Monday, December 08, 2008

The Writing Week part 49 – Writing Exposition

One of the big discussions we wound up having at our writers meeting last Tuesday was about delivering large (or at least largely necessary) amounts of exposition at the top of a film. DOA submitted the first act of a new draft of something that she’s been working on recently, and it opens with an expositional voice over, which introduces us to the world and some of the key characters. From there, we got to talking about successful and unsuccessful ways of planting the reader (and, hopefully, audience) right in the middle of the world, without bogging them down with too much unnecessary or overly-detailed exposition.

Think of some of the great examples of this. Star Wars has to be one of the first films that come to mind. I don’t think anyone who has seen them will forget those letters scrolling from overhead, informing all audiences of the battle going on somewhere “far, far away.” You get everything you need to know at the start of the film in the span of a few short paragraphs, and from there, you’re dropped right into a space battle. Information, then (relevant) action. Could there be a better way?

Gladiator, to a lesser degree, does the same thing. We find out the state of the Roman Empire and the battle history, and then find ourselves watching an epically awesome battle unfold before us. It’s immediately relevant to the information that we needed. (OK, I’ll admit, Gladiator is not necessarily the best follow-up to Star Wars in the example field, but I think it gets the job done.) There are dozens, hundreds of other films that follow this same procedure – the informative exposition (sometimes verging on off-screen inciting incident) followed by immediate, pertinent action that thrusts us deep into the story – be it through newsreels, TV montages, voice over, text, or any number of other approaches. The key, as we at the League decided at our meeting, is to have whatever happens next be relevant and put the audience right in the middle of the action.

This week, inspired in part by the meeting, I took a stab at opening a film that way. I started a new spec script, the basic premise of which revolves around new government legislation. Rather than attempt to craftily allude to the new policies through act one, I decided to try a cold opening with a press hearing, detailing what has happened. The approach, which I’m not sure will survive future drafts, allows me to get the necessary information out of the way immediately, so that I can quickly move into the heart of the story. We’ll see how it goes. I enjoy how it turned out so far, but it’s only the first page and I have A LOT of planning to do before I can really progress with this spec.

Have you tried writing heavily expositional openings before? What’d you think of it?

Writing the Economy

The Cleveland Browns. The weather. Um…

Damn, there really are few things that suck worse than the economy right now. And it’s not exactly the best time for an aspiring screenwriter, for, as we know, our writing is meant to be watched, not read. This, of course, takes millions of dollars. And, sadly, those fortunate members of The Millionaires Club are too busy stuffing their remaining assets into a mattress to finance a movie.

But that’s not entirely true. I mean, movies are still getting greenlit. Hell, The Dark Knight grossed nearly a billion dollars in theatres. There’s clearly money to be made.

Here’s the problem: studio heads are notorious for being cowards. And, frankly, it’s easy for anyone to label them as such. I mean, if my former boss was canned for greenlighting a sixty million dollar flop whose lead actor got DUI, I’m sure I’d be more frugal. And that’s when things were good. Now, the corporations who support these studios have a lot less ammo; the studios will have to be even more careful in selecting targets.

For the next couple of years, I envision a slew of sequels, adaptations, Judd Apatow comedies, and disaster movies. They are the best chances for a studio to make money. And by “best chances”, I mean that these types of movies are continuously validated by box office revenue.

I’m not so sure about the indie world. I know some indies are bankrolled by rich people who like to dabble in the arts. Then again, some are shot with a bunch of no-names on a shoestring budget in Brooklyn. Regardless, there will be less.

Pretty bleak, eh?

I had a high school football coach who, before the start of every season, would punch us linebackers in the stomach. Later, in close games, he’d huddle us up and say, Men, it’s gut check time.

Not many aspiring writers support themselves with their writing. All of us Leaguers have day jobs. Mine is at a hedge fund. I get to see this beast of a stock market leave blood trails. It ain’t pretty.

And I wonder how long I’ll have a job. And I wonder how I’ll react if I lose my job. Will I say, Fuck it, screenwriting was a bad choice; I’m going to med school? Or will I have confidence in my abilities and education, and persevere?

I’m not the only aspiring screenwriter who works for a company that’s losing money. For a lot of people, this will be gut check time. And, frankly, it gives me hope.

I’ve seen a lot of creative endeavors get rewarded. Our former classmates at Derrick comedy had a slew of successful web sketches, and now they have a movie premiering at Sundance. And there’s things like this guy (, a character actor who had one line on The Sopranos and then created a rap about it.

I’m not saying I want to film a YouTube sketch. I’m just saying that this whole mess of an economy has made me want to embrace my creativity. Not just in the hope of getting rewarded financially, but also because it feels good. I never started writing for the money. And if anything else, this experience has reaffirmed my faith that money isn’t everything.