Last week’s blog from screenwriter/director Gaz Alazraki generated a lot of interest in hearing more about the process of creating a box office record-setting feature film, especially one that so consciously employed STC! principles. Master Cat! Tom Reed sat down with Gaz to examine his methodology. We hope you find the depth and insight of his answers as inspiring as we did.
TR: Congratulations on the amazing success of Nosotros Los Nobles. And thanks for agreeing to do this. So let’s get started. At what point in the process of creating this project did you first employ STC! teachings? Was it at the premise level? That is, were you thinking of Blake when you first came up with the idea? Or was it at the stage where you were defining the genre/s? Or was it when you started beating out the story?
GA: This was my eighth script. I kept aiming for less ambitious stories as I threw away script after script. No matter how much simpler I tried to write, and how many screenwriting books I read, I kept getting lost….Keep in mind that I even attended McKee’s seminar three times. I paid Linda Seger for an analysis of a script… and yet after 10 years of trying to write one good script, I kept failing.
I showed an old Mexican movie to a Warner Bros exec, saying that it could be a great remake. He offered to pay for the rights and my salary as a screenwriter (he knew me from film festivals where he had seen my short films screened). It was The Great Madcap by Luis Buñuel. So I figured “Perfect! The movie is already made….The first half doesn’t work, so I have to restructure it in order to rearrange the premise, and we should be shooting by the end of the year. This time, structure should not be a problem.”
I finished the first draft in three months. All the partners loved it. The WB exec approved it… just asked me to tweak a few details, but we should be getting the money in no time! So I went to prepare for a casting strategy with Judith Weston in LA. She read the script and asked me “Have you thought about hiring professional screenwriters?”
I was devastated. I went back to the bookstore and decided to buy more books. I bought Save the Cat! and Your Screenplay Sucks. And as I was flying back to Mexico, I read on Your Screenplay Sucks that they compared Save the Cat! on par with McKee… so I opened STC… and couldn’t put it down! Everything I could never decipher about structure was neatly drawn out in those 15 beats… the logline structure… the genre… the 40 scenes….I had finally found the handbook for creating a Hollywood movie in Spanish!
Now… I had to put it all in practice…
TR: I know exactly what you mean. There’s a lot of great insight out there regarding how to write a screenplay — McKee, Truby, Seger, Vogler, Hauge, et al — much of it saying the same thing in different terms, different languages. Did Blake’s language resonate with you more clearly than the others? Any parts in particular, or just the whole package?
GA: The difference between Blake and all other gurus is that Blake outlines a PROCESS, and he then backs it up with explanations and examples.
The 15 beats were the first thing that broke down a Berlin Wall in my mind. I was able to learn screenwriting by re-viewing all my favorite films, with a display counter running.
I mourned all the years spent on trying to decipher structure–when someone had it down so simply–and kept watching in awe, the simplicity with which the 15 beats landed on every spot.
I later began to spot the beats without even having a counter running. And THEN I began to notice a correlation between movies that executed the 15 beats properly and their Tomatometer ratings and Box Office. The formulaic ones had bad ratings, but a decent Box Office. And the ones that built true emotion on an original premise and solid 15 beats, kept doing well on ratings and many on Box Office AND Ratings.
Then my brother and I began texting each other with quizzes on the genre of our favorite films… which is the 2nd MOST important breakthrough I had with Save the Cat!:
Blake’s study on Genre originated from Literary Genres–which later on manifested themselves on film–(while Voytilla and Vogler did the same study on genre films–based on the Blockbuster breakdown of genre–which only confused me more than ever). So as we began to hone our eye for the 15 beats and the Genre breakdown, my understanding of film kept growing and evolving.
TR: Your process is remarkably conscious and thorough. I think that level of thoroughness–and immersion–is essential in finally understanding the power of these tools. At what time in the process of writing the screenplay did you identify the genre for yourself (in STC! terms) and did your script become a conscious genre hybrid? In my own study of films using STC! methods I’ve found that most films have a primary and secondary genre, and sometimes trace elements of a third (or even a fourth). But it’s one thing to identify these elements after-the-fact, and quite another to make these conscious decisions and/or discoveries up front. How was if for you on this project?
GA: My first guess was that I was making a Fool Out of Water film, but I was struggling with hitting all the conventions that Blake outlined for the genre. It was only until my 16th out of 18 drafts that I realized that I was missing the genre for the B Story, which was the Right of Passage the family had to overcome. It was the death of the mother, who had the father stuck in time (Stasis=Death).
But even during the shooting phase, this wasn’t all too clear. Even now, I wouldn’t dare to pin down the genres on concrete. I always tried to use “The Melody” of the genre more than the “Rules” of the genre, because I wanted to stay more true to the characters than the convention of the genre, and I was afraid of losing freshness by sticking religiously to the rules… which led me to have 30 minutes of extra footage that never made it to the screen (the consequence of lacking rigour in the script phase).
TR: I think that’s an excellent example of having a plan but staying flexible, especially when it comes to keeping characterization organic and true. But now that the film is done would you say it’s a Fool Triumphant/Rite of Passage (Death Passage) hybrid, or something else?
GA: Yes. I would say it’s a hybrid of a Fool Triumphant/Rite of Passage….But I would love to see what people find in the Chat Forum, where they guess the genre… I’m thinking there might be more to analyze–but I never did. I wanted to get out of my head and into the story.
TR: There’s always more to analyze so I hope it gets a lot of attention along those lines. But you provide the perfect segue–”into the story.” Did you outline the script according to the 15 beats? Did you keep going back to the 15 beats as you refined the script? Did you go deeper into any particular beat than you thought you would have at the outset? Was there any one part of the BS2 that was especially illuminating to you while you found your way through the story?
GA: Yes!!! Oh god, yes!!! When I discovered the 15 beats I was like “Finally! So easy!”… I dived into them! But then I began to struggle and then I got confused about the story. And then I wrote myself into an ending that made no sense….And Warner Bros wasn’t happy…
So I began beating out my cousins (It Happened One Night, Coming to America, Trading Places, Overboard, The Royal Tenenbaums, Swept Away ), and began to understand the nuances and different spins that other writers had on the same beats….And I began to understand the variety of meanings behind Bad Guys Closing In… and the Mythical Midpoint….And yet, I was never sure how to structure all of this, cause even though the story was about a Wealthy Father who stages the bankruptcy of his company in order to teach his lazy children how to work, the father didn’t do anything during the 2nd act! He had no true action. He only fixed up the house, facing no real enemy! So… maybe I should structure the beats around the daughter, who has the love triangle? Or should I change the logline, because it isn’t about a wealthy father and his lazy children, since his enemy is the lazy son-in-law-to-be, who wants to blackmail him in exchange of his daughter’s hand and inheritance?….But that’s NOT the Fun n Games!!!! And the B Story is supposed to come in during minute 30, but the “Object of Affection” doesn’t show up until minute 43!!! So Who the hell is my B Story????
So I kept experimenting with the Logline, guessing which character was B Story, A Story, ’cause there were all these characters in the movie….So I never knew if I was right or not, but I came to the following conclusion:
A Story: The Wealthy Father has to stop his spoiled daughter from marrying a lazy gigoló. (The Love Triangle fits in this story.) B Story: The Wealthy Father has to teach his spoiled children a lesson.
I decided to split the children into A Story and B Story… so that way, it made sense when Break into 2 happened, and when the B Story began, and when they met during the Midpoint and the All Is Lost scene, and the Break into 3. It took me 15 drafts to get this right! And yet… I still wasn’t sure what or when was my Debate, or why the All Is Lost happened on page 85 instead of 75… but it worked on Overboard… so I stuck with that structure.
HOWEVER… I botched it with the scenes… Blake wanted around 40. I had 52. Every character needed their arc, their weight in the story… One father, 3 children, one business partner, one gigoló… There was no way to cut them down!…
Until I hit the editing room and lived through the horror of how long and slow the movie felt!!! 135 minutes!!! With trimmed scenes!!!
It was only then and there that I dared to cut out all the scenes that I didn’t want to take out in the script, and only then and there that I finished understanding why the beats were set in those minutes….And only then and there, where the theme stated landed on minute 6 instead of page 12. It was only then and there that the movie came together. It was ALSO then and there that I understood the gravity of the lack of discipline in the script. I wasted 6 days of shooting that never made it to the screen… 6 days that would have made my shoot a much easier shoot, if I would’ve spread out the scenes that I actually needed on the days I had money for shooting. And in the end, on the screen I had 43 scenes…
TR: Gaz, this is an inspired answer, and I know it’s going to be incredibly instructive to anyone who reads the blog. It’s a testament to the quality and reliability of the system, even though everyone has to wrestle their way through the particulars of every story, as you clearly did. Now that the film is done, are you happy with the result? And is there anything you’ll do differently on your next project that has a bearing on STC?
GA: Well… the movie is being hailed as the reconciliation of Mexican Cinema with the Mexican Audience. We are breaking every record ever set by every Mexican filmmaker I ever admired. Kids are dressing up like my characters for costume parties… T-Shirts with catch-phrases from the movie are beginning to emerge on the twittersphere. Everyone thanks us for finally making a movie that portrays Mexico in a positive light. That’s all you see on #NosotrosLosNobles… people claiming to love the movie. A huge interaction with our Facebook site, from all our fans….Not bad for my first movie.
However, I feel like I never figured out the story arc for the younger brother. I feel like I sped through the ending. I would’ve liked to take out the scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, in a previous draft, and maybe just take two more pokes at a couple of rewrites to polish these things about the younger brother and a sharper ending. I mean, the ending is basically a videoclip with voice over. It was always written that way. But… you know… you’re always finding things…
TR: Gaz, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. You have my deepest congratulations. And thank you for participating in this interview. You’ve made the STC! method feel immediate, relatable, and profoundly relevant–like any of us can do it if we just keep at it. I hope many more of us join your club of success. And may your film continue to break records. Go Team STC!