Notes on Craft: Mood, Tone and Voice
November 4, 2010
First, I apologize for the huge gap in between Writers Guild Foundation event-related posts. The holidays and my laziness kind of got in the way of deciphering my notes. And I still have two more to write up. And I’m hours away from going to yet another WGA event and these things are just piling up! Ugh.
This post is about finding out who you are and where you fit in and ties nicely with this one. Actually, it was this particular event that made my head explode a little bit and, the ones that followed (Dialogue & Scene and Rewriting & Polishing) sealed the deal and blew my head off my body. You’ll see why in a bit. Also, this post will seem a little bit schizophrenic because the writers kept on jumping from voice to tone to mood. In the end, it all came together and made sense.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before quite a few times: Anyone can learn structure and how to tell a story, but it’s your unique voice as a writer that will make you a working screenwriter. I sure have. This particular aspect of writing is the most fascinating because it’s the hardest to wrap your head around. It’s mysterious, but it’s the heart of writing and what makes you unique. Voice is what you receive from the writer or author.
Petrie, Kalogridis, de Felitta
De Felitta said the voice of his characters define the mood of the script: “If the people speak this way, then this is the kind of movie I’m writing.” If he can’t hear the voice of the characters, he can’t write the screenplay no matter how cool the premise is. That’s always his starting point.
Kalogridis tries to communicate the tone of her idea to director to get a response to the script. Tone is what gets across to the reader/buyer. She said was lucky Martin Scorsese was attracted to the tone of her screenplay for Shutter Island. She tends to write prose-like descriptions that her friend, James Cameron, tells her is a beautiful waste of time. She still chooses to overwrite and waste her time because it makes her job more enjoyable. And as she let us know many times, James Cameron is still her friend. She’s friends with James Cameron. I hope you got that because I don’t want to repeat it.
Kalogridis writes for directors; De Felitta, who is a director, writes for himself and to attract actors. He knows the kind of screenplay he has to write to attract good actors. The panel agreed that there are two types of directors, those who write and those who know they can’t write. Scorsese knows he can’t write and he’s okay with it. Kalogridis said that’s the best kind of director to collaborate with.
Petrie then brought up Frank Capra. Hollywood legend has it that while Capra was prepping Meet John Doe, the screenwriter, Robert Riskin, fed up with Capra taking credit for his work, took 120 blank pages and waved them in Capra's face challenging: "Put the famous Capra touch on that!" Moral of the story: they never worked together again.
De Felitta stressed that you have to be who you really are in this business. It’s impossible to fake it and it’s imperative that you find where you fit in. After years of trying, he couldn’t’ find his voice as a writer for hire and discovered that he had to direct independent films. He added that directing is difficult because it’s just punishing work every single time and there’s no growth associated with it. As a writer, you grow with every word you write. However, the more you do it, the worse you think you’re at it. There’s no room for naïveté.
I’ve heard this in every single panel I’ve attended: If it’s not you in those pages, it’s not a screenplay. A good screenplay is always written by someone who believed in that movie. All filmmaking is personal and you must work towards what you’re drawn to. Again, De Felitta reiterated the importance of figuring out who you are and where you fit in. At this point, I started to feel a little sick. I knew then and there who I was not as a writer. But, to be honest, I wasn’t ready to face it. It would take a few more weeks.
How do you establish mood? “Lighting helps,” de Felitta joked. But it got the point across. Establishing mood with words is a tricky thing to describe. Kalogridis said you need to find a way to articulate with words what you are going for. The architecture of a screenplay is very important; it’s how you position words on the page that will lead the reader through the journey. When De Felitta reads screenplays, which is not often, he looks for a fresh voice to a familiar story. A voice filled with conviction that jumps off the page. That’s when you can’t stop reading. He offered the screenplay for The Fabulous Baker Boys as a great example of describing a lot with just a few of words. This is what we want to do. This is great writing in screenplays.
Because, as we all know, every story has been told, we need to find reasons to refresh these stories. We do this by keeping our innocence and finding our life in the story. Kalogridis loves to read internet fiction because she finds it to be pure, joyful expression. These are writers who write for themselves and put their whole heart in it. They’re not writing to sell. Petrie then intervened by saying that he loves Turner and Hooch. He loves that fucking dog. It’s him. The dog is him.
It’s really about the special thing that you bring to the story as a unique individual with a distinct voice. Kalogridis got an agent because she wrote something people told her not to write; a screenplay about Joan of Arc when there were dozens of Joan of Arc scripts floating around Hollywood. The writer’s intent always has to be “I’m going to write it because I want to.”
Kalogridis loved the Shutter Island novel, and her friend, producer Mike Medavoy, (I just love how she dropped names like she was talking about complete unknowns) optioned it for her, and she went to work on the screenplay. Her agent read it and said it was surprisingly good but that it would never get made. She sent it to Martin Scorsese, he loved it and said “I want to send it to the Kid.” (Now, read this again and again and again. This is an important piece of information.)
She was writing a bunch of stuff that wasn’t her—stuff that women are supposed to write and Lesbian themed stories—and ignoring her true tastes, when her friend, James Cameron, gave her confidence by telling her he trusted her and that maybe she should trust herself. Her other friend, Lauren Schuler Donner, also believed in her and told the studio that she could write X-Men. Kalogridis joked that she gets a lot of writing jobs because she curses and sounds like a trucker in pitches. There you go girls. Don’t be afraid to drop some bombs.
Someone asked how much description was a good amount. Description rule of thumb for sale: three lines if you really, really, really need them. Two is good and one is ideal. However, every rule is true until it’s not. Remember, when you read great screenplays, you’re not reading, you are seeing the movie and you’re captivated. Concentrate on that.
Now, let‘s get to the important piece of information. Two exciting things have happened in the business which is pretty much the Wild West right now. Writers are very optimistic.
1. Now there’s spec movies, not screenplays; and
2. The studio as a developing entity is dead.
This means writers need to see themselves as start-up businesses and filmmakers that make spec movies. (It doesn’t necessarily mean director. Direct, don’t direct. It’s your call.) If you want to see your movie made, you cannot afford to consider yourself a writer only. You have to be a producer. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay for The Social Network, took it directly to David Fincher and voila they made their little spec movie. Sorkin knew that taking it directly to a studio would be futile and that, as everyone now knows, to get a film made these days you have to hook up with a star and/or a top director or The Kid. So, if Aaron Sorkin is not deluded, then why do you continue to be?
It’s time to seize, not resist. Resist change and perish dear writers. Perish right in front of your computer writing words no one is going to make into a movie.
P.S. Do you guys like the title graphics? I made them myself. Yup.
On PhotoShop. Me.