Tuesday, May 7, 2013


When we’re toddlers, we love merry-go-rounds. Well, most of us do. When we’re teenagers, we love rollercoasters. When we’re in love, we love the image with which we’re obsessed. Oh, that’s another subject. Back to rollercoasters.
Your movie needs to be like a rollercoaster. I don’t mean made of wood and steel, I mean made of ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns, and mostly made of danger. Most of all it’s all about danger!
We go to movies for the same reason we once rode rollercoasters and before that merry-go-rounds. To experience what feels like extreme danger while at the same time knowing we are really pretty darn safe. Granted, the top of the theater could fall in on us. Or a crazy person with a gun could invade the theater. But it’s a good bet no one on the movie screen is going to actually interact with us (unless we’re in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”). We are pretending they will. We’re pretending, for that matter, that they are us, specifically that we are the movie’s brave protagonist, willing to risk everything to 1. save the world, or 2. get the girl, or 3. find redemption (take your pick). That’s the point of going to movies, so we can empathize with, identify with a character who’s taking big, BIG chances and, usually, pulling it off, while we munch away on popcorn from our safe stadium-seated perch.
Of course, some of the best movies ever made don’t follow that rule. I think those that have affected me the most have in common that they are about a protagonist unwilling to take the risk he really needs to take in order to be complete, “La Dolce Vita,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Annie Hall.” (It’s not really about Annie Hall.)
But just as we can’t all be Picasso, we should probably not start out trying to break that rule that drives virtually all movies, or at least all Hollywood movies.
I read in one of the thousands of books on how to write a screenplay that seem to be out there that each movie is about the most exciting day in the protagonist’s life. Because, who would want to see the second most exciting day in that person’s life if we could see the most? So that’s probably a good test for each of us to try when thinking about story ideas. “Day” doesn’t have to be literal, of course. But most emotionally involving movies do take place over a short time span. Maybe a week or two, not months or years.
Probably the most popular book on screenplay writing these days is “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder. And it’s a very good book to start off with. Blake was a guest speaker at my class about four years ago, and he proved to have an amazing talent for summarizing plots instantaneously, and making them sound exciting and fresh. Each of my students would tell him the idea of the script they were working on and he would instantly tell it back to them, only making it seem much more compelling than they had, with a dynamite logline improvised on the spot. And Blake insists in the book, quite rightly, that a logline – a one or two sentence description of a film’s story (usually from the protagonist’s point of view) -- isn’t just a selling tool. If you don’t know your logline, you don’t know your story.
Unfortunately, Blake passed away at a shockingly early age a couple of years ago. But his book keeps selling like proverbial hotcakes. Ironically, it’s subtitled: “The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” But it became so popular so fast that he wrote two sequels. Not necessarily unfortunately, he was a better teller of tales and loglines than he was a screenwriter. Although he had a couple of million dollar sales, the few films of his that were filmed demonstrate a lot more formula than genius. But much of what he writes about when he is writing about how to do is extremely valuable.
I think the most important thing I learned from reading “Save the Cat!” was the word “primal.” Make your story primal. I’d never thought about that. But he’s absolutely right. If you learn to write actually good scripts about primal needs based on enticing, emotionally connecting loglines, you’re halfway home.
Two cases in point. Two international thrillers were released in 2009, “Taken” starring Liam Neeson and “The International” starring Clive Owen. Neither star has any resonance for me. I certainly didn’t go to see either of them. One’s a big lug and the other blends into the scenery. “The International” was probably by most standards a better film. It was much more sophisticated and complex and thoughtful, and it featured beautiful architecture and exotic settings. Actually, it was so complex that I couldn’t even explain the story. Something about banks financing terrorists, maybe.
On the other hand I can tell you exactly what “Taken” was about: a former CIA agent’s daughter is kidnapped, and he puts his life and limb on the line, racing through some of the most glamorous and seamy locations in Europe, to rescue her from sex slavers. That’s a synopsis I can remember. The first act is pretty on-the-nose; the rest of the movie is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. And nothing could possibly be more primal than saving your daughter from “a fate worse than death.”
“The International” cost $50 million to make. It took in $10 million in its opening weekend in the U.S., and by the time its run ended grossed a total of $55 million worldwide. That’s a disaster. (Remember, half of that goes to the movie theaters that showed it, and then a healthy percentage of the other half goes to the distributor. By the time the production company gets a taste, there’s only about a third of that $55 million left, thus leaving the production and its financiers around $30-40 million in the red.)
On the other hand, “Taken” cost $25 million to make, opened making $24.7 million its first weekend in the U.S. (and it wasn’t even an American film, it’s French, although shot in English), and had a worldwide gross of $224 million. Everybody made a bundle, and the audience had a great time watching it.
Primal. That’s a word to remember.
-          Bob shayne

Monday, April 29, 2013

Writing the Rockies Conference
July 25-28, 2013
The conference welcomes beginners, published writers, screenwriters,  and anyone else who believes in the magic and power of the written word.

Set in the beautiful Gunnison Valley of the central Colorado Rockies on the campus of Western State Colorado University, the conference offers a wide range of workshops designed to provide valuable learning tools in an inspiring setting.

Workshop faculty members have a broad range of published works, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting, magazine article writing, as well as industry publishing experience. Working with participants of all levels, our featured faculty will help writers hone their craft through workshops and will mix with participants during events outside of formal sessions. Talk at leisure to our scheduled agents and book publishers, or sign up for pitches.


Friday, July 26, 10-11:45 a.m.
“Screenwriting Primary School (Not everyone goes straight to film school)”
Presenter: Jack Lucido

With motion picture writing you get to play “show” and “tell.”  Every expert tells you that showing is always better that telling.  Here we’ll learn the basic tools and strategies of how best to show your characters, your core meaning, and tell your story in the visual medium of screenwriting.

Friday, July 26, 2-4 p.m.
“Writing 3-Dimensional Characters (No special glasses necessary)”
Presenter: JS Mayank
How to write characters that are memorable, fleshed-out, and relatable. How do you write a dynamic character introduction? What makes your characters come to life on the page? What are some common pitfalls and stereotypes to avoid while writing characters? We'll discuss all the above, and more... With examples from existing movies, and workshopping characters based on audience ideas.

Saturday, July 28, 10-11:45 a.m.
“What Am I Missing   (Action, voice, or story progression?)”
Presenter: Mark Schwiesow

Do your scenes move the way you want them to?  Is something really happening on each page?  Learn simple tips for writing crisp, evocative action to keep your story moving.  Do all of your characters sound the same, as if the same person wrote them all?  See how to differentiate your characters’ voices. Are elements missing that are keeping your script from being as good as you first imagined?  Learn to incorporate those unexpected twists to keep your story exciting and unique. 

For more information visit www.western.edu/writingttherockies

Monday, April 22, 2013

A true audience

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Dubuque, Iowa. My short film, EMIT, was an official selection in the Julien Dubuque Film Festival, and I was invited to be a part of the 4-day festivities.

On the filmmaker red carpet at the Launch Party event

As a filmmaker from Los Angeles, I didn't really know what to expect - from Iowa, from the festival, but most importantly, from the audience. I wasn't sure a midwestern audience would really click with a film as weird and eerie as mine. My fear was that perhaps they would lack the imagination necessary to truly appreciate a film like EMIT. And I am incredibly humbled to report, it was quite the opposite. It was not the audience, but yours truly, who lacked the imagination. I gave into ignorance, and let stereotypes dictate possible outcomes. My misconception was shattered, when all three of my screenings were packed. Not only that, my film got a rousing round of applause each time, and I was welcomed to the forefront for filmmaker Q & A sessions after (and everyone stayed).

It was at these Q&A sessions that I realized something beautiful. Unlike Los Angeles, or New York, which are considered "Industry towns" -- where audiences are used to (if not programmed) watching movies to tear them down... to criticize them... or to find some kernel of imperfection -- in this small town in Iowa, my movie was watched and welcomed for its merits. Nobody came into the screening with any set expectation.

But most refreshing for me, were the questions I was asked. Mostly, in "film towns" you're asked questions about the budget, or schedule, or how did you get your movie made, where did you get the money, how did the VFX work etc. Very specific and craft driven questions. However, at all three screenings, the questions I was asked in Dubuque, were about the story, the characters, the themes. Some asked me what had inspired me to make this movie? Others compared it to The Twilight Zone (a comparison that absolutely floored me - high praise in my book).

Thus I wanted to take a moment to thank every person that came out to a screening of the short films, or who stopped me in the streets to say - "we liked your film". It was a very eye-opening experience, and has taught me not to ever judge an audience.

As filmmakers, we make our movies in almost a vacuum -- writing it on our laptops, producing them in some locations that aren't accessible to the general public, editing and finishing them in small rooms. So when a film's done, it's great to see it take on a life of its own.

And so, as my film travels from Dubuque, Iowa, to Athens, Greece, Newport Beach, California, and London, England, I'm going to hope that it connects with each audience... and I know that no two screenings will ever be the same.

~J S Mayank

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


 Last semester I taught an undergrad screenwriting course at a college in Los Angeles with 13 students, nine of whom were girls and four were boys. The girls were interested in character and story. All four boys were trying to be Quentin Tarantino. Poor Quentin Tarantino. To think he’s going to have all that competition. On the other hand, he needn’t worry because none of these four young hopefuls had a clue what it means to be Quentin Tarantino. They all thought it meant to write lots and lots of violence.
Actually, a computer could do that quite easily. But it wouldn’t be a script, it wouldn’t have a story or characters, and it wouldn’t capture what makes Quentin Tarantino so special. His incredible talent is not writing violence, it’s writing the longest, quietest, most compelling scenes and sequences of suspense imaginable. It’s impending violence that puts us on the edge of our seat, not the explosions and blood that might follow.
No one has written a more nerve-racking, spine-tingling experience than the opening sequence of “Inglorious Basterds.” In it the renowned “Jew-hunter” Nazi Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) spends a long, long time chatting with French farmer LaPadite. Meanwhile we in the theater can hardly breathe it is so suspenseful. Why? Because the camera dollies down beneath the floorboards, and we see huddled there in the grimy depths the Jewish Dreyfus family. If we didn’t know they were there there’d be no suspense. But once we know, we dread what’s inevitably coming. We can’t wait to get it over with while simultaneously praying it will never happen. It gets more and more unbearable. And over time we relate and identify more and more with the people under the floor. They are us and we are them, as Col. Landa slowly and casually breaks down the farmer’s reserve, playing on his fear, making him understand the Nazis can keep coming back to his house or never bother him again.
Oh, my God! It’s getting closer. No! No! With a look, the farmer gives away the location of the family. Landa begins to leave. Maybe he didn’t notice. Maybe we’re free. The tension is relieved. And then…in the best Hitchcockian tradition, just when the tension has been relieved, the climax hits. Landa’s Nazi soldiers pour in and fire hundreds of rounds through the floorboards.
They kill all the Dreyfus family except for one young girl who escapes. And who takes us along with her into the movie that follows. It was all a preamble to a whole different story. But one we’ll never forget.
It took me a page to describe the sequence in detail, but it must be at least 15 minutes, maybe twice that in the movie. That is the genius of Quentin Tarantino. He holds us in the palm of his hand for as just long just as he likes. He can have two characters discuss what they call Big Macs in Paris and we lap it up because we know, he’s made us know, something sinister lurks around the next bend in the road.
In a much nicer, more civilized kind of way, it’s just what Alfred Hitchcock did in over 50 films over some 50 years. He invented many of the techniques that have become the norm in Hollywood films. The Jews under the floorboards come right out of Hitchcock’s boy unwittingly carrying a bomb onto a crowded bus.
We, the audience, need to know what the potential for violence is if we’re going to be affected by it, that is, if we’re going to feel the suspense. Hitchcock said he didn’t make mysteries. That isn’t true. He often did make mysteries. But he always made moves rife with suspense.
Screenwriters have choices to make time and again. Do you want to create surprise or suspense? Both are good in movies. The best surprise is the one we almost saw coming but not quite. It is inevitable while also completely unexpected. That’s how movie climaxes should feel when they’re working at their best. But surprise has its limitations. It only last a few seconds. We all gather in a room with Harry’s wife, turn off the lights and wait. The door opens and Harry enters, and we flip on the lights and all yell, “Surprise!” But then we see Harry has entered with his arm around his girlfriend. We’re the ones surprised. Especially Harry’s wife, who’s so mad she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. Surprise! Wow – three surprises in less than a minute. Pretty good writing there.
But the problem with surprises is they only last a few seconds. It took three of them to fill up less than a minute. Whereas suspense, as practiced so wonderfully by Quentin Tarantino, can last a lifetime. Or at least many minutes until it’s paid off, and we suffer through all those minutes. In a good way. And remember it for a lifetime. Since what we, an audience, want to experience in a movie is everything we don’t want to experience in our own lives. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
-          Bob Shayne

Thursday, March 7, 2013



For the last year, I've been working on a passion-project, a Sci-Fi short film entitled EMIT, about a world where time flows backwards. It's akin to a Twilight zone episode.

Having written the script for the short, and won a grand-prize at the TABLE READ MY SCREENPLAY, which took me to the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the next logical step was to try and make the film. And thus, my producers and I embarked on the long arduous fundraising process, were able to convince people of our vision, and now - I finally have a finished product.

I'm very excited to share the poster, and the trailer for the short film.

~ JS Mayank
MFA Screenwriting

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Be a lifetime (film, television and media) learner.

If you’re struggling with an element, scene, sequence or act of a movie or show you’re writing, stop.  Quit writing briefly and look back a few years or decades to previous material.

Scorsese, Coppola, and other great filmmakers never stop learning.  Watch the DVD or BluRay extras for any of their films where they share their studies with the disc viewing audience.

Got a problem with a part of your story?  You abhor taking the simple way out using voice over or character dialogue.  Take in a Buster Keaton film from the 1930s.  I recommend The General, or Steamboat Bill Jr.  Familiarize yourself with the ways and means of the masters of the silent era.  Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and others handled key components of their visual narratives before and during the advent of sound in motion pictures expertly.  Learn from the early greats.

Maybe you have problem with “on the nose” or unreal dialogue.  Watch a film, such as Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004) where characters say one thing and generally act out the opposite.  Download a screenplay written by Nora Ephron, Diablo Cody, Callie Khoury, Susannah Grant, Diana Ossana, Alan Ball or Paul Haggis to name a few.  Read such a screenplay; study it. Notice techniques, styles, and methods.  What do these writer’s characters say with their mouths?  What do they mean in their hearts?  Learn from the greats you know and don’t yet know but have heard of.

Ok your problem is writing a genre piece.  Maybe you didn’t want to end up there but nevertheless there you are.  Now you’re falling into all the associated pitfalls and clichés of that genre.  It’s a mess and you’re ready to give up.  Don’t.  Look for films that have busted, redefined, remade, or just bettered their respective genre.  Take Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), science fiction thriller right?  How about futuristic film noir?  Or Christopher Nolan’s Inception, its surely a sci-fi thriller too.  Right?  Or is it a heist movie?  Find and watch movies that stretch your idea of a given genre.  How did they do it?  Did they embrace cliché?  Did they redefine recognized characteristics?  How did they accomplish that?  Challenge yourself to research and study your genre or an unrelated one.  Either way, apply what you’ve learned to your work.

Set your writing woes aside. Read and watch.  With your lessons learned, inform your writing and eradicate your problems.  If writing is rewriting, then learning is relearning.  Become a student of film again, or do so for the first time.

Best regards,
Jack Lucido, M.F.A.
Associate Professor of Communication
Undergraduate Film Studies Director
MFA Screenwriting Track Coordinator
Western State Colorado University

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

                              A FEW THOUGHTS ON SCREENWRITING

I can’t speak for Mayank, but personally I got into screenwriting for the parties. So far though, I haven’t been invited to any. Well, maybe a few.

Dinah Shore invited me over for a movie screening at her house once and it turned out she needed me to run the projector. Well, not exactly, but I did rethread the film for her. I worked on Dinah’s TV show in my youth, and not too many years later I was walking along Broad Beach in Malibu and I went right past her without recognizing her. She yelled out to me, “Bob, Bob, it’s me, Dinah.” Rather embarrassing for me, and possibly for her. I’m so bad at recognizing people, the same thing happened with Pierce Brosnan, not once but twice. And I’d spent a week with him on the set of a “Remington Steele” I’d written a few weeks earlier. It also once happened with model-turned-actress Jennifer O’Neill WHILE she was starring in a TV series I was producing!

I’d like to say I didn’t recognize any of them because I was so busy writing a script in my head. But actually, it’s a physiological condition. All these years I thought I was just bad at recognizing people and remembering names. Then I saw a piece on it on “60 Minutes” and it turns out there are people who don’t recognize their own spouse if he or she changes their hairstyle or glasses frames. I suspect there’s a movie lurking somewhere in that bit of information. But I may not remember it long enough to write it.

Mayank has written that movies are about structure. And I concur. In fact, I used to try to show my undergrad students how important structure is to screenwriting by playing a little trick on them. I’d say, “OK, get out of piece of paper and a pen, or open your computer, get ready, now…write something wonderful.” They’d sit there with empty faces and empty sheets of paper. I’d leave that way for a good 15 second before I said, “OK, that’s almost impossible. But now, instead, write a limerick.”

That completely changed the situation. Those students who understood the structure of a limerick could write one, often a good one, in a couple of minutes. I stopped doing this exercise, however, because I found a good many of my 18-21 year-old college students had no idea what the structure of a limerick was. And having to explain and demonstrate it to them took much of the fun out of it for me.

But the point remains the same. Structure is not the enemy of creativity, it is the cradle of it. I have a few writer-friends who poo-poo structure. Who think that Blake Snyder and the others who write books on screenwriting structure are selling a formula that leads to crappy, boring, predictable scripts. I agree that it does, but only in the case of crappy, boring, predictable writers.

I began to notice the structure of movies long before anyone, let alone Blake Snyder, had written a book on it. And I learned my first lesson from Alfred Hitchcock. I’d be at a theater watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie and something would happen. I’d feel it in my bones. A shot of adrenaline would course through my system. I’d look at my watch. And lo and behold, it was ALWAYS exactly 30 minutes from when the movie had begun.

Once I was sensitized to it, I’d experience it in other directors’ films. And lo and behold, it was always 30 minutes in. Something had changed. I’d experienced some sort of, you should pardon the expression, climax. In a completely non-sexual sense. Years later I would learn, that’s called the turning point of Act One.

Every movie has that. And like it or not, it happens 30 minutes in whether the writer, the director and the editor of the film are consciously aware of it or not. Whether they set out to do it or not. It’s in their bones just like it’s in mine. And yours. Try it when you go to the movies. Or watch a DVD. You have to do it with a feature film, and it can’t be interrupted by commercials. I bet it’ll happen for you too.

And it’ll be an emotional, physical lesson in movie structure.

-          Bob Shayne