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Posts Tagged ‘screenplay’

Favorite Screenplays

by Alysha Westlake

With the enormous success this past weekend of THE AVENGERS, written and directed by Joss Whedon of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER fame, I started thinking about my favorite screenplays. I enjoyed the witty quips of the superhero rag-tag Avengers crew, but is it this ah-mah-zing film everyone is making it out to be? With lines like, “Clench up, Legolas!” you can see why people loved the film. It’s witty and there is a huge directorial task to manage so many characters and story lines. But is THE AVENGERS an all time classic? I’m not so sure. The ultimate combination of witty dialogue, solid structure and memorable characters – seems to be the elusive triumvirate of filmmaking. Some of the scripts that articulate these qualities with their memorable writing are listed below – no offense to Thor or anything because after all he does sound like ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (oh Robert Downey Jr., we do love you so).

Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, dir. Darren Aronofsky
Right from the start, the opening pages of Black Swan suck you into an off kilter world of ballet and twisted familial relationships. Within those first few pages, the reader is filled with dread, expectation and intrigue. This is exactly what any screenwriting book – or any professional screenwriter or teacher will always tell you – “Grab your audience’s attention in the first ten pages.” The script for BLACK SWAN does this brilliantly – and is echoed onscreen by the visually disorientating cinematic style, creating a haunting and memorable film.

Except fromBLACK SWAN:

Nina rides inside a crowded subway, staring absentmindedly at her faint reflection in the train’s window.
Suddenly, another train roars by on the opposite track, snapping her awake.
In the next train car, she sees the back of a BALLERINA standing in the midst of the crowd. Her head bops to music playing through iPod earphones.
Nina moves a strand of hair out of her eyes, and at that exact moment, the girl in the next car moves in the same way. Mirroring her.
Unnerved, Nina slowly lowers her arm. So does the other girl. Although Nina can’t quite see her face, the girl seems IDENTICAL from Nina’s vantage point.

THE ICE STORM written by James Schamus, dir. Ang Lee
This brilliant script (adapted from Rick Moody’s best-selling novel of the same name) about the ennui of life in the suburbs and a search for meaning in 1970s America is still relevant today. James Schamus does a convincing job of articulating characters that have a comfortable existence, but are incredibly uncomfortable in their day-to-day lives. Schamus’ characters are complex and flawed – in all the ways we know ourselves to be – but don’t readily like to admit. We may not be throwing our keys into the punch bowl to ‘swing,’ but we’ve all had our moments of foolish mistakes and searching for meaning in our relationships.

Excerpt from THE ICE STORM:


The party progresses. Mikey and Sandy are lying on their
stomachs at the top of the stairs, out of sight.

And to think — they met at a key
party of all things.

A key party?

You know, it’s a California thing.
That scuzzy husband of hers dragged
her kicking and screaming to one
when they were out in L.A. you
know, the men put their car keys in
a bowl, and then at the end of the
evening the women line up and fish
them out and go home with whoever’s
keys they’ve got. Anyhow that’s how
she met this Rod person or whatever
his name is and he’s left his wife
and she’s packing for California.
Irwin is devastated. It’s so

ANNIE HALL written and directed by Woody Allen
This classic Woody Allen film, exploring the relationships of fraught New Yorkers, is written in his imitable neurotic style. His characters waning expectations regarding romance and life in general, mirror the equally vacillating environs of the place they call home, New York City. Woody Allen’s gift for memorable characters is only bested by his sharp, observational, often times biting description of people, places and philosophies. Diane Keaton set the world ablaze with her relaxed, Charlie Chaplin-esque fashion and Woody Allen inked himself on the minds of a million pretenders who wish they could articulate their life experience with the same kind of witty quips and asides. He broke down the forth wall, bringing the audience even closer to the character’s existential angst.

Excerpt from ANNIE HALL:


…Alvy and his best friend, Rob, deep in conversation. They eventually move
past the camera and off screen. Traffic noise is heard in the background.

Let’s get the hell outta this crazy city.

Forget it, Max.

-we move to sunny L.A. All of show business
is out there, Max.

No, I cannot. You keep bringing it up, but
I don’t wanna live in a city where the only
cultural advantage is that you can make a
right turn on a red light.

There are of course, many more brilliant scripts out there, too many to list in a few short paragraphs. Film writing that resonates with audiences is usually filled with characters that speak to our flaws, hopes, insecurities and triumphs. Yes, we love watching Mark Ruffalo turn into the Hulk and kick some butt in THE AVENGERS, but sometimes it’s great to see characters less green in their quest to find what ever it is they’re looking for. Maybe we’ll find what we’re looking for too in the shared humanity of great screenplays and writing. If not, there’s always IRON MAN 3.

Dealing With Rejection

I just counted up the number of rejections I received last week, by email and snail mail, and the total was eight. This was higher than normal, so it was definitely a banner week for my work to be passed on!

All of these rejections were for stage plays, both full-length and one-act, that I had submitted to a variety of theater companies and playwriting competitions across the country. This got me thinking about how my attitude towards, and response to, rejection has changed in the 25-plus years that I’ve been writing.

When I first started, fresh out of USC Film School, each rejection I received was extremely painful, like a dagger aimed straight at my heart. I was exclusively writing screenplays then, and every time one of my scripts was turned down by a studio or production company, it affected me profoundly. My typical response would be a deep melancholy that would last for several days. The rejection and the disappointment that accompanied it seemed to seep deeply into the marrow of my soul.

In retrospect, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was just starting out in my writing career and every script seemed precious. And it wasn’t just the script that was being rejected, it was me. Each rejection made me question whether I was really a writer or just another wannabe, a poseur.

In response to this crippling melancholia, I eventually evolved a different strategy for dealing with rejection – anger and dismissal. I built up a wall around my self-esteem by angrily dismissing whoever had rejected my script as an idiot or moron who was clueless about good writing. William Goldman’s famous dictum from ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, “Nobody knows anything,” became my mantra. In hindsight, I don’t think it was much of an improvement to be walking around angry and bitter for a few days, as opposed to sad and depressed.

Fortunately, as the years passed and I continued to write, each piece became a little less precious, each rejection less a personal affront. I began to inure to rejection and to see it as an inevitable part of a writer’s life. Writing stage plays really helped to bring this into focus because they are more of a renewable resource. Unlike a screenplay, a play is not limited to a single production.

All eight of the rejections I received last week were for plays that had previously been selected for production or for staged readings elsewhere. In other words, they had been winners of other competitions. One short play, ANYTHING ELSE?, had been one of six plays selected for production from 650 submissions in the 2010 Festival of One-Act Plays at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, New York. I hadn’t change a word of the play, yet it was turned down without comment last week by two other festivals. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious – it’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. Every reader brings a different taste to the task of script evaluation. This particular lesson was brought home to me in dramatic fashion last year after I submitted another short play, a dark comedy entitled THE SURPRISE PARTY, to the Dubuque Fine Arts Players (DFAP) in Iowa for consideration in their National Playwriting Contest.

The play was not selected, but as part of the process the DFAP sent me the actual critique sheets of the two readers who evaluated my work. (These sheets are akin to the coverage that screenplays receive). Each reader evaluated my play on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best) in 10 different categories, so the maximum possible score was 100.

The first reader gave my play a perfectly respectable overall tally of 70. But the second scored it with an execrable total of 12.5! That’s right – a total score of 12.5 out of 100, or an average of 1.25 out of 10 in each category. Reader Number 2 (I will refrain from calling him or her an idiot or a moron) obviously hated the play. Perhaps dark comedy doesn’t play as well in some quarters of Dubuque, Iowa as it does in New York City – THE SURPRISE PARTY was later selected from several hundred submissions and produced at the 2010 International Cringefest here in Manhattan. How to account for this? It’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. (This is my new mantra.)

I would be lying if I said that rejection had no effect on me these days. There is still genuine disappointment associated with it, but that seems normal to me. And it is usually brief, a matter of minutes rather than days. It is no longer crippling; it’s just a part of the process.

The gifted playwright and screenwriter John Guare gave this clearheaded assessment in a November 14, 2010 article in The New York Times:

“What a long career does give you, during the long nights of thinking and rewriting, is a healthy perspective: As writers, we’re always starting all over again,” Mr. Guare said. “That’s what I tell younger playwrights, that you have to learn how to live with despair, resentment, rejection and failure. Because if you can’t, you need to find another line of work.”

Sobering words, indeed, but somehow strangely inspiring. I have them framed above my writing desk.

Jeff Stolzer is a screenwriter, playwright and former question writer for Regis Philbin on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He is a proud member of the Writers Guild since 1991.