Friday, May 26, 2006

Everything I Needed to Know About Screenwriting, I Learned from Watching American Idol

By Jim Mercurio
(from CSDaily May 26, 2006)

You already have the lowdown on the showdown, but travel back in time a few weeks as the final five contestants on American Idol teach us how to become better screenwriters. We've left Jim's predictions in, whether right, wrong, or wishful-thinking.

Since the advent of TiVo, I have begun to watch more TV. One guilty pleasure I've stumbled upon is American Idol. What I liked about the first few episodes of the season is that I could watch a two-hour show in about 30 minutes, skipping through all the bad parts. When it got down to under 10 contestants, I was forced to watch the entire show. The kids were talented and the stakes were beginning to mount.

See, American Idol is a great narrative. You take likable characters with a special skill and you set them after a tangible goal, which has obstacles that seem beyond the characters' means. They shouldn't be able to "nail" a Queen song, a love song, a standard, a Stevie Wonder song, and a country song. But just like in a good screenplay, they plow ahead, and the obstacles and conflicts reveal who they are.

Here are a few other ideas that I gleaned from watching American Idol and the final five (Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, Paris Bennett, and Taylor Hicks) that will help you with your writing career.

Good Usually Ain't Good Enough

Kelly Pickler and Bucky Covington are like that competent spec script that you defend by saying, "It's as good as most of the stuff that's out there." Well, here's the secret. You have to be better. Writers who get the assignment to make "most of the stuff that's out there" for the studios have proven track records and most likely have written a ton of material a lot better than "the stuff that's out there." Besides, there are so many other reasons movies get made. Don't lament that your spec is slightly better than the third sequel of a horror franchise based on a video game. That film didn't get made because the script was the second coming of
The Shining. The script was just a small part of it. If you want to stand out as a beginner, as Simon Cowell snarls, "Good doesn't cut it."

You Gotta Be You

I was blown away by Paris Bennett's performance of "Midnight Train to Georgia." She has a great voice and, as a performer, she has moves that no 17-year-old should have. And after seeing her "Fever" and "These foolish Things," I realized she doesn't have those moves. They aren't hers. I would surmise that she watched a great singer -- possibly even the original singers -- perform the song and copied aspects of it, even with an element of mimicry. Now, don't get me wrong, it's an amazing feat for a teenager to be able to flawlessly inhabit these performances, and she has one of the greatest voices in the competition. But it feels a little bit like the 22-year-old who graduates with a screenwriting MFA from USC. They have great mastery of craft, or at least the basics of the form, but the there just isn't there yet. My metaphor breaks down a little bit here, since singing isn't only about the content. Often style and craft is enough. Paris could probably top the charts with a cover album or a pop album written by someone else, but her rendition of "The Way We Were"…I didn't buy a word. Once her life experience catches up to her voice, though, look out.

Singers are allowed to do cover albums where they do creative interpretations of other people's songs. But songwriters don't get to do cover albums where all of their songs are derivative from other songs. Nor do screenwriters. This concept rears its ugly head when writers try to write like someone else. Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino sell stuff because they are Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino…we only need one of each of them.

Paris probably has more raw talent than, say, Taylor, but Taylor's going to outlast her because he finds a way to put himself into the songs he sings. Screenwriting and singing are different art forms, but if you're not 17, take a lesson from Paris. You are not going all the way until you can find the "you" in your craft.

Know Your Audience: Find the Intersection of Art and Commerce

Chris Daughtry is very good at what he does. There are probably many journeyman screenwriters who are the writer-equivalents of him. Chris has good looks and an intense presence, attributes that help a rock star a lot more than a screenwriter. (If only I had musical talent…) But Chris isn't going to win, and that's okay. He has already reached his goal: he has given a public audition to be the front man for every B-list rock group with A-list dreams.

Is Chris the best singer ever? No. Does he even write songs? Who cares? He knows what he does. He knows who it's aimed for. And his talent will find a home. Learn from Chris. Know what you want to do and act professional about it. Chris has got his eye on the prize -- a career -- and he knows he has to find what my peer Julie Marsh Nelson uses to describe genre: the intersection of art and commerce.

I have a recurring nightmare of being one of the producers at one of these pitchfestamajigs and being engaged into this sort of conversation with a newbie writer.

NEWBIE WRITER: So ultimately it's a love story.

ME: Like an epic romance? Ambitious, nice, I respect that.

NW: No, it's small and sort of funny.

ME: Is it a romantic comedy? Does it have the conventions…? (Here is where I will slip in references to Michael Hauge's
Writing Romantic Comedies and Love Stories and pretend that they are my own brilliant observations.)

NW: No, it's more a romance than is comedic.

ME: Is it broad? Is it visual?

NW: No, it's subtle, muted, and talky.

ME: Are you going to go shoot it on DV and use it as a calling card?

NW: No.

ME: So, let me get this straight. There is no discernible genre, hook, or cool concept?

NW: No, but I figure all I gotta do is cast Tom Hanks…

It's a rationalization to say, "I am like Chris, I don't need to compromise. I can write big-budget scripts of indeterminable genre, because that's what I do." Chris doesn't compromise? Hello. He's a hard rocker on a reality show about pop stars. Yes, it's a compromise, but it's a smart one. There is no negative connotation to the use of "compromise" here. He is talented, but ultimately his understanding of his strengths and his audience will lead him to a career. Can you say the same?

What I Really Want to Do is Direct

Katharine has an amazing voice and command of her craft. For some reason, I think of her like a great TV director. Unlike film (theoretically at least), the director is not God. In TV, the writers, producers, and writer/producers are God. A director might direct an episode of
Deadwood, Law and Order, and Sopranos and, if she does a great job, the average viewer wouldn't be able to notice the similarities in style. A TV director is a chameleon-like tourist. When in Rome…or Rome…they show up and subordinate their personality in service of the established aesthetic of the show.

This is like Katharine. Other than her increasing willingness to use her sex appeal, I feel like I don't know anything about her personality or style. I do know that when she goes and visits other's songs, her craft allows her to do a great job. Except for her stunning performance of "Someone to Watch Over Me" (Did you see those close-ups? We know who Idol's director is voting for), I have never thought I was watching anything other than a Celine Dion-like display of "Here's a great way to do this song."

Am I contradicting what I said about Paris? Probably. Does this have anything to do with screenwriting? Probably not. So let me give you the inorganically derived moral: If you want to be stinkin' rich, write for TV.

Learn From People Who Are Better Than You

I am the first to crack a Barry Manilow joke when given a chance. But whether or not you think he is boring and un-hip, know this: Barry Manilow knows his craft better than you know yours or I know mine. Did you see when Barry used some music jargon to improve Elliott's phrasing? Elliott didn't have the musical knowledge to recognize the term, but when Barry explained it, he immediately got it.

Later, a similar thing happened between Elliott and 14-time Grammy winner David Foster. He called Elliott on a lackluster moment -- not because it was bad, but because it wasn't great. He didn't offer him a solution, he just pushed him and, after a few failed attempts, Elliott found something amazing. His performance of "A Song for You" may have been the beginning of the biggest upset since the 2004 Red Sox.

I make a lot of my living as a mentor/coach and it's exciting to see when a comment or word can transform someone. I made a slightly hyperbolic claim to a client that her ten-page opening could be condensed to about a half a page. Well, guess what, she took the advice literally. She told me, "BAM! When I did that, everything started to open up. It became a challenge, a game, how brief can I get it?"

BAM! That's it. That is where the show is magic: when it allows you to watch a raw and unformed talent transform right in front of you. In that split-second, an artist grows. He learns something that will be with him forever. That small gift is a seed that will blossom in profound and diverse ways.

I sometimes get choked up when the archetypal mentor relationship plays out on American Idol. It's not a self-congratulating feeling of "Ooh, isn't it great to be a mentor?" but rather a pleasantly wistful reminiscence. Could I have become a better screenwriter or filmmaker, were I lucky enough to have, say, Robert Towne or Robert Altman looking over my 24-year-old shoulder?

When I was young, I would devour and incorporate any feedback and insight into my process. Whether it's through books, teachers, writers' groups,
Screenwriting Expo, DVDs like the ones yours truly directed, or by just reading scripts, keep pushing yourself to learn more. If possible, find a way to be involved with talented professionals. I learned more about writing dialogue from watching Kurtwood Smith wrestle with and conquer a line on the set of Hard Scrambled than I did from reading a dozen screenwriting books.

Stay in the mindset of the young twenty-something who is still eager to learn whatever and wherever he can.

Vote for Yourself: 1-800-555-GRIT

Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," and I should know, because I sweat a lot, even when I'm sleeping. Sure, Elliott Yamin and Tom Hanks' performance in
Mazes and Monsters are proof that pure talent is a powerful force. However, there is a bigger factor in deciding your career, and that is grit. Your determination to work hard, learn your craft, and grow as an artist will be the most important factor for all but a few of us. It's a lot of pressure to have tens of millions of people awaiting your performance every week when you know that your fate is in their hands. But watching these 20-year-olds grow tremendously in a matter of a few months because of their commitment, focus, and the support from talented mentors is a reminder how much we are all capable of.

So, find your voice, allies who will push and support you, and keep your eye on the prize. Take a lesson from American Idol, sort of, and you can be the next great American Screenwriter.

Jim Mercurio's How to Write a Screenplay

Creative Screenwriting - CS Daily


shecanfilmit said...

This is a great article! Thanks for posting.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Hope the blog police don't get me for copyright infringement but the link won't be available until next week (under last week's articles) on the CS Daily page. I couldn't wait that long to share it.