Our thanks to Master Cat! Geoff Harris for this breakdown of the intoxicating 8-minute film that’s piling up well-deserved awards, including Best Short, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress from the 2013 London International Film Festival. And be sure to note the link and password that will allow you to screen the film at the bottom of this blog!
I had to see the short film, Love Scene, for myself. In it, my daughter Caitlin portrays movie star Vivien Leigh. And to look like the actress — best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind — she had to wear green contact lenses, dye her hair black, and speak in a slight British accent.
When I saw the film, I was blown away. (And this isn’t just a proud papa talking.) Caitlin had been transformed into Vivien Leigh, who was taking her screen test in 1935 London. But what surprised me as much as the acting and the look of the film was the writing. It was stellar — playful, tragic, and alluring. Love Scene was a mini-movie in eight minutes. In what was essentially one scene — only seven-and-a-half pages long — there was a three-act structure, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It was if writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf had channeled Blake Snyder and his 15 Story Beats while writing her short film.
On this website, a couple of years ago, I blogged about using the STC! Story Beats — originally conceived for feature film writing — to structure a TV pilot. And, in another blog on this site, I wrote about how a fiction writer could employ those same beats when writing a novel. This got me to thinking: perhaps the Story Beats could also work in a short film.
I watched the short film again and again (hey, it’s only a little more than eight minutes long!) and even read its script several times (hey, it’s only seven-and-a-half pages long!), and my supposition was correct: Love Scene hits STC! Story Beats. From this one example, we could extrapolate that the Beats could be applied to short films in general in order to make their stories resonate.
Wolf made the film to raise interest and backing for the full-length screenplay she wrote that chronicles the 25-year love affair of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and is based on the book Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker.
(Note: Before I break down the short into its Story Beats, it should be mentioned that there was no B Story in this short film [Editor: Some commentators have discovered a B Story; see the Comments below], and the Fun and Games beat occurred much earlier than usual.)
Title: Love Scene
Writer/Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
Logline: In 1935, a relatively unknown actress takes her first screen test in front of a renowned British film director, only to reveal her need for true love with a famous actor who, tragically, is already married.
Genre: Buddy Love
Sub-Genre: Epic Love, Forbidden Love
Opening Image: Through a Camera Lens, a blonde actress twirling for the camera at a screen test comes into focus. A similar image – blurred that comes into focus – is repeated when main character Vivien Leigh is introduced, signifying the blurred line between art and real life.
Set-Up: Vivien states her situation at home: she’s married to a barrister and, together, they have a daughter who just turned three years old.
Theme Stated: Vivien remarks what she needs: true love with the man she’s supposed to be with… famous actor Laurence Olivier.
Catalyst: Director Basil Dean points out that Olivier and Vivien are married to other people.
Debate: Vivien argues that Olivier and she are meant to be together, that it’s (to use an STC! term) a “journey” she should go on.
Break into Two: Vivien’s goal is to be with Olivier.
Fun and Games: Vivien moves out of her Act One world by calling out Basil for drinking during her screen test and she asks for a dry martini.
Midpoint: Vivien argues that she and Olivier should be together because their love is similar to the love of such Shakespeare characters as Hamlet and Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra.
Bad Guys Close In: Basil points out that Vivien has compared her love for Olivier with Shakespeare’s tragedies.
All Is Lost: Basil’s remark has cut Vivien to the quick. She stands in silence for a brief moment.
Dark Night of the Soul: Vivien agrees with Basil that she and Oliver are “…star-crossed lovers ‘til the end of time.” Tears roll down her cheeks.
Break into Three: Basil wonders if Vivien is acting right now or telling the truth.
Finale: Vivien asks Basil which answer will get her the part.
Final Image (not counting the tag under the closing credits): A close-up of Vivien through the Camera Lens – clearly in focus.
You can watch the short film by selecting this link and using the password: elephantwalk.
I wanted to let you know that since STC! was recommended to me some four years ago, I have written 10 screenplays. Blake’s understanding of what makes a good story great as well as his ability to put down in simple language exactly why stories work hit a cord in my brain.
Most importantly, my screenplays have been read by friends, co-workers, and total strangers and they all hold up as being fun, quick, engaging, and… here’s the best part… ORIGINAL. I say this because I’ve heard some criticism of the Cat! as being a “cookie cutter” template to churn out stories while sacrificing originality. I call BS on that.
If you do the work… take the time to apply the basics to your story… look at your big Board and go through hundreds of sticky-notes… YOU will succeed.
I directed one of the screenplays this last summer [Smothered, intentionally cheesy trailer above]. It had a million dollar budget and we shot it in 14 days without going over budget. I take some credit for that but wanted to also thank you guys for helping me to structure stories that can be shot on a budget. The structure offered in STC! also translates to the production schedule. Good stuff.
We are slated to film the second movie in Louisiana in January. Another of mine. This is a dream come true.
Thanks again for opening my eyes to structure that cannot fail. I am a huge STC! fan (not to mention the books that followed… the software… everything)!
Yeah… the actor. The actor who was stuck for 35 years in the realm of bringing other people’s dreams to the screen until I became a Cat! fan
Congrats to Master Cat Geoff Harris, our television script analyst and consultant who recently received an Impact Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition for “Outstanding Service and Commitment to Latino Writers.”
Yay, Geoff!! You’re an inspiring writer and teacher. We’re so proud you’re part of the STC! family.
That’s not to say it’s easy, of course. Writing a story that other people want to pay money for is hard. Getting the word out that your story exists is also tough. But it’s all doable, and from a laptop in a coffee shop. Neat.
To take advantage of all this awesomeness though, you need three things: 1) A way to create compelling stories, 2) A way to distribute stories, 3) A way to market your stories.
Amazon and the Internet in general have #2 and #3 covered pretty well. But where to go for a practical framework for story telling? Save the Cat!, obviously!
It’s a cliche that many people want to write, yet don’t know how to begin. That was definitely my situation a few years ago. After 20 years of software development, I felt burned out and ready for something different. Slowly, I taught myself film directing and from there, got interested in screenwriting. Blake’s book was only one of about fifty I read, but it rose to the top of the bunch because of its usefulness.
Wrestling with a new structure was hard at first, but I was also energized by a strong sense of possibility. I intuitively knew that if I really worked this system, I could end up with something to be proud of.
I began with some half-baked ideas about a sci-fi/alternate history story set in 1910 and starring Nikola Tesla, the brilliant, unsung inventor who created many of the technologies we use today. I wanted to include other famous figures like Thomas Edison and Einstein. A looming war between the US and Britain would serve as the backdrop. And don’t forget a battle tank imbued with a human consciousness.
Without a solid writing plan, it would be easy to get started and then get lost in the forest, unsure of how to keep the story purposefully moving forward. This is where the 15 beats come to the rescue. In some ways, laying out the beats is the hardest part of the process for me. I spent a good three weeks on just that, but it’s so worth the effort to make sure everything clicks. This is the skeleton of the whole story, after all.
Here’s what I ended up with:
Opening Image: Tesla is alone, working late at night.
Theme Stated: Sometimes, fighting is the right option.
Set-Up: Tesla is brilliant, but deep in debt with creditors. War with England is imminent and the Army is having trouble with their new superweapon. Thomas Edison is successful, but takes credit for others’ work. He stiffs Tesla on a promised job, and Tesla finds himself digging ditches to pay rent.
Catalyst: The Army approaches Tesla and asks for his help in putting the terminal Colonel Browning’s consciousness into their Beowulf tank.
Debate: Should he do it? It’s a chance to sidestep the duel with Edison. How does he feel about the Colonel giving up his life for it? Should one man have that much power? A creditor comes over and things get violent.
Break into Two: Tesla moves into the Army lab and begins work on Beowulf. The Colonel dies and Tesla rushes to transfer his consciousness into the machine. President Roosevelt issues an assassination order for Albert Einstein, whose new atomic bombs pose a clear and present danger to the US.
B Story: Tesla meets the Colonel’s daughter Savannah, the lab’s civilian liaison for the war effort. Her daughter Madelaine was fathered by a British officer, but they escaped his cruelty.
Fun & Games: The British land an expeditionary force. Beowulf is sent to intercept them and performs flawlessly. Celebration. Edison is brought into the lab, and he and Tesla fight. The English send zeppelins with radiological bombs which destroy the lab and leave 12-year-old Madelaine near death. Tesla makes a snap decision and transfers her consciousness into Beowulf, killing the Colonel. Adjusting to her new life, Madelaine means well but fights recklessly. She accidentally kills American forces. In England, the assassination team fails to kill Einstein and instead kills the British king.
Midpoint: Tesla’s star rises. Edison is furious. They escape the ruined lab and settle at an Air Force base nearer Boston, where the British are attempting a major assault.
Bad Guys Close In: Edison positions himself as the lab’s new director. Wants to shut down Beowulf as a dangerous abomination and uses Madelaine’s friendly fire incident as justification. British forces tear across the Eastern Seaboard, heading to secure the deep water port at Boston for more reinforcements.
All Is Lost: Edison has Beowulf declared a menace. The new lab is shut down, Tesla and Savannah locked out. Madeline is tricked and put into cold shutdown, unable to defend herself.
Dark Night of the Soul: Tesla drinks alone. Savannah finds him and chastises him, explaining why she found him digging ditches.
Break into Three: Tesla realizes he needs Savannah. He can’t continue to roll over and move on to the next invention. Time for a stand. They decide to break in to the base and set Madeline free.
Gather Team – Tesla and his allies infiltrate the base and reactivate Madelaine.
Plan Begins – Together, they go after the British forces in Boston.
High Tower Surprise – Before they reach Boston, Edison broadcasts a warning that Madelaine is rogue and should be considered a British asset.
Dig Deep – The Americans are losing in Boston. Madelaine takes American fire and is heavily damaged. She continues to Boston and from atop Bunker Hill, shells the English reinforcements in the port. The tide of battle turns and the British commander orders a suicide nuclear strike on Boston, which will kill everyone for miles. Madelaine hears the radio transmission, but the Americans wouldn’t believe her, since they still think she’s been firing on American targets. Her treads have been blasted away and her armor is in shreds, exposing her powerplant.
New Plan – The zeppelin descends through the clouds, readying the radiological bomb. Boston is doomed, but the American’s don’t know it. If she moves, American cannons will finish her off. She chooses self-sacrifice and fires on the zeppelin. Only a quick Sergeant’s order saves her from being destroyed.
Final Image: Months later, Madelaine has been rebuilt, bigger and better. She’s loaded onto a ship bound for England to take the fight to the enemy. Tesla and Savannah have created their own lab and walk away from the docks to continue their work together.
With this plan in mind, I felt so much more confident in getting started. There was still a lot to figure out, but I had guideposts now. Like a slalom skier working his way down the mountain, I had regular milestones to hit. One of my recent reviews on Amazon mentioned that the book was well plotted, which is always nice to hear. That doesn’t happen by accident!
I’m halfway into my second book now and I wouldn’t think of starting a novel without banging out my beats first. If you’ve been on the fence about getting started on a story, the beats are your best friend. Let them help you!
Our thanks to the prolific and talented Albrecht Behmel for today’s warm remembrance. Albrecht started his writing career in 1999 in Berlin. He has published numerous non-fiction works, novels, and award-winning radio plays. He lives in the German Black Forest with his wife, Afraa, and a son. He founded a literary prize, SAMIEL AWARD, for bad guys/antagonists in fiction. Read about the award — and more here: www.behmel.de
I never met Blake in person. I lived in Berlin at the time and didn’t travel to the US at lot. But as a professional writer (novels mainly), I knew about the Cat! Back then, I was researching great titles for novels and films. So I called Blake and we started brainstorming right away — what a great and inspiring experience. I never regretted the outrageously high phone bill later. It was worth every cent.
One thing that I will always remember was this: We talked about the fact that a good title and tagline should always be fun to pronounce, too. A phonetical roller coaster like “The snobs against the slobs!” (of Caddyshack) or a title like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which sounds like the first words of a great beat poem — and maybe they are? A title needs rhythm, like everything else that matters in life.
We stayed in touch. In our last conversation, I still have the message, Blake encouraged me to compose a book about bad guys, movie antagonists (one of my obsessions and blogging subjects), and I started writing. I finished the 950-page manuscript this summer. I am going to dedicate it to Blake.
The 15-Beat Structure works wonders on narrative projects, but can Blake Snyder’s philosophy bring structure and energy to documentary films and non-narrative storytelling?
That’s the question our guest blogger, Lindell Singleton, answers today. Lindell is a writer/director with Dallas, Texas-based Media 13. His film, The Judge and the 8th Wonder, will be released in 2014 along with the feature length documentary The Texas Rangers: A Baseball Love Story, of which he served as producer. Lindell and writing partner King Hollis have recently signed to write the screenplay for the independent film, He Could Have Played Blind — the Pete Maravich Story. As a director, Lindell worked on multiple episodes of the acclaimed docu/reality series Children Med Dallas and has created content in support of such national brands as American Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, Bell Helicopter, Energy Futures Holding, and Sabre/Travelocity. Find him on LinkedIn.
The Catalyst Moment
As the exhausted Dante Alighieri finished The Divine Comedy, Italian women of his city pointed at him and said, “…there goes the ghost from the land of ghosts.” My recent film production journey had reminded me of Dante’s voyage. The film I was working on had left myself and the team broken and battered. We wrapped at 2:00 p.m. on Friday knowing that come Monday, we would begin prep for the next. But that very weekend I met a grand lady and fell in love.
Her name was Astrodome and she would tantalize all of us to begin the quest to make a movie about her.
Of course, I was not the first man mesmerized by the ‘dome. Before she was conceived, she lived in the heart and mind of her visionary creator, Judge Roy Hofheinz. Oh, I knew who the Astrodome was. Her reputation was vast. I was nine years old during the winter of 1968 when Coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins traveled to the ‘dome to play University of Houston in the greatest basketball game ever played—and afterward, I recall many nights with a nine-volt radio listening to baseball from the ‘dome, perfectly called by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett.
Yes, I knew the lady existed. But back then, I didn’t know the story of her conception and creation… what she meant to the people of Houston…. how she’d shaped them and the grand part she played in Houston’s growth.
The Astrodome… “she” is/was… not merely a building. She is the American Eiffel Tower, the American Roman Sports Coliseum, the Texas Taj Mahal. She rose from the swamplands of Bayou City—victorious and singular. Now, there are at least 40 domed stadiums around the world. She was the first.
To prepare for the film, I read everything from doctoral dissertations to soil sample reports (the Astrodome extends 43 feet underground) to detailed analyses on ‘‘how to deal with indoor tobacco smoke.” (Stunning mathematical computations were required to figure that one out.)
So, What Is This Movie About?
The Astrodome was conceived as a place to play America’s pastime indoors—in a city built on a swamp, feted by mosquitoes.
The world has changed tremendously since the Astrodome was built. Things have gotten smaller. She was large. At that moment in time, building an indoor sports arena such as the Astrodome was on the same level of a manned mission to NGC 4144 in Coma Berenices.
Were there 10 people outside of Houston who believed it could be built? I doubt it. And, half of Houston’s voters didn’t want to fund it.
An indoor stadium brought heightened social implications. This was the United States of America… Southern portion, circa 1960s. Blacks and Whites didn’t perch side-by-side at sporting events listening to the national anthem while ordering peanuts and popcorn and giving one another fist bumps and high fives. The color lines were bright and clear.
How did one deal with that aspect? A truth more ironically exacerbated because the bond package, which provided funding to build the ‘dome, passed only because Houston’s black population turned out to vote. Had African Americans stayed home, the Harris County Domed Stadium would have never risen from the swampland—there’d be no Astros baseball and the NCAA Final Four would still be played in simple arenas.
Was this movie the story of Judge Hofheinz, the charismatic visionary leader who first dared to dream of the Astrodome—who willed her into being through the sheer force of imagination, money, and bravado? Or was the movie a story of innovation and engineering? Or was it a social story—after all, Houston, the largest city in the South, achieved racial integration with comparatively minor acrimony. Newark, Detroit, and Milwaukee had riots and all those places were far north of the Mason/Dixon line. The Astrodome played an essential role in the peaceful integration of Houston.
What story were we telling? Was it biographical, genealogical, political, philosophical, historical?
Orson Welles said: A film is made three times. First, in the mind of the writer; second, on the set by the director; and lastly in the editing room.
Documentary film directors begin work with a keen sense of curiosity and a compressed sixth sense; one might call it a desire de omni re scibili et quibusdam aliis (about every knowable thing, and even certain other things).
But as interviews are filmed and the atmosphere saturates with the world of those who lived the story, the background undergoes minute adjustments while the foreground shifts, rattles, and quakes. If you’ve done your homework, the DNA of the story remains intact but reveals hidden strands leading to new pathways of exploration.
Such was my dilemma with the ‘dome. Clearly, without the vision of Hofheinz, there’d be no Astrodome. This was always the centerpiece, but as we uncovered the financial/socio-political aspects of the ‘dome’s birth, the tale expanded outward to reveal many geniuses.
Time is an ever-present tyrant for directors. Our team shot 43 hours of footage on the Astrodome with a view towards a finished film with a running time of 70 minutes. With that much footage, the movie could have gone down 10 different paths. A notable dilemma.
Enter Save the Cat!
I have written nine screenplays—most, I might add, unproduced—and more teleplays that I can remember. I have written Law & Order: SVU, The X-Files, and Star Trek scripts to practice the craft. I never thought I could sell them, but I figured if I wrote enough, I could eventually master the genre and see my work on screen.
And then I read Save the Cat! from cover to cover. Intuitively, I knew this was different. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d lay all my favorite films over Mr. Snyder’s 15 beats—and true to form, the resplendent, inherent structure was laid open like the map to the Grail.
I love Casablanca, so I began there. Is the catalyst moment when Ingrid Bergman strolls into Rick’s Cafe wearing the most impossibly elegant white suit in the history of womanhood? Was the midpoint of the film when Victor humiliated German senior officers by leading the cafe’s patronage in La Marseilles? What about the opening images and the extraordinary run-up to the final image? The first time we see Captain Renault and Major Strausser, the Major triumphantly struts into Casablanca airport riding atop German superiority. Renault is obsequious, toadyish—but, during the final few scenes, as the bleeding and beaten Strausser slumps to the floor, felled with lead from an American bullet, the recalcitrant Renault declares: “Major Strausser has been shot… round up the usual suspects.”
Save the Cat! had me thinking differently about story.
Story Rises From Structure
Mr. Snyder was onto something.
His passionate instruction about being a “slave to the logline” resonated and gave me comfort. A lot of my work has been as a commercial director, so I’ve learned to get clarity about what I call “The Unifying Aesthetic” of any creative endeavor. Accepting Mr. Snyder’s “slave to the logline” principle penetrated my mind, providing a Sparta-like discipline to the work.
Thoughts clashed. Of course, on my next screenplay, Mr. Snyder’s approach would be ideal, but I was about to enter post-production purgatory on The Judge and the 8th Wonder. Could Mr. Snyder’s beat sheet work for a non-narrative project—a documentary?
Since the universal theme at work was about Story, I believed it possible.
Moviemaking is the ultimate collaborative medium. I was blessed by having two persons on our post-production team of immense talent: Michael Marco, our editor, and Jonathan Singleton, our story producer. Michael and Jonathan watched 2,580 minutes of footage, logging it and making notes along the way. Michael, as an editor, is a director’s dream—prepared, creative, organized, hard-working—and he loves coffee. And Jonathan, as a story producer, knows how to quietly carve away the dull and tedious story elements and leave behind only the fragments of beauty.
But fundamentally, documentary film is a director’s medium. And the responsibility for directing the edit was mine. I spent a week looking at the interviews a second time and then creating the 15 story beats.
I built the entire presentation in Keynote, printing the individual beats. We used blue masking tape and affixed them to the walls of our editing suites.
I made a poster of the logline on a 16 x 20 sheet of paper. We placed it on the wall next to the Avid.
Early on, one of my influential mentors said that the biggest challenge a director faces is “making sure that every department head and every person on the movie and in the movie are making the same movie.” Years later, I can’t say that’s the biggest challenge, but certainly in the top three.
Everyone walked by those 15 story beats and logline again and again, absorbing them as peripheral stimuli. Yes, we were all making the same movie.
And even when Jonathan and Michael kicked me out of the editing room (which sometimes was needed), I rested, knowing the roadmap was there, pointing them toward true North.
The discipline that came from building the structure before we cut a single frame of footage—and, talking to Michael and Jonathan about the shaded nuances of each beat—helped us immeasurably and, we believe, enabled us to make a better picture—one the lady would surely approve of!
I’m still in love with her.
I’m grateful that Mr. Snyder left the world with such a gift. The ample testimony of his work is a beacon from Heaven, guiding storytellers everywhere, to THE END.
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!
Great news from writer/director Gaz Alazraki in this email from late March:
After 8 yrs of trying to write a decent script (and 8 different scripts), I discovered STC! and it changed my life! Blake’s ideas helped me focus my idea and got the writing to a point where I was able to raise a lot of interest from Warner Bros. and Fox in Mexico City. I shot Nosotros Los Nobles and edited it sticking very closely to the STC! principles.
Warner Bros and Fox both bid on the film, which is a comedy about a wealthy father who after realizing how spoiled his children are, decides to stage the bankruptcy and seizure of their properties, tricks them into thinking they’re fugitives, hides them in a poor house and makes them do something none of them had ever done before… Work!
Warner Bros was the winning bidder and began preparing the campaign in November 2012. Just as Sensei Blake wrote: “When the promise of the premise is clear, the Fun and Games will come through the campaign and sell the movie.”
We got great praise for a unique campaign, and out of 11 major critics in Mexico, we got 9 positive reviews, one mixed review, and one negative review—with praise like “The Return of The Comedy to Mexican Cinema,” “The Reconciliation between audiences and Mexican Cinema,” and ‘Finally, a movie that paints our society in a positive light.”
Here’s the tale of the numbers:
(Some context: we have a total of 5,000 screens in Mexico, and we are opening in the middle of Easter Break, which lasts for 2 weeks, fighting it out against Oz, Jack the Giant Killer, The Croods and G.I. Joe.)
The original release strategy was to do a limited release on March 22 (beginning of Easter Break) of 80 copies. We were to warm up the audience with some word of mouth, before our wide release of 320 copies on March 28… today (the day before Good Friday and Easter Week).
But the movie theaters asked us to bump up the number of copies for our pre-release from 80 to 150 copies. Our good scenario was to make $450,000 usd on the limited release weekend, but we made $1 million… the same amount Django made with 300 copies on opening weekend. A big amount of shows were sold out and many people weren’t able to see the film. We were #1 in our average per screen, more than doubling The Croods on its opening weekend.
So WB bumped up the number of copies to 450 screens (about the same amount that Jack Reacher had) for our Opening Weekend. But we made around another $200,000 usd on Monday, around another $200,000 usd on Tuesday, and by Wednesday the movie had made around a total of $1.6 million usd.
So WB decided to open with 650 copies. But with the interlock, we opened in 750 screens. That’s 90% of the country with at least 2 screens per cinema complex… on Easter Week.
Yesterday we opened to a Record Breaking $650,000 usd first day. It looks like by Monday we will be crowned 2nd place in the All-Time Live-Action Mexican Film openings.
And I will never get tired of saying that I owe all of this to….
… Save the Cat!
I even thank Blake Snyder on the credits…. ha!
So… Be proud of spreading the DaVinci Code of Screenwriting Wisdom, gentlemen.
Our guest blogger, Cynthia Ellingsen, started her career as a screenwriter, working with screenwriting partner Natalie Compagno. The two penned Modern Love and Three Card Monte, both optioned by Identity Film. Cynthia went on to write contemporary fiction for Penguin-Berkley. Her novels, Marriage Matters and The Whole Package, are represented for book-to-film by Jon Cassir at CAA.
As a contemporary fiction writer for Penguin-Berkley, I have two novels on the shelf. Marriage Matters, my latest, is the story of a mother, daughter, and grandmother who all get engaged at the same time and decide to share a wedding. CAA is currently shopping the film rights. The Whole Package, the story of three best friends who essentially open a male version of the restaurant Hooters, was released in 2011.
One thing I consistently hear from readers is: “When I read your books, I feel like I’m watching a movie. Do you imagine the movie when you write?”
The answer is a resounding yes, primarily because I plot out the rough draft of my novels using the assistance of Save the Cat!
Save the Cat! is the best title, isn’t it? It conjures up a bright red fire truck screaming towards an emergency and a rugged fireman – perhaps one that forgot to shave– leaping out of the truck and racing towards the scene.
But this scruffy superman is not carrying a ladder to help some kitten trapped in a tree. No, no. He’s waving the Blake Snyder beat sheet at some poor writer completely at odds with story structure.
Story structure is one of the most critical components in writing. When you have a strong story structure, your readers are more likely to trust in the story you’re going to tell. Why? Because story structure, especially of the Hollywood variety, is universally recognizable.
Don’t believe me? Well, I bet you’d recognize this:
A hero who desperately needs a change experiences a catalyst to make this change, but still debates the need to follow through. Eventually, the hero commits to making said change. Cue celebration with a B-story and rollicking fun and games section. At least, until the bad guys close in. Then, the hero loses everything and is forced to face down the dark night of the soul. The hero rises from the ashes, triumphant.
Isn’t that a great story?!
When you work with a set story structure, it’s so much easier to stay on track and figure out what, exactly, to write. Save the Cat! has helped me to revisit the power of story structure again and again. Whenever someone tells me they want to write a book or a screenplay but don’t know how, this is the first book I recommend.
Even though it doesn’t really come with a scruffy fireman.
Now, in the home stretch of a very exhilarating, trying, and humbling experience, I’m proud to be able to say that the film I devoted nearly two years of my life to—Dead Inside (aka The Evil Inside)—is on store shelves in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, has been garnering great press and reviews on such sites as Blogomatic3000, Aint it Cool News, and Nerd Reactor, has won multiple festival awards, and will be playing at 5 more prestigious festivals around the world at the end of this month. With its very hard-won attention and with the marketing skills of our sales agents at Bleiberg Entertainment, the great hope is that Dead Inside will be making a proud showing at the American Film Market next week.
(And then I’ll be able to celebrate as only I know how. Expect the coroner’s report to read: “died from a combination of relief, excessive Pringles consumption, and a lethal amount of video gaming. Witnesses report last words: “Hadouken!”)
But before the film found life and a shiny green light with the generous backing of 8 Silicon Valley Engineers, before we attached an experienced director, crewed up, and rolled camera—Dead Inside looked like this:
That’s right. Dead Inside is a Save the Cat! baby. The plot was beat out in a STC! Beat Sheet workshop in 2011. Its 40 pivotal scenes were mapped on the Save the Cat! software, and a massive amount of emotional support and mental fortitude was furnished by my fellow STC! writing buddies and my dear friend BJ Markel (HI, BJ!).
Here’s the original logline:
Six teenagers are confined to a home in which they encounter their own corpses as premonitions of their impending deaths. Before suspicion causes them to turn murderously against each other, they must decipher whether the visions represent the preventable or the inevitable, or something entirely more sinister.
But after my discerning STC! workshop classmates (lovingly) smacked me on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper for not establishing whose story it was, I gave my protagonist a stronger presence and the story transformed into its current on-screen incarnation, with this summary:
Sarah, a teen with a history of mental illness, has a jarring premonition of her friends’ impending deaths one night at a sleepover. As her houseguests begin to turn murderously against each other, Sarah must determine whether her visions represent the preventable or the inevitable… or something entirely more sinister.
If I’m making it seem like Dead Inside jumped from workshop to computer screen to silver screen in a few magical, lucky leaps, I apologize. It certainly didn’t, and I have the battle scars to prove it. And if you’re a screenwriter who has toyed with the idea of taking the reins in turning one of your scripts into an independent film, I’ve learned a thing or two that I would love to share with you, in case it makes it easier.
::Jennifer prepares to mount her high horse::
::High horse throws her off::
Fine. I’ll just preach from here. Where I’m sitting. In the mud.
But how’s my hair look?
1) Even if your script is for an independent film, make sure it has mass appeal.
My very first screenplay, written with no prior research or schooling, was based on my own experiences as an aspiring novelist in Los Angeles, living among aspiring actresses and models. It was entitled This is L.A, was 230 pages long, semi-autobiographical… and made me look like total a douche. That last detail was something that I didn’t realize immediately, or for a while. It took a rejection from UCLA’s screenwriting program, a director I admired telling me no one would want to watch a four hour-long movie about characters this pathetic (ouch), and finally – Blake Snyder explaining in his workshop that everyone thinks his or her own life story is screen worthy (but is often wrong) – before I finally loosened my deathgrip on the script. The feeling was akin to dropping a baby down a well and walking away.
There were a few screenplays and hundreds of rejections in between, but by the time I penned Dead Inside I made sure it was primal and thus has wide appeal: something Blake stresses. It’s a story about a lonely, bewitchingly pretty girl, trapped in an unsettling place with dangerous people, with murder most foul lurking around every corner.
Now, you can write an artsy, esoteric masterpiece, but good luck trying to keep the eyes of investors, sales agents, or distributors from glazing over after you’ve described your independent film as being “niche.” The “primal” element, I’ve been told, is why horror films generally do so well in the international film market, even without name actors. And with our first two big sales to date for Dead Inside being in the overseas market (thanks to the great folk at Bleiberg), I’m a believer.
2) Consider producing your own work.
This is not an invitation to take the script of yours that everyone hates, and say “Screw them! These people don’t recognize genius when they see it!”, and then to empty out your bank account and call up your unemployed film school buddy for a “great opportunity.” But if everyone (make sure to include impartial parties!) seems to love your script, you’re still looking at about six months to a year after you’ve mailed your query letters before an agent gets around to signing you, and who knows how many months or years after that before it gets bought by a studio. And then it’s anybody’s guess when or if ever it will actually be made into a movie.
So if you have a script in your back pocket that’s relatively low-budget and pretty well-liked, you might owe it to yourself to start putting your efforts into finding a producer or learning how to produce, reaching out to bankable directors or actors to attach to your project, and putting all of this together into a pretty package for investors to look at. Through conversations with more accomplished producers throughout the production of my movie, I was shocked—time and time again—at the caliber of directors and actors (some A-listers!) that could be attached to a project with the promise of just a $15,000 payday if the film was green lit, as long as they believed in the script.
For Dead Inside, though I had set things in motion with a script that our executive producers saw promise in, they only really had the confidence to invest after the script came back to them a second time with their requested story revisions… and a director with a solid track record and a soft commitment from a reputable sales agent attached.
3) And if you are thinking of producing your own independent film, you can get the ball rolling by producing something small first.
Believe me, it makes every stage a lot easier if you have a producing or writing success—even a small one—under your belt, simply for the fact that life is about chain reactions. Dead Inside is my first feature film, true. But a year before the possibility of making a full-blown movie was even a whisper of a kernel of a notion in my mind, I had gotten a group of acting school buddies together to help make a little parody short film called “Street Fighter High” that unexpectedly exploded all over the internet. I followed it up with its sequel, “Street Fighter High: The Musical,” which was just as silly as its predecessor and doubly popular.
For some reason that I’m enormously grateful for, people liked it. In fact, enough people liked it that Hollywood agents and managers started taking notice. And it was through one of these interested managers that I was introduced to Pearry Teo – the talented director who would eventually come to helm Dead Inside. During post production, when our amazing editor Danny Daneau was taking a few weeks to put together an assembly cut based on the director’s notes, I took the down time to write and produce another fan project for the web—“Batman: Death Wish”—which is today the second most viewed dramatic Batman short on YouTube. When it came time to reach out to press to promote Dead Inside, among the first websites to report on my movie were ones that had recently covered “Batman: Death Wish.” Other ways Dead Inside was helped along by the smaller projects I produced for the web: Matthew Mercer—our highest-profile cast member who is currently in the spotlight for voicing the title character in the new Resident Evil game—was someone I met and befriended when he volunteered to make a guest appearance on “Street Fighter High: The Musical.” And some of my most treasured consultants during production, who lent me their expertise and resources on more than one occasion, are my amazing friends at HD Films, whom I only had the fortune of meeting after they approached me to appear in their “Street Fighter” music video. Some of the hardest working crew members on the set of Dead Inside were (surprise!) the great guys and gals who had already worked with me on my web shorts.
So, basically, if you can produce a smaller project before embarking on the more challenging journey of a feature film, please do. You’ll be surprised by the benefits that can and will carry over when you need them. Nothing is for nothing.
That’s all, folks! If you found any of the above helpful or insightful, and if you happen to be in the UK, you would be doing me a great service if you rented or bought a copy of The Evil Inside (which is Dead Inside renamed for the international market) this Halloween. And if anyone out there would be so kind as to let your friendly neighborhood movie distributor know that we’re looking for a domestic buyer to bring Dead Inside to the American masses at AFM next week, there’s some major screenwriter karma points for you!
Until next time, kitties!
::Flies away on a broomstick. IN YOUR FACE, HIGH HORSE!::