Notes on Craft – (Part 4 of 6): The First 20 Pages

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

BILLY RAY (Shattered Glass, State of Play, The Hunger Games)

– “Think about the end and then reverse-engineer to create the best setup for that climax.  I’m looking for things to drop in that will pay off later.”

– “Don’t try to sell your script w/page 1.  Just try to get them to read page 2.  Establish a voice.  Hook em.”

– “Whenever I’m writing a script I always ask myself ‘What is the simple, emotional journey‘ and then I write it on a note at the top of my computer.  For Shattered Glass it was ‘What if the least popular guy in class took on the most popular guy in class?'”

– “One mistake I made in writing Shattered Glass was that the first 6 scenes were ‘Start-Stop’.  (They were six independent scenes that had a beginning, middle, and end introducing each character) and it really slowed down the pace of the story when we saw the rough-cut.  We had to play around in editing to make it flow right.”

– “Using visuals relating to your theme help symbolize the entire film.”

– “The purpose of the camera is to reveal subtext of what the character is hiding.  Use the action to contrast the dialogue.  Liars are easy to write.”

– “Make a check mark next to every bit of dialogue that each character says that he actually means.  If you have too many then you need to rewrite.”

– “Robert Towne thinks of every lie a character says as a pull on the quiver of the eventual release of the emotional arrow.”

– “Dialogue should be spare (fragmented) because that’s how people talk.”

– “When prepping for writing I always pick a soundtrack to fit my story- I use The Thin Red Line a lot.  Then I write a makeshift treatment putting every single idea I can think of.  Don’t edit!  After you build your granite block you then chip away the info that is irrelevant until yo have your story.”

– “Don’t think of writing as art.  Think of it as work.  (Be practical about approaching writing without all the “artsy angst” people attach to it).  When studios rewrite you they look for what’s not working. So think of writing as work- and hopefully the art will come.”

– “I write from 9Am-1PM.  Then 1:30-5PM.  Nights and weekends are for my kids.”

– “If you have a long treatment it’s impossible not to write the script fast.  And there’s an energy to that.”

– “For every single scene you write, ask yourself…

  1. Am I deepening the character?
  2. Am I setting tone?
  3. Am I advancing the story?
  4. (depending on genre) Is it funny, or exciting, or scary?”

– “Try to disguise your story beats behind emotional (character) beats.  This is advancing the ball in more than one way.”

– “When getting notes from studios… Listen to the problem; ignore the solution… They usually are good at pinpointing what is wrong with the script but don’t know how to articulate it.  Sometimes they’re dealing with so many movies that they’ll try to fix your problem with the exact same solution they used on another project.  (So here what they’re saying but use your own instinct on remedying it.)”

– “I organize my notes by

  • Thematic Ideas
  • Character Ideas
  • Act 1 Ideas
  • Act 2 Ideas
  • Act 3 Ideas”

– “There are 4 quadrants to make a film about.  If you make a movie that satisfies all 4, it applies to no one.”

Nick Stoller (Fun With Dick and Jane, Get Him to the Greek, Yes Man)

– “I rewrite Act 1 all the time.”

– “When directing, it is only essential to shoot as much as you can in the first 20 pages; to make sure you cover every possible set-up the movie can go that can be arranged through editing.”

– “I always make sure I know what POV the story is being told from.”

– “Mike Nichols starts every movie with a visual metaphor that defines the movie thematically as a whole.”

– “Tension and comedy come from your lead character thinking he knows who he is when he doesn’t.”

– “I hate ‘cute-meets’ in romantic comedies.  I prefer two people who don’t know they’re in love.  When it seems like they’re in love it seems like the movie should be over.”

– “I write outlines.  And rewrite them.  Then write a “vomit pass” of a script as fast as possible.  Then go back and re-outline, etc… until I finally get it.”

– “Cut into the middle of the scene!”

– “Disguise story beats with a joke.”

– “I write the script as if that’s exactly what we’re shooting.  But if I’m directing there will be 40% of improv that is created after we’ve captured what is on the page.”

Jon & Erich Hoeber (Red, Whiteout, Battleship)

– (JH) “The first 20 pages are all about Tone and Character.

  • TONE: Laying down the rules of the story.
  • CHARACTER: Establish a relationship with your lead that’s special.”

– (EH) “You have a few minutes at the beginning of your story- a grace period- where audiences will stay tuned.  Don’t rush it.”

– (JH) “I always overwrite the 1st Act.  I need to go back and cut once I realize what’s needed.”

– (JH) “Before writing, we know where the story is going to go.  We also know each character’s emotional arc.  Then we look for those little moments to define the shift.”

– (JH) “Gather your notes/research.  Sit with it.  Then start writing & don’t stop yourself.  ‘Perfectionism is the enemy of execution.’  Get it down.  Go back later and edit once the gist of it is on the page.”

– (JH) “When writing the vomit pass, do it as fast as possible.  14-25 days for a feature.  Every professional I know does it.  Go back and re-outline.  But you’ll use the first draft as the bones to discover dialogue that repeats.”

– (JH) “When re-writing action or dialogue, ask yourself ‘Can I cut it?’  If you can, then DO IT!”

– (EH) “Every word in a script either makes it better– or makes it worse.”

– (JH) “When getting notes from studios, determine what they mean by the note.  Like if they say: “The ending sucks”… ask yourself ‘Is that really true?  Or was it not properly set up?’

– (JH) “I write with a computer.. and a notepad.  Sometimes it makes more sense to write certain notes by hand.”


– Are you outlining as much as these professionals say they are?

– Do you think the prices of writing is different if you’re planning to direct the piece?

– Do you think Act 1 is the most important of the three?


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