost his wallet.

I think checking whether your opening scene achieves this is a good way to tell whether or not it will grab the reader—and eventually the audience.

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Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of TV, several TV movies, the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz” starring Kelsey Grammer, and has been a script doctor on films starring Eddie Murphy, Kim Catrall, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau and others. His plays have been produced in New York, London, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He is the author of 9 books including “Your Writing Coach” and “Creativity Now.” If you would like to find out more about “The Seven Things That Are Stopping You From Writing And How To Overcome Them,” check out Jurgen’s screenwriting website: www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com

Making a Movie

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The other night, I did a film school talk at the UCLA film school about how to make, market and sell your movie without the middle-man.

And while most of the UCLA film students in attendance agreed that my way of making a movie may not be fully inline with the studio ideal – many of these filmmakers agreed that getting a movie made is better than merely just talking about making a movie.

Thanks to familiarity with YouTube as well as access to affordable production equipment, many film school students, as well as modern filmmakers are embracing accessible, non-discriminatory distribution channels without hesitation or excuses.

And this experience is changing the ways in which filmmakers think about making a movie.

While it’s still true that making a movie can be a pain in the butt, the barriers of industry entry are down.

As a result, filmmakers are now empowered to go out and make their movie. And just in case you are not attending film school, I’ll share the BIG question you need to ask yourself as a filmmaker:

“Given the resources that you have now, what is the movie that you can make this year?”

Check out these filmmaking tools.

 

Feature Filmmaking Advice

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Prior to getting my own features off the ground, I worked for an indie producer in New York City. I took the gig because I wanted to uncover the “secrets” to making movies. And after a few months, I ended up working in development – which pretty much meant it was my job to read screenplays and write reports about the material, called coverage.

When I wasn’t reading, most of my days were spent sitting in on meetings and taking notes. Given the fast paced grind of the development office, if you were one of the many writers, actors or filmmakers who sent us a query letters, headshots or your student films- odds are good that I opened some of your mail and put it on a stack. And that stack probably ended up in a filing cabinet. And? Well…

Listen. If you’re ambitious and you’re still waiting around for someone to “give you permission” to make your movies, I’m going to share a secret. There is no better feeling in the world than the day you stop sending query letters and instead, you start producing your own work (or if you’re an actor, you start casting yourself). For years and years, you have dreamed about getting your work on the big screen. You know you’re good. So why ask for permission?

Now I know this can be a scary transition. So I want to provide you with five tips to make becoming a super-hyphenate a little easier.

1. Have a well defined log-line for your project. Seriously. Most first time indie producers settle for a simple character driven story. But the story is always confusing. So here is the test, if you can not explain your story with the use of a simple log line, something is off. Fix the log line now. You’ll need it for your marketing later.

2. Everything in your screenplay costs money. So if your passion project is too expensive, write something based on locations in your neighborhood. Your true genius will come from your ability to tell a compelling story, not by how many expensive Special FX you can pack into your movie.

3. Ice, Snow, Rain, Sun, dogs, lighting bolts and children have always been a challenge to predict. If you include any of these elements in your story, I guarantee that setups that should only take minutes will take days. Avoid these elements if possible.

4. As soon as you decide to produce and possibly direct your movie, hire a seasoned Production Manager to work with you. They will read your script. They will tell you that your movie will cost way more than you think and they will help you alter the story to meet your budget constraints. Managing the budget is their job. Respect it. Then ask your PM if they know a great 1st AD. (They will!)

5. Hire a GREAT First Assistant Director. Not some film school kid either. Pay the money. Build a relationship. The First AD will be the general of your production. They will build off the Production Manager’s budget and schedule the movie. The 1st AD keeps the production on time.

These steps will provide you with a good starting point. Once you have your script, PM and your 1st AD, you will find that your project will start to gain momentum. Finish your feature and people will start sending you query letters. I guarantee it. If you liked this filmmaking article, sign up for my newsletter.

Screenwriting Tips – Hope for shy screenwriters

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff

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Shy and awkward is how screenwriter Seth Lochead describes himself. When he was starting out he felt he had to choose between building his career by socializing or by writing a great script.

He decided to try to do the latter.

The result is “Hanna,” co-written by David Farr, starring Kate Blanchett as the daughter of a rogue ex-CIA agent. He told the Vancouver Sun: ““I was going for the absurd mixed with action influences that are seemingly familiar, and then something that twists you a bit. You want to keep people intrigued and on the edge of their seat where they’re mentally having to keep up.”

It’s not clear from the article but I get the sense that Farr was brought in to do rewrites, but Lochead was flown to Berlin to do production rewrites for three months, which was a great education.

It’s a story that can give up to the other shy and awkward screenwriters (hey, isn’t that most of us?)

Beyond that, the internet gives us shy types another way to make connections. Here are three suggestions:

* Write intelligent fan letter (via email) to people whose work you admire–directors, producers, actors. I stress “intelligent” because most fan letters are of the “I think you’re really great!” variety. In yours, mention specifics about their work. It’s a long shot, but some working relationships have started out that way.

* If you’re looking for an agent, read the trades online to see which agents have recently opened their own agency or moved–that’s the time they’re most open to new people. (I know trade subscriptions can be expensive–why not split the cost with two or three other aspiring screenwriters?)

* Write and produce short films and make it easy to find them on the web, as samples of your work. If you’re not into the “making” side of films, team up with some aspiring directors who don’t want to (or can’t) write their own scripts.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com


How to give your screenplay emotional intelligence

“Chasing the Monster Idea” is a book by Stefan Mumaw in which he identifies seven questions that will help you determine whether you have a “monster” idea rather than just a good one (or a bad one).

These questions also can help you figure out whether your movie idea is a monster.

The first one: Does it evoke an emotional response?

People go to movies not just to see something, but to feel something. Horror fans want to feel fear, thriller fans want to feel suspense, comedy fans want to feel amusement, and so on. It’s obvious, but not every movie or every script makes that happen. There are three main reasons some fail:

1) We don’t identify with the protagonist. Especially in horror, thriller and drama we experience the feelings vicariously via the protagonist. She’s scared and we’re scared. The more your script has done to help us understand and identify with her, the stronger our feelings.

2) We don’t believe the situation.Sometimes we feel these things because we know more than the protagonist–we know the killer is hiding in the closet, she doesn’t. In comedies we are just as likely to be laughing at the protagonist as with him. But if the situation you have set up obviously is fake, then we may not buy into it and we don’t feel what you want us to feel.

3) We feel used up. If there’s not enough emotional variation–for instance, in a horror film if the horror is unrelenting–we may feel emotional fatigue and stop responding. That’s why the films of Hitchcock, for instance, are so good: he gives us moment of suspense interspersed with moments of comic relief, high drama mixed with low drama (a guy named Shakespeare understood this, too).

If your screenplay allows for these factors, it will have the emotional intelligence to give viewers the experience they crave.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com