MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #22
Who has never been pulled over for a traffic violation? Believe it or not, the way you respond can reveal a lot about your chances for screenwriting success. Read on to learn why appearances — in movies and in real life — are not important. That is to say they are not merely important. They are the whole deal.
THAT'S THE TICKET!
Last night I got a ticket.
According to my speedometer I was traveling just under sixty-five.
Full disclosure: this was on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
It was my first traffic citation in years. When the motorcycle officer pulled up behind me, lights flashing, siren whoop-whooping, I followed my standard protocol under such circumstances.
First, I pulled over to the curb and stopped.
Next, I lowered the driver’s window.
Then I switched on the car’s interior lights—not only the dome light but also two auxiliary lamps provided for map-reading, one on the driver’s side and the other the passenger’s. The car’s interior was so bright I could have gotten a tan.
I then placed both of my hands on top of the wheel, fingers splayed, and I waited quietly as LAPD Officer Ramirez approached.
He was totally polite, rational, and calm. I knew this meant I was going to get a ticket. If a cop barks at you, scolds you, and if you nod and say over and over again “Yes, Officer; No, Officer,” there’s a chance you’re going to be released with a mere warning. If the cop oozes courtesy, however, count on it: you’ll be tagged.
When he asked me for my license I explained to him that it was in my black leather wallet in my left rear pants pocket, and that I was reaching for it now. When he asked me for my registration and insurance card I told him they were in the glove compartment and that I was reaching for them now. I more or less narrated my moves as I made them.
What in the world can this have to do with screenwriting?
Bear with me.
Notwithstanding my retro-hippy, over-the-hill-political-activist affect (purely a pose; I’m a lifelong middleclass kid who loves his country and believes in God) I am fiercely pro-police. Cops, in my view, are underpaid and overworked. We require them to be available on a moment’s notice around the clock to do nothing less than risk their lives.
Los Angeles, and these days not only Los Angeles, is gun crazy. Every other motorist is armed. This is one good reason never to flip off anybody who commits, say, an unsafe lane change, causing you abruptly to brake. Give him the finger? Probably nothing will come of it. But there’s also a chance he’ll whip out a Glock and blow your brains out on the windshield of your Acura.
A cop approaching a car does not know who or what is coming out of that car. It’s wise, therefore, to let him have a good, clear look at you and to see that you’re not carrying heat, which is why I promptly light the cabin’s interior and keep my hands open and fingers apart. Cops are properly trained to keep an eye out for perpetrators’ hands, as they may well wield a weapon. I want the cop to see that in approaching me he has nothing to fear. This vastly reduces the chance, it seems to me, that in panic he might whip out his own firearm and put a slug in my head.
Now the screenwriting part.
For his own safety, a citizen approached by a policeman ought to consider the way he comes across. Likewise, the writer of a screenplay. Our job is to place ourselves in the minds and bodies of other people—clearly the characters in our scripts but also the characters in our lives—and think as they think, speak as they speak, act as they would likely act.
I tell screenwriting classes that in film appearances are not important.
That is, they are not merely important. Rather, they are the whole deal.
Movies don’t even move. Everyone knows they consist of approximately a hundred-twenty-five thousand still pictures. These frames lie absolutely motionless in the projector’s gate. The movement is merely inferred by the viewer; it is not reality but illusion.
Just because a bit of action or line of dialogue seems clear to the writer, he nevertheless has to ask himself, will it come across the same way to the audience?
That’s why it’s useful perpetually to embrace the other guy’s perspective.
Right there is the essence of creative expression in all media and formats, not to mention extra protection against mishaps when encountering the law.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Dan Pyne
Writer and director Dan Pyne (www.danielpyne.com) was honored in 2003-2004 with UCLA’s Hunter/Zakin chair in screenwriting, and is a Sundance Institute Labs writing mentor. "Pacific Heights" was Pyne’s first produced feature film. His screen directorial debut, "Where’s Marlowe?" was distributed by Paramount Classics in 1999. His re-adaptation of Richard Condon’s "The Manchurian Candidate," directed by Jonathan Demme, was singled out by both Newsweek magazine and the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 10 films of 2004. New Line’s "Fracture," from his original script, was released in 2007. Throughout his career, Pyne has moved freely between the television and feature worlds; last season he was executive producer and co-show runner of Fox’s 2012 midseason thriller, “Alcatraz.” He recently completed adapting “The Death of a Thin Skinned Animal” for Studio Canal, and his second novel, “A Hole In The Ground Owned By A Liar”, was published by Counterpoint in March.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
Dan: I set out to be a prose fiction writer, but got accepted into the graduate program at UCLA film school, and fell in love with movies and dramatic writing.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
Dan: I was a journalist and sportswriter in and after college, and also worked as an advertising copywriter before and during film school. After finishing my MFA, I kicked around for a year writing specs and living on popcorn and Top Ramen. Then, with a partner, I wrote a spec t.v. pilot that was not only optioned, but opened doors to series television, and we were hired to write a “Matt Houston” episode, and subsequently brought on staff. This led to a development deal at Universal, where I created pilots and series and rescued a stalled film project called “The Hard Way.” That rewrite caught the attention of movie producers even before it got cast and made, and enabled me to make the transition into screenwriting, which is where I really wanted to be.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Dan: I don’t have one. “Apocalypse Now” is a movie I can watch again and again because, despite its warts and flaws, it strives for a kind of transcendent greatness I think film is capable of achieving. I love “8 ½” and “Nights of Cabiria” for Fellini’s singular vision and humanity. “Casablanca”, “North By Northwest”, “Blade Runner”, “The Big Sleep”, “Mean Streets”, “The Conversation”, “The Thin Red Line.” I have a lot of favorites. It’s probably why I work in film.
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Dan: Aim high. Write what moves you, not what you think will be a big sale. Keep getting better, don’t coast, don’t settle. Don’t let one script consume you, sometimes you have to let them go. Learn the rules and then forget about them: films build one frame, one sentence, one scene, one sequence at a time, each beat building on the prior one and preparing you for the next one. Never condescend to the material, if you can’t find your way to love what you’re writing, and the story and the characters, walk away.
Always take the cold drink when you have a meeting, because you’ll want something to hold in your hands.