WGA "WRITERS ON GENRE" CONFERENCE
"Pitch your story to your cat!"
These exhortations came from the mouths of prominent screenwriters as they debated the genre issue and discussed various types of scripts at the latest seminar produced by the Writers Guild Foundation. The weekend "Writers on Genre" conference ran June 21-22, 2003, at the Los Angeles Film School. WGA Vice President, Daryl Nickens hosted the event, while screenwriter and critic F.X. Feeney served as moderator. Thirty-three accomplished film and television writers shared their perspectives with about 150 participants, some of whom flew in from such distant cities as Toronto and Sydney.
At the first panel entitled WHAT IS GENRE AND DOES IT MATTER? Ron Bass (Rainman), Elizabeth Hunter (The Fighting Temptations), Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) and Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) encouraged writers to refuse being pigeonholed. The consensus was that the screenwriter's imagination creates a vision, which is new, exciting and different. Production executives then buy into the idea but try to squeeze it into a box or mold it into a recognizable pattern. According to Bass, however, it's the writer's job to resist such categorization. "Genre is expectation and the artist's goal is to defeat expectation."
Hunter pointed out that executives usually give notes based on genre. Roos advised writers to use genre as a servant, not a master. He asserts, "Writing is seduction. You can't say what you think. Rather, you have to dress it up. It's exciting for the audience when you defy expectation. It's the piece of candy you use to get the little girl into your car!" Meyer recalled a statement from Joseph Conrad -- artists provide unexpected glimmers of truth for which we have forgotten to ask.
Bass described the inspiration for My Best Friend's Wedding as a film in which the star, Julia Roberts, didn't get the guy. The executives, however, didn't get it. They wanted her to find a guy at the wedding, not end up in the arms of her gay friend. Such a scene was actually shot with John Corbett (the hunk from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) but testing audiences didn't like it, so it was eliminated from the film.
Ted Elliott (Shrek), Howard Gordon (The X-Files), Michael Miner (Robocop), Scott Rosenberg (Con Air) and Gary Scott Thompson (2 Fast 2 Furious) spoke on the SUSPENSE, ACTION & ADVENTURE panel. Elliott encouraged writers to "exploit the mental shorthand of the audience" and suggested that everyone check out the web site that he and his writing partner (Terry Rossio) have set up for screenwriters: www.wordplayer.com. Thompson, who came from playwrighting, says he thinks about character, not genre. The original script of The Fast and the Furious dealt with two antiheroes, who were killed off at the end.
Rosenberg said it's a mistake for an action writer to be lazy about character. He also pointed out he couldn't pitch Beautiful Girls because there was no story, whereas Kangaroo Jack was pitched to 12 companies in two days. Miner stressed the importance of situation, such as Bogart playing a reluctant hero in Casablanca. He also advised writers to hone their pitches. "Tell it to your cat." He described his writing process as a lot of thinking and a little writing. "Don't start too soon. You need the foreplay." Elliott rejoined: "Many beginning writers suffer from premature ejaculation." Rosenberg added, "Once you have your outline, you should be able to write the script really fast."
Elliott stressed the importance of mental real estate. "Disney used it for years. Is there a girl's Halloween costume (Pocahontas, mermaid, or harem girl) in your story?" He also pointed out that male stars today are mostly boys, not men; there are no Burt Lancasters or Lee Marvins. Miner differentiated between the open and the closed mystery. "In a closed mystery, such as Chinatown, we only know as much as the main character. If we cut away, we let the air out of the suspense." He also advised writers to give their villain a positive quality and to give their hero a negative quality. Gordon added, "The hero is measured by the complexity of the villain."
Serving on the DRAMA panel were Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), David Self (Road to Perdition), Carol Mendelsohn (CSI Miami) and Kirk Ellis (Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows). Asked what makes good drama, Self asserted, "It's a strange, but true exchange between two characters." Mendelsohn noted, "You make the audience feel something." Schulman observed, "It's a character with a problem." Ellis quoted Alfred Hitchcock's answer: "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances" and added, "A drama is a story of choice. Casablanca is about people making life or death choices."
The panelists advised writers to generate a lot of scripts. Tom Schulman recounted the story of a teacher who had students make pots. In the same time frame, one group was told to make "1 or 2 great pots" whereas the other group made "as many pots as possible." The best work came from the most prolific pot makers. In other words, practice makes perfect. Write a lot of scripts!
The last panel on Saturday explored SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY with Chris Brancato (First Wave), David S. Goyer (Dark City), Leslie Bohem (Taken), and Gavin Scott (Mists of Avalon). According to the panel, science fiction has specific rules, whereas fantasy films require the acceptance of magic in the world. Moderator Feeney pointed out that sci-fi mirrors the times. In the 1950s when we feared Communism, films featured alien invaders, whereas in the 1970s when we feared cancer, the aliens popped out of human bodies. According to Brancato, our current fear of government makes The X-Files relevant.
Asked about method, Goyer said that his writing style changes from script to script. His screenplay for Blade was quite dense, whereas Batman was sparse, with short sentences and few adjectives. Scott pointed out, "There's a tendency (in sci-fi and fantasy) to write too much explanation since the world is new, but it's better to be spare and drop in something odd." Saturday night concluded with a soiree at the ArcLight, where speakers and participants continued the dialogue on a personal level.
On Sunday morning, the spotlight turned to HORROR AND PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER with Michael Cooney (Identity), Glen Morgan (Willard), Charles E. Pogue (The Fly) and Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven). Once again the dialogue turned to the struggle between writers and production executives. Bob Shaye (New Line's topper) blamed Morgan for not making Willard into a "roller coaster ride." The writer believes the horrific stuff is best left unseen. Pogue observed, "The executives forget the script they loved." He saw his take on Psycho 3 as Norman's journey into light, but the execs wanted "a Brian De Palma ending." So Charles added a shot of Norman stroking the mother's severed hand. "That ruined the journey to light."
Cooney advised, "The trick is to get noticed, so the first three to five pages of your script have to be punchy and exciting, a breeze to read." Pogue thinks he's a dinosaur because he believes in the screenplay as literature and tries to paint word pictures: "He creeps away" rather than "He exits." He advises "writing to the rhythm of the scene. An action script is tighter than a drama. You have to capture the mood of the moment." Morgan observed he's quite descriptive, whereas some people's scripts (Preston Sturges and David Kelley) are all dialogue. Walker admitted that some of his screenplays run 130-140 pages.
Pogue advised writers to "describe your CGI monsters very carefully, so you get your marketing cut" on the merchandized toys, because he missed out on his cut of the dragon from Dragonheart. Morgan pointed out that executives often skip the description and consequently don't understand the story. To deal with that issue, Cooney made a list of "frequently asked questions" and sent it out to everyone involved. Asked if the panelists ever had a crisis of confidence, Walker said he felt it every day. "Rewrite! Keep questioning yourself!" Morgan asserted he felt more confident when he was starting out. "A writer should be insecure." Cooney writes one script after another because he likes the process. He wrote 15-20 scripts before he sold one. Walker, who works with David Fincher, confessed that he wrote Seven while working at Tower Records.
ANIMATION AND FAMILY provided the topic for the next session, which featured Kate Boutilier (The Wild Thornberries), Stu Krieger (The Land Before Time), Patrick Verrone (Rugrats) and Michael J. Wilson (Ice Age). Noting that many top grossing films are family films, like E.T. and The Lion King, moderator F.X. Feeney asked if a writer of this genre needs to follow special rules. Boutilier said she never puts in current references, since that dates your movie. She also warned, "You can't say 'Shut up!' Instead, say 'Be quiet!'" Verrone tries to "put out a moral universe, since kids act out the roles they see in movies." Noting that Disney films often kill off the parents (Bambi, The Lion King) Wilson said he killed the mother in Ice Age because the film was about the herd.
Asked about the craft of writing for animation, Krieger pointed out there's no worry about the budget. Wilson starts off with a "lean and mean treatment." The initial one for Ice Age ran 7 pages, which was expanded to 17. It's a narrative with bullet points, some sample dialogue and lots of white space. Krieger writes a long first draft, then edits it down "to get to the jokes and story points." The idea behind The Land Before Time was "dinosaurs on a quest." He even figured out their language; for example, a leaf was a "tree star." During the production, director Don Bluth and producer Steven Spielberg stopped talking to each other, using the writer as the intermediary. Asked if there's a spec market for animation, Verrone said, "Yes, though the business model is Katzenberg's ideas." According to Wilson, there are three buyers: Dreamworks, Warners and Fox. There's a special hunger for CGI movies.
Running simultaneous to the ANIMATION & FAMILY session and consequently not attended by this writer was a discussion of NON-FICTION & DOCUMENTARY, moderated by Joan Owens Meyerson (Say Goodbye).
The final panel addressed COMEDY & ROMANTIC COMEDY with Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On), Karen McCullah Lutz (Legally Blonde), and Larry Wilmore (In Living Color). Bendinger advised, "Don't write the story you think the studio wants. Write the movie you want to see." Lutz and her writing partner based their script of Legally Blonde on an unpublished book by a Stanford law student. Their working method is to outline the story together, then write the scenes separately. "I'm a day person and she's a night owl." Writing for the 4th season of Sex & the City, Bendinger described certain rules -- no back-stories and no relatives. The writers prepare a huge grid for a season's 18 shows showing all the character arcs and the themes for each episode.
Wilmore keeps his focus on "What is the big joke?" In Tootsie it was "a man dressed as a woman becomes a better man." Lutz considers the "Oh, no" factor. For Legally Blonde it was "This girl is going to Harvard Law?" Their theme was, "Don't let other people define you." Bendinger says she asks herself, "What's wrong about this character's thinking? As to their involvement in the production, Lutz was on the set every day and frequently consulted. Asked how they got started in the business, Wilmore was a stand-up comedian, Lutz queried a manager named in Variety, and Bendinger befriended an agent's assistant.
There are two sessions of "Writers on Writing" in August -- August 7 with Donna and Wayne Powers (The Italian Job, Out of Order), and August 21 with Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon, Showtime). Both will be held at the Guild HQ at 7:30pm.
Kristina Nordstrom is a journalist and screenwriter. Her articles have appeared in the Village Voice, the N.Y. Daily News, Film Library Quarterly, the Soho News and Sightlines. She wrote and presented film reviews for WRPR, a New Jersey radio station. Three recent scripts were finalists for the Sundance Screenwriting Lab.
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