Another book on screenwriting!?
I’m sure that’s what many of you are thinking.
And to an extent, you’re right. There are lots of good screenwriting how-to’s out there. And if you want to see where it all began, look to the master, Syd Field, who started it all and taught everybody.
There are other really good books and courses, too, many of which I’ve sampled.
I like Viki King’s book with the improbable title of How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Improbable, yes, but I’ve done it — and sold the script I wrote, too.
I also value Joseph Campbell’s work. Hero With A Thousand Faces remains the best book about storytelling ever.
And of course I have a soft spot for Robert McKee — for the value of his class performance if nothing else. McKee is like John Houseman in The Paper Chase, and if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you have to take at least one seminar from him. It’s too great a piece of theater to miss.
Finally, for anyone who’s watched lots of movies and seen enough bad ones to think “I can do THAT!” you may assume you don’t need a “how-to-write-a-screenplay” book at all.
So why this one?
And why can I tell you things you’ve never heard anywhere else that will make a difference in your script?
To begin with, what I’ve never seen out there is a book on screenwriting that “talks the way we talk”. As a working professional in the entertainment industry, since I was eight doing voice work for my Dad, I’m used to a certain slangy shorthand when it comes to discussing the business. These books are all so academic! So sterile. They treat the movies with waaaaaay too much awe and respect — they’re just movies! — and I think that gets in the way. Wouldn’t it be nice if a book about how to write a screenplay used the kind of shorthand that screenwriters and movie executives use?
Secondly, and this is no slight against anyone, but I think it would be nice if the guy writing the book on how to write a screenplay had actually sold something! Don’t you think? And this is an area where I feel particularly qualified. I have been a working screenwriter for 20 years and made millions of dollars doing it. I’ve sold lots of high concept, bidding war, spec screenplays. I’ve even had a couple made.
I’ve gotten script notes from Steven Spielberg, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Paul Maslansky, David Permut, David Kirschner, Joe Wizan, Todd Black, Craig Baumgarten, Ivan Reitman, and John Landis. And I’ve received the collective wisdom of many others — less famous but equally wise — that we all use, and like, and base our screenplays on.
Thirdly, wouldn’t it be a bonus if the guy writing the how-to had actually used this method in the trenches by teaching others, who actually go on to sell scripts?
Well, that’s me, too.
I’ve had a long track record of working with other screenwriters. I’ve taught my method and shortcuts to some of the most successful in the business. I’ve helped make them better screenwriters. It’s because my approach to the task is practical, based on common sense — and mostly because it works.
And lastly, I think it would be good if a screenwriting book told you the truth about your chances of selling. There are tons of seminars and screenwriting programs out there that seem designed to encourage people and ideas that should not be encouraged. I don’t know about you, but I find this cruel. Advice like: “Follow your heart!” and “Be true to your vision!” is fine if you’re in therapy. Me? I really want to improve my odds. Life is short. I don’t need to be misled into thinking my script based on the life of St. Aloysius or a “true-life event” that happened to me at camp one summer actually has a chance if it doesn’t.
So why another screenwriting book? Because the others I’ve seen don’t say it like it is, and don’t give the reader the tools to attain success in the field. And on top of that, they often serve the writer of the book more than the reader. I personally don’t want a career teaching screenplay writing courses; I just want to pass along what I know. And besides all that, I’m at the point when I’m ready to “give it away”. I’ve had a lot of amazing breaks, I’ve learned from the masters, and now it’s time for me to tell you.
I also undertook the writing of this book because of the lack of common sense I see in many of the movies that get made today. For all the knowledge out there, many in Hollywood forget the basics and ignore what works, thinking that just because they have studio offices and big expense accounts, they don’t need to follow the rules anymore.
And, frankly, this drives me up a tree!
As I am writing this book, there is one phenomenon in particular that really bothers me, and yet from a business point of view it’s pretty smart. It’s the Make-Sure-It-Opens-Or-Else trend. This is where you spend a lot of money on the movie, hype the bejeezus out of it, open wide at 3,000+ theaters, and have a huge first weekend to recoup your cost. And who cares if your movie drops 70% or 80% in its second weekend because of bad word-of-mouth?
What bugs me about this trend is that for all the money they’re spending on star salaries, special effects, advertising, and marketing — and don’t forget all those prints — it would be better spent, and the movies would be better too, if the filmmakers just paid $4 for some paper and pencils and followed the rules of how to write a good movie!
Take a hip, slick movie like Lara Croft 2 for example. They spent a fortune on that film. And everyone is still wondering what happened. They can’t figure out why they didn’t bring in the audience of targeted men. It’s not surprising to me. What’s wrong with this picture? Where did the filmmakers go awry? To me it’s really very simple: I don’t like the Lara Croft character. Why would I? She’s cold and humorless. And while that’s fine in the solitary world of video games and comics, it doesn’t make me want to leave my home to go see the movie. The people who produced this film think they can get you to like her by making her “cool”. This is what amounts to “character development” in au currant movies-. “She drives a cool car”. That’s someone’s idea of how to create a winning hero.
Well, folks, I don’t care about how “cool” it is, this isn’t going to work.
Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.
Which brings us to the title of this book: Save the Cat!
Save the what?
I call it the “Save the Cat” scene. They don’t put it into movies anymore. And it’s basic. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.
In the thriller, Sea of Love, A1 Pacino is a cop. Scene One finds him in the middle of a sting operation. Parole violators have been lured by the promise of meeting the N.Y. Yankees, but when they arrive it’s A1 and his cop buddies waiting to bust them. So Al’s “cool. ” (He’s got a cool idea for a sting anyway). But on his way out he also does something nice. A1 spots another lawbreaker, who’s brought his son, coming late to the sting. Seeing the Dad with his kid, A1 flashes his badge at the man who nods in understanding and exits quick. A1 lets this guy off the hook because he has his young son with him. And just so you know A1 hasn’t gone totally soft, he also gets to say a cool line to the crook: “Catch you later..”. Well, I don’t know about you, but I like Al. I’ll go anywhere he takes me now and you know what else? I’ll be rooting to see him win. All based on a two second interaction between Al and a Dad with his baseball-fan kid.
Can you imagine if the makers of Lara Croft 2 spent $4 on a good Save the Cat scene instead of the $2-5 million they spent developing that new latex body suit for Angelina Jolie? They might’ve done a whole lot better.
That’s why the name of this book is Save The Cat! It’s emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across to you, and to some in the movie business, about the laws of physics that govern good storytelling. These are lessons my writing partners and I have learned through the real school of Hollywood hard knocks.
We, and hopefully you, are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the biggest possible audience. We want a hit — and a sequel if we can! Why play the game if you don’t swing for the fence? And while I love the Indie world, I want to hit it out of the park in the world of the major studios. That’s why this book is primarily for those who want to master the mainstream film market.
None of these rules, and none of my experiences in screenwriting, were discovered in a vacuum. I learned from all my writing partners to whom I dedicate this book: Howard Burkons, Jim Haggin, Colby Carr, Mike Cheda, Tracey Jackson, and Sheldon Bull. I also learned from, and owe my career to, my agents — like my beloved Hilary Wayne, my manager Andy Cohen, and many others. I have also been enlightened by my seminar students and Web writers, those who grew up loving the Indie film world, and who have given me new perspectives by questioning me in that snotty-as-hell ‘tude that only insightful young people have.
If my Save the Cat example has whetted your appetite to learn more tricks, then let’s begin. Because it’s one of many that are basic. And they work.
They’re the rules I hope you will learn and use and even break. And hopefully when your movie comes out, and it’s satisfying and a hit — you can pass on jour rules to others.