Hungry?

I was finally able to go see the current running comedy, Chef the other night, and let me warn you now…don’t go to the theater hungry! It’s a real palate-teaser! You’ll be salivating over the food Chef Carl Casper (Jon Vavreau) serves up – that is if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian. We don’t get to just view the food; we see how it’s prepared! From the speed slicing to watching Casper butcher a pig, it’s all about cuisine, even though a Los Angeles Times food critic (Oliver Platt) is less-than impressed.

Serving up a star-studded cast: Chef star writer/director, Jon Favreau, the ever-sexy Scarlett Johansson, stunning Sophia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, sous chef buddy, John Leguizamo, adorable Emjay Anthony, Casper’s 10-year-old son, who frequently steals the show, Oliver Platt and a fleeting encounter with Robert Downey Jr., whose character is offbeat and probably unnecessary.

Chef Casper is an outstanding chef, or at least he used to cook from the heart, but things have been going downhill for the robust cook. Newly divorced, he tries to juggle fatherhood while working as the head chef at a thriving restaurant in Los Angeles.

His claim to fame quickly comes to a halt when his boss forces him to stick to the “traditional, boring” menu, and he’s given an insulting review in the Times. In an effort to reclaim his honor, Casper gets his son to help him set up a Twitter account and publicly confronts the reporter on Twitter, setting off a widespread cyber war. As a result, the angry chef gets fired and finds himself in a pickle!

Casper’s ex-wife, the lovely Vergara makes him an offer he can’t refuse: She gets him to accompany her and their son to Miami, where she arranges a meeting between her wealthy first ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr), and Casper. Casper is given a dilapidated food truck so he can get back to basics and cook the way he wants.

If you haven’t salivated yet, I assure you it will happen once the food truck is cleaned and remodeled. Aye carumba! Joined by his cooking buddy Martin (John Leguizamo), who shows up out of nowhere, Casper taps into his creative side and creates a Cuban sandwich menu sensation. Casper, his son Percy and Martin cook their way back to L.A. – road trip style. Midpoint, the film becomes ridiculously predictable. There are no surprises, but there’s some good Latin music, great looking food, and moments of sentimentality as the chef enjoys much needed “quality” time father-son moments while on the road, blogging and tweeting as they go!

By the time “El Jef Cabanos” makes it back to L.A., Chef Casper’s fame has spread through the land! He’s back, cooking his own food and all’s well that ends well. Not only does Chef Casper get his creative juices flowing, his relationship with his ex-wife and Percy are fully restored, and the journalist who gave Chef a bad rap is now singing his praises after downing one of his Cuban sandwiches. So much so, that he backs him and Chef Casper opens his own restaurant! Although the film is ridiculously predictable, and the plot resolutions are somewhat contrived and unrealistic, it has some endearing moments, and the food looks pretty amazing.

Guaranteed… you’ll walk away hungry!

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One Conflict: One Story

Every screenplay must have one inciting incident—the initial conflict that happens that sends the protagonist on his or her journey to transformation. In other words, the protagonist is thrown from his or her normal every day world into a challenge or obstacle. This conflict is what shifts them into a new world, so that his or her old world is no longer the same. This conflict is what begins the story and causes the protagonist to act. You also want to remember that conflict is essential, but all conflict must be connected to the initial conflict for the story to work.

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Weak and/or unfocused conflict is problematic. If your story does not have a strong external conflict (the obstacle that comes between the protagonist and their goal), the script will not move forward, and then you will struggle to keep things exciting. Your story begins with the inciting incident, and if this is not clearly defined, you don’t have a story (ouch).

Here is a good checklist to follow:

  1. What’s your story’s external (plot) conflict?
  2. What is your protagonist’s emotional conflict?
  3. How do we see your hero battle the external conflict?
  4. Are the external conflict and the emotional conflict connected? How so?
  5. How do you dramatize the protagonist’s struggle with his or her emotional conflict?

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“The Inciting Incident always leads us to the Key Incident, which is the hub of the story line, the engine that powers the story forward. The Key Incident reveals to us what the story is about. All films can break down as such. The Key Incident will generally be the plot point at the end of Act One, but not always. One such example is Ordinary People. The entire screenplay revolves around the key incident of the drowning, which occurs before the story begins but is pieced together and finally seen in its totality at Plot Point II.” – Syd Field

The inciting incident is the beginning of your story. If you don’t have a clearly defined inciting incident, you don’t have a story. The inciting incident throws the protagonist from “the normal everyday world” into a challenge, an obstacle. Something shifts in his world so that his world is no longer the same. If you don’t flag a major shift (with huge dramatic stakes and passion), then you likely don’t have a story.

The inciting incident cues the audience/reader about what type of journey we’ll be going on. But, the journey is pointless if you don’t get your hero over the finish line…he or she must complete his or her goal. Generally, this happens somewhere between page 5 and 7. If by page 5, the theme is not stated CLEARLY, who your protagonist is, and what is his or her need (issue), with a goal in site, you’re going to have an issue with arching the story, the character and the resolution. In short—that will pose a MAJOR problem.

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I am available for online, one-on-one, script coaching.   Click here: Script coaching online

To collaborate or not to collaborate…that is the question

I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time.  Without dating myself, well over 20 years, but in all that time, I’ve only collaborated once on a script.  Well, that is until recently.  Truthfully, I don’t think it’s something  you just “do” for the heck of it.  It has to be for “all” the right reasons, and there are definitely pros and cons to working collaboratively on a project.

Unless you are working with a writing group on a television series, then first and foremost, you must pick a writing partner that you can trust.  In addition to trust, you both need to have similar writing styles and similar goals.  Once that’s established you absolutely MUST sign a contract first, no matter what.  There are a number of things that need to be established, such as:  Who is writing what?  How much responsibility each of you share?  Will it be 50/50? What are the particulars you’re looking for?  Even if you are writing with your best friend, all the more reason to have a contract between you; if not, it could cost you your friendship.  About now, you might be rolling your eyes, assuring me (under your breath), “that will never happen.”  You know the old adage… “Never say never…”

So, as I was saying…Until now, I’ve only used a writing partner once.  It was when writing a comedy, and it was a great experience.  I do think that comedy lends itself to partner collaboration much more than drama.  Partly because comedy is so subjective.  What one person thinks is funny, another might not, and this is an important reality that can be easily explored when writing comedy with a partner. It’s a great way to test dialogue.

The truth is, collaborative writing is an intimate venture.  You have to be willing to be completely transparent, and sometimes brutally honest with your writing partner.  You also have to be able to accept criticism too.  There are a lot of odd little irritations that surface when working on a project with a partner.  However, it can be incredibly fun and rewarding, especially for the partners that have worked through all the initial kinks and established some preliminary ground rules.

So, I am now on my 3rd collaborative screenplay, and it’s (of course) another comedy.  We’ve really been having an amazing time.  It’s a lot of fun watching a writing rhythm develop with your partner.  We’re mid-way, and in a really good place.

One of the things that has really made our process productive is using the new online screenwriting program WriterDuet.  I must say, I’m IMPRESSED!  This (free) program allows us to write collaboratively, whether we’re together or apart, and we can see all of the edits immediately.  In addition to the edits, the program saves a history of all of the changes we’ve made, so if we decide we liked something previously written, we can revert back.  Another wonderful perk…WriterDuet has a page for outlining, story-boarding and creating index cards. With the flick of a finger, using the command key, we can go back and forth between our notes, and insert right into the script!

If you’re considering writing with a partner (or even alone), please check out WriterDuet.com.  It has my endorsement.

Check it out!

Flawed Characters — Looking at life Sideways!

I love flawed characters.  Perhaps it’s because they seem so much more real.  Join me for a little analysis of the screenplay Sideways, which is wonderfully written.

Logline: Two old friends setting off on a wine-tasting road trip…only to veer dizzily sideways into a wry, comedic exploration of the crazy vicissitudes of love and friendship, the damnable persistence of loneliness and dreams and the enduring war between Pinot and Cabernet. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Failure is a part of the human condition, and whenever we see a character in a screenplay that reveals this aspect of humanity, we are somehow reassured.  In the screenplay Sideways, the protagonist has been hard-hit by the failure of his marriage and the rejection of his novel.  Through the use of good character development, well-written dialogue and conflict, the authors take the audience/reader on a metaphoric journey filled with universal appeal while covering complex life questions, such as:  depression, mid-life crisis, honesty and infidelity.

The opening scene in Sideways reveals a lot about MILES RAYMOND’S character.  Miles is hung-over, and running late for an appointment that he had forgotten about.  The opening line says it all:  “…the fuck….” A worker [painter] is standing at the door asking him to move his car.  Dressed in only underwear, a bathrobe and a pair of clogs, Miles proceeds to move his car, and ends up falling asleep in it.  It is clear that he is somewhat out of sorts as he races back into his apartment in frenzy and shouts out the repeated one-liner, “Fuck!”  He is late for an appointment.

Miles is an eighth grade English teacher and a want-to-be novelist who has not moved on after going through a divorce.  He is a loser.  In fact, he seems to be going through the motions of life passionless, with the exception of his love for wine and his fascination with Pinot.  When asked about his love for pinot his response is not only informative about the nature of the wine, it somewhat mirrors him.  Note the following excerpt:

MAYA

Can I ask you a personal question?

MILES

(Bracing himself)

Sure.

MAYA

Why are you so into Pinot? It’s like a thing with you.

Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question.  He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

MILES

I don’t know.  It’s a hard grape to grow.  As you know it’s  thin-skinned,       temperamental, ripens early.  It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and  thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention…

Weaving in Metaphor:

Is this explanation a metaphor that describes him? Is he admitting to his inability to weather the storms of life and his need for constant attention and affirmation?  He has not survived his divorce well, and exhibits the signs of someone who is not just down on his luck in life, but most likely depressed.  This middle-age man has been rejected in love and in his career as a writer.

In the middle of their vineyard adventures, Miles and Jack sit on the hood of Miles 12-year-old Saab sharing a bottle of wine.  Jack encourages Miles to simply write another book.  “Another” is the operative word, because Jack does not know that Miles book has been rejected.  In this moment, Miles’ loser mindset and lack of self-esteem is exposed to the audience/reader with his response to Jack.  Miles not only has no new writing ideas, he believes that he is washed up.  In fact, he tells Jack that he is not a writer!  “No, I’m finished.  I’m not a writer. I’m going to spend the rest of my life grading essays and reading the works of others…the world doesn’t give a shit about what I have to say. I’m unnecessary (a dark laugh). I’m so insignificant, I can’t even kill myself.”

Not only is Miles on a journey of self-discovery, the authors humorously use the contrast between Miles and Jack’s characters; they are alive!  The diversity between these two men is as broad as the Grand Canyon, but it works well in the storyline. In fact, there is continual tension between the two men, even though humorous, that really adds color to the story.  It is human satire at its finest.  Jack’s apparent manhood is centered on his ability to land a woman in bed. By contrast, Miles inability to get past rejection brings even more tension into the mix as they discuss their adventures with the two women the night before.  Shirtless Jack wants ever detail, but Miles is not amused, nor is he willing to share anything about his time spent with Maya.  Clueless Jack continues to try and force the conversation with big bear hugs, and flinging Miles on the bed kissing his cheeks, while affirming how “Proud” he is of him.  Miles considers this a private matter, and Jack says, “You’re kidding, right?  Tell me what happened you fucker, or I’ll tie your dick in a knot.”  The comical conflict continues until finally, in a near triumphant moment, Miles stands up to Jack and tells him that he cannot take it anymore.  “Just leave me alone, okay?  You’re fucking me up.”

While enjoying his passion for wine, Miles is on a journey of self-discovery. In Sideways, the author’s successfully use the banter between two old friends (Miles and Jack), the development of their opposite characters, and the conflict that arises in their relationship to push the plot forward and bring resolve in the end—Miles is able to move forward with his life.  There is resolve and resolution, which is essential in every story.