tips

WWJD: What Would Joss Do? or Part 2 of JJ’s Job

By Christopher Pratt

The secret ingredient to a successful career as a screenwriter, storyteller, filmmaker, TV writer. The recipe to super stardom.

As a literary manager and Hollywood producer, my writers are on a quest to find the formula, lucky for you, they found it. Well, Joss found it, we’re listening to his advice (in direct violation of his advice.)

You may recall, part one of JJ’s Job introduced the idea that a working writer needs to be as good at writing/directing/showrunning/team building as JJ Abrams. In the opening paragraph, I mentioned the article could have been titled Joss’ Job, well, one of my readers requested I spin a little Whedon.

So… thank you Catherine Bray @catherinebray for this excellent interview.

Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips - Aerogramme Writers’ Studio


Let’s look at Joss’ advice and I’ll add my little bullshit commentary, like a no-talent hype man.

1. FINISH IT Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

Ten Percenter Thoughts:

No client sells a first script. Or a second. As a rep, we get meetings off a great spec but real work, real sales, a staff job comes from the ability to consistantly deliver. A professional writer shows proficiency. This usually comes around the 12th script. Yes, finish, then finish 11 more. Don’t approach a rep about number 3 or number 7, finish 12. The goal is not only representation, the goal is mastery.

2. STRUCTURE Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, colored pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

Rep-pov:

If you’re sitting in a theater, watching a film, and you’re not mentally checking off structure beats, you have work to do. Better yet, write ahead of the characters, check your work against the filmmakers. I had a client who would hear they were making an adaptation or an original film, then he’d write the entire treatment for that movie and put it in a file. When the film came out, he’d go see it, then open his file and compare his to the finished film. At first, he was terrible, but as he progressed, his treatments grew strong, showing his understanding of story structure until his ‘takes’ were often stronger than the finished film.

3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’

Manager Talk:

How is this your story? How are you the only person in the world to write it? What special thing is this script saying about who you are? A lot of great writing starts with understanding. What do you uniquely understand well enough to share universal human truths. If you don’t know, get yourself some therapy or classic literature. Good place to start.

4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

Gatekeeper:

Write bios. Who are they? Where are these characters at on the Maslow Pyramid? Don’t know Maslow? You got work to do.

5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

Realtalk:

As a rep I couldn’t imagine the pain of killing your own babies. But Joss says to do it…

6. LISTEN When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

Rep Peeve:

Digging in is good. Have principles. Defend ideas. You often know what you’re trying to do better than anyone in the process. If they’re complaining, confused, noting you, there is probably a reason. Only the master can diagnose ‘why’ the notes.

7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.

The guy who gets paid only when you work:

Joss knows a lot of tricks to keep audiences engaged. How can you learn more of his tricks? Learn from his people.

Mutant Enemy writers room reunion from Nerdist Writers Panel


8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’

I’m not saying we’re lazy:

Reps are busy. We have a hundred scripts in the inbox. Stuidio drafts. Open assignments. Client submissions. Secret confession: when we read, we skip blocks of bullshit. Don’t write blocks of bullshit. White space, on the page, looks professional.

9. DON’T LISTEN Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.

Listen:

If advice feels right, go with it. If it feels off, don’t. Keep making shit. There is no gatekeeper. You don’t need me, or any rep. Write hot shit, keep writing hot shit. Make cool videos. Hollywood is catching up to you. You got a film/TV studio in your pocket, use it.

10. DON’T SELL OUT The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.

Wow:

Last Action Hero? Kinda makes me wanna crack that idea. He’s like, super right, bout all of it. These are successful people problems, by the time you’re taking this advice you’re already a master. Getting to master is ninety percent of it, this advice is icing.

Mastery by Robert Greene


I got some great advice from a showrunner friend. Mastery by Robert Greene. Read it, learn it, live it. Let’s get started people. “We got some splainin’ to do.”

@futurePratt on Twittah.

SXSW: Mark Duplass’ 8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry    Indiewire article by Eric Kohn   “The cavalry isn’t coming.”   With those words, actor-director-producer Mark Duplass launched into a rousing keynote at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday. Currently writing a second season of HBO’s “Togetherness” with his brother Jay, Mark continues to act in a wide variety of projects, while he and his brother produce several movies a year and recently signed a four-picture deal with Netflix.   A decade ago, their feature-length debut “The Puffy Chair” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, which led the pair to Los Angeles, direct two studio projects (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and continue building momentum. These days, both brothers also act on television (Mark on “The League” and Jay on “Transparent”). The Duplass brothers’ brand has never been stronger — but it hasn’t always been that way.   Despite all their success, Mark told the crowd that their origin story had more than a few rough patches.   “I was living in Austin in shitty apartments around town,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m inspired, I’m excited, I want to be a filmmaker. I have no connections. Everyone says pick up a camera and do it, but how am I going to get there? What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere?’ ”   Over the course of his half-hour presentation, he shared this improvised eight-point plan based on his experiences. (Backstage, Duplass told Indiewire that he assembled his speech on scraps of paper at his hotel shortly beforehand.)    1. The $3 Short Film   Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends. We had a film we shot on an iPhone at Sundance this year that sold to Magnolia [“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker]. Our first film starred me. It was called “Vince Del Rio.” We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. [Jay] was depressed. I was slightly less depressed. All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape.” Twenty minutes later, Jay said he couldn’t get his answering machine message right and recorded it a hundred times. I said, “That’s great. It’s us.” So we shot one 20-minute improvised take. We edited it down to seven minutes. Our friend David Zellner said, “You should just submit this around to festivals.”   That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends. They don’t have to be film people, just charismatic. It should be one scene, five minutes, and ideally comedic, because those program well at festivals. Your first ones are going to suck. Probably. They’ll be like a little nugget you can show your friends. Then you hone in on that little giggle. Somewhere you’re going to discover you have something unique to offer.    2. Make a Feature For Under $1,000   At the risk of saying you should make a self-indulgent film for your first movie, you should absolutely make a self-indulgent film for your first movie. This is going to be the start of your career. The whole time you’re going around this festival, there’s a small chance an agent is going to sign you. They’re going to say the cavalry is coming. It’s probably not. But you’re going to be writing a feature script the whole time that can be made for less than $1,000.   You’re going to spend a year making this movie with available material. You can ask everyone who can support you what they can lend you. When my brother Jay and I made “The Puffy Chair,” we had my apartment in Brooklyn. I had a van. There was a furniture store going out of business in Maine where we got two chairs. That was perfect because I needed to burn one of them in the movie. We knew we wouldn’t have to wait to make this — we could make it at a cheap price. So you’re going to go out with a group of five to eight people. You’re going to buy lights and extension cords… and they have a 30-day return policy. So you’re going to make your movie for free. And there are places… where you can buy cameras and return them — or shoot it on your iPhone. If you have an agent at this point, they’ll say, “Don’t do this.” If you listen to them, you won’t get your movie. Go make this movie on your own.   3. Show Your Movie to Movie Stars   'Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry.’   There are movie stars at these film festivals. Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors. You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your $5,000 movie to every actor in the agency. You want to build your movie with them. A lot of those stars are going to be like, “Fuck that, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But one of them will respond. Let’s call him Randy Hercules. He was on a bad CBS show and he’s super-depressed. You’ll say, “Randy, I saw your show, and I think you’re better than this.” You’re going to say, “I want to build a role for you, Randy.” And he’s going to fall in love with you. He will follow you to the end of the earth.    4. Make Another Cheap Movie   Now you are going to do the unthinkable — you’re going to make another $1,000 movie, but this one has Randy Hercules in it. Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it. Randy will make 20%. You can go to him and ask him to give it to the rest of the crew. And he’ll do it. You might go to Sundance and sell it for a million dollars. Probably won’t happen. That’s OK. Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD because it has Randy Hercules in it.    5. Embrace VOD   God bless VOD. Please do not reject VOD. Don’t blow all your money on a theater that’s going to lose money. Let someone put it out on VOD and you’ll make at least $5,000 because Randy Hercules is in it. More importantly, the industry is starting to notice you. Now your agent will say, “The cavalry is really coming.”    6. Move to TV   As the death of the middle class of film continues, it has moved to TV. If you made a good movie with Randy Hercules, you’ll sell a pitch. You might get to make that show. Probably not. But you could probably make some episodes independently and license them back to these companies at a quarter of the price. So you’re going to take out Randy and his friend, Dingleberry Jones. Make two episodes and outline the rest. I guarantee you can sell the show to a place that wants content from a vetted, cool filmmaker like yourself.    7. Produce Your Friends’ Work   All your friends are going to say, “I have an idea, I want to make my first film with Randy Hercules.” Then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If you shit the bed, it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.    8. Accept the Hard Facts   So now you’re at this weird crossroads in your life — making money, not rich, sustaining your friends. Your agent will call you: “This time, the cavalry is fucking beating down your door.” And she’s right. You’re gonna look at your career and say, “I’m a little tired, because I’ve had to self-generate every project. It would be really amazing not to work that hard.”   This is the really hard truth: Still, when I’m at this place that I am at, the cavalry is not coming. It sucks. But this is where the good news starts to come in. You realize, “I made two micro-budget features, critically acclaimed short films, and licensed a TV show. How is it possible that the cavalry is not coming?”   Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry. You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a shitty movie, they will lift you up. This will equalize you. You have a bevy of work behind you and not one of those are you embarrassed to show your children later on. Most importantly, you’re now in a corner of the sandbox that is completely your own. No one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. If you can accept that the cavalry won’t come, and if you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.

SXSW: Mark Duplass’ 8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry

Indiewire article by Eric Kohn

“The cavalry isn’t coming.”

With those words, actor-director-producer Mark Duplass launched into a rousing keynote at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday. Currently writing a second season of HBO’s “Togetherness” with his brother Jay, Mark continues to act in a wide variety of projects, while he and his brother produce several movies a year and recently signed a four-picture deal with Netflix.

A decade ago, their feature-length debut “The Puffy Chair” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, which led the pair to Los Angeles, direct two studio projects (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and continue building momentum. These days, both brothers also act on television (Mark on “The League” and Jay on “Transparent”). The Duplass brothers’ brand has never been stronger — but it hasn’t always been that way.

Despite all their success, Mark told the crowd that their origin story had more than a few rough patches.

“I was living in Austin in shitty apartments around town,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m inspired, I’m excited, I want to be a filmmaker. I have no connections. Everyone says pick up a camera and do it, but how am I going to get there? What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere?’ ”

Over the course of his half-hour presentation, he shared this improvised eight-point plan based on his experiences. (Backstage, Duplass told Indiewire that he assembled his speech on scraps of paper at his hotel shortly beforehand.)

1. The $3 Short Film

Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends. We had a film we shot on an iPhone at Sundance this year that sold to Magnolia [“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker]. Our first film starred me. It was called “Vince Del Rio.” We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. [Jay] was depressed. I was slightly less depressed. All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape.” Twenty minutes later, Jay said he couldn’t get his answering machine message right and recorded it a hundred times. I said, “That’s great. It’s us.” So we shot one 20-minute improvised take. We edited it down to seven minutes. Our friend David Zellner said, “You should just submit this around to festivals.”

That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends. They don’t have to be film people, just charismatic. It should be one scene, five minutes, and ideally comedic, because those program well at festivals. Your first ones are going to suck. Probably. They’ll be like a little nugget you can show your friends. Then you hone in on that little giggle. Somewhere you’re going to discover you have something unique to offer.

2. Make a Feature For Under $1,000

At the risk of saying you should make a self-indulgent film for your first movie, you should absolutely make a self-indulgent film for your first movie. This is going to be the start of your career. The whole time you’re going around this festival, there’s a small chance an agent is going to sign you. They’re going to say the cavalry is coming. It’s probably not. But you’re going to be writing a feature script the whole time that can be made for less than $1,000.

You’re going to spend a year making this movie with available material. You can ask everyone who can support you what they can lend you. When my brother Jay and I made “The Puffy Chair,” we had my apartment in Brooklyn. I had a van. There was a furniture store going out of business in Maine where we got two chairs. That was perfect because I needed to burn one of them in the movie. We knew we wouldn’t have to wait to make this — we could make it at a cheap price. So you’re going to go out with a group of five to eight people. You’re going to buy lights and extension cords… and they have a 30-day return policy. So you’re going to make your movie for free. And there are places… where you can buy cameras and return them — or shoot it on your iPhone. If you have an agent at this point, they’ll say, “Don’t do this.” If you listen to them, you won’t get your movie. Go make this movie on your own.

3. Show Your Movie to Movie Stars

'Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry.’

There are movie stars at these film festivals. Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors. You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your $5,000 movie to every actor in the agency. You want to build your movie with them. A lot of those stars are going to be like, “Fuck that, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But one of them will respond. Let’s call him Randy Hercules. He was on a bad CBS show and he’s super-depressed. You’ll say, “Randy, I saw your show, and I think you’re better than this.” You’re going to say, “I want to build a role for you, Randy.” And he’s going to fall in love with you. He will follow you to the end of the earth.

4. Make Another Cheap Movie

Now you are going to do the unthinkable — you’re going to make another $1,000 movie, but this one has Randy Hercules in it. Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it. Randy will make 20%. You can go to him and ask him to give it to the rest of the crew. And he’ll do it. You might go to Sundance and sell it for a million dollars. Probably won’t happen. That’s OK. Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD because it has Randy Hercules in it.

5. Embrace VOD

God bless VOD. Please do not reject VOD. Don’t blow all your money on a theater that’s going to lose money. Let someone put it out on VOD and you’ll make at least $5,000 because Randy Hercules is in it. More importantly, the industry is starting to notice you. Now your agent will say, “The cavalry is really coming.”

6. Move to TV

As the death of the middle class of film continues, it has moved to TV. If you made a good movie with Randy Hercules, you’ll sell a pitch. You might get to make that show. Probably not. But you could probably make some episodes independently and license them back to these companies at a quarter of the price. So you’re going to take out Randy and his friend, Dingleberry Jones. Make two episodes and outline the rest. I guarantee you can sell the show to a place that wants content from a vetted, cool filmmaker like yourself.

7. Produce Your Friends’ Work

All your friends are going to say, “I have an idea, I want to make my first film with Randy Hercules.” Then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If you shit the bed, it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.

8. Accept the Hard Facts

So now you’re at this weird crossroads in your life — making money, not rich, sustaining your friends. Your agent will call you: “This time, the cavalry is fucking beating down your door.” And she’s right. You’re gonna look at your career and say, “I’m a little tired, because I’ve had to self-generate every project. It would be really amazing not to work that hard.”

This is the really hard truth: Still, when I’m at this place that I am at, the cavalry is not coming. It sucks. But this is where the good news starts to come in. You realize, “I made two micro-budget features, critically acclaimed short films, and licensed a TV show. How is it possible that the cavalry is not coming?”

Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry. You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a shitty movie, they will lift you up. This will equalize you. You have a bevy of work behind you and not one of those are you embarrassed to show your children later on. Most importantly, you’re now in a corner of the sandbox that is completely your own. No one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. If you can accept that the cavalry won’t come, and if you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.