Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Power of Structure

European screenwriters, especially the continental kind, can still be quite resistant to the idea of using a structural model for their screenplay. To them, it's either counter-intuitive or a Hollywood-led assault on their creative freedom.

Which is a lot of baloney, of course.

A good screenplay structure is one of the essential elements for making your script work. Without it, the chances of a) getting it sold and b) getting it made are very slim indeed - unless you're a writer-director with sufficient clout or a penchant for self-funding your no-budget pet projects.

What makes a good structure so powerful?

1: The structure is the skeleton of your script. It gives it shape, proportions it harmoniously, and provides the necessary support for the other elements of the script to be built onto it. The structure points of the script can be compared to the major joints of the skeleton.

To push the analogy even further: there's a reason why a human skeleton is constructed the way it is. It has a function: to protect the organs, provide attachment points for the musculature, and to maximize the potential for survival. And so it is with screenplay structure. It's intended to maximize the quality and impact of the storytelling experience.

2: The structure of a screenplay actually follows the development of the main character. This means it's not just a mathematical construct or a mechanical exercise: on the contrary, it's a completely organic part of the writing process and it's most intimately linked to the portrayal and evolution of the protagonist. Follow the structure of the script, and not only will you 'get' the overall story being told, but you'll see how the lead character evolves as well, and what events cause this evolution.

3: Screenplay structure only becomes immutable at the end of the editing process. Before that, it's fluid and flexible, can (and probably will) change as you write and rewrite, think and re-think. No reason to consider it a straitjacket or handcuffs: it grows and changes along with the rest of the story as you write it. (Just check out the commentary tracks on several Battlestar Galactica episodes for examples of this).

4: What screenplay structure does is ensuring you maximize the emotional impact of your story on the audience. It guides their experience of the story, so that they (ideally) experience the feelings you want them to at the right moment. So it's not just a tool to help you while writing - it's also a tool to shape and control the emotional reactions of the audience.

Seriously, once you realize and know all of this - how could anyone be averse to using a solid screenplay structure???

Monday, March 30, 2009

How I Do It part 2 - Brainstorming

Truth be told, my brainstorming technique could do with an upgrade.

Basically, the way it works for me is that once I have the nutshell for the script, I start generating as many ideas for it as possible. These may be big story beats or smaller moments, single gags... There's always a first rush of ideas which comes along with the initial conception of the story. Afterwards, I'm usually a little blocked, and have to put more effort into coming up with more. Usually, physical action helps me in breaking through barriers and solving story problems. Too bad I'm not a very physical person, then...

I find I need to write my brainstorms down on paper. Sitting at the PC doesn't seem to work for me at this point in the creative process - at least not very well. Luckily it doesn't hamper my creativity when I'm actually writing the synopsis or dialogue drafts.

Usually I also start structuring the story in this phase. When I'm really blocked, it's often because I forget to ask the age-old question: whose story is it anyway? In my defense, when you're writing a script for FC De Kampioenen, which has 10+ main characters (i.e. every cast member can be the lead in a story, there's no primary/secondary/tertiary character hierarchy), this question can be pretty hard to answer at times. If only because every character needs to be accounted for and given something to do in the script (we don't let characters stay off-screen except on rare occassions where an actor is unavailable because of health reasons).

Once I have the feeling that I've gathered enough material for the script in question, and I have a workable structure set up, it's then time to move on to the next step: the beat sheet or step outline.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


When Only Fools and Horses triumphed over series such as Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army to win the coveted title of the greatest British sitcom ever, it wasn’t really a surprise. After all, this sitcom had managed to score the highest viewing figures ever in the UK…

For those unfamiliar with the series, Only Fools and Horses tells the adventures of the East End Trotter family: Del (David Jason), his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and their Granddad (Lennard Pearce)(later to be replaced by their great-uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield)).

Del is a market trader with a slightly criminal streak, always looking for the big score. Naïve Rodney functions as his assistant and scapegoat, while Granddad basically tries to enjoy life for as long as he can. They live in a run-down council estate, struggling to make ends meet. Individual episodes generally revolve around Del’s latest money-making venture, romantic entanglements or conflicts between the brothers.

The series wasn’t a success straight off. Developed and written by John Sullivan, a former electrician and jack-of-all-trades, at first it did not connect with the audience, despite the presence of stellar comic actors. The series faced cancellation, but got a reprieve – and the rest is television history. So what makes it so popular? Read on, Macduff – and don’t be a plonker…


In Del and Rodney, Sullivan has created a comic duo for the ages. They are perfectly balanced on several levels, and are far richer characters than was or is the norm for comedy.

Del is a perfect example of the Trickster archetype: always looking for a quick buck, very talented at manipulation, with a wicked sense of humour, a talent for survival and a cheerful amorality where money is concerned.

On the other hand, he has no taste, tries unsuccessfully to pass himself off as a sophisticate, and doesn’t think his schemes through far enough. What makes Del more than just a caricature is his fierce love for his family. No matter how much they argue (and they do), he will immediately come to the aid of Rodney when necessary, and at any cost to himself.

This is Del’s saving grace: otherwise he’d just be a swindler, looking out for number one. This dichotomy within the character is a rich source of drama: many episodes make Del choose between his own desires and the welfare of his kin. This is never done in a soppy, sentimental way, however. The emotions always remain honest.

Rodney is in many ways Del’s opposite. He has GCSE diplomas in Math and Art, which makes him the ‘intellectual’ of the family. He is naively idealistic, acting as the voice of conscience with regards to Del’s dodgy deals – until he realises there’s money to be made. He is also the perfect fall guy for Del’s schemes, because he allows himself to be manipulated time and time again. Even when he knows Del wants to take advantage of him, he still falls for his tricks.

Rodney’s also the only Trotter who genuinely wants to better himself culturally and spiritually. He primarily yearns for a way out of the depressing lower-class surroundings in which he finds himself. Early on, Rodney wants to be an artist; later he finds a job at a bank (though he keeps helping Del out when necessary). Whereas Del just wants to improve his life in a materialistic sense, Rodney will be the first Trotter to actually climb up the social ladder and have a different way of life.

Another aspect of Rodney’s character is his sexual fetish for women in uniform. This apparently trivial detail actually illuminates his character quite well: he is immature and is attracted to dominant women, probably because he missed out on having a mother (she died when he was 4). To meld such a throwaway excuse to generate laughs, with the deeper psychological profile of the character, is comedy writing genius.

A crucial element in the Del-Rodney relationship is Del’s having been a surrogate parent at an early age for his younger brother. Their father having left the family and their mother dying when Rodney was only four, Del has had to look after Rodney and provide for him. This dramatic set of circumstances enriches the relationship between the characters far beyond the usual sitcom standard. The combination of love and resentment from both sides creates a wealth of dramatic and humorous possibilities.

Granddad and his successor (after Lennard Pearce unfortunate death), Uncle Albert, are less complex characters. They are flawed mentors to the younger Trotters. Granddad is basically a layabout who whines about his imaginary ailments to escape work. Albert is a retired Merchant Navy sailor, far feistier and more morally upright than his brother, who tells long-winded tales of his adventures on the Seven Seas to all who’ll listen – and all who won’t as well. Both characters also serve as a buffer between and as ‘sprechhund’ for Del and Rodney.

The beauty of this triumvirate is that it appeals to all age groups – especially in the first seasons. Of course, the leads are all male characters, and Only Fools is a fairly male-centric show. Only in later seasons do Rodney and Dell get into serious relationships. Rodney falls in love with and marries Cassandra, the daughter of a bank manager, and Del ends up with Raquel, a wannabe actress who has to strip to make ends meet. Both these characters have become regulars on the show, but they are not as interesting as the leads. Nor are they comic characters – they would fit easily in a soap series, for instance. With regards to these relationships, it is important to notice that this series was one of the first to allow its characters to grow in a natural way as the cast got older.

Sullivan himself is an Eastender, and it’s very clear that the writer knows the kind of people (protagonists and the supporting cast of characters) he writes about intimately. Conversely, guest characters in the series, especially upper-class ones, tend to be ‘stock characters’ that only exist to serve the needs of the story. The difference in the quality of writing is very obvious, and this may be one of the main weaknesses of the series.


When Only Fools started, it created a stir because of its earthy language, and how it seemed to glamorize a criminal lifestyle. It didn’t, of course, but the relations between the characters and their world-view (police are mistrusted, outsiders are seen as fair game for scams, paying taxes is a mortal sin) are very true to the milieu in which Sullivan has set his series. The combination of roughness and understated sentiment is very recognizable.

We also find this in one of Sullivan’s favourite storytelling devices: he will often write a very intense, emotional scene, almost straight drama, only to reassert the sitcom genre by topping it off with a (usually very funny) joke. This willingness to go further into emotional reality than almost any other sitcome before (and many after) really sets the series apart.


The humour in Only Fools is primarily verbal and situational. Big physical set-pieces are fairly rare, although there are some memorable exceptions. The plots of the episodes are usually straightforward (often there isn’t even a B-plot): complex farce is never used. The stories are designed to provide situations in which the protagonists will clash emotionally (for instance, in an early episode Rodney dates a female police officer, which obviously causes Del no end of problems).

The verbal comedy isn’t one-liner based, but comes across as stemming from the characters rather than from the writer. The most ‘gimmicky’ verbal gags are Del’s malapropisms and wrongful use of foreign phrases – but these too are an extension of his inner self, trying to look like a wealthy sophisticate.

At times there are some big physical gags (most famously the destruction of a crystal chandelier), but the comedy is generally kept well inside the realm of the possible. The exceptions (Del being forced to try hang-gliding and ending up in France, or an homage to the credit sequence of the ‘60s Batman TV series) stand out because of their rarity and the skill with which they are executed.

The sense of reality is crucial to the success of the series. Though the plots can be improbable (some of them are basically expanded versions of pre-existing jokes), they are generally ‘possible’. In a few cases, Sullivan has broken this ‘rule’, with varying success. Rodney forcedly masquerading as a twelve-year old on a holiday trip works extremely well, but when the Trotters are confronted with a mad serial killer or discover that Del is the double of a Florida mafia Don wanted by the FBI, the magic disappears. There seems to be no room for blatantly high-concept fictional narrative devices in the Trotter universe.


The strengths of the series are:

1) Very well-developed characters which would function as well in a straight drama as they do in a comedy. This is probably the biggest ‘secret’ of John Sullivan’s best writing. Go beyond creating ‘joke machines’, but make your characters truly of flesh and blood. However, take care that the characters’ flaws and idiosyncrasies create humour.

2) A sense of realism. The ‘universe’ of this series is very believable, which makes it easy for the audience to truly care for the characters, and allows the writer to inject drama into the comedy without it seeming to be a break in style. The fact that the writer truly knows the people and milieu he is writing about is crucial to creating this sense of reality.

3) A wide palette of comedic possibilities. Verbal, physical and situational humour are all available to the writer, as long as they fit the overall sense of reality. Because of this, the moments of transgression stand out all the more and generally work extremely well - unless they shatter the illusion of reality too much.

Is Only Fools and Horses really the best ever British sitcom? Personally, I’d say no, but it’s definitely in the top-3. It is without a doubt the most popular though, and the skill and craftsmanship displayed by writer John Sullivan is undoubtedly the true reason for its astounding success.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Curse of the Protagonist Team

We all know that a movie is supposed to have one central protagonist. And the protagonist's actions drive the main plot of your script forward.

But what if you have a large cast of potential main characters? For instance, when you're adapting a TV series with a popular ensemble cast, or a novel or comic book series about a group or team of characters, who are by and large equally important? I'm thinking about The Avengers, The X-Men and the like.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, while having Captain Picard as its main lead, developed into an ensemble show over its seven years. Each member of the cast got to be the star in several episodes, so the viewers got to know everyone (almost) equally well.
When TNG made the transition to the big screen, however, it became The Picard And Data show. Picard had the main storyline, Data generally the most important subplot. The other characters were reduced to having 'character moments'. And naturally weren't all too happy about that.

So how to approach this situation from the writer's point of view? There are basically two major options:

1) You focus on a few members of the cast, giving them the most important storylines. The others become, for better or for worse, sidekicks. They will get their moments to shine, but their actions do not provide the main thrust of the narrative.

2) You focus on the goal the ensemble cast has to achieve. There are many important subgoals which must be achieved before the main goal can even be attempted. The members of the cast/team all have to meet separate challenges, which are given more or less equal weight. In the finale, the team comes together again to face the final challenge together.

It's obvious that the second option is far more difficult to pull off - and also far more plot-oriented than the first. The goals which need to be achieved need to be very clear, and the main antagonist/challenge should never be forgotten.

This narrative approach can be found in several TV series - the A-team always had something for each member to do separately. Also, in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuriyakin spent most of each episode apart before joining up in the final act and taking the villains out together.

And it also used to be a fairly common narrative strategy in superhero team books, especially when there was a cross-over with another superteam: the invincible villain captures all the heroes or charges them with an impossible task, the heroes are divided into small teams which each go off and have their separate adventure, and at the end everyone joins forces against the villain and defeats him and/or thwarts his diabolical scheme.

As will be obvious, these are all examples in which there is no character development. Rather, the nature of the characters is known and fixed, and the enjoyment comes from seeing them 'do their thing' and triumphing over impossible odds, in a spectacular fashion if possible.

The other option does allow for character arcs, and more character-driven storytelling. Of course, if you are doing an adaptation, you'll have to consider whether a character arc is desirable or necessary - this will all depend on the kind of property you're working with. Sometimes characters are at their best in their 'fixed' state, at other times the added potential for character development and evolution is a major plus.

In any case, if you have ten main characters and they all need to get an equal amount of screen time, it's obvious that there simply won't be room for any gradual evolution of any of them. They'll either have a very basic character development or they'll stay just the way they are and have always been.

No matter what approach you take though, plotting the movie will be even more difficult than usual. Because your protagonists are so plentiful, there will be less room and time for secondary characters. Each one of your protagonists will need to be essential to the plot of the film in some way, and will need to get screen time. The dynamics between the members of your team will be one of the main attractions for the audience, so you need to factor that in as well.

Therefore, a complicated plot is out of the question. There needs to be a clear conflict, a main goal which all the characters have to contribute to, and sub-goals which are tailored to test the separate characters and allow them their moment to shine - even in those cases where your main focus is on only a few members of the group.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Interview with Flemish screenwriter Michel Sabbe

This is the first of what hopefully will turn into a series of portraits of working Flemish screenwriters.

I first met Michel Sabbe when we both attended a North By Northwest workshop a number of years ago. I was attending as script-editor, he as writer of a very ambitious screenplay about an expedition in the Andes looking for ice mummies of children.

Since then he gave up his job as an IT professional to become a full-time screenwriter, mainly for television. He's written for daily soap Thuis and whodunit series Witse, and most recently worked on the VTM dramedy Jes, which just started airing yesterday night.

How would you describe the series?

The series starts off with Jes deciding not to follow her boyfriend to his new job in China, but instead making a life of her own in Brussels. Jes is 30, has always lived in the countryside and must now adapt to the single life in a metropolis. Luckily she has some friends there who help her and, at the same time, complicate her life with their own problems.

So if I have to describe the series, I’d say it’s a dramedy about a group of young thirtysomethings looking for love and the meaning of life in Brussels. But a friend of mine saw the extended trailer on the VTM website and sighed wistfully “ah… romance in Brussels” – which is a pretty good reaction to get really! So I’d be happy with that description as well. If you twisted my arm and made me compare it to another series, I’d probably pick ‘Cold Feet’ (which I know you like a lot) though ‘Jes’ has a few more surreal touches up its sleeve…

In what way is it unigue?

Two things. First off, it’s set in contemporary Brussels – an arena you simply never ever see in Flemish drama. This means the series is set to the pulse of a real city and the characters are city people – with all the nervous energy that entails. Brussels itself is a character in the story and we make good use of its many positive aspects, without ever trying to cover up for the things that are shall we say less than terrific about living there.

Secondly, ‘Jes’ can go from laugh-out loud funny to aching melancholy on the turn of a dime. Which makes it a dramedy, I suppose. At this point I’ve already seen some of the finished episodes and this mix has come off really well in the execution – so I have high hopes for the series!

Who developed the concept?

As I remember it, Jes started off as an idea for a sitcom by Frans Ceusters. Directors Kaat Beels and Nathalie Basteyns got involved – I guess their instinct was less of the sitcom, more of Brussels. Together with their friend Helke Smet they wrote the concept and a pilot script. But they went further than that and actually filmed a rough 10 minute pilot which proved instrumental to convey the feel and tone they were after. They sold production company Eyeworks on Jes on the basis of this and together with Bram Renders they refined all the material they had and presented it to VTM – and they said ‘yes’ – if you pardon the rather predictable pun…

How were you approached to write for it?

Neither Kaat, Nathalie nor Helke had ever written screenplays, so Bram – who became producer/script editor on the project – was looking for more experienced writers to join the writing team. I guess he liked my stuff and thought I’d fit in both with the people and the concept (he was right on both counts: I liked the people involved instantly and the material was a big chance to do something different, something that I felt was right up my alley). So myself and Nathalie Declerck were hired, rounding off the writing team.

So, as this was a project which was already in development before you joined it, did you get to have any input on the concept once you joined the writing team?

Yes, I did. When we started, we had a great starting off point for the series and a set of characters (some were even developed with particular actors in mind). But everything else was up for grabs really. The way the writing process was organized – which I’ll get to in a minute – meant that if you had a good idea that stood up to scrutiny, it went in. I think my contribution concept wise was probably more on the side of structure – something of a hobby horse of mine, I guess.

How did the writing process go?

We worked with a writers’ room. Of course, it couldn’t be an American style writers’ room – where they have a dozen or so writers in the room and competition is fierce. Flemish budgets wouldn’t allow that kind of manpower. There were five of us plus Bram. The first weeks we would work on one pagers, rough story lines for the characters per episode. Then we’d move on to the real work: we’d beat out an episode on easy-to-move post-its, generating ever more material (and believe me, writing this way you generate way more and therefore eventually better material than when you piece out the episodes to individual writers one per one).

Of course, this kind of process can only work if everyone checks their ego at the door. We were lucky with our bunch of writers there. By the end we could beat out an episode in two, maximum three days. Then, someone would go and write a scene by scene synopsis and eventually the screenplay itself (not necessarily the same writer). All in all, we worked like that for 5 months (though we lost one of the writers early due to pregnancy – so we can claim a production baby!) after which I stayed on for another month for some rewrites.

Was there a particular structure/formula for each episode? Or was it more of a freeform thing?

Structure really doesn’t mean anything if you don’t fall into it naturally. So we didn’t really set out with a structure or formula but rather discovered it along the way. We did work with a traditional 4 act structure. We had a pool of 5 main characters (plus 2 semi mains who will gain more importance as the story progresses) and we soon found that what worked best was pairing them in two’s to ‘go on an adventure’.

Of course, the series is called Jes so Jes had to be the main character. Which means that in the bulk of the episodes she carries the main storyline. But as we worked, some of the other characters deepened and became very interesting to us. So in some of the episodes, if you analyze it, you’ll realize that somebody else carries the main line… Next to the main line, we usually have two supporting lines. There is some use of voice over as well, the rule being that it had to be thematic and always in counterpoint to what was on screen so as not to be superfluous.

What did you learn as a writer from the experience? How did it improve your own skills?

Having spent 5 months in a tiny room with 4 of them, I can honestly say I learned how to live with women! I learned it is actually possible to live with them! (In case you’re in doubt: this is me putting my tongue firmly in cheek – and getting back at Nathalie Basteyns for calling me a macho when interviewed on the talkshow Phara). Seriously, it was a freeing experience for me not to be tied to the very strict demands of whodunits which are the main staple of Flemish drama.

Jes turned out to be excellent for developing and continually deepening characters – I guess the way they do it in great series like Six Feet Under, Californication etc. where you get the chance to live with the characters and you can find out new things about them as time goes by. Also, I wish all series here would start to work with the concept of a writers’ room. Screenwriting is both a misery and a joy – and at least in a writers’ room you get to share both with other people!

And now for something completely different: tell us about your short film ‘Dear Granddad’ ('Dag Opa').

Dear Granddad comes from a short short story by Dutch writer Hans Koekoek. It’s a black tale of a boy who needs to vacate his room for a nasty, smelly, cigar smoking granddad who moves in with the family. The boy will do anything to get his room back, but granddad is a force to be reckoned with…

I wrote the screenplay – no dialogue! Which was a great exercise in pure film writing. It was my first collaboration with Jeroen Dumoulein – a terrific young director, you’ll hear much more of him in times to come! We had a top line cast (Ward de Ravet, Karlijn Sillegem, Stany Crets), the movie was lensed by Frank van den Eeden and scored by Ozark Henry.

Were you pleased with the result? How have the reactions been?

I was very pleased with the result. It’s still the thing closest to my heart and it launched a collaboration with Jeroen that is still ongoing and creatively very fruitful. It’s not often that as a writer you get to work this closely with a director, let alone one as talented as he is (though I should stop blowing smoke up his ass now, he’ll get too big for his britches…)

The movie was well received and won prizes in places as diverse as Brussels and Buenos Aires. However, distribution has been a decidedly mixed bag. It’s never enough to get a movie made, you’ve got to get it seen as well. After production finished, the producer’s priorities seemed to change and there was no real push to get Dear Granddad into more festivals. We got a sales agent way too late in the game and we later discovered that some of the dvds which were sent out were defective.

The killer blow came when the movie was released on a best-of dvd by Leuven Kort. Somehow the producer sent in a wrong format with incorrect blocking, harming the carefully thought out compositions and visual strategy Jeroen and Frank worked so hard on. It got released in that format. To this day it still makes me livid to think people can treat your work that cavalierly. Still, the movie did get into a lot of festivals and it toured in compilation programs in both France and Germany. But I can’t help think of what might have been…

Any screenwriting plans for the future?

Loads! I’m working on Swooni, Kaat Beels’ feature debut, co-written by Annelies Verbeke. There’s a new series called Dag & Nacht I’m doing an episode for. Then there’s the many projects I’m developing together with Jeroen Dumoulein, both for film and tv. And of course we’re hoping for a second series of Jes!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dialogue DVD reviews

The Dialogue DVD series is a very commendable enterprise of hour-long interviews with contemporary succesful screenwriters. Usually hosted by New Line exec Mike De Luca, these are a great resource for beginning screenwriters and allow the writers to make their points at length. I'll post some reviews so you can decide which ones to get.


Simon Kinberg will go down in showbiz history as the man who brought Brad and Angelina together, as he was the writer of Mr and Mrs Smith. Small wonder, then, that much of the conversation here focuses on that film – though rest assured, host Mike De Luca isn’t trawling for hot gossip, but asks all the right questions about Kinberg’s creative processes and writing experiences. In fact, it’s impossible to overstate De Luca’s contributions to these DVDs – he keeps the conversation flowing, asks stimulating and insightful questions, and occasionally teases his subject mercilessly.

Kinberg is the ultimate proof that film school pays off – during his stay at Columbia, he managed to sell two of the projects he was developing in class! Neither got made, eventually, but his career was on the right track from the word go.

Part of the reason for his success is that as a student he frequented the New York Library for the Performing Arts, which has a huge collection of original (on-set) screenplays. Reading screenplays rather than (only) screenplay how-to manuals is what made the difference, and taught him an enormous amount about structure and the kind of writing best suited to the form. The early screenplays have a more organic feel, where the structure is hidden better than is usually the case nowadays.

Kinberg gives examples from Mr and Mrs Smith and X-Men 3, where every action sequence is emotionally motivated and/or a metaphor for the underlying relationships.

Most of the interview focuses on the specifics of writing Mr and Mrs Smith, which came about when Kinberg decided to write a script about marriage therapy. Interestingly, the film originally did have a ‘plot’, with villains working behind the scenes, but apparently these scenes never worked. Finally, director Doug Lyman cut all of this out of the film and kept the focus solely on the central relationship. Definitely not the perfect solution, and Kinberg still feels the third act is flawed and that the movie now is plotless. He also admits that while rewriting Fantastic Four, he never really got the right tone.

Simon Kinberg isn’t the greatest screenwriter in the world, but his insights are valid, the conversation remains interesting throughout, and his ‘war stories’ are very entertaining. Anyone interested in writing good action movies will definitely benefit from this DVD.


Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are two of Hollywood’s current golden boys. They came up through the ranks of the TV-show Alias, which makes them part of the J. J. Abrams-stable and landed them the writing assignments for MI:3 and Abrams’ new Star Trek film. And as if that wasn’t success enough for anyone, they’re also Michael Bay’s current go-to screenwriting team.

Orci is a Mexican who migrated to the US, and he’s known Kurtzman since high school. Their shared love of movies led them to attempt a career as screenwriters. They are truly complementary: Orci is the guy with the grasp of structure and the big ideas, Kurtzman is more inclined to go to specific scenes and visual details. This is brought home very clearly by the ‘Object’ exercise, where Orci immediately comes up with a high-conceptish plot seed, while Kurtzman is already mentally directing the first scene.

Kurtzman and Orci have mastered the art of playing the system. While they come across as very serious about their work, they know how to take notes, how to ‘play along’ with executives, and how to take other ideas and concepts on board. Since they’ve been working with some very high-powered people, it’s obvious that their open-minded approach pays off. They take notes very well, also due to the fact that they came up through TV. The writers’ room is the perfect training environment for this.

Kurtzman and Orci advise writers not to be married to their words, but to the idea behind them. There are thousands of ways to achieve the same effect, and the trick is to be open to all of them.

The discussion focuses on the writing of Legend of Zorro, which was far more historically accurate than most people give it credit for, MI:3, with the prerequisite Tom Cruise stories, and Transformers. For Transformers, the challenge was to find a story element (apart from the giant city-smashing robots) which could emotionally grab the audience. That is how they came up with the conceit of the human main character getting his first car as the ‘hook’ of the plot. Whether it’s a completely successful idea is up for debate, of course.

This DVD offers an interesting look at a (very) successful screenwriting partnership, and the nuts and bolts of writing for the big leagues. You may not like what they do, but at the very least you'll get an insight in what it takes to achieve their (commercial) level of success.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Book reviews

Some more books for your enlightenment and enjoyment!

THE 3RD ACT by Drew Yanno (Continuum, 2006)

This is the first screenwriting manual focusing exclusively on constructing the third act and creating of powerful endings. As problems in the third act usually have their origin in the first act, Yanno obviously spends some time going over theoretical basics; but for the most part, the book does exactly what it is supposed to.

Yanno provides a structural analysis of the third act, which he claims has never been done before. The steps he discusses are the setup of the final battle, the final battle itself, the outcome of the final battle and the denouement, with a bridge between the outcome and the denouement occasionally present as well. The discussion isn’t limited to this structural model, though. There are chapters on just what makes a good ending, and on the perceived necessity of a happy ending in Hollywood films (which prove to be less omnipresent than often thought).

Yanno shows his model in action by analyzing the third acts of several films (including Good Will Hunting, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Casablanca). But he doesn’t stop there: in later chapters, he first examines some third acts which don’t really work, and then discusses some controversial endings such as can be found in Million Dollar Baby, Se7en and Lost In Translation.

Of course, screenplay analysis isn’t an exact science (I agree with Yanno that Minority Report’s ending doesn’t work, but for different though complementary reasons), but Yanno argues his case well, and his structural model for act 3 is an effective tool for shaping and maximizing the impact of any script’s final act.


If there is one negative aspect of the increased popularity of screenwriting manuals and gurus, it must be that they lead to a certain uniformity in the approach to writing, which tends to limit the possibility of innovation. Film professor J. J. Murphy confronts this situation by analyzing a number of independent films, to discover how they work while breaking the ‘rules’.

Films discussed range from Memento and Fargo to less popular fare such as Gummo and Safe. Murphy examines each film in detail and shows clearly how they use different narrative strategies to achieve their aims.

Sometimes the protagonist is made passive, cause-and-effect logic is replaced by dream logic or association, and non-linear narratives can achieve effects which are impossible in a linear story. Throughout the book, Murphy criticizes people like McKee and Linda Seger for their prescriptive approach to screenwriting.

Murphy’s analyses are generally clearly laid out and convincing, and he proves that there are many other effective approaches to cinematic storytelling. He fails to point out one comment element to all these films though – they were all written by their directors. The deviations from the norm are part and parcel of the overall approach to filmmaking, not merely a factor of the screenwriting process.

It’s almost impossible for a screenwriter to write an ‘experimental screenplay’ which will then get picked up by a producer and turned into a movie, simply because it’s so hard to get other people to respond to a non-traditional vision.
This is an important book on screenwriting, which makes several excellent points. But writer-directors will undoubtedly benefit the most from it.

SCREEN PLAYS: How 25 screenplays made it to a theatre near you for better or worse by David S. Cohen

David Cohen’s professional career as a screenwriter may have been short, but he will forever be part of that select band of fans who managed to get their foot into the door of the Star Trek franchise. In the excellent introduction to this book he recounts his bittersweet screenwriting experiences, which led him to become a full-time entertainment journalist.

The script bug has never completely left him, though, and in this book he examines how 25 screenplays, from mega-hits like Gladiator to complete obscurities like The Caveman’s Valentine, were written, sold, developed and made. The focus is completely on the screenwriters, and as is to be expected, several of the war stories are surreal.

For instance, screenwriter David Franzoni sold Gladiator off a pitch, stayed on during the entire process as a producer, but was replaced several times as a writer during the development period AND finally ended up writing the final draft anyway. Luckily, others have had happier experiences (David Hare’s work on adapting The Hours was especially rewarding).

And then there are cautionary tales as when a lot of talent comes together only to result in a resounding flop (Random Hearts) or how difficult it can be to get back in the business after you’ve been away for years – even when you were the most succesful screenwriter on the planet for several years (Shane Black’s return to filmmaking with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

Covering a very wide range of writers and film genres, and written in a consistently entertaining style, Screen Plays is highly recommended reading. I have but one suggestion for Mr. Cohen: bring on the sequel, already!

INTERNATIONAL FILM GUIDE 2008: The Definitive Annual Review of World Cinema edited by Ian Haydn Smith

After a one-year hiatus, the International Film Guide is back, with a new editor and a new sponsor (Turner Classic Movies). And that’s very, very good news for film aficionados everywhere.

The Film Guide provides an overview of the entire global film production in the year 2007, but for once the ‘missing year’ (2006) is also covered, albeit briefly. An impressive number of knowledgeable experts on every major and most minor film-producing countries provide essays which the state of the film industry, notable successes and failures of the past year, important figures and eventual political developments.

Needless to say, the amount of information is staggering and anyone with the smallest interest in film will add dozens of titles to his or her ‘must see’-list. The selection of the experts is first rate as well – I was especially glad to see Tim Youngs, long-time web presence and film festival consultant, as the writer for the Hong Kong section.

The book opens with a few longer sections which focus on important contemporary directors (including Paul Greengrass, Susanne Bier and Guillermo del Toro), a specific country which gets looked at in detail (this year it’s Germany), the documentary and the DVD Market (singling out the most interesting cinephile releases of the past year). An In Memoriam essay pays homage to the most important filmmakers who passed away in 2007, and the book ends with a global box office list and information on international film festivals and markets.

The International Film Guide 2008 is a delight to browse and read. An indispensible addition to any film lover’s bookshelf.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How I Do It part 1

As it's writing season again for FC De Kampioenen, and I'm in the process of writing (hopefully) a couple of scripts, I thought it might be interesting to let you, gentle reader, follow the steps in my creative process.

Of course everyone works in a different way, but it's always revealing to see how writers deal with all the theoretical concepts and 'rules' in the real world, i.e. the actual creative process. International readers may get an impression of how the scriptwriting development process works in Flemish television.

So, first up, is the IDEA for the episode.

This is the germ of everything that follows. So it's important that the idea has sufficient potential to power an entire episode, and that it fits with the series you're writing for (if you're writing for television, that is).

Many of the writers I work with seem to be very resistant towards providing nutshells. They immediately go into one- or two-page treatments as the first step of their process. Personally, I prefer the shorter version, no longer than a paragraph: if you immediately start seeing the possibilities inherent in the idea, without knowing any of the details, that's a clear indication that the idea has legs. On the other hand, if the idea fails to stimulate the imagination of the intended audience (producer, director, script-editor, fellow writers), then it's best to either drop it or revise it considerably. And it's much easier to do this when you haven't yet spent days or weeks designing the entire plot.

Incidentally, in some manuals on sitcom writing you will find the advice to come up with a story first, and add the comedy later.


The idea for a comedy episode MUST have the humourous element embedded in it. That's not to say the same basic topic couldn't be treated dramatically, but the comedic possibilities must leap out at whoever you pitch the idea to.

It's my experience (and I've been doing this since 1991) that an idea for an episode which doesn't strike me as funny, will never become really funny in its further development.
Basically, a comedy series idea which isn't (potentially) funny is like an idea for a whodunit without a murder...

What else should your idea have? Well, it must be clear who the main character is going to be (in an ensemble comedy series like FCDK that's truly essential), what the source of the problem or conflict is going to be, and - usually - who the main opponent is going to be. You can add a bit of story development if it's important to get the essence of the episode across as well, but if the above ingredients are well-chosen, that will often not even be necessary.

How do I find my ideas? It depends - it can be because a specific episode needs to be written (introducing a new character, for example), or because of specific productional limitations (we need an episode with no exterior scenes). It often comes from juxtaposing characters, and looking for character elements which are present in the write-up but which haven't been used sufficiently or at all; from looking for ways in which the characters can be put in a new and unfamiliar situation; and from trying to create a relationship or conflict between two characters who don't usually have a lot to do with each other.

Plus, of course, the usual inspiration from life, newspaper articles, trends in society, and occasionally even other series or movies. Inspiration can strike at any time - but it can also stay absent for far too long, at times.

To finish, here's the idea for the last FCDK episode I wrote, 'Vraag Het Aan Vertongen' (Ask Vertongen). For the readers who don't know the series, Marc is our resident Jerry Lewis-type character (a bumbling fool), and Boma is the owner of the team and of a sausage factory. Despite his status, he's definitely not the brightest bulb of the lot.

'Marc decides to become a business consultant, despite having no experience in the field. When Boma's main business rival hires him and declares him a genius, all the Champions start to take him seriously and ask him for business advice - with predictably disastrous results all round, especially for Boma's company...'

We have the main character (Marc), the main problem of the episode (everyone asks him for advice and follows it with disastrous results). The main thrust of the episode (Boma's company is almost brought to its knees by Marc's creative ideas) is mentioned explicitly, the other storylines are implied. Inspiration for the episode came from my lack of respect for consultants, who generally make tons of money for providing advice which is either impractical or self-evident. And putting Marc in the role of a business consultant was the most effective way of making fun (and satirising) the whole trend.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Script review Warhead (part 2)

The first thing you notice upon reading the Warhead script is how refreshing and comforting it is to find yourself back in the real Bondian universe. Exagerrated superscience, armies of jumpsuited goons, megalomaniacal plans, near-superhuman henchmen, a self-confident panther-like Bond, luscious ladies, astounding futuristic headquarters, a finale that's right out of a war epic... it's all here. And it's been missing in action since For Your Eyes Only.

The second thing you notice is that you've seen this movie before. It's not just Thunderball, it's The Spy Who Loved Me as well. An undersea city that moves, a megalomaniac taking control of the world's oceans... Even Blofeld's henchman Genghis is a less inventive version of Jaws (superstrong, invulnerable, doesn't speak).

In fact, Kevin McClory tried to stop the production of TSWLM on the grounds that it was too close to Warhead. He lost that battle but did stop the Broccolis from using SPECTRE as the villains in their film - which was the original plan.

The result is a script that couldn't have been filmed as written without it being accused immediately of ripping off the 'official' entry in the series that year. McClory couldn't have won (unless he had managed to scuttle the filming of Spy for good).

What about the script itself? It's gained a legendary stature over the years - but is it good? Or great? Or amazing???

Well... it's uneven. The climax - the three climaxes, in fact - would have made for the wildest ending to a Bond movie ever - and I mean that in a good way. To have SPECTRE use the Statue Of Liberty as a base is an incredible idea. Bond stopping the robot sharks in the NY sewers while being stalked by Genghis could have been a very exciting, tense sequence. In fact, the film would benefit from being made today because of the increased quality of special effects - while reading it, I often wondered how on earth they expected to pull off this level of spectacle in 1976-78.

But much of the rest of the script isn't as impressive, unfortunately. That's not to say it couldn't have resulted in an enjoyable 007 romp, but there are definite weaknesses which should have been addressed.

Structurally the film sticks very closely to Thunderball in its first act (everything up to the recovery of the nuclear bombs). The details are different, of course, and Blofeld takes center stage as the main villain, but the similarities constrain the narrative. In fact the only major differences are the capture of the plane of the UN Secretary-General in the opening scenes, and Petacchi's attempt to kill Bond during the parachute lesson (both sequences are more elaborate and make more sense in the James Bond of the Secret Service draft).

Interestingly, there is no pre-title sequence: it's noted as still to be written. The result is that the first act of the film is largely devoid of action. Luckily, the SPECTRE base and Blofeld's plan are so huge and spectacular that they capture the attention of the reader, but when the focus returns to Bond, the story treads water.

Once Bond returns to the UK, things start to change a bit more. The interlude with the SPECTRE cleaning lady and Fatima in Bond's home is pure farce (the cleaner even gets trapped under the bed while Bond and Fatima engage in lovemaking) and the demise of Fatima is a strange, throwaway gag.

Once Bond is back in Nassau and infiltrates Shark Island with Felix Leiter, we come to the worst part of the script: the discovery of Domino, the twin sister of Fatima. In one extended scene she has to run the gamut of emotions from being frightened by Bond, trusting him, declaring Blofeld is to be punished for being behind Fatima's death, having sex with Bond and agreeing to work inside SPECTRE as a double agent. Phew! There's no way this would have worked on screen. It also doesn't help that this is the first time we've seen Domino, as there was no mention of her before at all.

Interestingly, there is no chase in this script, nor is there a sportsmanlike competition between Bond and Blofeld - in fact, Bond doesn't face him across the backgammon board but sleeps with his girlfriend instead while Blofeld waits for him to show up at the tournament.

Domino is not very interesting as a love interest: she is abominable at being a double agent (being discovered immediately by Blofeld and Genghis) and she spends most of the rest of the script off-screen again. The Thunderball-approach of having Domino be Petacchi's sister, and involving her from the start in the investigation, was far more effective.

After Bond and Leiter are captured and saved from the death trap, the script becomes completely different from the original. Once Blofeld's threat is announced to the world, there is a strange 'dedoubling' of the master plan, though. If the UN do not acquiesce to his demands, Blofeld will blow up a city. If that doesn't work, he'll dislodge the Antartic ice cap. Why not go straight for the ice caps instead? Or stick with blowing up cities until the world surrenders?

Nevertheless, Bond, M and Q discover his target (New York) in a scene full of terrible expository dialogue, where Bond also suddenly becomes a scientific super-genius. It's a clear case of getting the infodump over with so we can get to the good stuff.

Luckily that good stuff is very good, even though the Bond - Genghis fight could have been made to be far more spectacular and suspenseful, and the final defeat of Blofeld is accomplished by pure luck on Bond's part.

Structure-wise, then, the script is a bit wonky. There's too little going on in the first act, especially from Bond's point of view, the to-ing and fro-ing from the Bahamas to London and back is pointless and once again works against the momentum of the narrative, and the love interest is the weakest part of the film.

Moreover, Bond only gets involved in the case around the midpoint - which is very, very late indeed. Tightening up the first 70 pages (of a 140 page script) and adding some investigation and jeopardy for Bond would have worked wonders.

This also means that once Bond really gets involved, there's not much room left for him to get active. One infiltration leads to both the seduction of the villain's 'piece of posterior' and Bond and Leiter being captured. And after his rescue, Bond goes straight on to the third act pyrotechnics.

It's also very strange that no one tries to find out whether the UN plane passengers and crew are still alive or have all been killed by SPECTRE. It's as if the governments of the world don't really care about them. This plot element might better have been deleted completely.

Dialogue throughout is serviceable, but the one-liners (with some exceptions) are fairly disappointing. Luckily, though, Bond isn't the compulsive quipster he became during the Moore years, and the action scenes, no matter how exagerrated, are taken seriously. There are no lame gags added to these scenes to deflate their seriousness - another aspect of the Moore years that really took the films in the wrong direction. Strangely enough, this trend started after The Spy Who Loved Me.

Bond is also 100% Bond in this film: a human panther, a womanizer, lethal opponent and slightly rebellious prep school boy all in one. There's but one moment which I find puzzling: when Petacchi saves Bond and Fatima from drowning in the Jacuzzi (disguised as Hellinger), he warns Bond to stay away from Fatima. Bond replies by dousing him with water: an incredibly lame, childish reaction. The ill-advised assasination attempt also results in Petacchi being beaten up and humiliated by Bond, not in his death - they still needed him in the plot for the big SPECTRE nuke robbery! However, both these moments could have been removed from the script because it reduces Bond and his opponent to the level of murderous little boys.

As for Blofeld: he's perfect, the ultimate mastermind villain - although I don't understand why his goal in taking over the sea is to end pollution. That's a GOOD thing, isn't it? Shouldn't his plan have been... evil? As in, no ship is allowed to sail anywhere without SPECTRE permission? Or the seas becoming a refuge for every villain, criminal and murderer in the world as long as they pay SPECTRE for the privilege? The anti-ecological bent of the Bond-stories is continuing to this day (in the abysmal Quantum of Bullsh... uh, Solace), and it's really regrettable.

Warhead has all the necessary elements for making a great Bond movie, and it also takes itself seriously enough to avoid deliberate campiness (once again with the exception of the bedroom farce sequence). But structurally it's not as strong as it should be, and some of the secondary characters come off pretty badly. Nevertheless, it's a trip to Memory Lane and one of the most fascinating might-have-beens in cinema history (right up there with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly almost starring together as the leads in Stanley Donen's Give A Girl A Break).

Mission accomplished, 007.

You'll never get to see Warhead, but these three films are as close as you can get to the experience:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Script Review: Warhead (part 1)

Ah, the Seventies. When Bond was still Bond (well, sort of)...

And not a whining pussy who dumped his girlfriend when she came 'too close' (among other things)...

Or a dumb, humorless thug whose investigative skills amount to killing people and checking their cellphone for the next Major Clue...

... And when the REAL Bond...

...got together with producer Kevin McClory and (ostensibly) thriller writer extraordinaire Len Deighton to write a script for an alternate Bond film. I say ostensibly because the copy I've read has Deighton's name crossed out on the cover page, acoompanied by a small handwritten note from Deighton that nothing of his is in the script.

The reason for the attempted alternate Bond series, and for the fact that it's a remake of Thunderball (as was the later Never Say Never Again), can be found in the amazing book The Battle For Bond, by Robert Sellers and edited by Tomahawk Press. Any Bondophile owes it to themselves to get this - it's an awesome treasure trove.

We're going to concentrate on the fruit of Connery, McClory and (ostensibly) Deighton's labours, the script for Warhead, which itself was based on the script for James Bond of the Secret Service. The differences between the two versions are minor - JBOTSS is even closer to Thunderball, having Emilio Largo as the main opponent. Apart from this, the opening sequence is clearer in the earlier script, and the henchman and the underwater base are renamed, and Largo's demise is a copy of the end of the original film. But apart from that, these scripts are largely identical.

In order to get everyone up to speed, we'll start with the:


A plane is swallowed in the Bermuda Triangle by an movable underwater city/secret base, Aquapolis.

Immediately after, we meet James Bond at a tropical diving training facility, Shrublands, up to his usual seductive tricks. At the resort we also meet CIA agent Hellinger and his doctor and lover, the luscious Fatima Blush.

Back at Aquapolis, Blofeld arrives for the annual SPECTRE board meeting, together with his giant Mongol henchman, Genghis. After dealing with some incompetent members, he reveals his new plans for the future: SPECTRE will lay claim to all the world's oceans. The first demand to the nations of the world will be the immediate ceasing of all pollution - any country that disobeys will have its elected leader killed.

In order to get the nations of the world to agree to SPECTRE's dominance, they will launch Operation Hammerhead, and for this they need to get the nuclear missiles from a wrecked Russian submarine.

At Shrublands, Bond meets up with Felix Leiter and attends a CIA briefing where it's revealed the Chief Secretary of the UN has gone missing with his plane in the Bermuda Triangle, and an anonymous threatening message has been issued to all nations that this is but the first step in their plans. Leiter reveals to Bond that the CIA is going to salvage a Russian submarine wreck, and Hellinger is the expert in the matter.

That night, Fatima helps smuggle Genghis and a man looking just like Hellinger inside Shrublands. Bond notices something is amiss, and in order to save the mission Fatima seduces him. As they make love in a jacuzzi, Hellinger tries to drown Bond by altering the controls of the jacuzzi and then is murdered by Genghis and replaced by his double, Petacchi, who rescues Bond and Fatima from drowning but immediately gets into a quarrel with Bond.

The next day Petacchi tries to kill Bond during a parachute lesson. Bond survives and beats up Petacchi.

But Petacchi has other things to worry about: soon he's on board the CIA vessel in order to steal the nukes for SPECTRE, using an electronic device to complete sabotage the salvage ship. The operation succeeds but Petacchi is blown up by Blofeld once the mission is accomplished.

Bond is about to return to England, and Fatima ensures that she accompanies him. He doesn't trust her, but enjoys her company.

At MI6, Bond is briefed by M and Q about the salvage operation gone wrong, and the involvement of SPECTRE is established. Bond is to return to the Bahamas to look into the matter.

Returning home, Bond discovers he has a new cleaning lady (in fact a SPECTRE agent trying to kill him), and then Fatima comes over for some spirited lovemaking. Two men intrude in Bond's home and he takes them out, then Fatima and the SPECTRE cleaner both die when the bomb placed under Bond's Aston Martin blows up. It turns out the intruders were MI6 agents sent to protect Bond from an assassination attempt.

Soon after, Bond and Q find themselves on their way to Nassau, in a military transport plane, and Blofled has been pegged as the main suspect.

Bond and Leiter go to investigate Shark Island, the property of Blofeld, by night, while Bond is supposed to face Blofeld in a backgammon tournament. In Blofeld's home, Bond discovers Fatima's identical twin sister, Domino, who reveals she knows Blofeld is to blame for her death, wants revenge on him, and allows herself to be seduced by Bond. She promises to help him.

Bond and Leiter then go to investigate the laboratory on the grounds, and discover a prototype for a robot shark. They are interrupted by Blofeld, Genghis and his guards, and a fight ensues. Genghis finally subdues Bond and Leiter, being invincible.

Blofeld talks to professor Maslov, inventor of the robot sharks, about the plan: the sharks will be used to deliver the nuclear bombs to the target of Blofeld's choice. Bond and Leiter are put into a death trap - strapped in a Rapid Saturation Chamber which is shot through the tube connecting the chamber to Aquapolis - only Aquapolis isn't at the end of the tube!

Meanwhile, Blofeld has discovered Domino's betrayal and is threatening her with the robot shark. Maslov intervenes.

Q and M decide to have troops invade Shark Island, finding it deserted. Bond and Leiter recover from their ordeal and discover that Domino managed to save them. Now, however, she is missing together with Blofeld and all his accomplices.

A message from Blofeld is discovered in which his blackmailing scheme is revealed. Unless the UN agree to give SPECTRE complete dominance of the oceans, a major city is going to be destroyed, followed by the dislodging of the Antarctic ice cap if necessary.

Bond and Q ascertain that New York is the most likely candidate for being a SPECTRE target, and they quickly meet up with the heads of the CIA to mount an operation to stop Blofeld. Bond deduces that the sewers will be the best way for Blofeld to carry out his threat, and a team of divers is sent down to search for the robot sharks.

Meanwhile, Blofeld and company are holed up in the Statue of Liberty, which has been transformed into a Spectre base. The nukes are on their way to midtown Manhattan.

The divers get killed by the robot sharks, and Bond goes down into the sewers after them. He is attacked by the sharks and by Genghis, but manages to survive. Genghis is ripped to shreds when he falls into the shark-infested waters, and Bond manages to disable the shark with the bomb. Q shuts the warhead off just in time.

This is the signal for the assault on the Statue of Liberty. Bond joins the fray, but Blofeld escapes to Aquapolis. Bond follows but is unable to enter the undersea city and is dragged along by it as it speeds off into the oceans. Blofeld sets course for the Antarctic, ready to destroy the world.

Professor Maslov, however, has had enough and frees the captive Domino, asking her for help. Bond, meanwhile, accidentally gets inside Aquapolis and gets into a huge fight with SPECTRE agents and Blofeld. Blofeld gains the upper hand, but when Aquapolis hits an undersea rock and lurches, Bond presses a number of random buttons, which result in the destruction of the city and Blofeld being shot into the ocean depths. Bond saves Domino and they escape in Blofeld's luxury mini-submarine, and enjoy the compulsory post-bloodshed-and-massive-destruction coital epilogue.

Stay tuned for the rest of the review tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is the traditional sitcom really dying?

No. It is not.

It has been in a state of crisis for some time now, though. And that state of crisis is partially due to the form being too predictable (type of gags, joke rhythms - many have been used since the beginning of radio comedy in the 1930's).

Hence the rise of the single-camera, more filmic approach to sitcoms. Which has resulted in some excellent series (Spaced, Scrubs...) and a far larger palette of comedic effects (soundtrack, editing, quoting famous films etc.).

But the traditional, studio-bound sitcom is apparently once again on top of the ratings in the US (see Ken Levine's blog for more on this). Shows like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory etc. are doing very well indeed. And, more importantly, none of the current crop of sitcoms is really classic material.

So what is needed for a new major sitcom revolution? A major hit with cultural impact.

And how do you get such a hit? No one knows (or there would never have been a sitcom crisis in the first place).

Yet if we look at the really big US hits, there are some elements which they have in common:

1) There's nothing else like them on air when they start.

Cheers, All In The Family, Sanford and Son, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond: all of these series have a very distinct tone. Which was copied in many cases once the series became a hit, but when it started, it offered a new approach to the genre. Cheers offered a very mature, edgy look at romantic relationships (as well as a quite spiky level of anti-intellectualism and misogyny at times); Seinfeld had a style and rhythm completely its own and built storylines out of 'nothing'; All In The Family broke TV taboos at an alarming rate.

2) They provide surrogate families for the audience to become a part of.

This is really self-explanatory. Just look at the list.

3) They have a unique voice.

It bears repeating: each of these series has a very clear creative direction, born from the passion of its creators and their specific talent. Too many failed or uninteresting sitcoms feel like carbon copies of each other. Talent must be given the freedom to create and to foster its uniqueness.

4) They have an edge.

Even though there's this surrogate family vibe going on, the comedy isn't all sweetness and light. Sam and Diane destroy each other; Frasier is an unhappy man despite all his good intentions and psychological know-how; the Friends all have their own self-destructive quirks and can be horrid to people not part of their inner circle; Archie Bunker is a tyrant to his long-suffering, loving wife Edith.

Granted, series like The Cosby Show and Diff'rent Strokes avoided any unpleasantness. But they haven't aged nearly as well as the other shows we're talking about.

5) A huge portion of the audience can relate to the basic set-up/conflict.

6) They capture the zeitgeist.

Not by being about a trendy topic (an internet startup company) but by reflecting current attitudes towards relationships between people and towards societal norms. Since these do not change quickly, this ensures that the series can run for a fair couple of years. Being ahead of the crowd can be dangerous, though: Ellen worked fine when it was about a thirtysomething woman looking for her place in life. When the character came out of the closet, that was a huge ratings success; however the season which followed and which showed Ellen adopting the gay lifestyle was too far ahead of the general audience. A similar development in a comedy series today would be accepted far more quickly.

Monday, March 16, 2009


As I write this post, we're hard at work on the 20th season of Flanders' premier sit-com, FC De Kampioenen. It may not be the world's longest-running sitcom, but it's getting close. And it's been on top of the ratings for most of its run.

So what are the elements that make this series such an incredible success?

I've 'only' been with the series from the very end of season 2 (in 1991), so I wasn't there when it was devised (though I was heavily involved in the changes and evolutions the series went to from season 3 to 12, and again from season 18). But I have heard from the people who were involved with its inception (producer Bruno Raes, director Willy Van Duren and script-editor/executive Luc Beerten, working on a concept by Willy Van Poucke and Peter Cnop) what elements they deliberately introduced to make the series an almost surefire hit.


FC De Kampioenen is a series about a soccer team. Soccer is Belgium's national sport (together with cycling). So there's a huge inbuilt audience who like the sport ànd who enjoy comedy.


FCDK (as we call it around the office) is a comedy about a sports team - and about the relationships of the people who make up the team. In fact, many episodes don't even feature the soccer element at all and are purely relationship comedy episodes. The wives and girlfriends of the (featured) team members get as much air time as their menfolk. So someone who doesn't like sports (ummm... like me, for instance) can still enjoy the show as soccer is only part of the appeal.


De Kampioenen (the Champions) are the worst of the worst soccer team in the country. The basic concept is that they always lose their matches. Of course, over the years they've won their fair share, but only when the team was in danger of being disbanded, or they had a huge stake. Despite their loser status, the Kampioenen still enjoy playing, hanging out together in their bar and there's always at least one character who dreams of sporting triumphs.

This underdog mentality is very typical for Flanders. The underdog immediately gets sympathy. But, and this is pretty specific for Flanders, I think, the underdog shouldn't ever become a top dog. They can have their occasional successes, and they certainly shouldn't become whiny and depressed about their failures, but if they were to overcome their weaknesses and triumph continually, the audience would lose interest in them.


The couples and families who make up the universe of FCDK form a surrogate family of people who like each other and enjoy each other's company. There may be intense conflicts during an episode, and some of the characters are pretty abrasive, but the pervading emotional framework is one of acceptance and friendship. It's fun to be part of the Kampioenen, and that's what the audience relates to.


This is a crucial point. The cohesiveness of the group is increased by the threat of a (largely ineffectual) external enemy who wants the Kampioenen out of his life (and who generally covets their soccer playing field as well). These enemies might be wily and clever, but never form a real threat as they are too flawed to ever see a plan of theirs come to fruition.

Without the external enemy, the universe of the Kampioenen is too one-sided. A Dutch remake/rip-off of the series, FC Victorie, copied many of the characters but neglected to include an external enemy in the mix. The resulting series barely lasted a season if that. The reason: lack of conflict in the basic set-up.


FCDK has a cast of +/- 10 main characters. That is a LOT. In fact, it's too much - but on the other hand, this voluminous cast makes sure that there are many character types in the mix, that the writers have many options for generating stories (though some characters have been less well served than others over the years), and, intially, the characters also covered the age-groups from 20 to 45, appealing to a large part of the audience. (Twenty years later, most of the original actors are still in the series, so this initial spread has fallen by the wayside a bit).

And then there are the elements which popped up as the series developed:


The series is intended for a family audience, although its primary focus is on the adult viewer - there are a lot of double entendres and sex jokes. But there's also a lot of slapstick and comedy of errors. And over time many of the characters have become more extreme in their comedic archetyping, they appeal more and more to younger viewers (even as the actors grow older). The very succesful comic strip series (which the makers of the show have nothing to do with) also increases the popularity of the series and the characters with a very young audience.


As I already mentioned, the series has a very wide palette when it comes to possible styles of comedy. There's farce, slapstick, comedy of errors, double entendres, word gags, occasionally even absurdist humour and metafictional self-reference. This means that there's something for everyone here, and that the series can accomodate many different registers. Truth be told, though, slapstick and sex gags always get the loudest response from the audience...

And finally


The series came along at the right time - there were no other Flemish sitcoms on air, and the creative decisions (with regards to cast, style etc.) appealed to the audience. That's always a gamble, one which in this case paid off.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


For all those wondering what it was like to work as a writer with arguably the most famous film director of all time, Steven De Rosa’s book will be a godsend. He provides us with an amazingly detailed account of the collaboration of Hitch and John Michael Hayes, which resulted in Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Combining biography, cinema history and screenplay analysis in one book, De Rosa truly leaves no stone unturned - every step in the writing process, from source material to shooting draft is discussed. DeRosa has interviewed Hayes and had access to his private papers, so the writer’s own views are very well represented. He also goes beyond the writing process, recounting the trials, tribulations and humorous anecdotes which punctuated the filming of each script.

This book might have been a very dry, academic study, but DeRosa, a screenwriter and editor, avoids this trap deftly. His style is very accessible, and he provides a biographical framework of the two protagonists which puts their collaboration into perspective.

Hayes was Hitchcock’s last ‘regular’ screenwriter (they fell out when Hayes wanted to be credited as the sole writer of The Man Who Knew Too Much, whereas Hitch felt that his English friend Angus McPhail deserved co-credit) but in general both men suffered for it - Hayes never again reaching the creative heights he scaled with Hitchcock, and the latter becoming increasingly erratic in his subject matter choices as time went on.

DeRosa rounds off the book with a lengthy analysis chapter in which he goes through each script in detail, pointing out thematic material, narrative construction and occasional flaws. This part of the book is true gold for screenwriters in particular.

The book was released in 2001, but Steven De Rosa has his very own Writing with Hitchcock website, where he keeps updating the book as well as adding other brilliant information about Hitchcock's screenwriting collaborations. There are even a few unproduced scripts posted there, with promises of more to come. The perfect complement to a extremely impressive and well-written book, and a must for all screenwriters and Hitchcock aficionados.

If you want to read the book, you can get it here:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Thought for the day

Just a short one today...

You know what the world of screenwriting really needs? An Alan Ayckbourn.

Someone who knows cinema inside and out.

Someone who's a natural born storyteller.

Someone who experiments with the form of the medium, in surprising and exciting ways, without sacrificing character, depth, meaning, entertainment, and narrative. And with something to say about the world (in his case, male-female relationships, mainly).

Until the screenwriting Ayckbourn comes along, do yourself a favour. Read his plays. They are AMAZING. And they will spark your imagination and your desire to create.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We do need another hero!

My post about the omnipresence of the Hero's Journey in contemporary American screenwriting set me to thinking about the concept of the hero.

Most people today think a hero is someone who wins, takes on any and all opposition without fear, and triumphs thanks to superior might, smarts or charm. The hero comes out of the conflict as the clear winner and gets what he wants.

But that's not what a hero is.

A hero is, quite simply, someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.

A single mother working three jobs in order to feed her four kids and provide them with a good education? A hero(ine).

A firefighter braving a blazing building to rescue trapped inhabitants? A hero.

A suave superspy, risking life and limb to save the world from the machinations of insane master villains with a penchant for conquest? A hero.

A loveable guy, breaking up a happy marriage because he falls in love with one member of the couple? Not a hero. No matter how engaging the character might be developed or interpreted.

The most perfect example in cinematic history: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Giving up his romantic desire and his one true love for the good of the Allies and free people everywhere.

And this also gives us the perfect definition of the anti-hero: an anti-hero is a protagonist who won't sacrifice him- or herself for others. This doesn't make them evil or inferior - to many, it makes them more relatable. But one thing they do not do is inspire.

That's one reason why we're so fascinated by stories about heroism - whether of the 'super' or the everyday sort: they show us what humanity is capable of at its best.

On the other hand, modern western society has evolved to a point where (self)sacrifice is far less common and admired than before. Not-so-enlightened self-interest is the order of the day.

So that explains a) why traditional models of heroic behaviour are less popular or at least less convincing to modern audiences and b) why we've evolved to a model of storytelling where somebody wants something and gets it (to quote Earl Pomerantz again) is the most repeated storyform. The modern audience member is constantly reassured that IF they are willing to sacrifice something, manna from heaven will be their immediate reward. It's all about immediate gratification, whereas the message of Christianity was that suffering in this life would be rewarded by eternal bliss in the afterlife...

This is a specifically western (and largely American) message though. In many Chinese popular stories, the hero dies, sometimes even in vain. But there the act of the heroic sacrifice itself is what's considered meaningful and inspirational, not the reward the hero gets at the end of his labours.

And of course heroism isn't always rewarded - as in Sergio Corbucci's shocking spaghetti western The Big Silence. At the end, heroic gunman Jean-Louis Trintignant, his hands broken, rides out to face villain Klaus Kinski in order to save a group of farmers Kinski holds hostage. Trintignant is shot in cold blood, and the farmers are massacred. It's a truly stunning moment, as it runs counter to both genre expectations and our feelings of justice. And it's undeniably true to life.

Which doesn't really bring me to my point, but anyhow...

Let's have more heroes.

Let's inspire people again.

And let's, slowly but surely, try to get the point across that the hero is willing to sacrifice all without being rewarded for it.

It may not do much for making the world a better place. It may not do anything at all.

But I'm sure we'll get some great stories out of it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Script Review: Aanrijding in Moscou (Moscow, Belgium)

Aanrijding in Moscou, written by Pat van Beirs and Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem, just won the first annual award for the best Flemish script from the Scenaristengilde (the Flemish screenwriter's guild). It's just the latest in a never-ending series of accolades for this very modest film (made on a tiny budget, intended for television), which has triumphed at film festivals all over the world, with Cannes being the most visible highlight. But this is the first time the script itself was singled out for an award. So let's take a look at what makes the screenplay so special!

Aanrijding in Moscou is a slice-of-life story mixed with a feelgood romantic comedy. The film has been praised for its sense of realism and excellent acting, which almost makes it feel like it's not scripted at all. Yet it is very much scripted, and what's revelatory about the screenplay is how tightly constructed the whole thing is, and how much symbolism and 'writerly gambits' the script contains. The way the structural construction is hidden (for the biggest part of the script, anyway) is simply masterful, and van Beirs and Van Rijckeghem would deserve the award just for pulling this off. But the script has a lot more qualities than that.


The script actually has a very classical three-act structure:

- Act One show Matty and Johnny meeting, and her finally agreeing to go on a date with him.

- Act Two charts the developing relationship, reveals more about the past of the characters (Johnny's violent tendencies and alcoholism), and also sees Matty's estranged husband Werner becoming interested in his wife again when he notices another man moving in on her. It ends with Johnny getting drunk and violent again when he meets his ex-wife and her new boyfriend just as Matty had definitely agreed to a steady relationship. She breaks things off with him.

- Act Three is all about the final choice Matty will have to make: does she take Werner back, does she forgive Johnny and give him a chance or will she stay alone and unloved?

When we look at the major structural points, we get the following:

Opening: Matty shopping at the supermarket with her kids, unhappy, zombie-like
Inciting incident: Matty collides with Johnny in the parking lot. They fight - she comes alive.
Plot Point One: Matty agrees to go on a date with Johnny.
Focus Point/'Pinch' 1: Matty and Johnny have sex in his truck
Midpoint: Werner reveals Johnny has been arrested in the past for beating up his ex-wife.
Focus Point/'Pinch' 2: the disastrous meal where Johnny and Werner first meet and start to quarrel - Matty finally throws food over the both of them.
Plot Point 2: Johnny, drunk, assaults his ex-wife and her lawyer boyfriend, and a disgusted Matty breaks off with him.
Crisis: Johnny serenades Matty with 'Mona Lisa' during the karaoke night - she rushes off in embarrasment.
Climax: Confrontation between Matty and Johnny - she lets go of her anger after punching him in the nose.
Resolution: Matty finally breaks things off with Werner and takes a chance on life with Johnny.

As I mentioned earlier, this structure is largely hidden from view (even though it's obvious once you start analyzing). The events all seem so natural, so true to life, that you're just swept along with the narrative which feels completely organic.

That's not to say everything is 100% perfect, though. Plot point 2 (the confrontation with Johnny's ex) is the one moment where everything feels 'written'. It's the first time Johnny drinks in a long time. He knows he shouldn't - but does so anyway, because he wants to celebrate. Fine, that's possible.

But when he staggers out of the bar, he immediately runs into his ex and her new beau, and picks a fight with them. And in the ensuing scuffle, Matty falls. On top of this, the police show up immediately (the same two policewomen who had intervened in the opening of the script). It all feels too contrived, and it's a narrative misstep which the script never completely recovers from.

It would have been more fitting if Johnny slowly but surely fell back into drinking again, and finally lashed out at Matty over a trivial incident (it would also have been more true to life). As things stand, an 'obviously fictional' incident (possible but not really plausible) intrudes on the reality of the rest of the storyline, and reminds us we're watching fiction rather than real life.

Similarly, we can wonder whether Vera would not tell her mother about her lesbianism before inviting her girlfriend over for an introductory dinner - especially since she was apparently worried enough about her mother's reaction not te mention her sexual orientaion before.


Though we've seen that Aanrijding in Moscou is actually tightly constructed, it comes across as a purely character-driven story. Which means that the characters are depicted very succesfully, with multiple layers, good backstory, and a sense that they exist beyond the borders of the script - and that their behaviour is motivated by their emotional and psychological make-up, not by the narrative needs of the script.

The cast is fairly small:

- Matty, 41, postal worker, deserted by husband, disappointed by life

- Johnny, 29, truck driver, romantic, Italophile, recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies, lives with his mother

- Werner, art teacher, Matty's husband, in a mid-life crisis, pretentious, 'trying to find himself', shacked up with a young student of his

These three are the most important characters in the script. We then get the secondary characters:

Vera: 17, Matty's oldest daughter, rebellious (especially towards her dad), outs herself as a lesbian

Fien: 10, youngest child of the family, precocious, obsessed by reading Tarot cards

Peter: 12, Matty's son, introverted, dreams of being a pilot (Peter's role is very small in the film)

Nicky: Matty's co-worker, a lusty woman in her thirties

Jacques: an elderly client of the post office, undertaker, fancies Matty.

Finally, there are tertiary characters who only show up for one scene or who have no important function in the story: an elderly woman at the post office, Nathalie (Johnny's ex) and Maxime (her lawyer boyfriend), the two female cops, and Iris, Vera's pseudo-deep girlfriend.

Matty and Johnny are obviously protagonist and antagonist, while Werner mainly functions as a secondary antagonist. He represents the easy but wrong choice for Matty to make. And he's also an extra threat/obstacle to the relationship between Matty and Johnny, who is needed in order for things not to be too easy for them.

Jacques is a very interesting minor character - more proof of how delicately constructed the film is. He always shows up at the post office with a bunch of mourning cards - sometimes just a few, sometimes a whole bunch - and explains about the person who died. The stories behind the cards always happen comment on Matty's state of mind: sometimes they match it perfectly, sometimes they are in contrast with it, sometimes they foreshadow problems... None of these incidents is chosen at random, or accidentally happens to fit in with the rest of the plot. This is screenwriting at a very high level.


Aanrijding in Moscou takes place in a very specific location (a working-class neighbourhood in the city of Ghent), and this is reflected in the dialogue. Everyone speaks the local dialect.

And this dialect is also in the script. Whereas instructors (myself included) generally warn against this, in this case it works, and even when there are a few words which are not readily understood by anyone not from Ghent, the stage directions in the script make it clear what is meant.

More importantly, every character in the script has their own voice. The writers have really succeeded in making them all come alive, and to find their specific register (Werner is slightly pretentious and uses a more refined language, Johnny uses Italian phrases regularly, Matty is the most cynical character in the script and gets the zingiest one-liners - which never sound sit-comlike but fit her character's reality perfectly).


Finally, let's look at the little symbolic details which pepper the script, and which indicate it's more than 'just' a fly-on-the-wall semi-documentary look at life and love in Ledeberg.

When Matty and Johnny first meet, the script specifies a gypsy is playing the violin (badly) at the parking lot, begging for money. But the sound of gypsy violins is a cliché of romance. No one really notices this detail, but subconsciously it primes the viewer (and the reader) for the romantic comedy-like meet cute which is about to take place. And by specifying the scratchiness of the playing, the idea is reinforced that the romance is off-kilter.

Secondly, Johnny gives some licking candy to Matty's kids - and it's decorated with the image of a white knight, an image repeated on Johnny's truck. Another intentional nod to the traditional image of the knight on the white horse coming to save the damsel in distress.

Another clever and subtle use of symbolism and even magic is daughter Fien's use of Tarot cards. No one pays real attention to her 'predictions', it's obviously the type of game a ten-year old kid could have fun with and even believe in, but never during the narrative are these cards treated in a heavy-handed way (Look! This Is Important!)
However - all her predictions come true... every reading she does is basically correct. So once again we get a thread of symbolism interwoven with scenes of extremely everyday reality (Fien always reads the cards when Matty is in the process of making dinner).

There's also the use of Mona Lisa as a symbol for Matty - she understands the picture's emotional meaning much better than Johnny, and when he serenades her with the Nat King Cole song of the same name, it's a realistic interpretation of a very movie-like moment. However, his serenade has an unintended effect - unlike the movies, she doesn't rush into his arms (yet) but she flees the bar in embarassment.

In short, the script provides all the elements for a succesful film. It's also an excellent example of the 'Think local, act global' adage: by firmly anchoring its narrative in an everyday reality, Aanrijding in Moscou transcends its geographical limitations and manages to touch the emotions of audiences all over the world. We can only concur that the script fully deserves the award, and we hope that the writers will be given the opportunity to show off their skills many more times in the future.