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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Comedy vs. Drama in first drafts

Some very interesting posts lately, good points, good advice, good personal stories, thanks to all as I think it helps anyone who comes to read. Something to take away from all of us. Particularly on the last few posts about speed writing.

It shows there are many paths to the same goal, the trick I guess is to stay on the path, don't get off and wash the dishes, then go out for coffee, then come home and take a nap. (That was almost a full day of writing for me in my twenties).

Steve Peterson's post got me to thinking. A great quote from Hitchcock, or a great half remembered quote anyway:
"I read somewhere that Hitchcock would tell the writer to work out all the action, then once that was write fill in the dialogue at the end."
There's something fabulous about this, as it shows Hitchcock's origins as a silent film director, and a real visualist. A true creator of stories in pictures, he knew how an able writer could fill in the emotional chaff that now had to fill up his talkie.

But I write both comedy and drama. And it made me realize, if I were to do that with a comedy - just write a simple action version of it, it will of course look like a drama. Because a good comedy has just as much dramatic structure in it as a good drama. Sure, you could pepper it with jokes, I've had to do so in treatments. But you can't do that in the long form, blasting through a comedy script.

The tone is what makes a comedy different.

Action is action, clear cut desire vs. opposition to desire. If there is misbehaviour in relationships and situations, it makes for great story telling.

Comedy is laminated. You are protected from the misbehaviour in relationships and situations during the same desire vs. opposition to desire, because of the TONE. You know you don't have to feel the character's emotional pain, as their reactions tend to be emotionally inappropriate, and that of course is why it is funny. And that, of course, is why it's safe to laugh at them.

So the language in a comedy is crucial. As are the excess and insanity in the same "misbehaviour in relationships and situations."

In the end, it means you have to be able to write funny, or it won't be funny, regardless of how well structured it is.

So the point of this post is the feeling that it's important to write funny from page one in your first draft as you proceed, because if there's no air in the balloon, no cheese in the souffle, no whip in the cream, it'll just be flat pages of writing.

And someone please make me stop using extra colorful descriptors, please.


As this pertains to first draft work, or speed writing I feel; whereas you can blast forward with dramatic structure and script in a first draft, like Hitchcock asked of his writer, with the knowing that one you can go back and fix character work if the structure is sound, you can feel assured that the whole thing will play.

But the same is not so for a comedy.

Not in my experience, anyway. It has to be funny as you roll along, or it's just a bad drama. So in that case, I do recommend going back, finding the funny thread, understanding the character oppositions, weaknesses and impossible situations that make it funny, and continue writing from there, generating pages that are funny as you proceed.


Blogger Steve Peterson said...

Thanks for the mention!

Yah, comedy with [character ducks the real issue here] just wouldn't work. I suppose this is borne out by Hitchcock doing thrillers (and perhaps also by Murder by Death...).

Not that I can bring myself to leave out dialogue in the first draft anyway. However, one nice thing about filling in even bad dialogue during the first draft is that it gives me a chance to play with each character's voice and hopefully find out what works.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

I agree with your comment about tone that makes a comedy different.

I'm having a stab at comedy with my re-write of Untitled 4 (see: http://ukscriptwriter.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_ukscriptwriter_archive.html#112464622509220307).

I'm not going for side splitting laughter, just something to keep the reader in a happy mood with a sprinkling of chuckles. I've never been good at making up jokes and I don't want to go for slapstick comedy, so I'm trying to work humour into the mood and the flow of dialog.

Now I've got to find out if I can pull it off :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Anonymous Melville said...

"Because a good comedy has just as much dramatic structure in it as a good drama."

Could't agree more. What I see is that the difference between drama and comedy is really just the POV.

Take my brother, a journalist. It's his birthday, and our mother cooked, and his girlfriend cooked, and I canceled a story meeting and my girlfriend came back from outside town.

My brother doesn't show up. Later, he calls, he's on his way, he'll be right there. But still, he doesn't show up. Food gets cold, some hearts too. His girlfriend ist hurt, my mother is hurt. Once in a while, one of them disappears in the kitchen, coming back with red eyes. - Then, a friend of his calls me, laughing, telling me, that my brother spend the whole evening with him and some other journalists, drinking. Then, my brother showes up. At about midnight, four (4) hours late. Drunk. With a really GREAT story about what happened and why he was late and why it wasn't his fault. Everything made up, of course, as we knew, thanks to the phone call I got.

For his girlfriend, it was a drama.
For my girlfriend, it was a comedy.

She's still laughing. :)

Melville, Switzerland

PS Great blog, Philip, good luck!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

melville, excellent example! I'm guesing for the mom it was also drama? or maybe horror?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Melville: terrific example demonstrating the suffering we can inflict upon each other in every day life (and not maliciously intended, by the way, merely "unconscious" behaviour it sounds like) and depending on who is emotionally attached to that suffering, the experience is either - tragedy - as you pointed out - or if you're not attached to it - it's a comedy. (If you had been late, your girlfriend would have had a different POV, of course.) Curious what POV your brother had, by the way - lone adventurer? In writing this tone is established immediately by the lead character in a story whose attitude will betray whether he is emotionall attached, or unattached to events around him. Thanks for the post! Leave an email, if you'd like for others and myself to check in.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Anonymous Melville said...

Philip: Close! Lone adventurer, that's exactly his kind of romantizism. I was talking with him the other day about what future generations will call 'the birthday incident'.

He: "I WANTED to leave, but then I had another drink and SOMEHOW I forgot time. No big deal, is it?'
Me: "So, why did you make up the story then?"
He: "What do you mean?"
Me: "Why didn't you just tell the truth?"
He: (distrustfully) "The… truth? - Never."
Me: "Why?"
He: "To BORING. If you wait four hours for somebody, at least, you deserve a good story."

So, I guess, his POV is carnevalesque. Fellinesque. Disappoint your people, ok, shit happens, but never ever BORE them.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Well, I may have to write about your brother's character some day. A journalist, who's career is investigating the stories of others, who's become so inured to the lack of drama in his own story, that he thinks it lacks any worth. So he needs to bring it up to the level of the drama he dips his pen into daily, and thus the tall tale. His disconnect with his own behaviour (no judgement here, just observation) is his belief that he's writing another story of his life, the one he tells you, when in reality, the real story, is the one he's avoiding - which is his own. Thanks for sharing it Melville, it's fascinating.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005  
Blogger Melville said...

I show this thread to my brother. And - of course - if I am concerned he might be offended, I am wrong.

He is flattered.

"Very good written", he says. "Proud of you."
He lights a cigarette.
"I always knew I'd be a good character for a story. Ha!"



Saturday, August 27, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Yikes. Promoting the same disconnect we were talking about. The idea that you're living a life in the third person. It's convenient, because you don't have to take any responsibility for anything. It's sort of like "hey, that happened, make a great story, wouldn't it?" ("that happened" by the way is something you did, but YOU don't see it that way). And, additionoally therefore whatever dramatic, stupid and painful thing occured has value - because it makes a great story - forget the moral responsibility of doing the "right" thing, or hurting anyone's feelings, hurting yourself (your soul in pain, without realizing it), etc. I believe that kind of action builds to the mid-life crisis of consciousness where suddenly nothing has value, meaning, or worth, because you've pressed down your own true sensivity for so long, your disconnect becomes so immense, that even the drama you've benn chasing no longer is enticing. Sorry to say!

Saturday, August 27, 2005  
Blogger Melville said...

"The idea that you're living a life in the third person."
This is SO precise. Thx for that.

Saturday, August 27, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Hey Melville, some additional thoughts. There are three kinds of suffering in life; physical, emotional spiritual. Spiritual, by the way, the existential disconnect, the feeling of a meaningless life, etc, is the most painful. As you increase one, by the way, it fills your consciousness and it decreases the suffering caused by the others. It is not unusual for people who are spiritually suffering, to then impose problems with relationships (thoughtless, callous behaviour, betrayal, deceit, etc.) to increase emotional suffering, or even be violent or excessive with their bodies to increase physical suffering (drinking), as it will reduce the feeling of spiritual suffering. Fascinating, isn't it? Most often the person is unaware why they are doing this, and have no good excuse. In reality, un a sub-conscious level, they are desperate to connect to god, or extinguish the pain caused by the lack of connection, and so "act out" to bring in new suffering in their life to obfuscate the old. Many, many people do this their entire life and never have an understanding of their own mechanism.

Sunday, August 28, 2005  
Blogger Melville said...

This is a very modern problem, I think. Because it has a lot to do with the concept of 'market', which never was so strong then today.

This is btw. the topic of most of the books by Arno Gruen, a very clever and now very old psychoanalyst. He describes the main problem (oh, this is going to be difficult in English for me) is, that the individuum, instead of finding and living his inner truth, tends to serve instead the expectations of his enviroment, seeing himself more and more as a, yes, product, which fullfills the needs of his 'clients', speak society.

The dangerous thing about the concept of consumption is, that I start to see MYSELF as a product. How do I need to be to sell? (btw. the screenwriter would ask: How do I need to WRITE to sell?)

Now. My brother. I think his attitude is kind of an attempt of resistence against this (doesn't say it's a good one). I think it's very close to the Don Quichotte idea. Unterstanding myself as a dramtic character means not to be compatible to expectations.

The problem is, that this attitude doesn't make a difference between self betrayal and responsability. Between apples and oranges. It's an attempt of liberty which is blind for this difference.

And so, fighting the windmills is of course much more important then being emotionally attached to Sancho Pansa.


Sunday, August 28, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Melville; beautifully expressed in English, by the way, better so than some of my English speaking friends might.

Yes, very interesting points. Don Quixote would also show up four hours late to his own birthday party with an excellent excuse, that also made a great story,wouldn't he? And it would have been very meaningful to him, but he would have been unable to even imagine any hurt feelings he caused in any of his relationships by his actions.

Your point by Gruen is framed in a very interesting way, at its root he's talking about being authentic vs. inauthentic, of course, and triggers based on posivite reinforcement from the enviroment and one's own insecurity.

Seeing oneself as a product can be a symptom of the modern age, no question, though we can be so many different products to different people in the same day. What am I to my parents? My boss? My friend? The woman at the bar I want to impress - or my kids if I'm married, my wife, etc.

And yes, in the end, if this is not serving the inner truth, one creates a life that may begin to feel quite empty because they are serving everything else but themselves, the spiritual suffering aspect.

I think your brother may "think" he's defying expectation, by the way, or seeking liberty, but in the end is acting in a very classic and expected way, particularly for his profession, wouldn't you say? that is also interesting. The only true liberty, would be in turning inward, and finding one's own true nature, or inner truth as you mention, and then re-connecting to everything else through that.

I think in the end, the inner truth can only be considered successful if it's connected to love of oneself, and one's God - or energy of the universe - or equivalent, and then to see that expression in everything else. For, at the base of it, there are only really two emotions - love, and fear, and everything stems from that, I believe.

From love; creativity, friendship, loving relationships, compassion, etc. Fear; unhappiness, anger, insecurity, hurting others, etc.

When we realize we are not separate from everyting else, but are all connected, it makes a profound difference in the way we think and act. i.e.; in the deepest spiritual sense, if you realize you are connected to everyone else, in the sense that your "one" with eveything else, you would not be able to hurt another, as you would not want to hurt yourself, and that's what it would feel like.

On the way to that feeling, we begin to take responsibility for our actions to ourselves, and to others, and begin to let go of the "product" and "marketplace" ideas, which are wholly mindful, and based in the mind's need to control the outcome of one's life and fear: that you will not be love, not be accepted, be abandoned.

Sunday, August 28, 2005  

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