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