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  • Why Her ?

    January 4th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    2013 was an excellent year for movies – perhaps the best in quite a few years. And there are many films that I would be very content with winning the Oscar. But for me, the best movie of the year is Her. And no one is more shocked about that than I am.

    I went in doubting the hype. I’m not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan and Spike Jonze is the kind of manic eccentric genius that sometimes doesn’t translate to a relatable cohesive story. And considering his writing credits include the Jackass movies and Where the Wild Things Are and his directing credits include Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and dozens of music videos, who could guess that he’d write the next great American love story.

    The best compliment I could give Her is that it makes me never want to write again because I don’t think I could ever write something as good that works on so many levels. It is a touching, amazingly relevant, powerful and complete love story that engrosses you more than most love stories where there are TWO people present on screen. It is beautifully crafted, beautifully acted and thematically impactful. It’s a love story for the ages, and the age that hasn’t come yet.

    And I realized there are some specific reasons why this movie works so well.

    1.    It creates an interesting, expansive world but only explores one tiny piece of it. There are so many lovely nuances to this futuristic Los Angeles setting. The green screen backgrounds shows how much LA has changed in the near future, with its endless glittering lights and cell towers pinging like shooting stars. Every single person is engaged in a schizophrenic-like experience talking to their own ear pieces and personal OS systems as they walk down the street completely oblivious that anyone else exists. The sharp, ultra-functional, ultra-modern, color-infused world of the apartments and offices underline the isolation that seems to exist between its residents. There are friendships and dates and social interaction, but the closest relationship people seem to have in this world is with their tech gadgets.

    Other nuances like how email is read and categorized, how fast technology works and is able to absorb and grow and adapt, how people get around, etc. only further help flesh out the world.  Jonze clearly knew every little aspect of his near-future landscape before he wrote this script and was able to pick and choose which ones would highlight his theme and story and characters in genius ways.  There are probably tons of other aspects of this world that could have been explored, but limiting it to what is directly connected to the love story makes it all the more intriguing. When writers know how to create a truly intriguing world that is special yet relatable, different yet plausible, and that world matches the story that is occurring within it, it’s a winning combination.

    Many of the scripts I’ve read lately have these expansive futuristic/dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but they aren’t really necessary to the story – the writers are just hoping that their “awesome” worlds will mask what’s lacking in the narrative. Jonze chose a time and world that complimented the story in perfect fashion and made it feel MORE believable and viable instead of just distracting us from it. Jonze created a big world but made it feel small, while creating a small story and making it feel big. That’s one of the keys to successful world building.

    2.   Timing. Is there a more relevant love story right now than that between man and technology? It’s the right story at the right time. The themes and societal questions raised and explored of what makes for a genuine relationship, what defines a happy couple, what makes for true love, and what constitutes an acceptable love dynamic in society is done so in beautiful ways. At a time when gay marriage is a hot button issue, Jonze takes the concept two steps further and makes relationships with OS’s (Operating Systems) the next issue to be tackled. It’s talked about and accepted by many in this story – but it’s still not the thing everyone is comfortable with. It’s still somewhat taboo and embarrassing for Phoenix’s character. There’s still that unsure “Ohhh…umm…okay” reaction when people hear about this relationship.

    When a writer can tap into the zeitgeist – and what could be NEXT in the zeitgeist – in a way that examines an issue in a brilliant way without ever mentioning the issue, that shows true talent. The concept of the OS/Human relationship is discussed, but it’s more about the doubt the Human and the OS have in their own feelings than their worries about what the outside world thinks. It’s about being comfortable in your own love and your own mind and letting everything else go. And if that’s not an important and relevant message and theme to explore today, I don’t know what is.

    The beauty of the way Jonze explores this theme, however, is how he has elevated the genre and the discussion. Which brings us to…

    3.    It defines elevated storytelling. And that’s not easy to do with romance or romantic dramas. If you’ve ever seen a Nicholas Sparks novel brought to life on screen, they all have strong emotional hooks. They all have an internal dilemma and external conflict that rips the lovers apart only so they can find a way to come back together. But almost none of them feel realistic or relatable. His books explore life-threatening illnesses and death. They are female fantasies underlining the power of true love. None of them are overly intelligent or complex. They connect on an emotional level but that’s about it. The beauty of Her is that it connects on an emotional level AND a cerebral one. It makes you feel, it makes you cry, and it makes you think at the same time.

    Hollywood always says it wants ELEVATED material. This is a romantic drama on an elevated level. Elevated means there is something smarter and deeper about the story than the normal, down-the-middle boy meets girl story. And Her delivers on that in spades.

    4.    It tells a complete love story. It’s boy meets girl (ish), but in a whole new way. But the beauty of the structure of the story is that we really get to experience their whole relationship. I don’t want to give anything away about how the film ends, but every time you think the story can end, Spike Jonze finds a believable and relatable way to throw another plot twist into the mix that progress the arcs of both characters and raises the stakes. And they all feel like REAL twists that would plague any real-world human relationship which is what makes it feel so genuine.

    It doesn’t take much to believe that a person can fall in love with a voice on a computer. So once you swallow that premise, the rest is a rollercoaster ride of emotion from beginning to end that probably feels like a love story you’ve experienced.  Or maybe that’s just me. It uses all the tropes of romantic drama – loss, death, cheating, conflict, temptation, realization, growth, change, love and sex – but there’s only one physical person involved. It’s a focused story, but a complete story. And that’s what you should be trying to do with your scripts.

    5.     It gives its actors immense room to play, react, feel and emote. Movies don’t get made without stars these days, and to get stars you need characters that stand out and give them something to do.  A new situation or mindset for them to explore emotionally. And too many writers focus on the action of what the characters do in the scene and not enough on the REACTION the actors get to portray in their quiet or reflective moments. And all of the actors in this film have those moments and play them perfectly.

    Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who looks more like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich than the glam roles she usually plays), Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and especially Scarlett Johansson are all pitch perfect (and listen for the greatest voice over cameo ever by Kristen Wiig).

    The fact that Scarlett Johansson can’t be nominated for an Academy Award is a damn shame. Personally, I’ve never been a big Joaquin Phoenix fan. I find him intense and creepy to watch but not in a fun way (like Daniel Day Lewis). But the man knows how to genuinely emote on screen like very few others can. He’s so open and able to commit to the words, it’s powerful to watch. And I’m not sure if Scarlett was in the room or speaking to him through the ear piece or if it was all done in post, but you’d never know he was the only person in the room.

    Phoenix’s character has a simple enough backstory – a nasty divorce from the love of his life has left him somewhat of a recluse and emotionally crippled. It’s not a hugely original backstory. But when combined with the world created, it’s all you need. The OS Samantha, played by Johansson, has just as much (if not more) or a character arc than the human characters. It’s her character that grows and changes the most. As I said, it’s a complete love story told from both perspectives, even though we are only SEEING one on screen. Give huge credit to Scarlett for bringing a character to life that isn’t even alive and that we never see. If you can write characters like that, you will get a major actor attached to your script.

    6.    The dialogue will affect you. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will leave you with two quotes that stand out.  “Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This line is brilliant not just because it’s accurate, but because the whole story is about a guy talking to an ear piece, which makes him look even crazier yet in this world it’s socially acceptable. And “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” It’s one of those lines that stay with you, that become part of the way you think. The script is full of these, and that kind of dialogue is what powerful films are made of.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to go see Her, but also to read the script and learn how to craft a story that deserves Oscar gold.

     

  • 5 Ways to Pitch for Success

    April 10th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    This weekend, there are two big screenwriting events – the Screenwriters World East Conference in NY and the Toronto Screenwriting Conference in Canada. And both afford writers the chance to pitch the pros.

    So, I figured it was a good time to whip out some quick pitching advice to keep in mind. There is no ONE set way to pitch your script that will guarantee your success, but here are 5 different pitching strategies or focuses you could use to grab, attract and impress the other side of the table. But you better know what your project’s strong suit is before you decide how to pitch it.

    1. Focus on Story, Hook and World. If you think you have a very high concept story and the strongest selling point about your project is your amazing, original hook, then focus on that. If you have a truly original idea that hasn’t been done or you have a crazy new twist on a great existing concept that when you hear it, you get the story completely, then all you will really need to do is give them an awesome logline that gets that across and some perfect comparison movies that get your concept across (it’s THIS meets THAT). If you have a truly original – and COMMERCIAL – concept, you will get a visceral reaction to your logline. If you get no reaction, then either your logline sucks or you don’t have an original concept that grabs people’s attention and you will have to go into more depth on the story. Try to go through whatever exemplifies what’s original about your story.

    Focus on the elements of your script that will make it stand out – the world of your script, the locations, time periods, twists and turns in the plot, etc. If you have written a futuristic thriller, and your world is so visual and creative that it jumps off the page – then focus on that world and bring the exec into it. Give them the highlights that will help them picture it and then go into the specifics of the story that will bring that world to life. Focus more on the actual plot and the build of the story to tell us why audiences will be hooked all the way through.

    However, you should never EVER pitch the structure of your story. It is a major amateur mistake to just go through the Save the Cat structural beat sheet instead of the actual PLOT. Tell them a story like you would describe a movie you just saw to a friend. You’d never say “And then as we broke into three, the character did this…”

    Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way – Olympus Has Fallen, Alien, Shaun of the Dead, Taken, The Departed, The Help, The Hangover, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Looper, etc.

    2. Focus on Character, Arc and Relationships. Sometimes a project is more character-driven than plot driven and the new angle or most interesting aspect of your story will be the characters you create and the journey they embark on. Or perhaps it’s about a special relationship that is forged over the course of the story that will really touch an audience like in Thelma and Louise or Superbad (Side note: It’s often the creation of a great dynamic or relationship and putting that into a high concept story that makes the most sellable projects). In this case, you want to really make us love both your characters and get across their dynamic and backstory.

    Sometimes a character is so complex, interesting or relatable that it’s the casting possibilities that hook an executive. Sometimes it’s the specific goals they have to accomplish and the obstacles they face that will make a story stand out. Focus on your character’s life, their struggles, their goals, give a morsel of their backstory, and then tell us what happens that totally turns their life upside down (the inciting incident) and what they have to do now. Build them up, tear them down, and tell us why we will want to watch it.

    Very often, it’s the non-high concept or more indie films that might be better pitched this way. Or a film that’s based on a real person and their life story. Example include; Magic Mike, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, Castaway, Rocky, Jerry Maguire, Into the Wild, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums, etc.

    3.  Focus on You and your personal story. Sometimes it’s not about making them love your pitch or your project, it’s about making them love YOU. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I’ve taken where I hated the story, but there was something so charming, relatable or likable about the writer that I asked to read a writing sample anyway. If you can come off as comfortable, professional, collaborative, fun to be around (without being an over the top clown who is trying to hard), and someone who truly knows their shit – then they will want to deal with you more. If you mind your manners, have a pleasant disposition, are decently attractive, dressed normally, have done your research, and just have a disarming way about you, that will often get you further than a great logline.  It comes down to three things – don’t be combative, don’t be desperate, and don’t be crazy.

    If you have real experience in the film industry or with writing in general in other areas, then you want to stress that. If you’ve won MAJOR contests (and I said WON), you want to mention that. If there’s something that is special about you or that you can claim that no one else can, then mention that.

    And if there is something about your life or your personal story or experiences that inspired the script you have written that will make us connect with you, you should share that. If you wrote an international action movie and you were a soldier fighting overseas, then that’s great to mention. If you wrote a sci-fi thriller and you’re a scientist or engineer who has been studying the very field you are writing about, then say that. If you were in a bank when it got robbed and it inspired you to write a heist movie, share that story. If you were witness to some huge event in time and you have a specific point of view or new information and your life rights are truly important to the story, then share that. If you are an EXPERT in a certain field, let them know.

    However, there are some major exceptions to this rule!! If your script is about a woman who got beaten, raped, divorced, diagnosed as clinically insane, was sold into sex slavery, raised in a cult, got cancer 17 times, etc., and it’s your own personal true story – keep it to yourself. Keep it light, but meaningful. This is not a therapy session, it’s a pitch meeting. You want to share something that will inspire a connection and confidence – not pity.

    Especially if you are pitching an agent or manager, you want to pitch YOU much more than a single story. Show them you have a real vision for your career, know what type of writer you want to be, what genres you want to write, whose career you’d like to have in 10 years, and what you’ve been doing to work towards that.

    4.  Focus on the Trailer Moments. Sometimes the plot and the characters may not insanely original or strong, but you have some awesome moments in your script and story that are sure to get people into the theater. This usually applies more to comedies, action films and horror movies, but if you know you have created some amazing set pieces or huge scares or amazing original action scenes, then that’s what you should highlight in your pitch. Don’t go through a character’s backstory or the beat by beat story – give us a logline, a quick overview of the story and then give us more of the specific, visual, compelling examples of the best parts of your story. Treat your pitch like you were writing a movie trailer. Set up the world in 1 line, set up the protagonist in 2 lines, give us the inciting incident that kicks the story into gear, and then give us the trailer moments and build to the amazing climax.

    Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way include Project X, The Expendables, Evil Dead, Spring Breakers, Fast and the Furious, There’s Something About Mary, etc.

    5.  Focus on creating a relationship. This is where instead of sitting down to rapid-fire pitch a memorized speech for 4 and a half minutes and hope for the best, you just want to take the time to culture a relationship and create a connection. Get to know the person, learn what they look for, what type of project they’ve always wanted to find, what their pet peeves are, ask for general career advice and try to make yourself seem like someone who isn’t trying to SELL them something, but instead is someone they might want to get a drink with. This especially works if the conference you’re pitching at is NOT in LA, because those execs WILL be going to get drinks later and if you seem cool enough, they may invite you to come with. The best sales jobs are the ones where you’re not actually selling anything…while selling everything. The key to this kind of ballsy pitch is to make it seem natural – and they will know when you’re putting them on. But let them know you’re working on some new projects and that you’d love to contact them at some point in the future, etc.

    Whether you’re in NY or Toronto this weekend, or any other pitching situation in the future, know what your strongest selling points are (and your story’s) and let that dictate what kind of pitch will be the best fit.

    **On Saturday, April 13th, I will be teaching a LIVE in-store class at The Writers Store in Burbank. “12 Steps to a Screen-Worthy Script.” If you’re in LA area, you should be there! Sign up now and you get a free Logline Critique! We’ll go through different exercises and the 12 steps to getting your script to the next level. For more info and to register, click here – http://www.writersstore.com/12-steps-to-a-screen-worth-script/

  • How You and Your Character Can Stage a Comeback & Succeed

    February 8th, 2012

    Comebacks, second acts and redemption. It’s what character arcs are all about – but it’s also what life in the entertainment industry is all about. This business is 97% NO and 3% YES. You will fail 9 out of 10 times in this industry, but I truly believe that every failure gets you closer to that success.

    Characters that fall from grace that must fight their way back are people that audiences root for. And it’s the same in real life. And the themes that cause our real-life comebacks, obstacles and redemptions are universal and can be worked into your story to make your character more relatable and your story more sellable.

    Motivational Speaker Gary Ryan Blair has laid out seven steps to staging a comeback and I’ve related them back to what your characters should be doing in your story and what YOU should be doing personally in this biz.

    1. Refuse to Die – This is the attitude your characters must have, that inner motivation that no matter what happens – they will not die. It’s what makes them a hero. They accept disaster and go from there.
    2. Decide to fight – It’s the character’s acceptance of their adventure and managing of their fears through the adventure. Regroup and plot and plot again. This is also what you need to do every time you get a rejection letter.
    3. Get Mad – Use the emotion as fuel for your story and character, and for getting your own creative juices out.
    4. Get creative – Don’t JUST have your character do what’s expected – get creative.
    5. Focus on Results – Know the character’s motivation and what the ultimate physical and emotional result for your character is. But also for you writers yourselves – know what your end goal is. Is it to sell your script, is it to break in, is it to get hired for other work, is it just to finish a script and say you did it? Know your goal and focus on your results. Because if you focus on your process, it’s probably going to be very hard to succeed.
    6. Take a chance. Take a risk – You and your characters may both be taking paths that are foreign to you, but don’t be afraid of taking calculated risks.
    7. Enjoy the ride. Not only should your character and the audience enjoy the journey, but you should as well. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    Look at every obstacle, setback, rejection, and constraint as an opportunity to show your character’s true colors, make a connection between them and the audience, show emotion, flesh out their arc, and really make a compelling character and story. And then do the exact same thing in your own personal life.

    Look at all the setbacks and rejections you get and wear them as badges of honor, because you can’t get rejected unless you’re in the game. So as long as you’re getting rejections, you’re still IN it. Maybe not in the way or to the degree that you’d like yet – but much like your characters and their goals, you’re working towards it.

    If it takes 100 No’s for every Yes, then every rejection letter you get, every bad pitch you give give, every pass you receive, means it’s one less you have to get before you hear YES.  

    Having a PRO-ACTIVE response to failure is how you grow and prepare better for future success. Having a REACTIVE response to failure is how you self-destruct and close doors to future success. Keep your emotions in check. You probably want to rip out the heart of the exec or consultant who gives you the response you didn’t want, but you can’t.

    Instead of jumping down an exec’s throat or blaming a consultant for not “getting” your writing, you should look at your writing and ask yourself WHY they don’t get it.  If an exec says they don’t think your project is commercial, then that is your chance to look at what’s selling and see WHY it’s not commercial so you don’t make that mistake again.

    This town is full of people who have made careers of FAILING UPWARDS – and that quite frankly is a great way to succeed in this town. At least you’re failing in the right direction. If you fail downwards, there’s nowhere to go. If you fail upwards, the sky’s the limit.

    But you can’t fail at something unless you’re actively doing it, so you’re already on your way just by failing.  So, don’t give up NOW. You’ve already gone through the failure, you’ve already progressed, you’ve already gotten further than 90% of the other writers trying to do what you’re doing – so just keep your head down and keep progressing towards success.  Create your own comeback.

    **February 10th starts my 90-Day Teleseminar Program “90 DAYS TO A SCREENWORTHY SCRIPT.” In weekly interactive 60-minute Teleseminars, I will personally guide you through the writing process and cover everything you need to know to write and finish a more cinematic script! You’ll also get worksheets, exercises, weekly motivational tips, some great prizes, and we have lots of GREAT Industry Guest Speakers joining us!  For more information and to sign up TODAY, please click here – http://90dayscript.eventbrite.com

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