Rather than looking at movies in terms of "two thumbs up" or "two thumbs down" Award Winning Screenwriter Jacob Krueger discusses what you can learn from them as a screenwriter. He looks at good movies, bad movies, movies we love, and movies we hate, exploring how they were built, and how you can apply those lessons to your own writing. More information and full archives at WriteYourScreenplay.com
The Little Things: How to Write a Trick Ending
The Little Things: How to Write a Trick Ending
This week, we’re going to be talking about The Little Things by John Lee Hancock, as well as some other films with the greatest trick endings of all time, like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and Se7en. Specifically, we’re going to be answering the question: how do you write a trick ending in your screenplay?
If you haven’t seen The Little Things yet, don’t worry, I am going to talk about the plot, but I will not give away the big surprise until the very end. And I promise I’ll warn you before we get there.
And if you have seen the movie, then you and I probably can agree that it has (what should be) a really fun trick ending, the kind of trick ending that we all look for, that wonderful moment that seems connected to character, that has emotional stakes to it, that surprises the audience, that’s even is a riff on the title of the script.
It’s a nice little moment, or at least it should be.
But somehow, you probably found that the trick ending in The Little Things left you just a little bit cold. It just doesn’t totally land. In your head, (if you didn’t see it coming), you might still think, “oh, that’s interesting, that’s a cool trick ending.” But in your heart, you don’t really feel the trick ending.
That happens for a very simple reason.
So in looking at The Little Things we’re going to talk about exactly why the trick ending doesn’t work to its full potential, and how to write a trick ending for your screenplay that works both intellectually and emotionally.
Often, when your trick ending isn’t landing, or for that matter, when any element of your script isn’t landing, you rush back to rewrite, and you start to get focused on all the little details that aren’t working.
And, of course, we could talk about all the little details of The Little Things. We could talk about the kind of clunky exposition at the beginning where we’re told again, and again, and again, and again about Denzel’s nervous breakdown and what a messed up cop he was before he lost his job and ended up at this crappy little out-of-town precinct.
We could talk about the good things about this script. We could talk about the wonderful performance of Jared Leto’s character, and the nice little twist on the serial killer that we see with him. We could talk about the cool 90’s throwback stuff and the old technology of solving a crime. We could talk about the pacing of the script.
These are exactly the kinds of things that we often get obsessed with when we rewrite, especially when something big isn’t working in our script. All those little details. “Oh, no, I messed up this little line of dialogue…”
But what I want to tell you is that these are the little things. They’re not the big ones.
And as screenwriters, as much as we care about the details, we actually have to make sure we take care of the big things before we take care of the little ones. (Even if we’re writing a script called The Little Things).
The reason the trick ending of The Little Things isn’t landing has absolutely nothing to do with all the little clunky execution issues in the script.
The truth is, the script could survive those clunky issues, even though I wish the writer had cleaned them up. The real reason the ending doesn’t land comes down to what almost always gets in the way of trick endings: it’s all about the characters.
The first key in writing a trick ending that works is making sure that the trick ending isn’t just happening for the audience. It’s also happening for the characters.
And that’s especially important if you’re writing a two-hander like The Little Things.
By two-hander I mean, there are really two characters in The Little Things. Sure,
How To Be a Dope Ass Motherf#&ker: Writing for Hire Tips with Steven Bagatourian
How To Be a Dope Ass Motherf#&ker: Writing for Hire Tips with Steven Bagatourian
Jake: My guest today is Steven Bagatourian. Steven is an award winning writer. He wrote All Eyez On Me, the Tupac movie. He’s done huge budget features. He’s done tiny little independent films. He’s done everything in between. He’s also a tremendous mentor here at the studio, working with some of our top writers in our Protrack Mentorship Program and our Workshop Program. And so thank you, Steven, I’m so glad to have you on the program today.
Steve: Thank you so much, Jake, for having me. It is a pleasure to be here.
Jake: I’d like to start off by talking to you about work-for-hire projects. Because so much paid work comes out of the work-for-hire world. You’ve worked on projects that originated with you, and you’ve also worked on projects that are not original, that have come from producers. And I’m curious, how do you find that passion and voice when you’re working on a project that didn’t start with you? And how do you bring that when you’re working on an assignment?
Steve: That’s a terrific question. And it’s something I think that a lot of screenwriters don’t really give enough thought to when they get into screenwriting. Because so much of learning to write screenplays is so focused on (especially on the feature side) spec scripts and original scripts, but then you find yourself in the business and all of a sudden you’re in bizarro world. It’s a complete reversal of what you’ve been doing the whole time you’ve been like learning to write!
The dirty little secret of screenwriting is that over 95% of the work you’re going to get as a professional is going to be on assignment. And so it’s a very specific skill set, to speak to your question directly, it’s a very specific thing to learn how to bring your passion and your voice to an idea that you didn’t originate, that might be dealing with a subject matter you have no particular interest in.
And I know, for me, it was one of the biggest struggles in my career, because it was terrifying. And it’s very much on the job training. You’re hired by a studio, they say, “we’re making a movie about a wacky person who is a dentist, and he’s got some problems with his family,” and certainly you’re passionate about dentistry! Like, oh, who’s not? And you’ve got six weeks to deliver a draft, go!
And on some of my early jobs, it was really scary to me, because there’s a legitimate reason to be afraid at that point. If you mess up, then it’s going to be difficult to continue to work in that space.
So, at the beginning, I tried way too hard to follow instructions and meet the brief that I was given by the studio executives, and I naively thought that they wanted you just to listen to them as a screenwriter. And I quickly found out, that is actually not what they really want.
They want you to hear their notes and hear the spirit of their notes, but then they want you to do something creative and original and address the heart of the note, without literally just becoming a dictation machine for their idle musings and the things that they happen to just throw out in a notes meeting.
They understand that you might have a better idea, that you hopefully will have a better idea, but you’ve got to figure out how to make it your own.
And so, my first couple of assignment jobs, I was miserable with the drafts that I turned in. And at the end of the day, when the assignment was done, I was left with nothing, because the studio decides, “hey,
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: The Art of Adaptation
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: The Art of Adaptation
This week, we’re going to be looking at Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson, adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
I’m so excited to talk about this script, not just because it’s a great movie, but because it’s one of the great plays of all time. So that means, this episode, we get to talk about the link between playwriting and screenwriting, the similarities and the differences.
And more importantly, it means we can talk about the art of adaptation.
If you’re a screenwriter or TV writer, at some point in your career, you’re going to do an adaptation, which means, just like the writer of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you need the skills to know how to adapt a play, novel, memoir, short story, true story…heck even a board game into a movie or TV show.
If you look at what’s happening in the industry right now, most of the work-for-hire projects are based on something called IP, intellectual property. We’re taking this thing that is not yet a movie, and we’re translating it into something that is a movie or TV show.
I want you to focus on that word translation. An adaptation is not a copying of the plot. An adaptation is a translation of something that was written in one language into a different language.
And the art of adaptation is challenging, because as screenwriters, as writers we want to honor the work of the artists that we are adapting.
Even if you’re doing something crazy, like adapting an amusement park ride like Pirates of the Caribbean, you want to honor what’s great about that ride. If you’re adapting The Lego Movie, you want to honor what’s great about Legos. And if you’re adapting a play, you want to honor what’s great about the play.
And honoring what’s great about the play, or the movie, or the video game, or the book, or the memoir, or the torn from the headline story, or your personal life story, or the dream you had last night… or even adapting the rough draft of your script. When you’re doing this act of adaptation, you’re translating something from one form to another.
And that means that you may not get all the literal details. Because the literal details were created for a different form. But what you’re trying to capture is the intent.
The first question you want to ask yourself whenever you’re working on an adaptation is: do I trust this material?
Do I trust this writer? Do I believe in this material? Do I generally like the project?
And that doesn’t mean is the project good or not? It means does it resonate for you? Does it matter to you? And if it doesn’t all resonate for you, you want to ask yourself, Well, what part of it does? What part of it do I really, really, really connect to?
If you think about The Lego Movie, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, my friends who adapted it, connected to this idea of playing by the rules, and also playing in your own way, right? That was the piece of Legos that connected them in a personal way. How do you express yourself, when “everything is awesome,” and playing within the rules makes everything awesome, but you also want to be a wild artist and do your own thing.
They took that one idea about Legos and they built around it. They decided they trusted the material, found the thing they connected to about it, and built around that.
If you look at The Reader by David Hare, that’s an adaptation of a book that is not very successful in its own right. The book is written by a lawyer and it’s focused on the ins and outs of Nuremberg law. And underneath all the not-so-exciting details is this really complicated story about a little boy, who’s in love with a woman who turns out to be a Nazi. She comes back into his life, later in life,
The Queen's Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit: Writing the Limited Series
Today we’re going to be talking about The Queen’s Gambit by Scott Frank and Alan Scott. This is actually the first time since Chernobyl that we’ve looked at a limited series. So, I want to talk a little bit about limited series, how they work, and also how they’ve changed over the years.
I actually came up in the world of limited series (or miniseries, as we used to call them). Back in those days, when we thought about a project that could become a limited series, we thought about giant, sprawling, epic stories with a tremendous amount of plot– so much plot, so many subplots, so many twists and turns, so many characters, such huge historical scope, that you couldn’t fit it into a movie.
When we thought about miniseries, back in the day, we were looking for stories about topics that people already had a feeling that they knew about, but that maybe they didn’t know the real story. Something really big, because miniseries were expensive and hard to sell and hard to make. The truth is, until very, very recently, we were looking for stories a lot more like Chernobyl than The Queen’s Gambit.
When you look at The Queen’s Gambit, you see that shape, scope and structure when writing a limited series (or miniseries) has completely changed.
The Queen’s Gambit actually started as a novel. It bounced around Hollywood for about 30 years. And the first adaptation as a feature film was written about 10 years ago. And although it was written by the same writer, Alan Scott, who would eventually pen the limited series, they simply could not sell it.
In fact, the response they kept getting when they pitched it was “nobody’s going to be interested in chess! This story is too small.”
It wasn’t until after doing Godless that Scott Frank came up with the idea to reimagine The Queen’s Gambit as a limited series.
And what’s really interesting is that they conceived of it not as one of those traditional, epic, plot driven, historical limited series that had always sold in the past. But instead as a much quieter approach to a limited series, that really allows you to drop into the eyes of a character.
Back in the day when I was coming up in the industry, if you pitched The Queen’s Gambit as a limited series, you would have been laughed out of the room.
There are many things about the structure of The Queen’s Gambit that simply shouldn’t work according to Hollywood convention. And yet today, it’s become the most popular limited series in Netflix’s history.
So, today I’ll be talking about what’s unique and original about the structure of The Queen’s Gambit, and how these filmmakers flew in the face of the traditional Hollywood wisdom to make something that was greater than the sum of its parts.
When you look at the elements of The Queen’s Gambit, they don’t exactly suggest a blockbuster movie, much less a successful limited series.
It’s about chess, which unlike football, or baseball, or any of the other typical sports about which movies get made, is a sport that nobody knows anything about!
It’s a sport that you can’t follow unless you’re an expert. Which makes it really hard to cheer for the character like you would in a football movie. You don’t even know where the end zone is! Unless you’re Bobby Fisher, you can’t even look at the board on screen and realize “she’s got it! Checkmate!”
The Queen’s Gambit is essentially a sports movie that’s not a sports movie. A movie based around a game where the audience can’t tell if you’re winning.
You also have another really interesting thing going on, which is a character, who, for the most part, doesn’t form relationships.
Keep Your New Year's Writing Resolutions
Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions as a Writer
It’s January 1st, which means, if you are a writer, you probably just made a New Year’s resolution. It also means, if you’re a writer, last year you probably made a New Year’s resolution as well.
And that probably means that you also fell short of whatever New Year’s resolution you made for yourself last year. And maybe even many years before…
Which probably means that you’re already feeling a weird mixture of confidence and doubt, of hope and fear, of confusion and relentlessness. It means that you’re probably already excited to overcome whatever you feel like you missed out on doing last year, and also afraid that history might repeat itself.
Keeping Your 2021 New Year’s resolutions is more about the way you approach goal setting towards your resolutions than it is about the resolutions themselves.
So, on today’s podcast, what I actually want to talk about is goal setting. I want to talk about how to set goals, not to create the change overnight (which we all know doesn’t happen). But how to set goals that actually set you up for success, so that you can create the long term change that we are all looking for in our lives…
This is so valuable, and not just as a screenwriter. This is valuable in literally any endeavor in your life that really matters to you. It’s valuable anytime you’re trying to do something hard that you can’t just do in one sitting, anytime you have a task you can’t just check off of your Asana or your reminder notification, anytime you’re doing something big that requires continuous effort. Often, these big things that require continuous effort, these superobjective kinds-of-things (to speak in screenwriting terms) are actually the things that matter most to us.
Learning to set goals as a writer begins with learning to think a little more like your characters.
One of the ways that we tend to be a little bit different from our characters– and not in a good way– is that our characters in a movie or TV show are really good at relentlessly pursuing these hard things. That’s what makes them so compelling as characters. It’s what makes us fall in love with them. They are going for something they want so badly that they’re making choices every day, every scene, to get them. Choices that are so big, that are so passionate, the kind of choices that we wish that we could make in our lives.
And that’s the reason that when we watch and read these shows, these movies, these plays, these novels, we connect to those characters.
Even when our characters are pursuing goals that we don’t approve of, or agree with, or even if they’re pursuing goals that are completely external from the realities of our lives, there’s a part of us that can’t help but root for those characters.
We root for them because there’s a part of us that feels like “that’s me up there, or at least a part of me… the part of me I wish I could be… the part of me that wishes I could go for the things that I want with the kind of passion that these characters go for them.”
The truth is, your characters are actually no different from you. They’re just distilled versions of you. Versions that are very good at intensely pursuing their goals.
If you think about your lifetime, you’ve actually accomplished huge and incredible and challenging things. And the pursuit of those things, sometimes over years and years and years has changed who you are as a person and revealed who you really intend to be, not just to other people but also to yourself.
The process of overcoming obstacles in pursuit of something that really matters to you doesn’t just reveal who you want to be on the outside, it actually reveals who you really are on the inside.
Pitch Festivus: Pitching Tips from Jake & the Faculty
Pitch Festivus: Pitching Tips from Jake & the Faculty
This episode features a transcript from our recent Pitch Festivus event, in which faculty members from JKS shared their insights into how to pitch screenplays, TV shows, plays, novels and other writing projects.
Jake: Hello everybody! I am so happy and delighted to be surrounded by so many wonderful writers from our community. We have almost all of our faculty here, and it is just great that in these crazy times we can all still be together connecting and creating.
Let’s talk about pitching. In a moment, I am going to introduce you to my whole team, and we are going to learn how to pitch from all these talented writers.
Audrey Sussman – Specialty: Writers Block, Hypnosis for Writers
The first person that I want to introduce– we are going to go in alphabetical order, but this works out perfectly–the first person that I want to introduce is my mom, Audrey Sussman. Audrey is not a screenwriter, Audrey is a hypnotherapist.
Audrey does hypnosis for artists, she does hypnosis for anxiety, and the way that she works in our school is helping our students through the emotional side of screenwriting and through those roadblocks that get in the way. She is also a master of NLP, which is an incredibly valuable sales technique in addition to being an incredibly powerful therapeutic technique.
And so, Audrey, mom, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how hypnosis works and how people can break through those blocks that they have about pitching when they feel anxious about it?
Audrey: When you are pitching or when you are writing and you feel like “agh!” anxiety gets in the way of you being at your best. Your creativity gets kind of stifled because you are anxious. Those are called triggers that are set into the unconscious. And you may not realize where they are coming from. Many times, they come from childhood.
So, what we can do hypnotically is release some of that trauma (almost like from the cellular level) or whatever caused those triggers to get set in, and you create a new pathway so that when you go to pitch you step into calm and confidence, and you are at your best.
I work with some of the students privately, and one of the guys had a big movie that had already come out and when he came to me he was anxious because he was thinking, “How am I going to recreate this? How am I going to do this again? They are paying me all this money!” He was creating some negative self-talk and self-doubt. We found out it was coming from earlier in his life, got rid of it, and then he flowed with his writing.
So, any time you are feeling that you are getting stuck, there is usually a little younger you inside that is triggering you. So, you can use hypnosis and neurolinguistics in pitching. If you know how to use words and matching body language, many times it helps the person you are pitching to feel like you are like them. And so, there is a whole slew of information about how to use body language, words, to make your pitch even that much more powerful.
Jake: Will you teach us all a quick NLP matching thing that we can all do right now that we can use next time we are in a pitch meeting?
Audrey: Absolutely. I was working with this guy and he was trying to get a grant, and he did not get it the first time and he begged the person, “Can I just pitch you one more time?” And I did not have time to teach him words and neurolinguistics and hypnosis, I said, “Okay all I want you to do is match the body language, whatever that person does I want you to match it.”
So when the guy shouted, “You are…” (SLAMS HAND ON TABLE), “….not going to get this,” the guy mirrored him, (also slamming his hand on the table) “I absolutely understand what you are saying and one of the reasons why I feel this is so impo...
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Truly, a teaching tool
Many screenwriting podcasts are little more than discussions on cinematic nostalgia. This podcast on the other hand is much more like an instructional lecture. Great job guys! Keep it up!
This dude stinks, he’s boring to listen to.
Like taking a writing class...
I’m always amazed at the patience and reflective they use to address what makes / breaks / and takes to write a well crafted screenplay. Thanks for letting me in sitting in on these classes...