Sunday, June 13, 2010

Adventures in the Short Screenplay, Part I: The Joke, the Cliché and the Anecdote

Perhaps the best way to begin is with this honest statement: I am not a screenplay writer. I have no training in the theater. Sure, I've seen movies, and I've seen plays. I read a book last year on screenplay construction. But, I am not trained in any of it. When I think about it, the writing of screenplays, I think of it as on the job training, and I think of it like short stories brought to life. But of my qualifications I can say this, I've been writing screenplays. I knew I found my way home in the summer of 2009 when I was homeless, jobless and writing for the cartoons. Little did I know that writing for the screen would eventually pay. Oddly enough, I had a job earlier in the year writing a script for an informational video, and it paid pretty well too.
On the job training, for me, began at Rockethouse studios. It began in a bar and with a joke. The joke was something about two soldiers in a foxhole, one sandwich and one gas mask. It wasn't a very funny joke, and it wasn't a funny screenplay, and it did not become a funny film. But it had to begin somewhere. That somewhere was on an animation set. Sink or swim, right? And all I was given was Belgium, 1945, two soldiers and a not funny joke. Through that experience, short film construction, I developed so many ideas on how to write and how to convey story and the negative space in dialogue inside confines of short duration. As I began to watch short films, and act in a few, I realized the flaw many of them have. The largest flaw is that a lack of money becomes apparent in some films: lack of dialogue, dead end scenes, loss of vision. There is such a beautiful intended purpose in the short film which we will not overlook. Short films are a great way to pitch a feature film, and as far as the film festival circuit goes: short films are a great way to showcase a film crew's creative prowess. There is art for its own sake at stake here too. Anyone endeavoring in the short film genre must never lose sight of their intended purpose. Of course, I came to these ideas because I was forced to. Between the spring of 2008 and today, I had the opportunity to act in three short films, write four short film screenplays, and see one screenplay become a wonderfully popular short film. What I came to during these bits of the film making world is that the writing is important, a good script will lubricate the remainder of the process, and the construction must be solid, even if it's formulaic.
Now going back to the joke. Jokes are wonderful, aren't they. They are also very predictable. The construction typically is in threes (there's a brunette, a red head and a blonde) and each step builds toward a final climax that is often surprising or funny. Treating a short film, one that's less that ten minutes, in this way can be effective. I'll bring up Pastrami on Rye for that reason. The threes come like this: day, night, day again. Each scene includes a joke: barbers/doing women, testing the field manual/being a civilian and the gas mask/sandwich. The basic construction was very much like a joke. Although the punchline isn't intended to be funny.
If you can't write a joke as a screenplay, cliches work exceedingly well in short films too. Why? Cliches are cliches because they mean something to us. Case in point: every last love song we can think of, and how much we love them. When I say cliches are great, I am not suggesting that a maker of short films make something cliché, but rather, make use of the cliché. When I first saw Validation, I laughed, I cried and gained a new sense of humanity and love. There are at least two major cliches employed in this fantastic little film about love and self actualization. First: the parking attendant “validates.” Sure, he's validating parking tickets, and that's a funny enough idea in itself, yet as he does it, he validates all his customers. Beautiful. The second cliché: the boy meets girl. Okay, how many stories about love do we really need? All of them, I hope. This parking validation guy meets the photographer from the DMV and falls instantly in love. She's not having it. She's immune to smiling. She has no use for validation. Perhaps in her character we find another cliché? At any rate, watch it and try to count the number of cliches in this sixteen minute film. As you watch it, how does it make you feel?
Last, let's look at the anecdote. Many of these blog posts are anecdotal in their drive. Think about it, the stories we tell one another just keep going and going and going. Writers out there love this. New ideas for new stories? Everyday conversations and anecdotes. In the short film, the anecdote is probably the most powerful. A filmmaker, a writer of short films, and all the cast and crew involved can follow this formula. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. The entire screenplay is nothing more than a short anecdote set to life. In the film Death of the Tinman, the filmmakers use a character from L. Frank Baum, the Tinman, and lift him into a different scene. The overall plot of the film is simply: boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back. Each of these characters, even in the short time viewers get to know them are multifaceted, and visually appealing. We care about the characters. In eleven minutes we meet the three main characters, the main character's three groups: the fire department, the Men's choir and the church. There is back story, character development, conflict, resolution and all in such a short time. For the entire time this film goes on, I am always amazed by how much is really happening. The film accomplishes more in its short life than many feature length films do. And in a dark sort of way, it is funny. I always chuckle when Bill says: “How do you make somebody love you?” Paul: “You can steal from the rich and give to the poor.” Bill: “All right, I'll do it.” Paul: “I was joking.”
When it comes down to the construction of the short screenplay, the joke, the cliché and the anecdote are only suggestions. To begin, a writer must have the basic conflict and resolution in mind. The next step is to understand the medium. I work for an animation studio, after all, and my confines are very different from live action. There are some freedoms with GI Joe dolls and Barbies that a filmmaker can have. There are the obvious limits too. Next, the writer must have an accurate vision of what needs to happen. The old way of screenplay construction starts with two sentences: the premise, and the treatment. We'll discuss those more next time. Then, begin writing. Write it, rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it.
Next time: the short story and the novella into feature film. The basics of screenplay construction using examples. Animator's delight.
Special thanks to Rockethouse studios and Umbrella Factory Magazine and all the workshop participants for giving me the opportunity to teach this workshop.

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