An education most painful

scared
Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.

Time very well spent

finish line
Yeah. It felt just like that.

And…I’m back. Didja miss me?

To say the past week and a half has been a little hectic would be a slight understatement*. And of course, it involves writing and the opportunities that come with it.

Long story short – Somebody wanted to read one of my scripts. But I hadn’t finished writing it yet. So I wrote, edited and polished it. In ten days. Without taking time off from work.

As you can probably guess, I’m equal parts exhausted and exhilarated at having done it.

While I catch my second wind, here’s the extended version:

A little over three weeks ago, I connected with somebody who works for a production company. They mostly do TV, but are looking at expanding into features.

Emails and pleasantries were exchanged. They took a look at the blog, liked what they saw, and asked for a list of my loglines “to see if my boss might be interested.” So I sent it. This was on a Friday afternoon.

A vital piece of the puzzle to keep in mind – just before all of this occurred, I’d gotten the outline of a long-dormant comedy spec to the point where I felt ready to start on pages. Which is what I was doing while all of this interaction was occurring.

The following Monday morning, the response came in. “Do you have scripts for X and Y? Would love to request if so.”

Naturally, X was the long-dormant comedy spec that so far I had written all of 8 pages, and Y was still in outline form (which I’d already been considering producing in another medium).

My initial thought was panic. Neither script was available, but I didn’t want to blow the opportunity; I wanted to be able to send them SOMETHING. Sooner, rather than later. What to do, what to do?

After a little evaluation and weighing all my options, I wrote back that I was still working on the latest draft of X (which was true), and could have it for them the following week. I’d considered saying a few weeks or a month, but that seemed too long. Regarding Y, I said pretty much what I mentioned above – it was an outline, but they could take a look at it if they wanted to.

They were cool with both options, and were looking forward to reading them.

I’d just thrown the gauntlet in my own face. What had I gotten myself into? Was I totally insane for thinking I could pull this off? Would I be able to pull it off?

Only one way to find out.

I had a script to write, and had to do it faster than I’d ever done it before. I had no intention of sending them a first draft, so I had to crank that out and do a major polish on it. In about a week and a half. Taking time off of work was not an option, so I’d have to be as productive as possible in the off-hours that didn’t involve sleeping.

I explained my plan to my understanding family and got to work.

I produced as many pages as I could per day, averaging 8-10. Those would then be edited & polished during all available downtime at work (it being summer vacation season was a godsend – traffic’s much lighter, so that really helped). I’d get home, incorporate the changes, then move on to the next set.

Write, edit/polish, rewrite, repeat. A seemingly never-ending cycle.

A few things I discovered during all of this:

-Having a solid outline made it so much easier. I knew exactly what had to happen in each scene, and how I wanted it to happen, so there was no time wasted trying to figure it out.

-I sincerely think my joke-writing’s gotten better.

-I’ve gotten much more proficient at coming up with solutions to last-minute script-related problems.

-I seriously wondered if this is what it would be like if I were doing this for a living. I’d actually be pretty cool with it.

After ten days of non-stop effort, I had what I considered a somewhat decent 97-page comedy script. Both it and the outline have been sent.

Of course, they may not like either one. But at this point, I don’t care. Simply having accomplished this is my victory. I set an intense short-term goal and did it.

The script could definitely benefit from at least another rewrite, but that’s not a priority at this juncture. I wrote it in the time I said I would, and that’s the important thing.

Others may scoff at my feeling of accomplishment, claiming it’s no big deal or that they’ve done it or even done it in less time. But their words will fall on deaf ears because it’s a big deal to me. This is something I did, and am extremely proud of having done it.

So what now? I’m taking the weekend off, which will include going for a much-missed and much-needed training run.

But come Monday, I’ll be right back at it, hard at work on whatever project I opt to do next.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to take my time with it.

*I really appreciate everybody’s patience, and hope you enjoyed the throwback posts. And K wanted to thank everybody for the kind comments about her guest post. Yes, I am a very lucky guy to have somebody like her.

Strong rope & solid knots required

rope bridge
As long as it leads somewhere

I’m a big believer in tying story elements together whenever possible. While this should already apply to key details within the story, sometimes it’s simply a matter of a setup and payoff, even if it seems like a throwaway item. Bonus points if it ties in to your primary storyline. Which it should.

Case in point: in the opening scene of CHINATOWN, Gittes is showing his client photos of the man’s wife’s infidelity. The man, heartbroken, tells Gittes “if there’s anything you ever need, let me know.” The scene ends, and we figure that’s that. This is what kind of guy Gittes is and what he does, and then we transition into the main storyline. Events play out, and Gittes finds himself cornered in a tough spot.

So how does he get out of it? He leads his pursuers to a house he claims has the answers. But when he knocks on the front door, who answers it? The guy from the opening scene. We’d totally forgotten about him, but it’s a perfect choice. It ties things together, works within the context of the story, and anybody else would have not worked.

Everything in your story should serve a function in helping move the story forward, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.

Do you have characters or events in your script that are strictly one-time-only? What purpose do they serve? If you took them out, would it make a difference?

And if you do keep them, is there any way to change them around so that you have a solid setup and payoff that tie into the overall story? It might not be as tough as you think.

In the outline of my current project, I had some smaller scenes in the first act that were totally unconnected. Going through it a second time, I’ve been finding ways to connect them. Sometimes it’s about using a character making a return appearance, or having some key scenes take place in the same location. Again, it’s all about what works within the context of the story.

(Admittedly, I’m also working on this from the mindset of keeping the budget low. If having the same character appear twice, rather than it being two separate characters, or being able to use a location more than once means less money that needs to be spent, than so be it. It’s an influence, not a rule. But this is me. You may choose to take a different approach.)

Another benefit of tying elements together is that it shows how much thought and effort you’ve put into crafting this story together. The evidence is right there on the page. You’re proving that you’re actually thinking this through and not just randomly throwing things in and hoping something sticks. You’d be surprised how many writers do that.

Don’t be one of them.

Let’s get those brains stimulated, people!

You mean movies can be smart AND good?
You mean movies can be smart AND good?

One of my favorite things to do as a parent is go to the movies with my daughter. It’s a nice feeling knowing I’ve instilled in her the appreciation of the whole moviegoing experience. It also helps that there’s a fantastic two-screen (one of a handful of similar small neighborhood theatres in San Francisco) a few blocks from us.

And as she’s getting older, our choices are growing in number. Strictly kid-based animation has given way to PG-13 fare, so we try to see what we can when possible.

Earlier this summer, we caught JURASSIC WORLD and INSIDE OUT within a week’s time. She really enjoyed the dinosaur flick. I thought it was fun, but felt it relied more on the nostalgia factor rather than smart storytelling (“Remember when we helped Grandpa fix that old car?”). I found the latest offering from Pixar to be pure genius, while she found it to be simply “okay”. I asked why she liked the first movie more than the second.

“I think I like movies where you don’t have to think too much.”

Gasp.

I won’t go so far as to say it was a dagger in my heart, but you can probably understand my being taken somewhat aback.

I could easily chalk it up to that she’s still relatively young and hasn’t latched on to my love of the movies to the extent that I have. Like I said, the list of what she’s seen is somewhat limited. I’ve done what I can, and hopefully can continue to contribute to it.

But as a writer, what’s my biggest takeaway from this?

Obviously I want to write scripts for films that will be embraced by the general public, which means they’d have to be simple enough that anybody could follow along, but also written in a way that the reader/audience doesn’t feel insulted or talked down to.

All this talk about needing to appeal to the lowest common denominator has always bothered me. It makes it sound like there’s no point in trying to write something smart.

I beg to differ.

Getting the reader/audience to really think about the story gets them more involved. You hooked with them with the beginning, kept them intrigued throughout the middle, and now they’re compelled to find out how it all ends. Isn’t that what it all comes down to?

I love it when I read a script where it’s obvious a writer knows what they’re doing when it comes to telling a story. Setups and payoffs. Multi-dimensional characters. Plotlines where I know what the endpoint is, have no idea how we’re going to get there, and am getting a real kick out of taking the journey.

This is the kind of writing we should all strive to create.

It’s easy to write something that doesn’t try to challenge the reader/audience, and the reaction will probably be similar. “Boring.” “Unoriginal.” “Meh.”

Push yourself to write something that offers up something new, or at least a new twist on an old standard. Give us something we haven’t seen before, or totally weren’t expecting. Not just one part. THE WHOLE THING. There’s something exhilarating about venturing into new territory. Take us there.

We’re writers. It’s what we do.

Ask a Guy Who Takes Comedy Very Seriously!

Steve Kaplan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today focuses on writing comedy, so the spotlight is on Steve Kaplan, who runs the Comedy Intensive course.

1. What would you call a good example of some great comedy writing in recent TV or film?

It’s sometimes difficult to separate great comic writing from great comic performances. That being said, I think the best comedy writing on television occurs, day in and day out, on THE DAILY SHOW and THE COLBERT REPORT. Both shows are able to combine sharp satire with great comic characters, and in the case of THE DAILY SHOW, much of the comedy benefits from the relationship between Jon Stewart’s somewhat befuddled and beleaguered news anchor and his crew of inspiringly loony correspondents.

Much has been written about the death of the sitcom, but Network TV still offers the great work from THE SIMPSONS (25 years, and still going strong) and MODERN FAMILY’s writing staff, while cable is a treasure trove of niche delights, from sketch shows like INSIDE AMY SCHUMER to episodics like LOUIE, VEEP, GETTING ON, and EPISODES. I’m also looking forward to the BREAKING BAD prequel, BETTER CALL SAUL.

The comedy feature record is spottier. Big hits like DUMB AND DUMBER TO and THE HANGOVER 3 may have made a lot of money, but for me, my favorite comedy of 2014 was THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL — funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. (As of this writing, I still haven’t seen THE INTERVIEW, but I’m really looking forward to it. The trailer made me laugh out loud, it provoked North Korea into a mammoth cyber-attack on Sony—what’s not to like?)

Film comedies I’ve enjoyed from the past few years include SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE, MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO ITALY, THIS IS THE END, NEBRASKA, WARM BODIES, THE WAY WAY BACK, TED —exactly the way I like my comedies. Some were silly and looney, but looking over the list, most were funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. What can I say. You might like vanilla; I like chocolate. In the end, it’s subjective.

2. What’s your comedy background?

As a kid, I was awkward and kind of odd—I was drawn to comedy because I noted that in comedy movies, the funny guys were awkward and kind of odd, but sometimes got the girl! That was good enough for me!

In college, I studied acting and directing. After college, I was given an opportunity to start an Off-Off Broadway theatre. I convinced my two partners that we should start a theatre that was completely devoted to comedy. Manhattan Punch Line helped launch the careers of actors like Nathan Lane and Oliver Platt, and writers like Michael Patrick King, Peter Tolan and David Crane. While at the Punch Line, I taught classes and worked with and directed sketch groups. I began to wonder why something that was incredibly funny on Thursday night would get no laughs on Sunday. Why sometimes the funniest performance of a play was at its very first table read? What was going on here? That’s when I started seriously exploring the art and the science—some would even call it the physics—of comedy.

At the time, I was teaching an improv class. Without telling the actors, I started experimenting with them—devising improv games to get at the core of comedy: how it works, why it works, what’s going on when it stops working, and what the hell can you do about it?

These experiments led to the discovery of a series of techniques, which in turn led to a forty-week Master Class in comedy. When I moved to LA, I it was suggested to me that I gear my course to writers. “You could be the Robert McKee of comedy!” was how Derek Christopher (who produces the annual Story Expo in LA) put it. That led to teaching comedy around the globe, and working with companies like DreamWorks Animation, Disney Animation, Screen Australia and Film Victoria, working as a consultant with writers and producers, publishing my book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, and ultimately, being interviewed by you.

3. Who are some of your comedic inspirations/role models? What is it about them in particular that appeals to you?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’m a fan of great comedy, and the list of great comedy writers performers and creators could go on and on. There are parts of careers that inspired me—early to mid Woody Allen, late George Carlin, some Mel Brooks, Bob Hope in the ROAD movies, Steve Martin in ROXANNE and L.A. STORY and BOWFINGER, Monty Python, FAWLTY TOWERS, THE MARY TYLER MOORES SHOW, SEINFELD, Lily Tomlin, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Louie C.K., Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Tom Lehrer (okay, and Allan Sherman), George Burns, Bill Irwin, Judd Apatow, BROADCAST NEWS and AS GOOD AS IT GETS. I’m sure I’m leaving out twenty that after this is posted, I’ll hit myself on the forehead, shouting, “How could I forget _________?!!?”

What they all have in common, in some fashion, is an immediacy, honesty (in some cases, a ferocious honesty), an ability to see a slightly off-centered view of the world, and then share it so we see it as well. They all made me laugh, and most had the ability to touch the heart, to make you care and still be funny!

4. Do you think someone can be taught to be funny, or is it something that just comes naturally?

Groucho Marx once said “you can’t teach funny.” But the Marx Brothers were a terrible, just terrible, act when their mother Minnie first pushed them out on stage. But working eight shows a day in vaudeville, picking up hints and tips from the other performers, they honed their act into one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. But it wasn’t ‘natural’; it was through apprenticeship, observation, and yes, being taught by other performers.

While you can’t teach someone to be more talented, you can teach someone to act and write to the best of their ability.  And just like you can teach drama, you can certainly teach comedy. Yes, comedy can be taught.

5. What would you recommend for a writer who wants to develop or sharpen their comedy-writing skills?

What can writers do to sharpen their skills? Hang around with other funny people.

There are two great ways to do that. One would be to join an improv group or take improv classes. Since much of comedy is character-based, the best way to get inside a character’s head is to be one. Even if you’re not interested in being a performer or stand-up, the comic skills you’ll pick up are invaluable when writing material, whether it’s long form or short form, or just a set-up and punch line.

The second piece of advice would be to form or join a writers’ group. Once you’ve written your material, it’s imperative to hear the material read out loud in front of even a small group of friends and colleagues. It’s basic to comedy: the interaction between script/performer and audience. You’ve got to hear how those golden pearls play when read by humans to humans. You’re not looking for hours of rehearsal and polished performances, but just an intelligent read can tell you what’s alive and kicking in your script, and what’s dead as a doornail, only you don’t know it yet. So, in a nutshell: Funny people get funnier when in the company of other funny people.

6. Are there any comedy cliches you consider overused? Which ones are you just tired of seeing?

I’ve really tried to think of some that I hope never to see again, but I kept coming up with exceptions to the rule. Spit-takes are overdone, yet I still laugh when Desi or Danny does one. Getting kicked in the balls is another, yet there’s a beat in MONSTERS, INC. when Billy Crystal’s one-eyed character lands hard on his privates, and I’m sorry, it’s only a cartoon, but it’s funny. At least I thought so. I guess the difference is a meme or bit done by rote, and one enhanced by a great character or performance.

The things I am tired of seeing are scripts overloaded with weak, puerile jokes; scripts in which every character is a wise-cracker or failed stand-up comedian.

7. What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever read or heard from a non-professional ?

Hmmm. . . my six-year old niece once asked me, “Did you hear about the peanut walking alone in the park at night? It was a salted.” I thought that was pretty funny.

8. How can people contact you to find out more about your services?

My website is www.KaplanComedy.com, and my email address is Steve@KaplanComedy.com. In addition, you can follow me on Twitter at @skcomedy or on Facebook at Facebook.com/KaplanComedy. In addition to presenting one and two day workshops in the US and abroad, I’m also available for script consultations, whether on full-feature scripts, pilots, webisodes or treatments.

9. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Man, that’s a tough question. I love Boston Cream Pie and apple pie a la mode, but if I’m on a desert island, and can only have one slice, I’ll go with pumpkin pie—ice cream on the side!