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by Susan Royal

  Austin Screenwriting Conference art
Each year the Austin Film Festival hosts the Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference in Austin, Texas. Conceived as a celebration of the contribution of the writer to film and television, the conference consists of four days of panels, workshops and roundtables led by top screenwriters and other industry pros.

This year's conference had some 70 different seminars on two different panel tracks: one designed for new screenwriters and the other for advanced screenwriters. The Craft Room series was geared to the new screenwriter and covered basic elements of screenwriting, while the other panels addressed issues of interest to more experienced writers.

The roundtable devoted to pitching was one of the best-attended of the nine roundtable sessions, wherein eight attendees per table had the opportunity to question a panelist seated with them in an informal, one-on-one style. Panelist Barry Josephson of Sonnenfeld/Josephson (Men in Black) gave the following advice to screenwriters on pitching:

"A good pitch should be composed like a well-written news story. Get all the important information out soon to get me hooked. Front load your pitch with lots of good stuff, even if you hold back on a few twists and turns or an ultimate event to come out later. You've got to intrigue me with your first act. You should introduce me to your character, setting and dilemma really quickly. Don't lose time, just jump in there."

"Convey your story in a unique way. Be spirited in the telling. Listen to some great books on tape and be as passionate and entertaining as the good audio readers are. Infuse it with life like all good storytellers."

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"It may be good to consider you're in a hostile environment when you're pitching, like a stand-up comic is prepared for hecklers. Don't be thrown by some executive's short attention span. Be prepared to answer questions."

REHEARSE YOUR PITCH: "Rehearse your pitch with friends and make sure it's under twenty minutes. But also have a three-minute version for those times you get a chance to pitch in a social setting somewhere.

"Don't describe a character as ╬a Mel Gibson type'. You really let me down as a listener if you can't create the character without referring to a star. You're either very lazy or don't know your character."

Each Craft Room session was devoted to a single basic element, such as structure, character, dialogue, plot, rewriting, etc Although intended for new screenwriters, the fact that Craft Rooms were run by leading screenwriters elevated the discussion of basic elements above Screenwriting 101.

Nick Kazan (Reversal of Fortune, At Close Range, and the upcoming Bicentennial Man) moderated the Craft Room entitled "Character." He offered the following advice:

"You can observe people in real life and start with creating a character, or you begin with the idea for the story first and think of what kind of character would serve that plot. With the first method you start the characters talking to each other and listen as the story starts to emerge. I'm at my best when I'm hearing voices and seeing pictures."

"I like to work in an instinctive way. Say my story calls for my characters to go to the circus. I may have an idea how to get them there, but sometimes the characters take another route there and it's usually better. Of course I can't let them fly off to Switzerland.

"I like to create the lesser characters later when I've got the story pretty much worked out. This way I get to keep playing with the possibilities as I'm writing the screenplay, which keeps me interested during the writing. With the lesser characters I sort of open the door and see who walks in."

"Cliche is your friend. Once you know what to do in a cliched way, take the cliche and stand it on its head. Find the non-obvious way to accomplish the same thing."

"If I have a good idea I might start writing it. But if I have a great idea I don't rush in. I keep it secret and turn it over in my head working it out. If I rush into writing it I may get halfway into it and have plot problems or get tired of the project and leave it. It's a terrible waste to get into the writing of the screenplay and discover there's something wrong with the main character and have to reconceive him and start over. The more you can delay the writing the better it will be. The longer I wait the more problems I've solved, instead of pouring my energy into writing something that isn't structurally sound."

"Instead of writing the screenplay, write notes. I like the freedom of being sloppy at this stage and not having to do great writing. Once you start to put it in screenplay format you are encumbered by it having to be ╬good.' You can't play with it the same way."

"Since it's a moving picture, we have to see who the character is. Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List) is a very visual writer and that may be because he was an editor first. He builds each scene to a point where an action reveals something about the character.

"Reaction can show something about a character, so use that wisely. Don't say, ╬The cat moves away from him.' Say, ╬Spooked by him, the cat moves away.'

"Lots of people who will read your screenplay skip over the action and only read dialogue, so your dialogue better be great, too."

"Great filmmaking is all about mystery. The great characters have some mystery about them. We don't always know exactly what they're thinking or what they're up to. You have to leave some room for the audience to do some thinking on its own, without everything being spelled out. This gives a movie its life and vitality."

"You should write a literary document, not a shooting script. You want the reader to be moved by it and think, 'This movie should be made.' Your script, therefore, should be a blueprint for a movie to get greenlit, not a blueprint for how a movie will be shot."

SCOTT FRANK (Out of Sight, Dead Again, Get Shorty) spoke at the Craft Room on the subject of DIALOGUE. Some of the advice he gave follows:

"A fundamental mistake in writing dialogue is to sit down and try to think of witty things for your character to say. Start with getting to know who the people are and then think of them talking. I spend hours, months, years getting to know characters. Once they take shape and I get a sense of them I can hear them. Otherwise all the characters sound the same. When that happens I know I haven't done my homework. You can't have people talk as if they're just filling a role. Know the characters and find their agendas and conflicts with other characters.

"I don't write full bios for them, because frankly I don't care where they were born. But I do like to think about what they might do when nobody's looking. I think about what they fear or care about and how that might be interesting to the story."

"Should the character get something beyond the girl in a boy-gets-girl story? A revelation or understanding? I determine who they are and what they're trying to achieve."

"Once I know who the characters are and what they want I write down the most obvious way for that to happen with the most obvious dialogue and exposition. My first draft will be fat and slow because it's hard to find the rhythm in the first pass. I naturally write this horrible version first, so I can get that out of me and throw it away. Then I think of better, more subtle ways. In Glengarry Glen Ross they never mentioned the word ╬money' when trying to get the guy to steal. In Double Indemnity the couple is in the store looking at things on the shelf while contemplating the murder. Think of ways to make exposition more interesting by doing something entirely different at the same time. Try to find ways that people reveal something without saying what they really feel."

"Long speeches may work in a book, but rarely in film. Patton was a rare exception. I don't have too many numerical rules, but I try to keep my scenes to 3-3 Ş pages. Get in as late as possible, get out as early as possible of each scene. It's not a stageplay where you have to get people on and off the stage."

"You write three different kinds of screenplays -- the screenplay you want to sell, the screenplay you want to be greenlit and the screenplay to be shot. The screenplay you want to sell must be a good read. Rigid screenplay format with camera angles and script numbers, etcetera, stops it from flowing."

"Your main characters have to be memorable and real. They should resonate and be consistent and that can come out in the dialogue. But in movies everything is heightened and movie dialogue can't be boring like people talk in everyday life. If you've really thought about who your characters are, you have too many things they could say in a scene and it's hard to decide what to use. If you can't imagine what they would say you don't know your characters yet. A character has to be more than an attitude."

"Do your research to find out how certain people talk. I wrote Little Man Tate when I was in college and didn't know how little kids talked. Today, I think of that movie and then I look at my eight year-old and say, 'Whoops.'"

"The TV show ER throws medical lingo around. They don't explain the procedures they're doing, but they sure look and sound real. You don't have to stop and teach. In general, people don't have to know everything, especially at the beginning of the story. Set things up, but not so much info as to get in the way. Try to backload all that info to the end of the story."

"I don't describe interiors much in an action picture. If you keep stopping to set the scene, it breaks the flow of action. I even start the paragraph with 'As so-and-so walks up...' so you feel like you're in the middle of a flow."

"Think of the Jerry MacGuire love scene that handles it in a wonderful, elliptical way when she tells him to shut up, he had her at hello."

"Relax, have some fun, and let your voice come through. Don't force the humor. My dialogue used to be full of jokes and very smart ass. Now if it's humorous I came upon it organically because I trusted the characters and their humor came out naturally."

"If you have narration it shouldn't be because your story is incomprehensible and it can't be explained any other way. Narration is great when it's ironic. Think of what Kevin Spacey is doing in American Beauty when he says, 'This is the best part of my day.'

"Don't ever describe what main characters look like unless it's essential to the story. I described Chili Palmer by what he was wearing. Or find interesting way to tell us about him by what he's doing. Don't suggest the actor to play the character. Create a whole new character. You won't get that star anyway, and it can just limit you in developing a new character."

"They're hard to write. They're best when both people are right; far more interesting."

"I write about the script for some time before I ever actually start writing the script. I research, I write notes, I write info about the characters, lines of dialogue or even some scenes I love. I start writing a scene and I don't even write the characters names, I just start putting down dialogue."

"All script problems stem from people writing to the idea and forgetting the character. If you don't thoroughly know your characters you have no point of view, no voice, no life in your script. The only way to get to the bottom of your characters is to write a lot and don't think about it too hard. Play with it. Wonderful things come out of that.

"Put off writing the script longer while you noodle on it, writing about people and scenes you can see them in. At some point a door opens up and you'll find your way into the script. Don't just outline what will happen then start writing the script. You'll get stuck midway and find your characters aren't working. If your characters are working they are telling you where to go with your story. If they aren't working you don't know where to go."

SCREEN ADAPTATIONS were the subject of a panel consisting of actress/screenwriter Karen Black, Guillermo del Toro (Chronos), Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and Scott Frank, who has adapted two Elmore Leonard novels. Here are their responses to some of the questions the audience put to them:

How do you know if a book is adaptable to screen?

Ted Talley: I start with what's most basic. What the camera can see. Then I think why do I love the book? Is it what the characters say and do or is it in the inner life? If it's the latter, you're in trouble. There's a tendency to put those thoughts into dialogue and that can be deadly. Sometimes "b" level books actually make the best films. I'm lazy. I want to see the movie in the book. If it doesn't have a good ending I'll pass because I'm not sure I can come up with a great one.

What are the advantages of adaptations compared to writing originals?

TT: Adaptations are much, much easier and you're more likely to get the picture made. A story you sold on a pitch may turn out differently than the studio thought it would, while the story in a book is clearly known by all from the beginning.

Scott Frank: It's much easier and we're paid the same amount of money. And books that have great characters give you a huge leg up, because you don't have to figure out who your characters are going to be.

What format lends itself most to adaptation?

Guillermo del Toro: I love to adapt comic books because you already have a built-in storyboard.

TT: Short stories are the best to adapt. They're complete in that they have a beginning, middle and end, but they are short enough that you get to fill in instead of having to cut out so much.

How do you select what stays and what goes?

Karen Black: I read the book, then let two weeks pass and see what stayed with me. Whatever resonates is what goes into the script.

SF: I'm aware that the kind of satisfaction I get from a reading experience is entirely different than with film. Some things you enjoyed reading about will just stop your movie dead. So I start by looking for the spine of the book and what it means to me, then I approach writing my first draft as if it were a rewrite.

KB: And I find that my acting background has been helpful in making those choices. I think I understand character and I can make people in a screenplay live. I also understand what it takes to entertain an audience.

How do you adapt the inner thoughts in a novel?

TT: The tendency is to just put those thoughts into dialogue, but that's a big mistake.

KB: In The Great Gatsby Mia Farrow and Robert Redford were up on the screen with nothing to say to one another because the story was internal and that was an innate problem to that film. You have to somehow show what's going on the inside and make it visually stunning.

Ted Talley was asked why he didn't adapt Jim Harris' novel, Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs. This was his response:

"For a lot of reasons. I didn't like the book. The director, Jonathon Demme, and I read it and were horrified. We didn't see how we could make a movie from it that we could be proud of and not feel sleazy about it, without making it a totally different story, which we could have done on our own. It was upsetting because we had a friendship with Tom Harris and felt we owed him a lot. But he was defensive and didn't want anything changed and it was frustrating because it would have been the biggest payday for all of us, putting us up there in Spielberg territory."

In a panel on WRITING VILLAINS, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon 1 and II) commented,
"In badly written films the bad guys are always cleaning their guns or some other ╬bad guy-type' behavior. But it's so much more effective, for example in Wise Guys, when you see them eating a spaghetti dinner in mama's kitchen. And it's great when you make a villain suffer and the audience feel sorry for him. In Amadeus I ached for Salieri.

"We should learn who's a villain through their actions and reactions. How does one react when they accidentally hit someone with their car? He can (1) stop and take the victim to the hospital, (2) be afraid of a DUI and take off or (3) realize the victim saw his face so now he drives over him three times more to kill him."

Among the many other panel topics were "Ageism in Hollywood," "Screenplay Format Now," "Rewriting for Others," "Writing Modern Family Films" and "Collaboration -- Half the Effort? Twice the Fun?"

On the benefits of COLLABORATION, panelist Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flint, Man on the Moon) had this to say:

"You're not always totally inspired every day of your life. If you have a partner, he or she can kick it off when you can't. It's particularly effective in writing comedy. If you come up with something and your partner laughs, you know at least one person thinks it's funny. And partners can be tough on each other making one justify each decision. By the time you agree on something, it's no longer the first most obvious choice you might have settled on by yourself." For more information about the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference, go to:

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