MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #14
Many writers exploiting, say, a child’s tricycle as a prop in a scene, would likely place it ribbon-bound under the Christmas tree or abandoned temporarily on the front lawn. Instead of that, how about an active battlefield, the trike’s bell tinkling as the rider pilots it directly into the line of fire between two warring armies? Read on to see why smart writers choose the latter.
YOU REALLY LIKE IT?
Beyond writing and teaching I have a number of sidelines.
One of the most rewarding is court-authorized expert regarding intellectual-property law. I testify regularly in litigation regarding copyright infringement and plagiarism. The cases generally address the question: Who really wrote the movie?
In some instances I am retained by plaintiffs; in others by defendants.
Few experiences mellow the spirit like meeting with a bunch of lawyers and having them pay you money instead of the other way around.
The issues are inevitably fascinating. They explore the nature of creative expression itself. The cases are also glamorous, often involving blockbuster films, big shot writers, producers, directors, and no small number of movie stars.
These cases rarely go to court. They almost always settle. Even in those rare instances where they go to court, prior to a finding by the judge or jury the parties almost always reach an agreement. Most of the testimony I provide is not in court, therefore, but during depositions held in lawyers’ offices during the so-called ‘discovery’ phase of the trial, pre-court proceedings where each side gets to see the cards held by the other.
As in court, during depositions the witness is sworn, and a transcript of the testimony is recorded by a court reporter. I’ve never attended a deposition where, during a break in the testimony, the reporter failed to say something like, “This sure beats the case I was on yesterday! That had to do with the number of centimeters the awning extended over the property line according to the March survey.”
In one rare case that actually went to court, I had been retained by the plaintiff. In the courtroom, before the judge and jury, the defense attorney said, “The plaintiff’s material is set in the rural Southwest, is it not?”
I agreed that it was.
“The movie, on the other hand, is set in New York City. Correct?”
“Isn’t setting important?”
“Setting is not important?”
“Among the mix of items that provide value to a movie,” I said, “including story, character, dialogue and others, setting is relatively unimportant.” I cited examples of the same stories told in widely varying settings. Macbeth, for example, set in the mid-Eleventh Century Scotland, plays brilliantly as Throne of Blood set in Samurai-era Japan. Another Shakespearean example is Romeo and Juliet, set in early 1600s Verona. It works splendidly as Westside Story set in 1950s Manhattan.
“But don’t certain settings require certain sorts of paraphernalia? For example, can you imagine a setting such as, say, a battlefield?”
I averred that I could indeed imagine a battlefield.
“And aren’t there characters and properties you’d expect to find in a given setting? Take our battlefield. Wouldn’t you expect to see the sorts of things one sees on a battlefield? Soldiers, weaponry, tanks and such?”
I acknowledged that on a battlefield one would indeed expect to see such characters and materiel.
Defendant’s attorney continued, “And aren’t there also elements you’d never expect to see in a particular setting? Once again, take our battlefield. You wouldn’t expect to see, say, a child riding a tricycle, right?”
“Wait!” I nearly shouted to the court. I allowed a hefty silence. My interrogator, clearly rattled by my passionate outburst, backed away several steps.
“I see a battlefield,” I said. “And I see all the stuff you’d expect to see on a battlefield: soldiers, weaponry, tanks and the like. And I see a road meandering through the center of that battlefield. And on that battlefield I see armies, two armies, each on opposite sides of the road. I see two armies that are about to slam into each other in furious battle. Now, however, something makes its way up the road. With heat shimmering off the pavement it’s hard to determine precisely what it is. A Jeep? A convoy of trucks? Armored personnel carriers? No! As the vehicle approaches the camera, it comes into sharper focus. At last we know just what it is.”
“What’s that?” the lawyer asked, wide-eye as a kid watching a Disney classic.
“It’s just what you said,” I told him. “It’s a child riding a tricycle.” In the courtroom there was pin-drop silence. After a pause I added, “It’s brilliant!”
The lawyer, breathing heavily, clearly forgetting that he was examining a hostile witness in a courtroom gasped, “You really like it?” He smiled and nodded in self-satisfaction, clearly pleased with his creativity, with his own imaginative power.
And then he caught himself, clearly realizing where he was. “Yes, but, but, but…. All I meant was… The point is….” He stammered and stuttered BUT could not regain his footing.
“The point is,” I said, “there’s no fun in movies that provide what is expected. Audiences crave surprise. What works in movies is not what’s expected but what’s not expected.”
The attorney, shaken, requested a recess. Not twenty minutes later the court announced that the parties had come to an agreement. The jury was sent home.
A brief afterthought:
After recounting the foregoing at a screenwriting seminar, a participant came up to me. He explained that he was a Vietnam War-era veteran. On one occasion in the late ‘60s among rice paddies near Long Binh, American forces had established themselves on one side of a dike separating flooded rice fields planted with seedlings. The Viet Cong was entrenched on the opposite side of the dike. The two forces were on the verge of slamming into each other when, suddenly, there was the delicate tinkling of a bicycle bell followed by the arrival along the dike of a handful of Vietnamese children hauling a wagon containing ice cream treats.
The two sides quietly arranged for a ten-minute truce.
Weapons momentarily set aside, the Americans and Viet Cong came out onto the dike, purchased popsicles from the kids, then returned to their original positions, signaled the end of the mini-truce, shooed the kids from the dike, and then promptly returned to the business of attempting to obliterate each other.
Wouldn’t that make a wonderful scene in a movie? Wouldn’t it be superior to one in which the object was perfectly appropriate to the setting and provided precisely what the audience expected?
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Felicia D. Henderson
Felicia D. Henderson is the award-winning creator of the landmark Showtime hit Soul Food: the Series, the longest-running drama featuring African-Americans in television’s history. A successful writer/director/producer who has written and co-executive produced such high profile shows as Gossip Girl, Fringe and Everybody Hates Chris, Ms. Henderson says she is most proud of the scholarships she has established at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. The Felicia D. Henderson Screenwriting Scholarship and the Four Sisters Scholarship are helping educate young filmmakers. “Giving back is really the best reward of success,” she says. “If people like me don’t step up, the creative minds of the underrepresented might not get the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
Currently, she is also a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, where she is on faculty and teaches advanced screenwriting and one-hour drama writing. Among many of Felicia’s credits include writing and producing television comedies such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, and Movie Stars, and co-executive produced Sister, Sister. Felicia has also focused attention on television drama and feature film writing and received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Fringe; three NAACP Best Drama Awards for Soul Food; a Gracie Allen Award for her depiction of women; and a Prism Award for Accurate Depictions of Social Issues. She has written, re-written, and polished screenplays for 20th Century Fox, MTV Films, Lionsgate Entertainment, and Warner Bros. A life-long comic book fan, she has written for DC Comics for the last two years. Assignments have included a Justice Society of America anthology story; 10 issues of Teen Titans, and the Dwayne McDuffie tribute issue of Static Shock.
Currently, Ms. Henderson is adapting the Walter Mosley trilogy, Fearless Jones, for TNT.
From writing for comedy to making TV history – how did Felicia accomplish all that she has in such a short time, and how can you follow in her footsteps as a writer? Read on to find out.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
Lies. When I decided to pursue an MBA, I applied for a fellowship that required an interest in pursuing a career in network television management. The fellowship provided full tuition, room and board, and a sizable stipend. Suddenly, I was very interested in management in network television. I’m pretty sure my personal statement for that application was the greatest work of fiction ever written. I got the fellowship, earned the MBA, the MBA led to a management trainee position at NBC. It was an 18-month program where I had a chance to rotate through every major department at the network. The experience was invaluable.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
There are really two answers to this question. First, while at NBC I was exposed to television scripts for the first time in my life. I read every one I could get my hands on. I enjoyed reading them. Even the bad ones, especially the bad ones. I was fascinated by them, particularly once I learned what writers were paid for writing them. I remember saying to my boss, “Wow, I know I couldn’t have written this any worse.”
He told me about the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop and suggested I apply, given how opinionated I was about what I’d read on the page. So I wrote a script, applied to the program using that script as a writing sample, and got it. That was the beginning of my writing career. From that program, I was placed on my first sitcom, Family Matters, as a trainee, where I learned to write Steve Urkel jokes. It was a blast.
The second answer – I don’t remember my life before I was a writer. I started journaling when I was seven or eight. I wrote my first comic book when I was eight or nine. I wrote my first short story about cutting off my brother’s head at nine or ten. I wrote for the James Madison Elementary School newspaper. I wrote for my high school newspaper and yearbook. I was the editor of the MBA newsletter in grad school. When I was angry at my friends or my parents, I’d write pages and pages letting them know exactly how I felt, in excruciating detail.
I’m a writer in my soul, but I’d never considered writing as a career choice. I think of writing as the gift that God decided I should have. He’s given me several opportunities to express myself through the written word. Even my directing and comic books today are visual opportunities to write.
Q3: What is your favorite movie or TV series of all time and why?
This is a fun question… that I can’t quite answer. But I’d like to answer a different question. Here’s a list of movies I watch every year, some several times a year. Toy Story 3 is the newest one to be added to this list. Why do I watch theses movies over and over? Because I love them. Plain and simple.
There are hundreds of others that are classics, beautifully written, acted, directed, photographed, edited. But the following films move me (each for very different reasons). Literally, I feel them in my chest and several days after watching them they still won’t leave me alone. They stay in my mind, rumble around in my stomach, fill my heart, and occasionally visit my dreams. They are:
Sunset Blvd.; The Godfather; Singing in the Rain; Claudine; The Usual Suspects; The Matrix; Purple Rain; Toy Story 3; Amadeus; Nothing But a Man; Out of Sight; The Five Heart Beats; Grease; Do The Right Thing; The Way We Were; The Color Purple.
Now let’s talk Television. I’ve made a living in television for 16 years. But I’ve had an intimate relationship with it my whole life. The first show I was ever obsessed with was Sesame Street. I learned multiplication and grammar from those “School House Rock” interstitials between Saturday morning cartoons. I’m one of eight kids, so sometimes the TV was my babysitter. I was always reading, writing, or watching television.
And I’m still completely obsessed with television. It’s why I chose to study television for my PhD research. I think the best television show of all time is Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Before the DVDs were so readily available, I’d go to the UCLA Archives to watch the old episodes. I’m a big fan of great variety shows. The Carol Burnett Show was also amazing. I used to watch it with my grandmother. She was perfectly brilliant.
The casts on both of those shows were ridiculously talented. I have so much respect for those two shows because Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett weren’t afraid to surround themselves with supremely talented ensembles. It only made them look even more genius. They knew that and embraced it.
But the question was about my favorite TV show. M*A*S*H. My favorite show of all time. The Wonder Years, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne are also favorites, in terms of comedies. Now, I watch Hung, Modern Family, Men of a Certain Age, and Community.
On the current drama front, after eight years, I still never miss an episode of House. I also watch The Good Wife, Breakout Kings, Justified, Eureka, and Boardwalk Empire, which I love!
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Felicia: Write! Don’t waste your time or anyone else’s pitching the screenplay/comedy/drama you’re going to write. Write it. And when you’re finished with it, start on the next one. And when you’re not writing, read! Great books, magazine articles, good and bad scripts. Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and more Shakespeare. Everything’s just a retelling of something he (or she) already told, anyway. Yes, I’m being facetious, but you get the point.
And never, ever share your script before it’s ready. Make sure you have a few people who are smarter, better, and honest read your script and give you feedback. Proof it and proof it again. Then ask someone else to proof it. You can’t afford to look sloppy, make any mistakes, leave anything to chance at the beginning of your career. It’s a very competitive world. Use everything you’ve got to give yourself the edge.
Take any job or internship, paid or unpaid, that puts you close to those doing what you want to do and work your butt off! And lastly, if you think writing is a fun hobby that it might be cool to dabble in for awhile, go back home now! This business is not for you!
Q5: What’s next?
Felicia: I’m writing a pilot for TNT based on the Walter Mosley Fearless Jones novels. I’m also adapting a graphic novel called Girl Genius into a feature film. And last but certainly not least, I’m writing my dissertation so that I can finally finish my PhD. In a perfect world, in the next few years, I’ll get the opportunity to combine my writing career with a full-time teaching career. Then my life would be complete, professionally, anyway… Well, there is that Broadway musical I’ve always wanted to write but that’s a story for another time...
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: