“Late Night” At The Writers Room

Jill Amadio

JillAmadioSlogging away as we do on our mysteries, enjoying making sure we’ve planted subtle and not-so-subtle clues and fascinating red herrings, it’s a marvelous feeling to write The End and look forward to working on the second draft.

After the third or fourth draft and you’ve decided that your manuscript is publication-worthy, how often has the thought flashed through your mind of it being picked up by Hollywood? Have you sat and imagined the different scenes coming to life, your characters personified by, say, Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins? I’ve always dreamed of Emma Thompsonplaying my amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, but she’d have to dye her hair dark and grow it to her waist. 

A few days after I tried to picture Emma thus transformed and realized it probably wouldn’t work unless I switched Tosca’s dark hair to Emma’s blonde locks, I received an invitation to Fox Studios. Charlie, a screenwriter and author friend who lives nearby, is a member of the Screenplay Development Group at Fox. Each month the group is supplied with the script of a current movie, urged to see the film, and invited to critique both forms of entertainment. At the meeting we were to discuss and voice our feedback while comparing the two genres.

Coincidentally, our script last month was “Late Night,” a comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling who produced and wrote it. Be still my heart! The first three pages of the script were evaluation sheets for discussion at the meeting. Charlie pointed out to me that the script itself was held together by only two staples, the middle hole left empty. If a third staple was added the writer would be considered an amateur and the script immediately dumped in the rubbish bin.

We decided to drive up early to LA for lunch, see the movie, and then go on to Fox.  We had both read the script and discussed it between ourselves a few days earlier over coffee and found we agreed that the premise was excellent, the execution of the idea rated a Very Good, and the dialogue was spot on and very funny.  We were to rate the character roles, settings, visuals, writer intentions, relationships, plot, etc. We also had to consider the cost of making the movie and were provided with amounts ranging from $5-200 million. Charlie and I figured we’d need only $10 million because there were very few set changes. Most of the action took place, coincidentally, in a studio’s Writers Room.

I knew that the Writers Room was where the magic happened, having seen Writers Rooms on TV shows. Reminded me of my first job in the newsroom of a newspaper. To me, both magical places. At Fox I envisioned all those creative types sitting around thinking up jokes, sex, violence, and crazy dialogue. I remember a movie wherein two writers were locked in the Room until they came up with a better script. On the other hand, I need complete silence and solitude when I write but I hoped being thrown into this new environment might spark some new book ideas.

Charlie and I drove down Pico Blvd to make sure Fox Studios was still standing, then headed off in the opposite direction to the Westside Pavilion, a large shopping mall, for lunch. We found an entrance to the parking garage and Charlie, for some reason, said it was best to drive up to the roof. We noticed no cars parked anywhere and decided the mall had not opened yet, must be too early. We proceeded blithely up the ramp, saw boarded up windows everywhere and realized the Pavilion was closed. Permanently. We turned the car around and drove down but were stopped at the exit by a large wooden barrier arm that refused to raise. Charlie pressed all the buttons and finally shouted into the ticket slot. Eventually a guard came out, shook his head at us for not knowing the mall had closed a year ago and let us out, no charge.

On Sunset Blvd we found a coffee shop that sold lattes and blueberry muffins for outrageous prices.  Charlie pointed out that the meeting would be catered. In Hollywood language that meant tons of food. Slightly fortified but poorer we drove over to the Landmark cinema to watch the matinee of  “Late Night.”  We noted that the first several pages of the script had been scrapped and the action began in New York, not London. Emma, in the script, is depicted as something of a loose woman, married, with lots of lovers. In the movie she indulges in only a single one-night stand. Wonder who changed that around? Also, the ending was entirely different, so we knew there’d be lots of pro and con at the meeting.

Along Pico Blvd we spotted the Fox Studios sign. Exciting! We’d received two pages of instructions on how to enter and what to say to the guard at the studio gate, where to find the Steven Bochco Building, where to park, and told in VERY LARGE BOLD LETTERS not to enter any other building on the lot.  No sir!

Pretty soon several others arrived and we went inside to register and find a seat at the immensely-long writers table. Must have been carved from a redwood tree. My blood pressure rose, I am sure, because this was such an adventure and we were in a real, real movie studio. Despite my many years interviewing celebrities and a bit part in “Dr Zhivago” that was filmed in Spain when I lived there, this sent my heart racing. It’s one thing to be on an outside set, fun but okay, and another to be on a lot where several movies are filmed simultaneously and buildings are named after the famous.

There were about 38 of us sitting around the table, average age was, surprisingly, 40s with a few maybe in their 30s. Several older men and women were there and were veteran writers. Long-time producer Bill Taub led the discussion and we went around the table describing what we were working on. Blatant but truthful, I announced I was an author and had just finished adapting my third script to a book after my clients had been told to Write the Book First. Everyone else was a screenwriter. One person had adapted her novel to a script, and three attendees were in film school at UCLA. No one had a movie in production but three had sold to studios.

The actual discussion was lively, a little argumentative, and revealing. I kept quiet most of the time, making notes for a possible future murder in a Writers Room. The changes between the “Late Night” script and the movie, of course, were the subject of much talk as well as a learning curve and a warning that such cuts were typical. We all wondered why Emma’s persona was cleaned up and agreed that cutting the first ten pages unfortunately eliminated the set-up of how Brit Emma came to be a famous late-night TV talk show host in New York and was married to some old chappie.

Charlie and I continued our discussion driving home, me still high with excitement, and decided we would join the group again at a later date. I’m not sure if any of the talk helped me with my own writing because the genres are so different. Even so, input about dialogue was valuable as far as getting to the point of a scene and knowing that instead of a character being described in a script simply as Female Comic, 19, nervous, I can flesh her out in my book, paint word pictures, and endow her with thoughts and emotions I want her to have rather than a character re-created by a film director who probably hadn’t read my book.

Still, when all is said and done, getting your sleuth onscreen must be very special indeed.

 

Late Night – Official Trailer | Amazon Studios

 

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(Posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin.)

 

 

 

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FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.




FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2

 Today I continue our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. In my last blog post (September 9), we looked at the four story questions writers must be able to answer. Today we discuss the second rule:


 ü  At least one key character has to undergo a transformation.

 Often referred to as the character arc, this concept has been underscored by notables such as Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field. If plot is the external story, then the character’s arc is the internal version of events.

 The arc can be as intimate as a widow coming to terms with her loss, or as monumental as an everyman summoning his courage to save the universe. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Tips on Writing a Great Short Story’ is: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The character we meet at Once upon a time is (or becomes) driven by this want. He’s shaped and formed, or reformed, by the conflict he endures, usually with the help of the supporting characters, but ultimately he must face the final challenge alone. Who he is by happily ever after depends on how he’s changed through the course of the story, and what has occurred to cause those changes. Whether she’s a factory worker who takes up a cause (Silkwood, Norma Rae), a dutiful son who reluctantly shoulders a crime family (The Godfather), or a hardened cynic who sacrifices love for a nobler cause (Casablanca), watching the characters transform before our eyes, on screen or throughout the pages of a book, transforms us as well.

 That change almost always occurs in the protagonist, but there are exceptions – if a 
narrator is telling your story about someone, or if the protagonist is steadfast, but inspires change in another character. We’ve come to learn (with regret) that Harper Lee’s novels are examples of the former, while High Noon is an example of the latter. Stories featuring animal protagonists, like Marley and Me, can be examples of both exceptions.

 If you outline or use another form of story organization, you should plan the character arcs before you begin writing. If not, a technique I’ve found very helpful is to complete my novel or story and then read through it several times, searching for individual components of the manuscript with each pass. One read-through is dedicated to character arc, first for my protagonist, and then for each key character. I look for a pattern, for inconsistencies, for triggers and reactions – for ways to smooth the transition into something natural and realistic. I also identify the characters who shouldn’t change and check to insure they stay the same throughout the pages.

 In the final part of this series, we’ll exit the movie theater and examine a screenwriting concept adapted from live theater – the three-act structure.