Google+ Badge

Thursday, June 27, 2013

a brief history of aspect ratio.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jim Jarmusch’s 5 Golden Rules for Filmmakers

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn From Goodfellas!

It doesn’t get much better than Goodfellas, a script based on the non-fiction book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi (who shares writing credit with Martin Scorsese on the film). The film came out in 1990 and got nominated for six Academy Awards. Joe Pesci, in a role he’s still getting mileage out of, won for best supporting actor. While the story structure was put in place by the writers, much of the great dialogue was discovered through rehearsals, where Scorsese let his actors roam free, then wrote into the script many of the lines they came up with. While Pileggi wanted to follow a traditional narrative, Scorcese didn’t think it was necessary, believing the film was more a combination of episodes, and those episodes could be told out of order. It’s this and a few other non-traditional choices that make Goodfellas so interesting to study as a screenplay. As the story goes, after reading the book, which Scorsese thought was the best book on the mob ever written, he called Pileggi and said, “I’ve been waiting to direct this book my whole life,” to which Pileggi responded, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my whole life.”
1) The tragedy script – The tragedy script does not follow the traditional three-act structure (setup, conflict, resolution). It works more in two halves. You build up the hero’s success in the first half, then have them fall apart in the second. That second half fall should be dictated by the hero’s flaw, which can be anything, but is most often greed.
2) The cool thing about tragedies is that you can have your main character do some pretty horrible things – The audience understands this isn’t a romantic comedy. They don’t need their main character to be a saint. They get that bad things are going to happen and that our protagonist is going to be unsavory. Embrace that. I mean, despite all of us falling in love with Henry’s (Ray Liotta) first love, Karen, he starts having an affair with another woman on the side. You can’t do that in a traditional film without the audience turning on the protag. The one caveat to all of this, is that we must START OUT loving our main character. We’ll only go down the dark path with him if we liked him before he got there. So it’s no coincidence that Scorsese and Pileggi used one of the most common tools available to make us fall in love with Henry – they made him an underdog – the little nobody kid from the streets who worked his way up the system.
3) Give ’em something to talk about – What I learned about voice over during Goodfellas (which is used practically non-stop) is that if you have a fascinating subject matter and you’ve researched the hell out of it, the device is a great way to give us all of that information. What sets movies like Goodfellas and, say, Casino apart is those “behind the curtain” details we learn about the subject matter. You walk away knowing exactly what it was like to be a wiseguy (or what it was like working in a Casino) after watching these films. But extensive voice over like this ONLY WORKS if the subject matter is fascinating, if you’ve researched the shit out of it, and if you’re telling us stuff we don’t already know. Break one of those three rules, and the voice over will probably get tiresome.
4) We’re more likely to go along with a character’s suspect choices if we’re inside his head (listening to his voice over) – There’s something about hearing a character’s play-by-play of his life that makes us more tolerant of the terrible things he does. If Henry is robbing people and cheating on people and killing people without him ever telling us why, there’s a good chance we’ll turn on the character. But because he’s explaining it to us as he goes along via voice over, we understand his choices. It’s kind of like hearing that some random person you don’t know is cheating on their spouse. You immediately conclude that they’re a terrible person. But when your best friend cheats on their spouse, and they explain to you why they’re doing it and what went into the choice, you’re more okay with it. Voice-over can be very powerful that way.
5) Research research research – I’ve read a LOT of amateur scripts about the mob over the years and none of them ever come close to Scorsese’s films. Why? Research. Nothing feels original or unique. These writers fail to understand that Scorcese is using material that has been meticulously researched. I mean, authors like Pileggi have spent hundreds of hours talking to the REAL PEOPLE involved in these crime magnets. He’s getting the stories that REALLY happened. Whereas with amateurs, they’re making up stories based on their favorite movies. Therefore they read like badly made copies. So if you’re going to jump into this space, you better have at least a hundred hours of research to base your story on. Or else forget about it.
6) Start your script with a bang – Goodfellas starts with a bang and never lets go. And that got me thinking. In the comments section of the Amateur Offerings post this weekend, a commenter said he stopped reading one of the entries after page one because it was boring. A debate then began on whether the first page of a script should always be exciting. Some believed it should, and others said the writer should be afforded more time. The actual answer to this question is complicated. In the spec world, yes, the first page should immediately grab the reader. However, your first scene should also be dictated by the genre and story. If you’re telling a slow-burn story, for example, then a slower opening makes sense. But the definitive answer probably lies within what happens BEFORE you write the first page. You should choose the type of story that would have an exciting opening page in the first place, since it IS so important to grab that reader from page one. Once you’re established and people will read your scripts no matter what, THEN you can afford to take your time getting into your story.
7) Always look to complicate your scenes – Driving a dead guy into the woods to bury him isn’t a very interesting scene. Driving a “dead guy” who all of a sudden starts banging on the inside of the trunk (Oh no, he’s still alive), is. And it leads to one of the most memorable moments in Goodfellas, when Tommy starts bashing the still-moving bloody mattress cover over and over again. Try not to allow your scenes to move along too smoothly. Always complicate them somehow. It usually results in something more interesting.
8) Beware the mob/gangster screenplay naming conundrum – One of the biggest assumptions young writers make is that readers will remember however many characters they introduce, be it 5 or 500. I can’t stress enough that too many characters leads to character mix-up which leads to story confusion. Mob movies are particularly susceptible to this problem for two reasons. One, they naturally have a lot of characters. And two, most of the character names sound the same, ending in “-y” or “-ie” (Jonny, Billy, Tommy, Frankie) making it particularly easy to mix characters up. For this reason, whenever you write one of these scripts, it is essential that you make everybody memorable and distinctive. Here are a few tips to achieve this (note that these will work for any script with a lot of characters):
a. Only create characters if they’re absolutely essential to the story (less characters equals less of a chance the reader will forget who’s who).
b. Differentiate names as much as possible (don’t use “-y” and “-ie” names if you can avoid it). If you have to do this, consider using a nickname or their last name to identify them by.
c. Describe each character succinctly. No bare-bones “fat and awkward” descriptions.
d. Give each character their own unique quirks. Anything to make them stand out from the other characters.
e. Open up with a memorable character-specific scene for each of your big characters. So if you have a character who has a temper, open up with a unique compelling introductory scene that shows him losing his temper (like how we introduce Tommy in Goodfellas, who gets so mad at Billy for insulting him that he kills him).
9) Bounce around a large location easily by using mini-slugs – A mini-slug is basically a quick identifier of where we are inside a larger location. Since a full slug line indicates a more severe location change, it can ruin the flow of a scene if used often. For example, say two characters are bouncing around multiple rooms in a house. You don’t have to write, “INT. KITCHEN – SECOND FLOOR – DAY” every time you come back to the kitchen. Just say, in capital letters, and on their own line: “THE KITCHEN” or “THE BASEMENT” or “THE LIVING ROOM” or wherever the sub-location might be. These are mini-slugs.
10) The “powder keg” character – To me, these characters always work. If you write a slightly crazy character who could blow up at any second, then any scene you put them is instantly tension-filled. It’s like the character brings with him a floor full of pins and needles wherever he goes. It’s why Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is such a classic character. We’re terrified of what he’s capable of. We’re worried that anyone at any moment could say the wrong thing and BOOM! – our powder keg blows up. If you can find a way to weave a powder keg character into your script (and it fits the story), do it. These characters always bring the goods.


"Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

George Orwell on why he writes.

Why I Write: George Orwell’s Four Motives for Creation

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”
Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, would have been 109 today. Though he remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest short-form feats is the 1946 essay Why I Write (public library) — a fine addition to other timeless insights on writing, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.
Orwell begins with some details about his less than idyllic childhood — complete with absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness — and traces how those experiences steered him towards writing, proposing that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing, most of which extrapolate to just about any domain of creative output.

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.
After a further discussion of how these motives permeated his own work at different times and in different ways, Orwell offers a final and rather dystopian disclaimer:
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
This, of course is to be taken with a grain of salt — the granularity of individual disposition, outlook, and existential choice, that is. I myself subscribe to the Ray Bradbury model:
Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…’, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Ezra Pound on the types of Writers

Ezra Pound’s List of the 6 Types of Writers and 2 Rules for Forming an Opinion

A taxonomy of scribe sensibilities, with some advice on how to make up your mind.
“Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work,” Ezra Pound advised in his list of don’ts for beginning poets, originally written in 1913. More than two decades later, in 1934, Pound formulated his best advice on the parallel arts of reading and writing in ABC of Reading (public library), a fine addition to these 9 essential books on how to read more and write better.
Among his insights is the following list of the six types of writers, particularly interesting when compared and contrasted with George Orwell’s list of the four universal motives for writing.

When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:
  1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
  2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.
  3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.
  4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante’s time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare’s time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.
  5. Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.
  6. The starters of crazes.
Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees’. He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.
He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favourite bad writer.

Susan Sontag- on what 4 kind of writers one should be.

The writer must be four people:
  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic
1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence*.
A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

Great Writers on Writing

Susan Sontag On Writing

Susan Sontag on Writing

“There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
The newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag’s thoughtful meditations on censorship and aphorisms came, is an absolute treasure trove of rare insight into one of the greatest minds in modern history. Among the tome’s greatest gifts are Sontag’s thoughts on the art, craft, and ideology of writing.
Unlike more prescriptive takes, like previously examined advice by Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and David Ogilvy, Sontag’s reflections are rather meditative — sometimes turned inward, with introspective curiosity, and other times outward, with a lens on the broader literary landscape — yet remarkably rich in cultural observation and universal wisdom on the writing process, somewhere between Henry Miller’s creative routine, Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques, George Orwell’s four motives for writing, and E. B. White’s vision for the responsibility of the writer.
Gathered here are the most compelling and profound of Sontag’s thoughts on writing, arranged chronologically and each marked with the date of the respective diary entry.

I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. > All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.
A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)
Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)
John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
‘Writing is only a substitute [sic] for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart
The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés ['booby-trapped packages'] to the world.
The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
To be a great writer:
know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.
‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.
Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.
What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.
By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)
Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th c[entury] cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at w[ith] awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)
One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.
So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
Language as a found object
Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was [Aldous] Huxley
One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (soc[iological], historical, philosophical)
Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)
There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)
To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.
Don’t be afraid to be concise!
A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.
If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.
Then something else will happen. It always does.
I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.
I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.
I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is exquisite in its entirety — I couldn’t recommend it more heartily.