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Screenwriting Books You Need to Read – Top Ten List

1) Screenplay by Syd Field

The first book I ever read about screenwriting. Syd Field is the forefather of the how-to for screenwriting. He cracked the code of the three-act structure and paved the way for all other screenwriting gurus that would follow. As far as I know, he created the terms like “turning points,” and “pinch”, and much of the language that screenwriters use to describe elements and devices used in their scripts(FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

2) Story: by Robert McKee

Immortalized by the film Adaptation, McKee delves deeply into the components necessary for making a great script. I find his principles of “controlling idea” (which closely resembles Lagos Egri’s concept of “premise” in The Art of Dramatic Writing) and “gap between expectation and result” incredibly useful. I always turn to McKee’s teachings for guidance. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

3) The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Vogler takes the workings of Joseph Campbell about myth and archetypes and breaks it down into easy to chew, bite-size portions. What makes Campbell so special? His writings about the universal appeal of mythological tales have inspired many other storytellers to create great pieces of work with timeless resonance — does George Lucas ring a bell? (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)


4) Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger

Seger’s book I found as a great companion piece to Syd Field’s Screenplay. What I particularly like from this book is her method of ramping up conflict by the use of “obstacles,” “compilations,” and “reversals.”

Also, check out Linda’s amazing podcast interview here: Making a Good Script Great with Linda Seger (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

5) Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

You can see echoes of all the other aforementioned writers in this book. What I like about Save The Cat is that it’s a stripped-down, fun read with a lot of helpful information. I especially appreciate Snyder’s Beat Sheet which shows with almost page number accuracy where to place those particular plot moments that help keep your story moving. Some might find it formulaic, but I think it functions very well and points to exactly the kind of scripts Hollywood has come to expect from writers. One of the best screenwriting books. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

6) How Not to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flynn

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out on how to write a screenplay along comes this book to point out where you may have gotten it wrong. Despite the length of the title, it’s a quick read and VERY illuminating. As I skimmed through the examples of what not to do, I discovered what I was doing right, and most importantly what I was getting wrong. They say you learn from your mistakes, and reading this book sure helped to show how. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

7) The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats by Cole Haag

This book was a required textbook back when I was at film school. Some of the formatting suggestions may be a little outdated, especially if you have Final Draft or Movie Magic screenwriting software, but there’s still a ton of knowledge to be gained about proper formatting. The quickest way to spot a novice writer is by how unprofessional their script is formatted — this book shines a light on the Hollywood standard. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

8) The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier

Not only do I dig this guy’s first name, but I found his book to be more current as far as the conventions of formatting. It covers a lot of ground with how to write a screenplay and everything else that goes with being a screenwriter and Filmtrepreneur, like how to register your script and how to write a query letter to literary agents. It’s a broad overview, but one of the most informative screenwriting books. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

9) The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

This is actually a book for the aspiring playwright, but most if not all the principles can apply to screenwriting. Egri gives examples of poorly constructed scenes and explains why they don’t work — then compares and contrasts against scenes that do. This is one of my favorite books, and one I strongly recommend. One of the best screenwriting books out there. (FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE)

10) The 101 Habits Of Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias

(FREE AUDIOBOOK VERSIONS HERE) Have you ever wondered how successful writers do it? If you’ve reached this point on my top ten, I would say, “of course you do!” There are good work regimens and not so constructive methods. This book gives us a glimpse into how the top Hollywood writers work, how they fight writer’s block, as well as deal with the daily grind of writing. I found it very insightful and definitely worthwhile. 


BONUS: Pulp Fiction – The Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino

A must-read for any screenwriter. Tarantino…nuff said! These are our Top Ten Screenwriting Books You Need to Read. We hope they help you on your journey as a screenwriter. Remember just keep writing! 


David R. Flores is a writer and artist (aka Sic Monkie) based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the comic book series Dead Future King published by Alterna Comics and Golden Apple Books. Website: www.davidrflores.com & www.deadfutureking.com

Transcript for Robert McKee Interview:

Alex Ferrari 0:04
I'd like to welcome to the show, Robert McKee. How are you doing, Robert?

Robert McKee 0:08
Very well, very well. Thank you.

Alex Ferrari 0:10
Thank you so much for coming on the show. I am have been a fan of your work for quite some time. I've read your first two books, and I'm looking forward to reading your new one, which we'll talk about later character. But I was first introduced to your work in the film adaptation like so many. So many screenwriters and filmmakers were how, by the way, how, how was that whole process? I mean, it was a very odd request, I'm sure that you got when you got that call?

Robert McKee 0:40
Well, it certainly was, my phone rang one day and producer named Ed Saxon calling from New York and, and he said I am mightily embarrassed. This is a phone call I've dreaded. We've got this crazy screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and, and he has made you a character in his screenplay, and he has freely cribbed from your book and from your lectures, and he has no permission to do either. And, but we don't know what to do. So I said, well, send me a script, you know, I'll you know, see what's going on. So they sent me a script, and I read it. And I saw immediately that he really needed my character as a central to the film, because he wants me to, he wanted my character to represent the the imperatives of Hollywood. And that you have to do certain things certain ways, blah, blah, blah. And, you know, which is on one level nonsense. Such rules, they their principles, and there's genre convention, but anyway, but so I was a typical kind of need to slander Hollywood in favor of the artist. And, and they wanted me to do the slandering. So, but I realized that without my character there to provide some source of conflict. The story didn't work at all. So I said, and so I tell you what, I made two phone calls. I called William Goldman. And I said, Good, he was, you know, a student of mine. And I said, Bill, they there's a film and they want to use me as a character in it. What do you think? And he said, Don't do it. Don't do it. He said, it's Hollywood. And he said, they're out to get you don't do it. I said, Yeah, but I'm okay. But suppose I had casting rights. And he says, Okay, okay, who do you want? I said, Well, let's say Gene Hackman, is it? Okay. Okay. It'll be Gene Hackman, with a big pink bow around his neck. If they want to get you, Bob, they're gonna get you don't do it. So then I called my son. And I said, Paul, you know, and he said, do it. I said, Why isn't because Dad, it's a Hollywood film, you're gonna be a character in the Hollywood film. And he said, it'll be great. Do it. So I talked to Ed Sachs, and I said, Kenny, three things. One, I need a redeeming scene. I said, you know, you want to slander me fine. But then you can't leave it at that. You got he got to give me a redeeming scene. Right? To I have to have the controller the casting, I won't tell you exactly who to cast. But you got to give me a list because I ended need to know their philosophy. I mean, for all I knew this was the Danny DeVito Dan Ackroyd School of casting,

Alex Ferrari 4:28
you know, fair enough.

Robert McKee 4:31
I said, and very importantly, the third act sucks. And I cannot be a character in a bad movie. So we need meetings, they're going to have to be willing to rewrite. And, and those are my three conditions. And, and they agreed to them. And, and so they sent me a casting they gave me my redeeming scene and then they they they sent a list. Have the 10 best middle aged British actors alive? You know, everybody from Christopher Plummer to Alan Bates and I, and and I looked at the list. And I said, I want Brian Cox. And they said, Who's Brian Cox? And I said, He's the best British actor you don't know. Because Brian had been a student of mine up in Glasgow, and I'd seen him on stage in the West End of London and, and what I didn't want, see all those actors. They're all wonderful. But there's always actors have this Love me Love me thing, no matter what they want to be loved. And there's always this subtext like my heart's in the right place. And I really, you know, and I don't want to be loved. I really don't want to be respected, I want to be understood. And I want to inspire people and educate, but I do not want a bunch of people following me around like a guru. Right, loving me, right? And I knew that Brian would not do that. And, and then we had meetings and about the Act Three, and eventually got to a never got to a perfect accuracy. But it got to a point where I could sign off on so and it was, so they took my son to a screening at so at Sony and I said, you know, we think ball, and he said, Dad, he said, Brian Cox nailed you. Which I thought was great. So you know, and it was, it was, but that's not the, you know, I was I put myself in a funny date. So it's not just, but yeah, it was, um, it was a difficult choice. But I think William Goldman was wrong, that, you know, there was a way to you have your cake and eat it too. And I think an adaptation is loved. Oh, and millions and millions of people. So, so it certainly didn't hurt my brand.

Alex Ferrari 7:20
It didn't hurt your brand or business, I'd imagine. It's the term irony comes to play where you would be working with Charlie Kaufman, on a script, where your character is the establishment that he's trying to get away from and to give art but yet you are working with him to put the script together and finish the third act, which is amazing. Charlie,

Robert McKee 7:42
Charlie's one of those guys. He's got, you know, a great talent. But he's a bit delusional. What he wants to achieve is the commercial art movie. He wants it both ways. He wants to be known for making art movies, but they have to make money too. And a lot of it because he knows that, you know, his career. If he loses money, it's over. And so and, and so he wants to he wants to create the commercial art movie and a salsa dance understood, you know, things, the notion of the commercial art movie, you know, the, the, the English Patient and films like that. And I you know, in the meetings with a spike and and, and, Charlie, I, you know, I pointed out to Charlie, so you can't have it both ways. It's a you, you know, you if it's a true art movies have a very limited audience period. And art filmmakers understand this. And they budget accordingly. You want 30 million

Alex Ferrari 8:59
for an art film?

Robert McKee 9:03
Was 5 million we could, but Okay, so anyway, but it was. Yeah, the irony of it is wonderful.

Alex Ferrari 9:10
So, so you've worked with so many screenwriters and filmmakers over the course of your career, what is the biggest mistakes you see screenwriters, new screenwriters to the craft make?

Robert McKee 9:24
Well, it's not mistake so much. Yeah, I guess it is a mistake. But, uh, there's two problems. One is cliches. And they think that it that they want to be, you know, like an artist, they want to be original, but at the same time, they want. They want to be sure that it works. And so they recycle the things that everybody's always done. And they've tried to recycle them with it. difference and which is absolutely necessary, I mean, that's I get it, you're not going to reinvent the wheel, you have to just spin it yet another way. And, but then they get very easy once they sell their soul. It's hard to get it back. And, you know, you can pour on your soul for a while, but you've got to get the cash to get back. And, and so that's the war on cliches is not some, you know, it's not a fault, it's just a problem everybody faces. And, but there's a greater problem. And it's the willingness to lie. In an effort to tell their story to get it out, somehow they get it together. And they will write characters and scenes, and whatever that that lack credibility that they know perfectly well, in their heart of hearts is pure corn of some kind. And it's a it's, they're bending the truth. It's not it's, there's something false to some. And, and, and to, to, to get to something that is really profoundly honest. And it doesn't matter what the genre is, from action, to comedy. to, to a you know, as an education plan, something very interior doesn't matter what the genre is, there's truth, and then there's lie. And somehow they think that because it's fiction, that gives them a license to lie. But but they don't have that license, they have a an obligation to express the truth of what it is to be a human being and in whatever genre, they're they're writing, they have a, they have a an obligation, if they're writing comedy, to really stick a knife in some sacred cow and expose the bullshit of society. I mean, they, you know, it's not enough to be amusing. comedy is a is an angry art, that savages, all those things that, that that that are false in life, and starting with politics. Right. And, and so there's they, there's a willingness to, to fit and lie and in order to please that, okay, let me take a step back. I bulldozing cliches and truthfulness are all the byproduct of the young writer, especially the young writers desire to please they want to be loved, they want people to love what they do they want to please people. And so they write what they think, is pleasing for people, whether it's all the cards in fast and furious. Right, or the sentimentality or whatever they want to please people and and which is fine, but you can't please everybody and so you're going to write for a certain mind a certain audience a certain mentality and an educational level and taste and whatnot in a certain group of people that you know, are out there, they're like you pay and and you can't please everybody. And and so, a film like for example, Nomad land is certainly not trying to please there's an audience for it, that will get it and enjoy it and and recognize this as a deep truth about our society and about human nature.

But it's, it's not going to have a mass audience. And because it will turn off more people than it will turn out. And, but it's, it's a excellent film is an honest film. So that's the I think it's fishing around here. Because when you open the door and say, you know whether

Alex Ferrari 14:53
you're wrong, there's 1000s of things

Robert McKee 14:57
to bring up, but if I can do it down, it's that it's that the willingness to please results in recycling cliches, and basically not telling the the, the, the dark truth of things. And so you have to be it's tough, you have to be disciplined not to copy other people's success, but to, to write what you honestly believe to be the

errors in the central new genre.

And, and be rigorous about that.

Alex Ferrari 15:36
Now, one of the the hallmarks of a good story is conflict. How do you create conflict in a story?

Robert McKee 15:46
Well, depends on where you start. If you start with a choice of genre, let's say you're going to write a thriller. Right? You know, the source of conflict immediately by that choice. I need some kind of psychopathic villain. Right? I need Russell Crowe, in unhinged. Why? And so that's done for you. So that the genre sort of automatically tells you, right, on the other hand, if you're telling a family story, and that will be called domestic. Until the characters are a family and it's a family with problems, wow. The conflict could come from any direction. Who's with? Is it the mother? Is it the father? Is that rebellious children? Is it Whose is it? Some some, you know, older grandfather grandmother figure that's pulling people strings, and you know, whatever, given a family what's wrong with this family? And so you have to figure out what is it and is it social, or psychological? Is it instinctive is a deliberate you have to think your way through all that. And so you, you you start with a family and you create a little you know, a cast? And then and then you ask the question or what's wrong with this family. And a million different things can be wrong in human nature inside of a family. And that requires knowledge, you have to understand people, you have to understand that you know, the mother, daughter, mother, son, Father, daughter, Father, Son relationships, and, and you need to dig into your own experience. And ask yourself, you know, what was wrong in my family? What What do I believe, to be the truth about families? And, and, and that the genre doesn't give you that answer. And so, you have the answer will come from your depth of understanding of human nature, human relationships of a certain personal kind in this case. And, or if you're writing comedy, so as mentioned, the starting place of writing a comedy is to ask yourself what is pissing me off? What in this world is pissing me off? Is that relationships? Is it men women? Always it? Is that the is that the the the the social networks? Is it is it politics? Is it the military? Is it the church? Why what what is what what do I hate? What's pissing me off? Because the root of comedy is is anger. The comic mind is an angry idealist comic comics are idealists who want the world to be perfect or at least and when they look around the world they see where sorry, sick one place it is. And, and they realize that they're complicit, they're part of it too. And so what spacing me off then it points them in a direction to an institution or behavior in society. me like I think that great comedy series. Curb Your Enthusiasm. You know, and, and, and yes, you know, what is pissing me off and he will finds really egregious fault in, in, in people's lack of propriety. Or, or logic or clarity of thought, you know, why should there be a handicapped stall in toilets? Right that no one can use except the two times a year that a handicapped person comes into this particular toilet. Okay. Right. That is

Larry David, that is an egregious absurdity and it infuriates him. And so he goes into the handicap stall, and sure shit, this is the day

a guy in a wheelchair. So, um, so that, you know, that that's, those are the various things, you know, you, you look at yourself, as a writer, and you you have to understand your vision of life, you have to understand the genres. When you make a choice, there's certain conventions. And, and a, you can bend those conventions, what breaker if you want, but not without an awareness of what the audience expects. And so somehow, it'll between picking the setting and the cast, the genre, and then looking inside of yourself, like your comic wouldn't ask you what's pissing me off? You find your way. If I if you're in conflict, and the the most importantly, you know, it has it that you know that that conflict has to be something you deeply believe in. Now, or, or you will do what we were talking about earlier, you will fall prey to cliches because you'll you'll create false conflict, false antagonist empty, a cliched antagonisms. And like that. So it's a very important question. Now.

Alex Ferrari 22:28
So as far as one thing a lot of a lot of screenwriters try to get away from is structure, saying that structure and trying to fall into side of a structure is, it's like holding me back as an artist and I need to be free and I need to run free like a wild stallion, I personally find structure to be very freeing, because it gives me a place to go. How do you approach structure?

Robert McKee 22:55
Well, in this day, people have a course accused me of imposing structural rules in my teaching, and it's nonsense. When

I am opposed to structure, it's inhibiting my creativity do not know what the hell they're talking. They just don't they use the word structure. But they wouldn't understand or know story structure, if it fell from a height under their foot, okay, they just don't know what they're talking about. structure in every scene, ideally, is a turning point of some magnitude, the character's life, they go into a situation wanting something. And something in that moment, kind of prevents them from getting it. They struggle with that. And they either get what they want, or they don't get what they want. Or they get it at a price or they don't get it but learn something. Change takes place. And it's in a simple scene is minor. And then these changes per scene build sequences in which moderate deeper change wider change happens, these sequences build x in it. And then that climax is a major turning point that has greater depth or greater breadth or both have impact on a character's life. And so minor moderate major changes are building a story progressively to an absolute irreversible change at climax. Now, why would anyone object to what I just said? Why would anyone think that you can change Do concrete scenes in which nothing changes. And do that three scenes in a row and people will not be walking up. They come there, they come to the writer, they read a novel, kind of trying to have insight into life as to what forces in life positive and negative, bring about change outwardly or inwardly in characters lives. I mean, that's why we go to the storyteller. And so and so why would you not want change? Or why would you want repetitious change? Because the same change degree of change, that happens three times in a row, you know, we're bored. So because it's not giving us what we want, it's not giving us the insight that into character that we want. And so people who say they're opposed to structure don't understand what structure is it they don't understand, it's a dynamic and a progression of minor moderate major changes. And so I have no patience with that kind of ignorance. Hear the people who say that are the very naive, ignorant, really, people who think that if they just open up their imagination, emotion, picture will flow out of it.

Alex Ferrari 26:30
Very true.

Robert McKee 26:32
And, and they are childish in that way. I mean, you open up your imagination and see what flows out, then you have to go to work on it. And you have to step back from every, every time you you know, or let me put you this way. What in truth is it to write? What is writing actually, like, as an experience, you open up your imagination, and you have an idea for a character or two or three, and you write a page, things happen? Action reaction dialog, that when you write a page, that takes 20 minutes, then what do you do? You read that page? And you could take it does this work? would he say that? Would she act like that? would this happen with it? Is there a better way to do this? And is this repetitious? Is there a hole does it make sense, you constantly critique what you've written, and you go back, and you rewrite it. And then you read it, again, you critique it again. And this goes on all day long. And so you go inside to create, you go outside to critique, you create, your critique you curate, and the quality of your critique that guides your rewriting is absolutely dependent on your understanding to make judgments, when you ask the question, does this work? You have to know what works and what doesn't work. And, and so that on one level, everything you do is structure. Its structured to have a character say x and another character respond with y that structure action reaction, that the person who said x did not expect to hear why

Alex Ferrari 28:36
right exit Exactly.

Robert McKee 28:39
And that structure that beat of act reaction and human behavior, that structure. So is I said, People say this, say it out of out of emit amateur understanding of what the creativity, what the act of writing really is.

Alex Ferrari 29:07
And I, whenever I've come up against that, when I say no, every you know, every movie has some sort of structure. Most movies, especially popular movies have structure. And your definition of structure is wonderful. They always throw out Pulp Fiction, and I'm like, no Pulp Fiction is an extremely structured film. Do you agree?

Robert McKee 29:28
Yeah. I've when I was we were talking about when I was when they were doing adaptation, and I was working with Charlie Kaufman. Charlie had exactly that attitude. I said, the third act doesn't work. We have to restructure it. And in the end is his face went into a panic mode. He didn't want you know, scared the hell out. He said, I know. I know that. It needs some, you know, just it'll come to me it was a clo and whatnot. And it's as easy as I don't write with structure. He said that I don't write with structure. I said, Charlie, would you like me to lay out the three act design of being john malkovich as because it's a three act, play, want to hear them, act 123. And, and he almost ran out of the room. He didn't want to hear it. He wants to live in the delusion that it somehow flows, and there is no structure. And when in fact, subconsciously, at least being john malkovich is a three activist

Alex Ferrari 30:48
is a great, it's

Robert McKee 30:50
a model, it's a model, BJ Mack is a model three act design. But it's but to the romantic like, Charlie, he doesn't want to hear it. Because he thinks that that's going to constipate his creativity. And I have to agree with it. If he wants to write out of this notion that it's all a flow. And if he is aware that there's a, that there's a design happening, it would, it would inhibit him. So it's because he's a good writer, he's very talented. So it would be better for him to live in that delusion, and let it all pour out. And then he goes back, and his taste guides the rewriting and so forth. And, and, and so if you're talented, like Charlie and, and the idea of structure is frightening, then you should listen to those feelings. And not think about structure and just, you know, do what you do, and hope it works.

But

that's rare.

Alex Ferrari 32:10
Very, very, very rare. But yeah, but and so for everyone listening, you have to understand that someone like Jeff Hoffman is writing. And as he's writing, he's subconsciously working within the three act structure, honestly, on a subconscious level. And even the great writers is like, Oh, I never even think about outlining or plotting, is because they have such a grasp of the craft, that it's already pre wired in them. It's like me building a house, I wouldn't even think twice about how to pour a foundation, or how to how to how to lay out the walls, because I've done it a million times. I don't have to sit there and think about it, it's just done. But that is rare, and it takes sometimes years to get to that place or you're a prodigy, which happens once in a generation or twice in a generation.

Robert McKee 32:57
And and you're absolutely right. That's very, very well put and, and in fact, it goes beyond that you have been watching the stories on screen you have been reading them in novels, you've been to the theater, that form form is a better word than structure that form of action, contradictory reaction and reaction to that and a giant dynamic of action reaction building to change that is so built into you as a as a reader as an audience member from I don't know two three years old. Mother read your little you know, bunny rabbit stories, right? Your bunny rabbit goes out and something happens that not happy for the bunny rabbit and then you know of bunny rabbits mother comes along and pictures things whatever it takes, I mean that that form is ingrained in you from from the earliest. And so you do know it?

Alex Ferrari 34:08
Without question. Now you do more dialogue is something that is you've wrote an entire book dedicated to dialogue. Obviously, your first book is story. But your second book is dialogue. What are the three functions of dialogue in your opinion?

Robert McKee 34:25
Well, there's many of them and certainly one of them is is the obvious one of exposition by various means. So for examples simple in writing dialogue, a character has a certain vocabulary so for example, you you've done construction on houses, right? Some sure I And so how many different kinds of nails Do you know? From spiked to tact of,

let's say 10? Yeah. Okay. Now most people may know, to me one nail on a screw, basically, that's all they know.

Okay. So if if in there, if a character in their dialogue uses the, the carpenters terminology. And even metaphorically, you know, call something a five, many nail, right? The fact that he knows the difference between a temporary nail and pipe and whatever it is, his exposition is it tells us something about the life of this character, by the very word, the names of things that that this character uses in their vocabulary helps us understand the whole life of this character. So if somebody grew up, you know, around boats, and they use nautical terminology, right? And so that they the language inside of the dialogue, all that just the vocabulary alone gives us exposition, it tells us who is this character? What's their life been like? Etc. Okay, then, at the same time, the characters talking about things that are happening, or have happened. And when somebody says, you know, you're not going to leave me again, we are to instantly know, that's it, she's already left them once, at least before

Alex Ferrari 36:46
it says it says volumes with one word.

Robert McKee 36:49
Yeah, there's no word again. But so we have an insight into what their life has been like, in this relationship. And so that's number one is is, is exposition. And number two is action. When people speak, what they say, is an action they take in order to get what they need and want in the moment, but underneath that is what they're really doing. And it's what in the subtext, the action they take in the subtext is what's driving the scene? So when somebody says, Well, I didn't expect that. Right? What they're really doing, perhaps, depending, right, is attacking, criticizing the other person for doing something that's completely inappropriate. What they say is, well, I didn't expect you to say that I didn't expect you to do that. I didn't expect that. But what that is, is a way of attacking another person for inappropriate behavior. And so it's right. And so and so the dialogue is the text by which people carry out actions. But underneath the dialog, is the true action. And it that's based on a common sense, understanding that people do not say out loud and do out what they're really thinking and feeling. They cannot, no matter how they try, if they're when they're, when they're pouring their heart out and confessing to the worst things they've ever done. There's still another layer, where they're actually begging for forgiveness, let's say, right? So by confessing, actually, you're begging for forgiveness or whatever it is. And so dialogue is the outer vehicle for interaction. And, and the great mistaken dialogue is writing the the interaction into the dialogue. stead of having somebody confess, did they beg Please forgive me, please forgive me, forgive me, forgive me. Right. And, and if somebody is actually begging, there's got to be another level of what they're really doing underneath the baking. And, and so you have to, you know, the writer has to think to that by begging. What that dialogue is actually a mask for manipulating that person. Do what you have to do, right. And so, exposition, action. Okay. And then, you know, just beauty. Just Just wonderful dialogue, in character, and all that, but but a way of creating a surface that is that it draws us. Because, you know, we just love to see scenes where characters speak really well. in there. And even though even if we're using just gangster talk, good gangs, your dog, it's right to talk to each other and that kind of rap and that kind of unite. Right? That's, that's a form of beauty. It's wonderful, you know, it's pleasurable, right. The dialogue ultimately ought to be pleasing, and in his sense of kind of verbal spectacle. And so that's just, you know, that just three off the top of my head functions, but there's is there's much more right and I, I like I'm sure like you, we all love. Wonderful, memorable quotable dialogue.

Alex Ferrari 41:24
Yeah, very much like it's so obviously Tarantino and Sorkin and Shane Black and these kind of screenwriters, their dialogue is just, it's poetic in the way that they write something, certainly is, certainly, and the genius of them is they're able to do the first two things you said, within that poetry, as opposed to just poetry for poetry sake,

Robert McKee 41:46
which is, you know, that is that just decorative. They all happens all at once. You know, you're getting exposition, see who these characters are, whatever actions or reactions are driving the scene, and it's a pleasure to listen to.

Alex Ferrari 42:03
Now, one thing I've noticed in years and even in my own writing descriptions, in a screenplay, a lot of screenwriters, when they starting out, they feel like it's a novel. So, they will write a very detailed description about a scene or about something, where from my understanding, over the years, less is more and it becomes more of a of an exercise in Haiku is than it is in the novel writing. Can you kind of talk a little bit about the importance of of compacting your description?

Robert McKee 42:37
Well, it does need to be economical. Of course. On the other hand, it has to be vivid,

Alex Ferrari 42:44
right?

Robert McKee 42:46
And that's, you know, where does that balance strike you that the ambition is to project a film into the readers head. So that when they read their screenplay, they see a motion picture without camera directions without you know smash CUT TO for transitions and, you know, Dolly on and you know, and you know, pull focus, whatever nonsense, you got to use the language and description to create the effect of a motion picture, then you only use ideally, you only use the master shots, it you you only the the the shots, the angles, the setups, camera setups that are absolutely necessary. And no more you do not try to direct the film. And, and instead, you project a motion picture into the readers head. And, and, and so you need to it over, often in overriding and when, in fact, was not only overwritten, but it's not vivid. It's because writers rely on adjectives and adverbs. And what they need is to know the names of things. You know, he, he, he picks up what we're talking about before a big nail. Well, you know, big is an adjective. And so, put an image in the readers head, he picks up a spike. Spike is a vivid image. A he, he walks slowly across the room, will slowly is an adverb. Right? Right. And so you name the action of verb is the name of an action. He pads across the room he ambles, he strolls he saunters. He you know, Waltz's is an active verb without an adjective, adverb, concrete nouns without adjectives. And we see things and we see actions. And it becomes vivid. It reduces the word count. And, and here's here's something a good it's a good note for writers take your screenplay. And, and search the verb is or our urge is an are throughout your descriptions and eliminate every single one of them. know things are nothing is in a screenplay. Everything in a film is alive. And action. So you know, a name the thing. So a line like a big house, there, there is a big house on a hill.

Okay.

And what's a big house a mansion or a state? a villa? What's a, you know, a hill, a mountain. At add and add and turn it into a villa sits just that verb sits is more active than is a big house sits with a spectacular with this spectacular view. And so easy, a big house up high with a great view. And it's an image and it's active, it sits sprawls across, whatever. And so active verbs concrete nouns, and and make us see a movie. And every writer finds every good writer finds their own personal way to do that. And Paddy Chayefsky wrote elaborate descriptions. Harold Pentre described, nothing, nothing. He would just go interior kitchen dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, describe nothing. And because his attitude was, we all know what a kitchen looks like. And they'll probably play it in the garage anyway. But if they mess if they mess with my beats of action reaction and you know, in dialogue, then they're in trouble. Okay, so every writer has to find their own way to accomplish the task of a vividly projecting emotion picture in the imagination, as you turn pages who make them see a movie.

Alex Ferrari 48:23
Now, your new book is called character. And I wanted to ask you a couple questions in regards to character because, arguably, I always like to ask the question, do you start with plot or you start with character I always say to people, you don't like Indiana Jones, his plots aren't nearly as memorable as Indiana Jones James Bond's plots aren't as memorable as James Bond. Like I don't you throw me the plot of thunder ball. I don't remember. I remember scenes, but I do remember James Bond. And that's what draws me back to his stories. So, can you talk a little bit about the difference between roles and character?

Robert McKee 48:58
Well, a role is a generic term. And so hero is a role villain is a role victim is a role. You know, sidekick is a roll. goon is a roll. shopkeeper his role in the role is as a position in a in a cast. as defined by its relationship to other characters, and or a profession. Like waiter, asked driver. And, and they're generic, they wrote something waiting to be filled by a character. And as a character comes into a story to fulfill a certain role but it's a it's a You know, it's it's a, it's a generic to that to that genre. And so if you have a family, the roles are mother, father, children guide, they're okay, those are roles, characters are our unique human beings, we inhabit those roles. And and there's a design of a cast, such that the protagonist, and the central character at role is the most complex character role. And they are they, they're, depending on the genre, they are the most dimensional character of all. And they are ideally, they, they are the center of good, there's a, there's a positive human quality, not every way certainly, but there's, there's some quality, within the complexity of that character, with which we recognize we empathize, we recognize a shared humanity, the character is then in orbit around that character that protagonists are less dimensional, but they can be dimensional as as well, then you go all the way out to the second third circles, where you have people only playing a role. cashier, restaurant cashier, okay. Now, even when you're writing a scene where your character goes up to the cashier in a restaurant, to pay a bill, and discovers that his credit card is cancelled, right, you have a clerk standing there, at the at the take, who takes the credit card and finds that it's, it's been rejected that clerk character, he be very useful to imagine that role, very specifically, what kind of human being, you know, is she or he, it because it does the, the way in which that clerk that roll says responds to your card is canceled. Your card didn't go through the, the, the way you write the words and gesture for that character gives her a trait. And so roles have traits and, and to make, even that moment, when there's a human being behind that, that trait. And so if she's sarcastic, if she's fed up with with the job itself or with with people whose cards never work, or she's sympathetic because her cards don't work.

Alex Ferrari 53:19
So,

Robert McKee 53:21
so, even in a in a simple role like that, you try to write it with a as a specific trait in the way in which he deals with that moment. And it creates a character for an actor. And so the actor come in there and realize, Oh, this is an antagonistic clerk or this is a sympathetic cleric, or an indifferent or bored or falling asleep, or glancing at her watch constantly, she just wants to get out of here, whatever it is, you give her a trait. And that makes her a character, she sends the GM to life and it gives the actor something to hang their performance on. And so dimensions the protagonists, the most dimensional of all dimensions are contradictions within the nature of the girl. And so you populate that with in my book on character, I look at characters everybody from from Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey has an eight dimensional character, all the way up to Tony Soprano, as a 12 dimensional character Walter White, as a 16 dimensional character. And so and so the complexity of character today given long form television, especially, is at is becoming your astronomical And then you have to give all the, that every one of these dimensions if a character is, is kind and cruel, okay? Sometimes they're crying, sometimes they're cruel. Therefore, you're going to need a cast of characters where the protagonist, when they meet character a, they treat them kindly character B, they treat with, with a slap with cruelty and, and so you need to design a cast around each other characters. So that when, whenever any two characters meet, they bring out sides of their dimensionality or traits of behavior that no one else brings out of them. And so, every single character is designed that whenever they encounter any other character, they bring out each other's qualities in ways that no other character does. And, and when you have a, you know, when you have that kind of cast, where every single character services, every other character, and no redundancies every relationship is unique. every relationship develops a different aspect or a different dimension. Then you have a fascinating group of people that creates a world that the audience can really

Alex Ferrari 56:38
dive into,

Robert McKee 56:39
dive into now, you know, when characters when and carrot one characters behave toward each other in the same way, no matter who it is. That, you know, that's it's a boring and do it's false. People do not treat other people, different people the same. Everybody behaves in a uniquely subtly but uniquely different way, depending upon the relationship. And it takes a lot of concentration and imagination in the writer to realize that every relationship brings out different sides of the character's nature.

Alex Ferrari 57:21
Now, I'm gonna ask you a few questions. Ask all my guests. Robert, what are three screenplays every screenwriter should read? You see? I don't answer that question. Okay. For this reason, I don't want people to copy anybody. Okay, fair enough.

Robert McKee 57:46
And so if I say, you know, if I named my, you know, my favorites, like, say, trying to tell people you know, then run to study Chinatown and emulate it. And that's a mistake. The really important question to ask people is, what's your favorite genre? Because they should be writing the kind of films they love.

Alex Ferrari 58:15
It's a good point, what

Robert McKee 58:16
I love, what are my favorites may have nothing to do with their favorites. And so the first question is, you know, what do you love? What kind of movies do you go to see what kind of things do you read? What do you love? And then seek out those? And the second thing is that if I name favorites, and, and that they, you know, they're in their pieces of perfection. Okay. What does that teach the writer? They got a model of perfection. Great. Okay, that's important, you should understand you should have an ideal, what you're trying to achieve. But one of the ways to achieve it, is to study bad movies. break them down and ask yourself, why is this film so boring? Why can't I believe a word of it? Why does this fail? and break it down and study it? To answer what this What does it lack what went wrong, etc. Okay, and then rewrite it.

Alex Ferrari 59:37
Just thing,

Robert McKee 59:39
rewrite it. fix that broken film. Because that's what you're going to do as a writer. Your first draft is going to suck. And you're going to go in and try to fix your broken script. Try to bring it to life. Try to cut edited shape and rewrite it reinvented, you're going to read it over and over again, right? Having fixed broken films, not just one, but many, many, many take bad movies, studying them and make them make them work is practice for what you're going to have to do with your own screenplay. Because it's not going to work in the beginning, it's going to need a lot of work to work. And so having rewritten bad films to make them work is, is a real learning experience. And so I say, study good films are of your genre, so that you have a an ideal that you achieve, rewrite the bad ones to teach yourself how to fix broken work. And so, and that's a personal choice. I can't say what that should be for those people. For every one of them, loves whatever they love, which may or may not be what I love.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:00
Now, where can people find out more about you? And where can they purchase your new book character? Amazon? It's pretty much it is pretty much it nowadays, isn't it? It's pretty much it nowadays, isn't it? Amazon.

Robert McKee 1:01:17
bookstores, I'm sure are opening up. And if you know if you love bookstores, as I do, you know, you can go to a bookstore and get it. But the most direct way that will be there in your budget for the next morning. It's incredible what they do, what Amazon does, and bash, you know that the other other Barnes and Noble stew or whatever it is, but yeah, it's very simple. You just go to amazon.com. Right? Just write the word McKee. And comes story, dialogue, character, in hardcover, in an audio and in Kindle,

Alex Ferrari 1:02:05
and everything else? And then how can people read it? And how can people learn more about you what you offer?

Robert McKee 1:02:13
Ah, the go to make peace story.com. The key story.com will take you to our website. And we have a upcoming. We've been doing webinars now for a year and a half since the plague hit us. And they've been very successful, very, very pleased with it. And in July, we're doing a series on action. Nice on the action genre. And so these, these are every Tuesday, three Tuesday's in a row. And they're two hour events, hour and a half worth of lecture and a half hour of q&a. Then on Thursday, I I give an additional two hours of q&a.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:01
Fantastic.

Robert McKee 1:03:03
And because I realized how important it is for people to get answers to things they're working on. So So Tuesdays and Thursdays for three weeks in a row. And there's you know, four hours of material each week. So and we will we will look at the action genre in depth with lots of illustrations and examples of an adage and I love giving these acts. webinars. And it's a favorite of mine. Actually,

Alex Ferrari 1:03:38
I love a good action movie is it's hard to come by nowadays. So I appreciate it. Robert, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to to my audience and I appreciate all the work that you have done over the years and help so many screenwriters as well. So thank you so much for everything you do.

Robert McKee 1:03:54
It was a lovely chat. Great chat. Nice talking to you.

 

Steven Spielberg’s Micro-Budget Short Film: Amblin

Amblin’ is a short film made in 1968. It is the first completed film shot by Steven Spielberg on 35mm. The film is a short love story set during the hippie era of the late 1960s about a young man and woman who meet in the desert, attempt to hitchhike, become friends, then lovers, make their way to a beach, and part ways. It later became the namesake for Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment.

A young man carrying a closely guarded guitar case meets a free-spirited young woman while hitchhiking across the Mojave Desert, she befriends him, then he hauls both of their luggage, they play an olive pit spitting game, she shares a cannabis joint, he becomes her lover, and they accept various rides, en route to a Pacific coast beach. At the beach, the man runs, fully clothed, into the surf, and splashes about, while the woman with daisies in her hair, hesitatingly opens his guitar case and lays out its contents: a tie, wingtip shoes, Thrifty Drugs mouthwash, a paperback of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, a white shirt, Right Guard spray deodorant, a suit, a roll of toilet paper, white crew socks, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia, and toothpaste. The woman smiles in bemusement, perhaps sensing that her companion was not the free-spirit that she assumed that he was. She frowns in sad disappointment and climbs back up the beach stairs without him. – Wikipedia

There is no spoken dialogue in the film aside from the lyrics to the opening and closing theme song. There is an ambient soundtrack featuring bird sounds, wind, passing car noises, popping noises made by the characters, fire sounds, and laughter, along with instrumental music.

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Top 15 Indie Filmmaking Podcasts (Oscar® and Emmy® Winners)

Indie Filmmaking Podcasts have been so important to me over the past few years. Indie Film Hustle entered into the podcast space in 2015 with the launch of its first original podcast series, The Indie Film Hustle Podcast.

The response to the podcast was so amazing that after a few short months the show became the #1 filmmaking podcast on Apple Podcasts & Spotify, and still maintain that honor. I’m truly humbled and thankful by the response.

The show is only as good as the indie filmmakers who listen to it. Thank you all for the support. I have put together the Top 15 Indie Filmmaking Podcasts from the IFH archives. This list will be updated every few months so keep checking back.

Click here to subscribe on iTunes,  Spotify, Stitcher, or Soundcloud.

1. Oliver Stone

Today on the show I bring you one of the most influential and iconic writer/directors in the history of cinema, three-time Oscar® winner Oliver Stone. Throughout his legendary career, Stone has served as writer, director, and producer on a variety of films, documentaries, and television movies. His films have been nominated for forty two Oscars® and have won twelve.

2. Joe Carnahan

It’s been a hell of a year so far. I’ve been blessed to have had the honor of speaking to some amazing filmmakers and man today’s guest is high on that list. On the show we have writer/director Joe Carnahan. Joe directed his first-feature length film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. which was screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and won some acclaim.

3. Richard Linklater

We are joined by indie film icon and Oscar® nominated writer/director Richard Linklater. Richard was one of the filmmakers who helped to launch the independent film movement that we know today with his classic 1991 indie film Slacker. As a bonus, we will not only dive into the extraordinary career of Richard Linklater but also that of collaborator and longtime friend writer/director Katie Cokinos, the filmmaker behind the film I Dream Too Much. 

4. Edward Burns

Today’s guest is a writer, director, producer, actor, and indie filmmaking legend, Edward Burns. Many of you might have heard of the Sundance Film Festival-winning film called The Brothers McMullen, his iconic first film that tells the story of three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island who struggle to deal with love, marriage, and infidelity.

His Cinderella story of making the film, getting into Sundance, and launching his career is the stuff of legend. The Brothers McMullen was sold to Fox Searchlight and went on to make over $10 million at the box office on a $27,000 budget, making it one of the most successful indie films of the decade.

5. Jason Blum

I’m excited to talk to a fellow low-budget independent filmmaker today.

Granted, he does low-budget films on a completely different level than I or most people do at this point. But if we are going to talk about budget filmmaking, it is only fitting to have expert horror film and television producer, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.

That is a testament to his company’s high-quality production. Blumhouse is known for pioneering a new model of studio filmmaking: producing high-quality micro-budget films and provocative television series. They have produced over 150 movies and television series with theatrical grosses amounting to over $4.8 billion.

6. Edward Zwick 

We have been on a major roll lately on the podcast and this episode keep that going in a big way. Our guest on the show today is Oscar® Winning writer, producer, and director Edward Zwick. Edward made his big shift from his childhood passion of theater to filmmaking after working as a PA for Woody Allen in France on the set of Love and Death.

7. John Sayles

John Sayles is one of America’s best known independent filmmakers, receiving critical acclaim for films including Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996) and Men with Guns (1997). He’s also written screenplays for mainstream films such as Passion Fish (1992), Limbo (1999), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and did a draft of Jurassic Park (1993) for Steven Spielberg.

8. Neill Blomkamp

Ever since I saw District 9 and learned of all the mythical stories behind the short film becoming a feature, I have been a massive fan of today’s guest, Neill Blomkamp. Though Neill is here today to talk about his new sci-fi horror fiction film, Demonic, we also chatted up about his other films that have been successful over the years.

9. David F. Sandberg

So many times we hear those mythical stories of a filmmaker who makes a short film and uploads it to Youtube in hopes of a big time film producer sees to and comes down from Mount Hollywood and offers him or her a deal to turn that short into a studio feature. Today’s guest had that happen to him and then some. On the show is writer/director David F. Sandberg.

David’s story is the “lottery ticket” moment I speak about so often on the show. His journey in Hollywood is remarkable, inspiring and scary all at the same time.  He created a short film called Lights Out. That short was seen by famed filmmaker and producer James Wan (Furious 7, Aquaman, The Conjuring) who offered to produce a feature film version at New Line Cinema.

10. Albert Hughes

I can’t be more excited about the conversation I’m about to share with you. Today on the show we have filmmaker and indie film legend Albert Hughes. Albert, along with his brother Allen began making movies at age 12, but their formal film education began their freshman year of high school when Allen took a TV production class. They soon made the short film The Drive-By and people began to take notice.

After high school Albert began taking classes at LACC Film School: two shorts established the twins’ reputation as innovative filmmakers. Albert and his brother then began directing music videos for a little known rapper named Tupac Shakur. 

These videos lead to directing their breakout hit Menace II Society (1993), which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and grossed nearly 10 times as much as its $3 million budget.

11. Taylor Hackford

Sitting down with one of the big names in this business this week was a really cool opportunity. I am honored to have on the show today, Oscar® winning director, producer, and screenwriter, Taylor Hackford.

Taylor’s has directed films like An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), White Nights (1985), Proof of Life (2000), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Against All Odds (1984), Parker (2013), the iconic Ray Charles biopic, Ray of 2004, and The Comedian (2016) just to name a few. He also has served as president of the Directors Guild of America and is married to the incomparable acting legend Helen Mirren.

12. Troy Duffy

I’m always looking for success stories in the film business to study and analyze. Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullan) Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) come to mind. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the cult indie film classic The Boondock Saints but many of you might not know the crazy story of its writer and director Troy Duffy.

Well, prepare to get your mind BLOWN. I had an EXCLUSIVE discussion with Troy this week, and let’s say, he did not hold back. Nothing was off-limits – from his instant rise to fame to the brutal fate he met – getting blacklisted, all of it. He wanted to set the record straight because there is always another side to the story, and what better side to hear than that of the man who lived this brutal Hollywood adventure?

13. Barry Sonnenfeld

I can’t tell you how excited I am for today’s episode. I had the pleasure to speak to the legendary director Barry Sonnenfeld. We discuss his idiosyncratic upbringing in New York City, his breaking into film as a cinematographer with the Coen brothers, and his unexpected career as the director behind such huge film franchises as The Addams Family and Men in Black, and beloved work like Get Shorty, Pushing Daises, and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

We also chat about the time he shot nine porno films in nine days. That story alone is worth the price of admission.

14. Alex Proyas

I can’t be more excited to bring you this episode. On today’s show, we have the legendary writer/director Alex Proyas, the filmmaker behind The Crow, Dark City, The Knowing, Gods of Egypt, and I, Robot.

Alex Proyas had a huge influence on my filmmaking life. The Crow was one of those films I watch a thousand times, in the theater, when I was in film school. He began his filmmaking career working in music videos with the likes of Sting, INXS, and Fleetwood Mac before getting the opportunity to direct The Crow.

15. Sean Baker

Sean Baker is a writer, director, producer and editor who has made seven independent feature films over the course of the past two decades. His most recent film was the award-winning The Florida Project (2017) which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was released by A24 in the U.S. Among the many accolades the film received — including an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe for Best Supporting Actor — Sean was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle.

His previous film Tangerine (2015) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit and two Gotham Awards. Starlet (2012) was the winner of the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award and his previous two features, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), were both nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.

Bonus: Eric Roth

This week, I sat down with one of the most legendary and successful screenwriters/producers in Hollywood, Oscar® Winner Eric Roth. Over a 50+ years career, he’s well-known for writing or producing films like Forrest Gump, A Star is Born, Mank, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Munich, Ali, and the list goes on.

Bonus: David Chase

The legacy of the crime drama television series, The Sopranos remains a defining art of storytelling for mob TV shows. We have the genius behind this hit TV series, David Chase as our guest today.

As expected, Chase is a twenty-five-time Emmy Awards-winner, seven times Golden Globes winner, and highly acclaimed producer, writer, and director. His forty-year career in Hollywood has contributed immensely to the experience of quality TV.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of Chase, let’s do a brief of the HBO 1999 hit show, The Sopranos: Produced by HBO, Chase Films, and Brad Grey Television, the story ran for six seasons, revolving around Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, a New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster, portraying the difficulties that he faces as he tries to balance his family life with his role as the leader of a criminal organization.

Bonus: Billy Crystal 

There are performers that impact your life without you even knowing it and today’s guest fits that bill. On the show, we have comedic genius, multi-award-winning actor, writer, producer, director, and television host, Billy Crystal. We’ve seen Billy’s versatile work across all areas in the entertainment world, stand-up, improv, Broadway, behind and in front of the camera, feature films, television, live stages like SNL, and animated movies.

 

How to Make a $1,000 Feature Film with Mark Duplass

Make a feature film for $1000? Sounds crazy right? Well if you don’t know Mark Duplass you should get to know him. Mark and his brother Jay Duplass are most widely known for making the indie film hits The Puffy Chair and Safety Not Guaranteed. Mark Duplass has gone on to be a very successful writer, producer, and director.

Mark Duplass is an extremely talented film director, producer, musician, actor, and screenwriter. He along with his brother, Lawrence Jay Duplass, have created film industry waves in a very short time period. Be it filmmaking or successful TV series, everyone loves the work of Duplass Brothers.

Being Filmtrepreneurs they have initiated their own production company Duplass Brothers Productions and have been into the directing business since then. Widely known for their films The Puffy Chair (2005), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), and also The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012).

Jay and Mark Duplass have also co-created the renowned HBO TV series Togetherness.

Both of these talented brothers grew up in a suburb of New Orleans. They fell in love with film at a young age and they started making videos on their father’s Panasonic when the brothers were 6 and 9 respectively.

They would shoot versions of The Lone Ranger as well as The Sermon on the Mount. According to the Duplass brothers, when they look back over this period and the activities which extended to their teenage, they seem to recall an inner self of experimentation.

Things got focused and serious once Jay made this self-realization that he did not want to go on with his filed after spending four years as psychology majors which he was studying at the University of Texas, Austin. Mark Duplass was a singer-songwriter which he had to eventually give up because of increased condition of tendinitis.

Jay remained an extra year in the school so that he could study film and also got his brother Mark Duplass enrolled there so that he could act in his projects. Which was usually extremely cute bits of valuable silliness pretty much inspired by their obsession with the Coen Brothers. Mark has himself admitted that we were trying to be them but it was not going well.

After some time, Jay got his hands on a profitable and worthwhile commission to film a documentary about gardening which was some sponsored material on the behalf of an Austin startup, gardening.com.

The company crumpled before the film was finished even but luckily for the Duplass brothers, not before paying for their efforts. With that money, they bought a Canon GL1, got themselves a camera operator, and a photography editor so that they could begin on their second scripted feature film which was a rip-off of Rocky but in running shoes called Vince Del Rio.

And before they had even finished its edited, the duo decided that I was simply unreleasable which Mark Duplass has often referred to a steaming pile of dog diarrhea.

The Duplasses had no money, no ideas, and a terrible period of lack of faith in their filmmaking skills. So in desperation, Mark thought of making a movie which was part of their childhood. Fast and affordable and off-the-cuff. Mark Duplass went out to buy a $3 MiniDV tape which is the entire production cost of the movie and also improvised the total of what was to become the This is John of 2003.

It was a seven-minute short that started as an exercise, which results in triggering a psychological collapse because John rejects his numerous attempts as being too conscious or too formal. This was the course that so well summarized the creative journey of Duplasses’.

Though This is John might have sounded and looked like a home movie, it had a hint of life to it and that is why it was accepted into the shorts program when the Duplasses’ submitted to the Sundance and guess what? It was addressed as one of the five short films to see.

Right after two years, these brothers returned to the Sundance with The Puffy Chair which was an endeavor which they drew from their own lives. Starring Mark Duplass and his girlfriend (now wife) Katie Aselton this film concerns the relationships between men, women, fathers, mothers, and friends. Mark finds a replica of a lounge chair on eBay which his father used ages ago. The road trip that was taken to deliver that chair to him in Atlanta took very interesting twists and turns.

To some of the viewers, the movie touched something deep and affected them with its spooky familiarity. Making something so amazing with so little money sent a huge shockwave through the film industry which made it possible to think that anyone could step up to make a movie.

Although the traditional distributors kept their distance from the not-too-fine cheating after the film had spent a year’s time on the festival circuit, Netflix’s budding film distribution arm, Red Envelope Entertainment made its first acquisition. It is said by Sarandos of Netflix who was running Red Envelope, that he was drawn to the film for the wonderful home-viewing potential it possessed.

The follow-up feature of Duplass brothers in 2008 Baghead, was a mellow horror whose story revolved around a quartet of struggling filmmakers who head back to the woods for the weekend as a last try to pen down a feature film which would give them a head start to their careers. And they found the plot of pretty clichéd stories which gave the actors a set of guidelines to explore human interaction.

The Mumblecore Movement

A new movement called Mumblecore had the Duplass brothers working with directors like Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujaski. But still, the boys had potential and momentum which soon gave them the chance to take up the traditional first step thing that all directors do to boost up their career i.e. making their first-ever studio film.

Willing to work for less, they cast all of the Puffy Chair fans in the production of Fox Searchlight Cyrus. With a $7 million budget and storyline of a creepy mother-son relationship, it was certainly an out of the box thing. The Duplass spent three years working on Cyrus. The movie revolved around a depressed man in his 40s, which was problem for Fox Searchlight who were suspicious of estranging the viewership. They wanted to portray him as down but not too much of it.

The film grossed $7.4 million which happens to be the most successful Duplass venture to date.

It soon became quite apparent that the movies these brothers were interested in making were aimed at a smaller audience with limited box-office appeal. But yet, if they underperformed in theaters a large audience was enjoying the work of Duplass brothers on the small screen and their movies surely were having a profitable afterlife.

Since The Puffy Chair came out, the Duplass brothers had been toying with the idea of HBO and now seemed the perfect time to actually take the chance. Jay came up with the idea of series which would star Steve Zissis who has Mark’s senior in high school and had had a stall in his acting career after Baghead and Do-Deca-Pentathlon.

So that is how the idea of Alexander the Great took birth which happened to be a pilot about an actor who was struggling with his career with mental health issues. HBO loved it and asked to add more characters making it a relationship show and that is what they did.

Before the premiere of A Teacher at Sundance, Fidell had sent the Duplass brothers her feature making them her fan. That is why she was their first choice when Mark Duplass got an idea for a movie of a young reboot of Days of Wine and Roses which has physical abuse instead of alcohol. Graciously accepted by Fidell, by the end of the day, she was officially signed up both for the writing and direction of what was to formulate into Six Years. And in March at SXSW it was bought by Netflix.

The most astonishing development in an already amazing career apart from the movies and TV shows that this dynamic duo made, the Duplasses have grown into a royalty which helps like-minded filmmakers gain benefit from the business model which they seem to have created.

The Duplass brothers helped a friend in giving life to his film and this revelation that they could actually save the struggling career of a filmmaker with some time and money blew their minds away and always grateful for the emotional as well as financial support by their parents they saw this way to put it back in the world.

Producing multiple films per year, which

  1. Strictly follow the line of low costs.
  2. Protecting the vision of the filmmaker.
  3. Eventually giving the final product to the audiences as fast as possible.

The Duplass Brothers have signed a four-picture deal with Netflix. And they are taking a similar approach to TV. The first film from that deal is Blue Jay starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson and directed by Alexandre Lehmann (check out his interview here). Meeting by chance when they return to their tiny California hometown, two former high-school sweethearts reflect on their shared past. Check out the trailer below:

They helped few filmmakers in making 10 episodes of the show of an animated series Animals and much to their surprise, not only HBO bought them but signed them for the second season right away. And four months later, the Duplass brothers got a two-year deal.

These brothers have the magic beans to turn any idea, no matter how trivial it may be, into a profitable TV show or movie.

Can you really make a feature film for $1000 bucks?

Mark Duplass had a packed house for his amazing SXSW Keynote Speech. He was spitting out Indie Film GOLD though out his talk.

If you didn’t get a chance to hear his talk, here are some topics he covered:

  • Learn your craft  by making short films every weekend for $3
  • Write a Feature Film for less than $1,000
  • Have a strong day job (whatever you can get) while working towards your goal
  • Put money away to travel to Film Festivals and future films

Coming from the “Mumblecore” indie film movement, a style of low-budget film typically characterized by the use of nonprofessional actors and naturalistic or improvised performances, he had some great advice for independent filmmakers:

“You should design the aesthetic of the movie so that it doesn’t feel like less than a $200,000 movie but it feels squarely like a $1,000 movie.”

I’ve seen so many filmmakers attempt to make The Avengers on the budget for craft services for one day on a Marvel set. You are setting yourself up to fail. When starting out work within your limitations. It worked for Robert Rodriguez on his indie film classic El Mariachi.

Mark Duplass stated that $1000 is in NO WAY a budget a feature film should be made for. Here is what Duplass says:

“It’s not an empirical number, it depends of the city you live in and the scope of your story. But when I think about that movie, it’s doing a couple of things.

Borrowing recycled hard drive from people. Getting the Ultrakam uncompressed app on your iPhone. Most of it is food and you really want someone who can cook.

I recommend having your editor be the ‘DIT’ person who takes the Media in – and they have a lot of downtime, so you have them help you light, and you have them cook.

And you should be having a crew that’s really, really small. So that money should be mostly spent on food and then you are going to spend that on festival applications.”

Mark Duplass dishes out some amazing advice to independent filmmakers in this keynote speech and awesome Q&A. To see the entire SXSW Keynote check out the video below, DO IT!

“Instinct is very, very important, and we believe in it through every part of the process… When it’s time to create and get that stuff down, we believe in the gut.” – Mark Duplass

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Damien Chazelle’s Short Film: Whiplash

Whiplash is a 2013 drama short film written and directed by Academy Award winning director Damien Chazelle. It depicts the relationship between an ambitious jazz drummer and an abusive bandleader. It is the short film that the Oscar winning feature film is based on.

If you want to listen to Damien Chazelle discuss how he made his other Oscar winning film La La Land you can take a listen or watch below: CLICK HERE

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David F. Sandberg’s Short Film: Lights Out

David F. Sandberg’s story is the “lottery ticket” moment I speak about so often on the show. His journey in Hollywood is remarkable, inspiring and scary all at the same time.  He created a short film called Lights Out. That short was seen by famed filmmaker and producer James Wan (Furious 7, Aquaman, The Conjuring) who offered to produce a feature film version at New Line Cinema.

Lights Out is a 2013 Swedish supernatural horror short film directed, written, produced, shot, and scored by David F. Sandberg and starring Lotta Losten. The feature version of the film was made for $5 million and grossed $150 million at the box office. Here’s what the film is about.

Watch the entire short film below.

Alex had the pleasure of sitting down with him to discuss the making of the short film.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Unreleased Film: My Best Friend’s Birthday

Few directors are as high profile and equally controversial than Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a lightning rod for criticism and praise.  Make no mistake, there is no middle ground here—you either love his work or are physically repulsed by it.  However, one objective fact remains: he is syllabus-grade essential when it comes to the wider discussion of cinema during its centennial.  His impact on film has left a crater too big to ignore.

Having broken out into the mainstream during the heady days of indie film in the 1990’s, Tarantino has influenced an obscene number of aspiring filmmakers my age.  80% of student films I saw in school were shameless rip-offs of Tarantino’s style and work.  I was even guilty of it myself, in some of my earlier college projects.  Something about Tarantino– whether it’s his subject matter, style, or his own character– is luridly attractive.  His energy is infectious, as is his unadulterated enthusiasm for films both good and bad.  Despite going on to international fame and fortune, Tarantino is a man who never forgot his influences, to the point where the cinematic technique of “homage” is his calling card.

Why is this admittedly eccentric man so admired in prestigious film circles and high school film clubs alike?  Objectively speaking, his pictures are pure pulp.  Fetishizations of violence, drug-use, and sex.  By some accounts even, trash.  If you were to ask me, it’s none of those things that make him a role model.  Tarantino represents filmmaking’s most fundamental ideal: the notion that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, can make it in movies if they try hard enough.  Any producer’s son can nepotism his way into the director’s chair, but for the scrawny teenager in Wyoming with a video camera in her hand and stars in her eyes, Tarantino is proof-positive that she could do it too.

Born in 1963 to separated parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tarantino grew up without privilege or the conventional nuclear sense of family.  He was raised mostly by his mother, who moved him out near Long Beach, California when he was a toddler.  He dropped out of high school before he was old enough to drive, choosing instead to pursue a career in acting.  To support himself, he famously got a job as a clerk at the now-defunct Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he gained an extensive film education by watching as many movies as he could get his hands on, and cultivating an eclectic list of recommendations for his customers.  He found himself enraptured by the fresh, dynamic styles of directors like Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian DePalma, and Mario Bava, and he studied their films obsessively to see what made them tick.

This is noteworthy, because most directors traditionally gain their education via film school or working on professional shoots.  Tarantino is the first mainstream instance of a director who learned his craft by simply studying films themselves.  Before the dawn of the digital era, aspiring filmmakers had to have a lot of money to practice their trade—something Tarantino simply didn’t have as a menial retail employee.  What he did have, however, was time, and he used it well by gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and making a few crucial connections.

When he was twenty four, Tarantino met his future producing partner, Lawrence Bender, at a party.  Bender encouraged him to write a screenplay, which would become the basis for Tarantino’s first film: MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).  While the film didn’t exactly prove to be a stepping stone to a directing career, and still remains officially unreleased, it served as a crucial crash course for the budding director.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY was intended to be a feature length film, but an unfortunate lab fire destroyed the final reel during editing.  The only surviving elements run for roughly thirty minutes, and tell a slapdash story that only emphasizes the amateurish nature of the project.  Set during a wild California night, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY concerns Mickey Burnett (co-writer and co-producer Craig Hammann), whose birthday is the day of the story.  His best friend, Clarence Pool (Tarantino himself), takes charge of the planning by buying the cake and hiring a call girl named Misty (Crystal Shaw) to… entertain his friend.  Along the way, things go seriously awry and Clarence must scramble to save the evening.

At least, that’s what I took away from the story.  It’s hard to know for sure when you’re missing more than half of the narrative.  My first impression of the film is that it reads like a terrible student project, which is more or less what it is.  It was filmed over the course of three years (1984-1987), all while Tarantino worked at Video Archives.  The characters are thinly drawn, performances are wooden, the technical quality is questionable, and the editing is awkward and jarring.  However, Tarantino’s ear for witty dialogue is immediately apparent.  It sounds strange coming out of the mouths of untrained actors who don’t know how to channel its intricacies and cadences into music, but it’s there.  The myriad pop culture references, the creative use of profanity, and the shout-outs to classic and obscure films are all staples of Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s all there from the beginning.  There is no filter between Tarantino and his characters—it all comes gushing forth like a fountain straight from the auteur himself.

In his twenty years plus of filmmaking experience, Tarantino has been well-documented as a self-indulgent director, oftentimes casting himself in minor roles.  It’s telling then, that the very first frame of Tarantino’s very first film prominently features Tarantino himself.  Sure, it might be a little narcissistic, but it makes sense when taken into context; his characters are cinematic projections of him, each one signifying one particular corner of his densely packed persona.  Why not begin at the source?

His performance as Clarence Pool is vintage Tarantino, with an Elvis-styled bouffant, outlandish clothes, and an overbearing coke-high energy.  It’s almost like the cinematic incarnation of Tarantino himself, albeit at his most trashy.  He even goes so far as outright stating his foot fetish to Misty in one scene, a character trait we know all to well to be true of Tarantino in real life.

For a director who is noted for his visually dynamic style, the look of MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY is incredibly sedate.  Of course, the film’s scratchy black and white, 16mm film look is to be expected given the low production budget.  For a film where the camera never moves save for one circular dolly shot, an astounding four cinematographers are credited: Roger Avary, Scott Magill, Roberto Quezada, and Rand Vossler.  Visually, it’s an unimpressive film that contains none of the man’s stylistic flourishes, but Tarantino’s rapid-fire wit more than adequately covers for the lack of panache.  A distinct rockabilly aesthetic is employed throughout, from the costumes to the locations.  It even applies to the music, which features various well-known surf rock, bar rock, and Johnny Cash cues.

Much has been made of Tarantino’s inspired music selections, and his eclectic choices have served as a calling card for his unique, daring style.  Music is an indispensable part of Tarantino’s style, from its overt appearances over the soundtrack to certain recurring story elements like the K-Billy radio station (which makes its first appearance here).  His signature use of off-kilter, counter-conventional music sees its first incarnation in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, where he employs a jaunty pop song during a violent fist fight.

Watching MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, it’s clear that Tarantino’s films have always been unabashed manifestations of his personality and his influences.   Tarantino’s storylines and characters exist in an alternate reality, where extreme violence and profanity are more commonplace.  There are whole fan theories that draw lines between his films and connect them together into a coherent universe.  For instance, there’s a moment in the film where Tarantino’s character, Clarence, calls somebody using the fake name Aldo Ray.  Attentive listeners will note that a variation of the same name would show up over twenty years later in the incarnation of Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009).  Further adding to the theory of Tarantino’s “universe” is the fact that MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY would go on to form the initial basis for his screenplay TRUE ROMANCE (which was later directed by the late Tony Scott).  There’s even a kung-fu fight in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, which would become the genesis for his fascination with the martial art form over the course of his filmography.

It’s interesting to watch this film, as it bears every hallmark of the traditional “terrible amateur film”.  It has none of the slick polish that Tarantino would be known for, but it makes sense given his inexperience and meager budget.  Everybody’s first film is terrible.  But Tarantino’s unstoppable personality barrels forth, setting the stage for the firestorm he’d create with his debut feature.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY didn’t lead to anything substantial, simply because it was never released.  It’s a dynamic illustration of auteur theory at work, where the director’s personality shines through regardless of the resources or story.  We can literally see Tarantino finding his sea legs, feeling it out as he goes along.  The film is basically an artifact, but it’s much more than that:  it’s both a humble introduction to a dynamic new voice in film, as well as a (very) rough preview of the radical shift in filmmaking attitudes that would come in the wake of Tarantino’s explosive arrival.

Pedro Almodovar’s Short Film: Salome

Pedro Almodovar’s Salome is a micro-budget indie film the auteur director made in 1978. One of the first creations of genius dandelion in sunglasses. As Almodóvar had already tried out different durations in Super 8, he decided to shoot a film in a greater format, in 16 mm. In Salomé the origin of veil is being dealt with.

Abraham is walking across the countryside together with his son Isaac and meets Salomé, who is fully covered with combs and veils. Though Abraham was an upright and merciful person, he becomes crazy for her and asks her to dance for him. She starts to dance »The Wildcat«, while she takes off all her veils. Once Abraham has become absolutely crazy for her, Salomé asks him for the head of his son. Abraham who has promised to give her whatever she wants has no other choice but to agree.

Hearing this Isaac decides to flee. But Salomé who has supersensory forces, appears in front of Isaac, hypnotizes him and brings him back to his father. Abraham lights a campfire, and when he prepares to kill his son he hears the voice of god telling him that everything was just a proof, that Salomé is only one of Gods representations, that Salomé was God, which sometimes appears in this form just for seducing men. And that he has done all this just for leading Abraham into temptation who was human and could sin.

Because God has been a little bit disgruntled when he saw that Abraham did not sin ever. And that all the generations to come will remember this day and will celebrate it, Abraham should take all the veils that Salomé has taken off, that from that moment on all the women of his people should cover to signal their respect for the church. – WorldCinema.org

It’s a fascinating watch. Watch the entire short film below.

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Tim Burton’s First Short Films: Vincent and Frankenweenie

While at Disney in 1982, Burton made his first short, Vincent, a six-minute black-and-white stop motion film based on a poem written by the filmmaker, and depicting a young boy who fantasizes that he is his hero Vincent Price, with Price himself providing narration. The film was produced by Rick Heinrichs, whom Burton had befriended while working in the concept art department at Disney. The film was shown at the Chicago Film Festival and released, alongside the teen drama Tex, for two weeks in one Los Angeles cinema.

Burton’s next live-action short film, Frankenweenie, was released in 1984. It tells the story of a young boy who tries to revive his dog after it is run over by a car. Filmed in black-and-white, it stars Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall (with whom he would work again in 1986, directing an episode of her Faerie Tale Theatre and Daniel Stern. After Frankenweenie was completed, Disney fired Burton, under the pretext of him spending the company’s resources on a film that would be too dark and scary for children to see. – Wikipedia

Download Tim Burton’s Screenplay Collection in PDF

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Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Short Film: Tramwaj

Tramway (Polish: Tramwaj) is a 1966 short silent film by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, produced while he was a student at the Łódź Film School. The film is included as an extra feature on the American and Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD releases of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love.

The film shows a boy who sees a girl on a tram as it is leaving. He runs after the tram and finds himself on board alone with the girl. They exchange glances, then she falls asleep against the window. The boy gets off the tram and looks at her through the window, then decides to run after the tram again. – Wikipedia

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