Monday, August 20, 2012

"A Screenwriting Template For Sure-Fire Success"

When you do well in television, movie opportunities inevitably come your way.  The offers take the form of both invitations to rewrite movies and the chance to pitch movie ideas of your own, sometimes not just to subordinates, but to the actual head of the studio. 

On one occasion…you know, this is how vague my memory is, the guy was either was either the president of Columbia Pictures or of Warner Brothers, my only excuse for this unclarity being that the two companies share a same studio lot in Burbank, so I know where I drove to, I just don’t remember who I met. 

The clear memory I do have? 

The memory of, at the end of a relaxed and cordial meeting, telling the president of either Columbia or Warner Brothers, “I will probably never see you again.”  Which, in fact, turned out to be the case. 

Though I wanted to be involved in the movie business to, for one thing, take advantage of the broader creative palette that movies provided, as opposed to the constricted boundaries of situation comedy, something inside me – it may have been my resounding lack of confidence – told me I never would.
Close calls?  Not many, but a couple.

I was asked by the producer of the Cannonball Run series – who had also produced The Godfather; go figure – to rewrite a “down-the-series” sequel – I believe it was Cannonball Run Five, though I admit I have trouble telling the Cannon Ball Runs apart. 

The producer was looking for more “character development” in the script.  After reading it, I informed him that, in my professional opinion, any “character development” would inevitably slow down the action.  It is possible the writer who accepted the assignment was able to shoehorn some “character development” between the cars  (or was it trucks?) flying through the air into a haystack but, for better or worse, the creative challenge would never be mine.   

Another time, with no advance warning, I got a call at home from Michael Douglas, asking me, in a disarmingly friendly tone – since I had never met the guy – if I would take a look at the Romancing the Stone sequel script. 

The original Romancing The Stone, credited to Diane Thomas, brought an appealing charm to the romantic-adventure genre.  The sequel was just “a lot of stuff happening in an exotic locale.”  As with Cannonball Run-I-don’t-know-what-number, a “character polish” was what Mr. Douglas was looking for. 

After reading the screenplay, which was quickly messengered to me, I informed Mr. Douglas, who was not only acting in but was producing the movie,  “I think it’s pretty good the way it is.”

Douglas thanked me, and hired somebody else.

Do I regret turning down these opportunities?  You know…from the perspective of “You never know what accepting an assignment is going to lead to”…yes.  But what are you going to do?  I lack the ability to see the big picture.  Which alone may explain my unsuccessfulness in movies.

My last opportunity – actually, I did this one, but I was entirely rewritten, and afterw0ards the feature film project was downgraded to “Movie for Television” – I will not go into the specifics about, or I will, but at some other time.  I mention it only because of what came up during the early stages of the assignment.  In fact, during the first meeting.  More specifically, as I was heading out the door.

I had the script I was hired to rewrite tucked comfortably under my arm; I was ready to go home, and get down to work.  Before I left, however, a studio executive interrupted my egress, pressing some stapled pages into my hand he insisted would be enormously helpful in my efforts. 

He actually went further than that.  The executive assured me that every successful movie – the most famous example being Star Wars – followed the exact same structural template. 

That template was codified on those stapled-together pages.

The pages now in my fortunate possession were either written by the famous and highly influential mythologist Joseph Campbell, or summarized from Campbell’s writings by a studio underling, possibly the executive who had pressed them into my hand.  

Speaking with Scientology-like intensity, the executive conveyed the message that all stories of a certain type – the type chronicling “a heroic journey” – or maybe all stories, for that matter – followed an identical trajectory.  I forget the specifics, but they involved “The Hero” pursuing some “unreachable” objective, meeting a sidekick, setting off on “The Journey”, falling down, getting back up…and some other stuff that I read, and then angrily dismissed.

Why did those pages send steam blasting out of my ears?  Somebody was telling me how to do my job.  I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake. 

I don’t need no stinkin’ template!  

The way I see it, writers start with a blank page, and after going deep inside themselves, processed through their unique and magical abilities, they emerge with a one-of-a-kind product that’s surprising and fresh and original and fun. 

This executive was telling me that writing was a “by-the-numbers” procedure, the writer merely adding moments of insignificant tinsel. 

The warning was resonating:  Deviate from the path set down in to those bullet-pointed pages, and

The outcome would be terminally flawed. 

I ignored the template, and wrote exactly what I wanted. 

My rewrite was received with unilateral disappointment.

Leaving the still unanswered question:

Was I wrong to have strayed from the formula? 

Or is it possible to stray from the formula, and I simply strayed from it incorrectly?

If there are screenplay writers out there, or just smart people, maybe you can clear that up for me.

Following a pre-determined roadmap didn’t seem like much fun.

But maybe it’s the only way to go.


Doug said...

Your story about the studio exec pushing the template on you causes me to examine the question of whether art can come from factories. Good art never comes from factories, it ends up on the wall of a Days Inn in Rapid City. Great art can com from factories when an artist sneaks out something he's been passionately working on during his lunch hour. I think most every great movie was made on some artists "lunch hour."

- Doug

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; now he'd just text you the link below to your smart phone. Although steeped in mythology didn't J.R.R. Tolkien deviate from the template in "The Lord Of The Rings"?


Anonymous said...

If you are actually interesting in writing movies, those "structure" templates can be invaluable, as long as you use them at the right time.

If you use the template before you've written a word, you will wind up with a formulaic screenplay.

If you don't use the template, you will wind up with numerous moments that don't click as well as they should, which you may or may not be able to figure out on your own.

What I find is that the "template" (in my case, it's the Save The Cat beatsheet, but it's whichever one clicks with *you*, there are plenty that tell you basically the same thing but in different ways) should be applied to the second draft.

Write the first draft, then lay it down next to the template. That way, you aren't saying "I need to create a mentor character," you're saying "Hmmm... if I had to say that somebody is the mentor, who is it?" "If the break into act two is supposed to take place on page 25, what is happening on my page 25 and how can I make that a stronger act break?" That sort of thing.