The Script Project(s)

Enemy Within, my first novel, was published in 1999, during a time when a just-below-the-surface theme across America was the country was in grave danger — from within. “The Government” was to blame for this feeling that one day very soon, Americans would (a) have their guns taken away, (b) be under the control of the United Nations and (c) be preyed upon by the various minority groups “taking over everything.”  It was, according to believers, time to “do something,” to “take back what’s ours.” (Sound familiar?)

Enemy Within struck a chord with many readers, who invariably told me they found themselves thinking, “This could really happen,” or, “This would make a great movie,” as they read the story. I certainly hope it couldn’t happen, but the response to the book — and the fact that I’d already seen variations on the theme on TV and in movies — made me think that a film version might also be entertaining.

Problem was, I didn’t know anything at all about how to make that happen. About the only thing I knew was that you can’t have a movie without a script (unless you’re Oliver Stone, apparently).

Figuring, “how hard can it be?” I decided to try and adapt the novel. After reading Syd Field’s Screenplay — the Rosetta Stone of screenwriting — I gave it a shot. And I found out just how hard it can be. There’s a famous story about James Dickey’s struggle to write a screenplay for Deliverance, and after having gone through the process, I had a little bit of an understanding of how he felt. But I managed to, after months of trying, get the novel form into something resembling a screenplay. You know, there’s a whole set of profanities to use while doing this.

I was fortunate enough at the time to know a producer/director in Los Angeles, and he was gracious enough to give me some “real world” tips on how to do it — and that I’d written way too much stuff that I — and he as a director — didn’t need. So I read Screenplay again, really paying attention to the timing and structure. I also started studying scripts. Really studying them — to the point that I’ve almost ruined my movie-watching experience because I’m subconsciously watching for the transitions between acts, the shot, etc. Yes, I’m that geek who watches movies for the craft of moviemaking. Which is why I think guys like Billy Bob Thornton and Quentin Tarantino are geniuses. Crazy, yes (they are writers, after all), but also geniuses.

But it’s also a great way to learn the craft, for me anyway. Three of the most helpful: The Terminator, Point Break and Sling Blade. OK, sure, I love those movies, so that helps. But they are also great tutorials — and great stories, even in script form (I say “even” because it’s hard not to read them without playing the movie in your head). And that’s the point of a script, anyway: to tell a story. Try it. Think of a movie you haven’t seen, then go online and do search for that movie title and “script.” Chances are you’ll find it somewhere. Then just read the script. If you feel like you’re reading a story, then the writer did his job. If you’re thinking, “What is this crap?” then you’re probably reading The American.

Anyway, for the time being, I’m on a second draft of Enemy Within, the movie. I’ll post updates and other related items here from time to time, so check back. And if you haven’t read it yet, download Enemy Within at Amazon here. Only 99 cents (for a limited time).

The second script project is smaller. It’s a short piece (about 30 minutes) tentatively titled “The Things They Shouldn’t Do.” It’s based on an original story by the same name. “Things” is the story I submitted for admission to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  And if you’re thinking shorter is easier … think again. True, I got a draft done over a weekend, but I’ve been reworking it ever since. I hope to have something solid by my next trip to Mississippi — and pitch it to some indie filmmaker folks.

9/2/12: A quick primer on screenwriting:

If you were to draw a diagram of a screenplay, it would look like this:

The basic structure is this: three acts in 90 pages (more or less). One page of dialogue/action equals one minute on the screen. It can be all one or the other, or a combination of both. But essentially, 30 pages per act.

The acts are tied together with “plot points”— transitions. In other words, a scene(s) that bridges the gap between the two. It’s that point in the movie where you go, “Uh oh, something’s going to happen.”

Act 1 is the “set-up,” which is pretty much what it sounds like. Your characters are introduced within the first 10 pages, their situation is explained, etc. What is your main character all about? What is he trying to do in the story? What is his goal, quest, aim, etc.? That first 10 pages is crucial – think of how many movies you’ve turned off after watching for only about 10 minutes.

Act II is the “confrontation.” During this act, the main character faces a dilemma, or several, that prevent him from achieving his goal. In Point Break, when Johnny Utah discovers his new surfing buddies are in fact the “Ex-Presidents,” he has a moment of clarity, and the audience knows immediately, “Uh, oh, something’s going to happen.” That’s the plot point, where the movie transitions into Act II. That’s when Johnny and Angelo are stymied by his boss, Johnny faces a moral dilemma after witnessing a robbery, injuries his knee while giving chase, etc. This is also the act in which his girlfriend Tyler is abducted which Johnny learns while being forced to go skydiving with the robbers (this is also the plot point to Act III). A lot goes on Act II.

Act III is the “resolution,” as in how does the story resolve itself? Staying with Point Break, Johnny has to make several life-or-death decisions, including jumping out of a plane without a parachute, then deciding whether to hang onto his gun or drop it and pull the rip cord. In Act III, Johnny gets Tyler back, but seemingly does not get to arrest Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Ahhh, but it’s not resolved yet. Months later, Johnny catches up to Bodhi on a beach in Australia, they argue, they fight, Johnny handcuffs Bodhi, then lets him go to see him catch “one last wave.” Which, of course, he doesn’t return from.

Sounds easy, right? Right. Try to get all that just right in 120 pages or less.

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