WGF Exhibits: Celebrating 50 Years of Hawaii Five-O

Fifty years ago this month, the very first episode of Hawaii Five-O (entitled “Cocoon”) aired on CBS as a two-hour television movie. Twelve seasons and one enormously catchy theme song later, the series became the longest-running procedural drama of its day. In turn, Hawaii, which had only become a state in 1959, gained many tourists from the mainland and around the world from the small-screen exposure.

Created by Leonard Freeman, the show’s concept—a small and scrappy unit of cops solving peculiar crimes in beautiful island locations—had so much fuel in its tank, the show still churns out stories in revival form on CBS today.

New in the display cases leading into the WGF Library is an exhibit honoring 50 Years of “Five-O” and the work of Mr. Freeman. The exhibit shines a light on the painstaking work that goes into developing a series from fledgling idea to a well-oiled story machine that keeps people delighted and engaged, all while simultaneously enriching our entertainment and cultural landscapes. Thanks to Rose Freeman who worked tirelessly to safeguard her husband’s creative legacy, this exhibit features 50 years of treasures.

The items on display include Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s plane tickets for an initial research trip to Hawaii, scrapbook photos, correspondence, script pages, a piece of concept art from “Cocoon” and a letter from Rose Freeman to the producers of the new Hawaii Five-0, offering them her advice and encouragement. Also on display are a pitch document and annotated script pages from executive producer Peter Lenkov and the revival of Hawaii Five-0.

Archival materials are a kind of living road map for budding writers. From them we can glean inspiration, motivation and the knowledge that we can do it too. Writers engaging with this display can expect to find an elucidating paper trail behind 50 years of a beloved TV series. What could be more motivational when you’re walking into the front doors of a library to write your own film or television series?

So, hats off to Hawaii Five-O and special thanks to the Freeman Family and Peter M. Lenkov for loaning their materials for this exhibit. Catch it while it’s up and also check out our collection of original Hawaii Five-O scripts as part of the Leonard Freeman collection!

WGF Summer of Screenplays: Our Six Fave Tearjerkers

In this week’s Summer of Screenplays post, Library Intern Denise Curtis, recommends six films and their scripts to give your tear-producing glands a workout:

Eyes puffing up. Nose sniffling. Lump in your throat. Weird hiccup breathing thing that makes you look like a child. There’s nothing like a film that brings you to tears. I tend to be a stoic person, so it’s quite noteworthy when I connect to a film’s story and characters so much that I’m forced to fast-walk out of the theater to my car before anyone notices my smeared makeup and bloodshot eyes.

Because I am usually composed during movies, I found it difficult to compose this list of recommendations, but here are my top six. The order of the list goes from one to six with one being “Alright, cool, I only cried for 5 minutes” to six being a film where I cried so hard, I thought my eyes were going to pop due to high blood pressure. So, if you’re in the mood for a good sob session, you can read all of these screenplays in the WGF Library.

 

A Walk to Remember – Screenplay by Karen Janszen; Based on the Novel by Nicholas Sparks

This movie feels scientifically engineered to make you cry. It’s about a troubled teenage boy and a quiet teenage girl crossing paths and falling in love, complete with a heartbreaking secret that puts their relationship to the test. This is a textbook example of a tearjerker in the sense that it’s built to make you weep and it delivers.

 

The Pursuit of Happyness – Written by Steven Conrad

The Pursuit of Happyness tells the true story of Chris Gardner, a homeless single father, who fights to provide for his son by taking a competitive unpaid stockbroker internship in which one of twenty candidates will receive a job at the end. Chris and his son Chris Jr. have such a loving and pure bond, it catapults the viewer into a rollercoaster of emotions. One minute you ugly cry, the next minute you cry of pure happiness.

 

Titanic – Written by James Cameron

Every time you hear that weepy Irish music, it’s your cue to start crying. Now, this is a tear-jerker that is carefully constructed to make you sob (and even though you try not to because you are aware of this fact, you do anyway). Titanic tells the tale of a young aristocrat falling in love with a poor artist on the ill-fated R.M.S Titanic. Even though I’ve seen this film so many times, there are several scenes that convey so much despair, it’s hard not to weep. The writing is just iconic. It’s got to be on the list.

 

Never Let Me Go – Screenplay by Alex Garland; Based on the Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Warning: This film will give you such a shocking and terribly sad ending that it will feel like you got pistol-whipped in the face. Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three friends from being children in a boarding school to their adulthood, facing the challenges of love and the haunting pre-determined future that is planned for them. The film is so beautifully written and creative, it burns itself into your mind and sticks with you for days.

 

Les Miserables – Screenplay by William Nicholson & Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg & Herbert Kretzmer; From the stage musical Les Miserables Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo

When I first saw this movie, every time a character opened their mouth to sing, the audience was treated to my lightly sobbing in the back of the theater. I promise, every time a song springs forth you’ll have to hold back tears. It’s an amazing workout. Just see it. Unless you hate musicals, then maybe stay away from this one.

 

Twelve Years A Slave – Screenplay by John Ridley; Based on Twelve Years a Slave by Soloman Northup

This film was the saddest film I’ve ever seen. Just thinking about the movie for this post makes me want to cry. This film conveys so much pain and suffering. It’s the saddest movie experience I’ve had to date. I have no words to describe it. Just see it for yourself.

That’s all she wept!  – Denise

WGF Summer of Screenplays: Our Five Fave School Movies

In this week’s Summer of Screenplays post, Library Intern, Olive Sherman, reflects on her five favorite high school and college set films: 

Before there were movies for me there were Disney Channel Movies. Watching movies in my young life meant a Shrek 2 DVD or High School Musical on the TV while leaning against the costume trunk. It was really only Disney that could make the world of the teenager look magical. Where, on a school trip to Rome, the lead female protagonist finds a Roman boyfriend and sings a sparkling triumphant pop number in a convertible skirt for one hundred thousand people with a real life Italian pop star. In what was almost my earliest understanding, movies served an anticipatory if not aspirational purpose, in that the story projected on the screen often reflected a near future, a high school future, a college future, thus making it (and later movies more generally) completely fascinating.

The five selections below make up my favorite school movie scripts in the Writers Guild Foundation Library. To varying degrees of reality, comedy and drama, they describe the stories of high school and college students in ways that illuminate the components of school and what they mean to people who are growing.

Juno (2007) – Written by Diablo Cody

Juno is the first movie I ever loved, like really truly loved like I owned it. It’s not about the unplanned pregnancy, abortion, adoption or the baby… in my opinion at least. It’s about Juno MacGuff, effervescent, clever. Under her gaze, high school — in all of its threats and its palaver — becomes obvious, dynamic, lucid and meticulously appreciated by weird girls. Juno’s every line gleams with a youthful, terrestrial wisdom, rendering the script endlessly quotable. Particularly special is her relationship with her best friend Paulie Bleeker, which is among the most caring, earnest and most romantic relationships depicted on screen to date.

 

Damsels in Distress (2011) – Written by Whit Stillman

Damsels in Distress, like all of Whit Stillman’s films, is concerned first and foremost with order, and encourages a theoretical framework in which order takes precedence over contradiction and chaos. A collegiate environment is a particularly interesting setting in which to investigate such a framework seeing as both poles (dis/order) exist there simultaneously. Here, three prim pastel college girls adopt a sophomore transfer student and collectively proselytize their heathen frat boy and suicidal-depressive peers into a life that is structured and proper, meanwhile experiencing and contending with their own forms of disarray. What results is a film that probes at the question of artifice and mechanics in order. It asks if order is at all organic, and if there is a way for us humans to follow it naturally?

 

American Graffiti (1973) – Written by George Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck

From the date of its 1973 release, American Graffiti, a film set in the Summer of 1962 seems to have provoked one overwhelming declaration. “Things are different now,” a friend and I agreed last week after a screening of the movie in Santa Monica. But of course, we’re all wrong about our changing times, and the better question gets at what exactly has stayed the same? What to do with the timelessness of high school? For American Graffiti is ultimately a film about high school friendships, their tenuousness, their questionable lasting power. After graduation, is there any point to our high school friendships? If there is one thing to take away from American Graffiti’s big dance scenes in the school gym, in which Steve, Laurie and Curt drift in a sea of barely familiar 17 and 18 year-olds, it’s that we’re mostly friends with each other in high school so that we don’t have to show up to things alone. All of the relationships in the movie feel somewhat ephemeral, or at least in danger of being so, begging the question about what truly keeps us attached to people and places, more than just school and the structure of the day? What makes a relationship permanent?

 

Dear White People (2014) – Written by Justin Simien

For me what is most interesting about Dear White People is how it addresses issues of identity politics, political correctness, etc. by pointing to the complex existential problems that arise with Blackness in contemporary America, particularly through the lens of elite college campuses. In the film a new randomized housing policy puts a traditionally African American dorm in danger of white encroachment, prompting polarized protests across the student body lead mostly by Sam White, the newly elected Head of Armstrong-Parker house whose radio show “Dear White People” serves as narration throughout the movie.

The movie references a history of White fixation with Black culture and the White-manufactured stereotypes of Black life that lead to racist American folktales, practices such as blackface minstrelsy, and the several blackface college parties that have actually occurred on real college campuses. Such a fixation, as is illuminated in the film, is a form of cultural imperialism, dangerous in part because of the way it forces Blackness into the realm of performance. Through cultural appropriation, and similar acts of othering, white students attempt to coerce students of color into confusion about their racial identity (is it innate, entirely performative?), thereby rejecting their humanity, their need need to reckon a personal identity with that of the collective. But, as the movie shows, a culture can also empower a marginalized group to resist their oppressors, and unite in their own experience of difference.

 

American Teen (2008) – Written by Nanette Burstein

American Teen, a 2008 documentary, follows the lives of five high school seniors as they navigate college applications, high school romances, prom and basketball in small town Warsaw, Indiana. It initially garnered criticism for feeling sensationalized or stagey (in one poster, the five cast members pose as the Breakfast Club characters), but I’ve found that it is this exact “fake” feeling that makes the movie feel so valuable in our collective consciousness regarding high school. The movie’s real “big reveal” is that there is no mystery about high school: it’s not nice, there is a fit/no-fit mentality, information spreads, sports are important, these are all things we knew all along, but we never saw them feel so insular. American Teen reminds us that high school is basically its own little world with problems that recycle within the school, but that we are basically mostly freed from upon graduation. It’s the perfect subject for a movie, because movies do the exact same thing: they show you a new world that’s yours for a moment, then leave you with something small.

xoxo — Olive

WGF Summer of Screenplays: Our Six Fave Road Movies

I find it helpful to view a story as a jagged line between two points.

Like a map, the line is the road a character takes to get from point A to point B. That road is often demarcated by landmarks, stops, highs, lows, setbacks, and unexpected changes of plans. The events – foreseen and unforeseen – along the road are moments of personal transition and transformation. The trip can be internal and/or external. It might even be an external manifestation of an internal conflict. Either way, one thing is certain. The characters won’t be the same after the events of the story when they reach their inevitable destination. The journey, the story and the road fundamentally change a person.

I’ve heard many writers posit that, in a sense, all movies are road movies. Some movies just happen to be more road movie-ish than others. With the spirit of travel and wanderlust in the Summer air, I offer you my favorite road movies and their screenplays, all of which you can read and study in the WGF Library.

 

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) Screenplay by Robert Riskin; Based on the Short Story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is the Ford Model T of road movies. One of the most influential films of the 20th Century, it lays the pavement and establishes the tropes and characteristics that so many other road movies follow. A recently fired newspaper reporter vows to reunite a spoiled heiress with her millionaire fiancé if she promises to give him exclusive access to her story. Through traveling down the road, staying in shoddy cabins and hitchhiking rides – including one in a Ford Model T – the pair of opposites unexpectedly falls for each other (which leads to trouble when they arrive at their destination).

I love the title of this movie. It illustrates how on a casual evening, somebody you dislike can do something that changes your opinion of them. On a casual evening, you can surprise yourself by feeling compelled to do something out of character yourself. As writers, one of the most essential things we can strive to capture is the moment that it happens one night, “it” being subtle, consequential character change that causes the story to shift course.

 

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson; Based on the novel by John Steinbeck

In many of his stories and novels, John Steinbeck helps to define the very idea of the American road narrative. In THE GRAPES OF WRATH, a family of “Okies” leaves their dustbowl-ravaged home, hitting Route 66 in a beat-up homemade Sedan-truck combo. Their objective? A better life, picking fruit in California. In the driver’s seat sits Tom Joad — the second son in the Joad family — who comes home after serving jail time for a homicide. Traveling west with his folks, Tom undergoes a radical personal transformation. He begins the story a convict, but after witnessing the humanity and inhumanity of his fellow Americans on the road, he becomes a crusader for social justice. Nunally Johnson’s adapted screenplay illustrates how the American dream doesn’t always come true and that reaching your destination doesn’t always equate better life, but getting there can help a person realize their soul. It’s a great script to study for character arc.

 

PAPER MOON (1973) Screenplay by Alvin Sargent; Based on the novel by Joe David Brown

PAPER MOON feels like Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID (1921) set on the road. When a young girl’s mother is killed, a con man resolves to return her to her Aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri. Along the way, he finds the stoic, streetwise kid to be an asset to his cons and to his life. I’m including this script on my list as it’s a near perfect depiction of a father/daughter pair of opposites who quarrel with one-another, but ultimately create a familial bond on the road. Traveling in a Model A convertible, the pair finds that their destination doesn’t necessarily resolve their problems, thus they choose to keep moving along down the road. It’s a screenplay that recognizes the line doesn’t end at point B, but rather transforms into a new storyline that ventures on to other points.

 

THELMA & LOUISE (1991) Written by Callie Khouri

It’s a road movie that feels like a country music ballad. THELMA & LOUISE flips classic outlaw road movies like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and EASY RIDER on their heads. The southern-set film tells the story of a waitress and a housewife who use the road to liberate themselves from their repressed lives. Like Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, at different junctures, their eyes are opened to new skills, capabilities and a fighting spirit they never knew existed dormant within themselves. In her script, Callie Khouri proves exceptionally adept at creating setbacks for her characters. Beginning with Louise shooting a man who assaults Thelma in a honky-tonk parking lot, the friends evade capture in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird and save each other one trial and low point after another. By the conclusion of the story, the outlaws make the ultimate escape and their trip never really ends.

 

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999) Written by John Roach & Mary Sweeney

I’m including THE STRAIGHT STORY on this list because who says that characters must travel exclusively by car in road movies? Here, the protagonist, Alvin Straight (deemed too sick and infirm to drive) inventively takes to the road in a John Deere tractor to see his faraway brother who’s recently suffered a stroke. Part of his motivation for taking the trip is just to prove that he can. Like the best road movie characters, Alvin meets all manner of people on the road. While discovering small-town America, he discovers himself. The sweet, salt of the earth nature of John Roach & Mary Sweeney’s screenplay makes THE STRAIGHT STORY one of director David Lynch’s most enjoyably “straightforward” films.

 

WILD (2014) Screenplay by Nick Hornby; Based upon the book by Cheryl Strayed

I can’t conclude this list without also mentioning 2014’s WILD. Adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the script and the film challenge the very molecular structure of road movies. Like Dante climbing the mountain of Purgatory in his DIVINE COMEDY, Cheryl takes to the PCT to face her vices and demons after the death of her mother. The resultant story uses Cheryl’s brain to jump in and out of memories, feelings and hallucinations. In a culture saturated with images and narratives about male wayfaring, Wild is a road movie about the spiritual evolvement of a female vagabond.

I truly could continue to ramble on and on about road movies. If you’re looking for a few more to round out this list, I recommend CENTRAL STATION (1998), A GOOFY MOVIE (1995), THE LAST DETAIL (1973) and REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940).

Safe travels! – Lauren

WGF Summer of Screenplays: Our Five Favorite Horror Films

With warm temperatures upon us and TV fellowship deadlines passed, we’ve noticed that many of our library users are interested in reading feature screenplays. Thus, we’ve started a Summer blog series dedicated to recommending our favorite films and scripts across a myriad of genres and topics to give you inspiration for your next perusal of our shelves. This week, everyone’s favorite Library Manager Javier Barrios scares up his five favorite horror films.

Michael Gingold, managing editor and then editor-in-chief for 20 years of Fangoria Magazine (It’s okay if you’ve never heard of the publication) famously said, “1979 was the year horror became mainstream again with the premiere of Alien.” That comment seems true since a slew of notable (and not so notable) horror films followed. Their titles are recognizable even to those who’ve never actually seen them—Evil Dead, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, just to name a few.

Since the birth of film, the horror genre has risen and fallen repeatedly in popularity. It has been said that horror films are truly great when times in society aren’t so great. Today, even with hit titles such as The Conjuring, A Quiet Place and Get Out, it’s not exactly clear if horror is “back” or not, but one thing that seems constant throughout time is that a well-reviewed (and scary) horror film almost always manages to draw a crowd. With that spirit in mind, I thought I’d talk a little bit about 5 horror films that seem to fit these criteria.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer

Caligari has many claims to fame. It is considered to be the very first true horror film (Nosferatu was released two years later). The film is also credited as being the quintessential example of German Expressionism. Expressionism, with its non-realistic sets, crazy geometrical angles and painted walls and floors representing both shadows and light, is said to have paved the way for film noir in the United States. To me, the most interesting aspect of this cinematic gem is that it contains one of the first twists in cinema. Twists are a ploy used in many horror/thrillers and I won’t spoil this one by revealing it here.

The Omen (1976) – Written by David Seltzer

Taking a cue from the element that made Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist so deliciously frightful, The Omen contains one of the scariest ingredients you can possibly use in this genre—Satan. I mean, doesn’t everything evil come from or lead to hell and Satan? The scene where the nanny commits suicide—apparently commanded by Satan—is one of the creepiest and disturbing scenes in horror. But to me, the most interesting aspect of this film is that—even though the script was commissioned—writer David Seltzer is still credited with an original screenplay. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you look at almost any credit from horror films during the 60s and 70s, most of them were based on novels.

Halloween (1978) – Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

A good friend of mine claims that he watches Halloween once a year. Before I can catch myself saying, “That’s weird,” I realize I sort of do too. This same friend calls Halloween a “horror machine,” and he’s right. That’s exactly what this film is. The film doesn’t bother wasting time setting up how Michael Myers got to Haddonfield after he escaped. Somehow, he’s just able to drive a car 150 miles (having never driven a car before) to start his killing spree. But we don’t care, because from the moment he begins to stalk Laurie to the final frame of the film, we are literally at the edge of our seats. And even though this script was written some 40 years ago, it reads very modern with little description but lots of suspense.

The Lost Boys (1987) – Screenplay by Janice Fischer & James Jeremias and Jeffrey Boam; Story by Janice Fischer & James Jeremias

It’s quirky—funny at times, scary at times. It’s kind of a mess, but ultimately, it’s The Lost Boys! What more can you say? The style of this film is spectacular and if you were a teenager in 1987, you definitely went to see this film and loved it… or thought you loved it. To me, the most notable aspect of this movie is that it’s 80s nostalgia at its absolute purest. One could say, it had the look!

The Conjuring (2013) – Written by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes

Aside from it being one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen (with a surprisingly emotional scene thrown somewhere in there), what I found most impressive is how the writers, who are twin brothers, were able to keep the action and scares confined to the house. There’s a lot of talk these days about keeping things contained (I assume for budgetary reasons), and this is a great example of how to do that, but with honors. They use every nook and cranny of that big old house and managed to freak out enough people to launch a franchise.

The next time you have 10+ free hours, go ahead and watch some of these gems. Or better yet, come read the scripts right here in the library!

Sweet dreams! – Javier

5 Tips for Studying Scripts

If you’re aspiring to become a writer (or perhaps aspiring to become a better one), some of the most helpful advice you’ll ever receive sits in plain sight at the WGF Library. You just have to know where to look.

Hint: Look at the cork board directly to the right of the glass door when you exit. Tacked there, is a three-page document entitled “Notes on Writing by Gene Roddenberry.” In it, Mr. Star Trek himself lays out a simple, personal manifesto on what it takes to learn the craft and persist as a screen storyteller.

Here’s a passage:

In the early stage of my career, I began outlining every television play or motion picture or novel I had seen. In the outlines, I would try to analyze what caught my interest, why I identified with a certain person, why that person became important to me, what needs kept me intrigued, how the story built to a climax, and so on. While doing this, I continued to write my thousand words a day… and more of it crap than I care to remember. One day, some of it began to come together, and I found myself becoming able to read my own work and criticize it as if it were someone else’s.

I share this because Mr. Roddenberry has a point. That’s why we keep his wise words posted to the wall.

The Billy Wilder Reading Room reminds me of a high school dissection lab. Except here, people aren’t cutting into rats or cats, they’re dissecting scripts. They’re hunched over our Grant Tinker / MTM Writers’ Room Table reading everything from Casablanca to episodes of Atlanta, trying to catch a glimpse of the inner workings, trying to figure out what makes it tick, trying to find inspiration.

To know how to create a blueprint for what will become a movie or TV show, a screenwriter must become intimately familiar with such blueprints. A screenwriter must study scripts.

And just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there’s not really a wrong way to study a script. There are, however, a few practices you can abide by to respect the work of fellow writers, to respect the integrity of the profession and to really ensure that you gain something from the experience. When you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on a script that speaks to you (either in our library or someplace else), here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it.

1. FOCUS ON YOUR FEELINGS RATHER THAN OBSESSING OVER FORMAT

When you sit down with a script, focus on how the writer uses words and technique to make you experience the full range of emotions in the story along with the character. Why do you feel for the protagonist or another character? What is the writer doing to make you feel that way? How does the writer construct the character’s arc, step by step? How does the writer evoke a sense of atmosphere and movement with limited words? How does the writer ramp up tension to keep you fascinated as you read? What’s the obligatory scene in the movie or the emotional promise of the show that keeps you turning the page?

In the library, I sometimes notice that patrons who are writing spec scripts for certain series feel the urgent need to read the most recent season or look at scripts for very specific episodes. They feel they must emulate the format, style and wording to a T for their spec to be deemed successful. My advice is: Don’t fret so much about crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Remember to focus on how the writing of the show makes you feel (giving attention to structure and tone). You can get all the information you need from actually sitting down and watching the show and taking notes. Having access to the scripts then becomes a great bonus to get your spec looking and sounding as true to the original as possible. Your objective, above all else, should be to tell the kind of story that they tell on that series—and to tell it so well, readers feel the same way they feel when they watch the show. Your feelings (and how the writer elicits them) are the most important things to extrapolate.

2. TAKE NOTES BY HAND

Bring a notebook and pen to the library or to your couch when you sit down to watch something. When you write by hand, you slow down and retain more information. Taking notes by hand also ensures that you’re in your own thoughts rather than copying someone else’s. You’re paying attention to your gut and jotting down what grabs your attention and why.

It might sound obvious, but it needs to be said: Copying is detrimental to the craft of writing. The age-old adage is true: Immature artists copy while mature artists steal. Most of us aren’t even cognizant of doing it. When an amazing writer hands us a perfect line of action or character description, we’re sometimes apt to use the exact same words in our own scripts. Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about how a lack of original word choice can perpetuate cliches, stereotypes and harmful behaviors in the wider entertainment industry. Using someone else’s exact words dumbs writing down to the point that lots of scripts can start to feel very similar to each other. Your own words are valuable in that they are unique. Use them.

Type when you’re writing your own script. Write by hand when you’re taking notes on somebody else’s. In fact, write by hand as often as you can. It just encourages more thoughtfulness.

3. ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE!

Recently, there’s been a surge in online articles that focus on descriptions in screen and teleplays. If you’re going to quote someone else’s (by the way, unpublished) work for the fair purpose of critique, the absolute least you can do is credit the writer. This is like copying the text of a tweet rather than just re-tweeting it. Failing to acknowledge the author, completely disrespects the original thought as well as the very hard work of the person who wrote it.

Even if you don’t mean to, it seems like you’re trying to pass the thought off as your own. While this sort of behavior is rampant in our all-access, online culture, you’d hate it if somebody did this to you. It lessens the very value of thoughts and ideas. Historian Danielle McGuire puts it in better terms than I ever could in this great article for the Columbia Journalism Review.

4. DON’T EVER STOP READING AND DON’T BE AFRAID TO READ OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Read a ton. Don’t ever stop reading. The more you read, the more stories, styles and information will have an impact on you. Read scripts outside your wheelhouse and aspirations. Your genre of choice might be romantic comedy, but you can still become better at writing description by reading the Alien screenplay. Your style might be more atmosphere or action-oriented. That doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen your understanding of dialogue by reading screwball comedies or The West Wing. If you regularly read all sorts of scripts, you’ll have more tactics to draw on when you sit down to write and, as a result, you’ll have a richer voice.

5. IF YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL, SHARE

Remember that writers learn from reading and if you’re in the enviable position of having written a film or TV show that has an effect on people, share what you know. A very simple way to give mentorship to aspiring writers is, of course, to provide access to your scripts by donating them to a script library. (Wink wink.)

And if you’re eager to see the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s thoughts on writing, come visit the WGF script library sometime soon.

 

 

Super Bowl Script Cavalcade: The Wonder Years

On the surface, the Super Bowl might seem to be about football and over-the-top commercials, but anyone who’s anyone knows that it’s really about the episode of television that airs immediately following the game. TV networks have historically used the massive viewership that accompanies the most-watched event of the year in order to cultivate a greater audience for one of their new or currently running shows. This is the cultural phenomenon known as the “Super Bowl Lead-Out Program.”  

This time slot has seen everything from Lassie after the very first Super Bowl in 1967 to Julia Roberts guest-starring on Friends to a man with an active bomb stuck in his body on Grey’s Anatomy to what’s sure to be a heart-palpitation-inducing episode of This Is Us immediately after the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday.  

Studying scripts from past post-Super Bowl lead-out episodes can be a particularly illuminating experience for writers. Such scripts are littered with tactics for hooking viewers—viewers whose senses have probably been dulled by too many flashy commercials or perhaps by too much beer.

For the past 25 years or so, the trend among networks has been to air a special, high-budget episode of an already wildly successful show, but this hasn’t always been the case. From the mid 1980s to the mid 90s, networks hoped to jump-start the audience for new shows by airing pilots after the super bowl. This tactic didn’t work especially well as many of these series were cancelled sometimes within weeks of their initial debut.  

On many counts, one of the most successful pilots to air after the Super Bowl was the pilot for The Wonder Years, which premiered on ABC immediately after Super Bowl XXII in 1988, exactly thirty years ago this year.  

Written by Neal Marlens & Carol Black (The team behind Growing Pains and Ellen), the pilot for The Wonder Years has little in common with the huge guest stars or heart-rending plot machinations of post-Super Bowl TV episodes in more recent years. Rather, it’s subtle and uses nostalgia to look at the everyday upbringing of its 12-year-old protagonist. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of program that people would double over in desperation to tune into, yet in its debut and in subsequent seasons, The Wonder Years managed to accrue a passionate and dedicated viewer base.

The question is: how does a small, sentimental show without obvious high stakes or attention-grabbing trappings come to garner such a loyal following and become known as a television classic?

The pilot script opens, as nearly every episode of the show does, with an adult man named Kevin Arnold looking back on his adolescence in the 1960s.

Notice how one of the first scenes is a group of kids playing football in the street.

In 1988, this is the perfect sentiment to evoke amongst people watching the biggest football game of the year because they might be watching it with family and/or friends and reminiscingPart of how The Wonder Years draws people in is by crafting a deeply personal narrative around themes and experiences that everybody has dealt with to a certain extent.

It tells stories about family and misunderstandings between parents and their kids:

It deals with friendship in a really warm and empathetic way:

It deals with first love:

The show even deals also death. In fact, none of the aforementioned topics go un-broached even in the pilot script.  

By 1988, the boomer generation was mostly grown up and probably living in suburbia with children of their own. Most of them probably tuned into the Super Bowl that year. The Wonder Years attempts to speak directly to them by telling stories about events they would have very acute, personal memories of, such as the war in Vietnam or MLK Jr. and JFK’s assassinations. By writing specifically about these things, the writers fashion a show that people can feel belongs to them. They take this feeling of personalization one step further by wrapping their stories in the music of the time period. Nothing can “take a person back” like hearing songs from a certain era, so the feeling of nostalgia is multiplied many times over by including popular songs from the ’60s. 

Literary wisdom tells us that “the personal is universal.” By delving down into the specifics of what it was like to grow-up during the 1960s, the writers here create a story that feels poignant for anybody who’s ever grown-up. That’s their hook. That’s why their show matters to so many people.

Maybe the pilot for The Wonder Years is an exception and not the rule when it comes to Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out programming, but it deserves to be a case study in how it allows anybody regardless of the circumstances or time period of their upbringing to be able to look back on their youth from a distance and imbue certain people and events with deeper meaning and understanding. Isn’t that what storytelling is all about?

If you want to study-up on Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out episodes, get your fix in the WGF Library’s collections. We have the following: 

  • The A*Team’s “Children of Jamestown” – Written by Stephen J. Cannnell, which aired in 1983 after Super Bowl XVII 
  • The pilot episode “Gone for Goode” from Homicide: Life on the Street – Written by Paul Attanasio, which aired in 1993 after Super Bowl XXVII 
  • Friends’ “The One After the Superbowl,” (Pt. 1 Written by Jeffrey Astrof & Mike Sikowitz; Pt. 2 – Written by Michael Borkow), which aired in 1996 after Super Bowl XXX 
  • The X Files’ “Leonard Betts” – Written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz, which aired in 1997 after Super Bowl XXXI 
  • The pilot for Family Guy – Written by Seth MacFarlane, which aired in 1999 after Super Bowl XXXIII 
  • Malcolm in the Middle’s “Company Picnic” – Teleplay by Al Higgins, which aired in 2002 after Super Bowl XXXVI 
  • Grey’s Anatomy’s “It’s the End of the World,” which aired in 2006 after Super Bowl XL (and it’s equally incredible follow-up episode “As We Know It” which aired a few days later, both written by Shonda Rhimes)
  • House’s “Frozen” – Written by Liz Friedman, which aired in 2008 after Super Bowl XLII. 
  • Elementary’s “The Deductionist” – Written by Craig Sweeny & Robert Doherty, which aired in 2013 after Super Bowl XLVII

As always, continue to search our library catalog for all your script reading needs.

In Place of Beautiful – Thoughts on Introducing Female Characters

Writers, we have a problem.

The problem is “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive,” “cute”… and a few other adjectives of similar meaning.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to find a screenplay or pilot script that doesn’t introduce its female characters using one of these words.

I work in a script library. Once a patron pointed this out to me, it’s a phenomenon I can’t seem to un-see. From the greenest of beginners to the most seasoned Emmy and Oscar winners; from the very beginning of cinema to TV episodes that aired last week, it’s like we can’t write a character who identifies as female without including the qualifier that she’s good-looking. Then, some of us think we’ll get bonus points if we specify that she doesn’t realize she’s good-looking.

This cliché has been the norm for so long that many of us are apt to not even notice. (By the way, this includes many women writers and it includes me.)

Screenwriting is predicated on economy of language. Because words in scripts are used more sparingly, the ones that make it to the page really count.

Think of all the critical creative decisions on a film or TV show, i.e. who the casting department seeks out for the role, how the actor interprets the role, how the character is received, how we’re influenced by the story, etc. that all take root in the lean selection of words put forth by the writer.

As age-old Hollywood wisdom tells us, it starts on the page.

And yet, despite knowing the importance of our word selection, when it comes to our female characters, we continue to use the same careless, generic, appearance-related adjectives—words used so frequently and without purpose that they start to lose all meaning.

Aren’t we aware enough to realize that using these flimsy words in a perpetual cycle is the very genesis of how we start to limit women’s participation not only in the stories we tell, but more so in the industry that supports the telling of those stories?

Beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…

When we resort to including these words in something as pivotal as a character’s introduction, we reinforce the idea that a character’s other qualities are only worth noticing so long as she’s physically attractive. We give the impression that we couldn’t be bothered to dig up a more specific word so therefore the role must be inconsequential.

When used, “beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…” tell us that it’s in the woman’s very nature to be an object of desire—even if she’s a hugely active character, even if she’s the hero and even if it’s a story primarily about women.

By contrast, male characters’ physical appearances seem to be described less in such stock terminology. Leaving out generic descriptions of how they look enables us to see them as more unique and perhaps more autonomous.

Could it be that some of the threatening, diminishing conduct towards women in this industry (such as that which has been brought into greater light recently) actually begins in the language we include in our scripts?

If this is true—if harmful, negative behavior can begin in our words—then the change that so many of us seek can also begin in our words. Simply put, altering the narrative can literally start on the page.

As writers of all gender identities, races, religions, creeds and stripes, we get to strike the match that ignites the fire, and it can be through actions as small as re-thinking how we describe our characters.

Oh, dear writers, script readers and anyone who makes movies or TV who just happens to be reading this, I’m giving you a New Year’s Resolution. Any time you come across a description in a script that reads like this…

Or this….

… whether it exists in a friend’s, client’s or, most importantly, your own work… try to see empty words like “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive” and “cute” as the blank spaces they are, then make a mental Mad Lib for yourself. Create a space that’s waiting for you as the writer, collaborator or giver of feedback to fill it with something alive, unique and purposeful. I suspect many actors have used this technique for a long time.

Stumped about what words to put in that blank space? Here are a few ideas to jump-start your imagination.

  • First and least creatively, google some thesaurus terms. Words like “alluring,” “magnetic,” even “lovely” sound marginally more thoughtful and specific than the standard “pretty” or “attractive” even if they do allude entirely to how the character looks.

  • It’s easier to write with specificity when you’re thinking of a real person as you go along. Whether you’re picturing the actor who will play this character or a person the character is inspired by, you’re more likely to focus on things like mannerisms and behaviors rather than resorting to generalizations or stereotypes. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in the library. He imbues every character with a kind of warmth and individuality.

  • Just leave it blank. If it’s a good script, you won’t have to go into detail describing what the character looks like because what we need to know about them will come through in what they do. The pilot scripts for Insecure, Girls and Jane the Virgin describe their leading ladies minimally without ever referencing their physical appearance.

  • Tell us the character’s occupation instead. This takes focus away from what the character looks like and puts it on what the character does.

  • In instances of the dreaded, “beautiful but doesn’t know it” or “broken, but beautiful” type of introduction, think of the kind of person this character becomes by the very end of the script. What has she discovered about herself that she didn’t know before? What kind of person has she become? How has she changed? If you have trouble with this, think of some of the great female character arcs in movies and TV from Thelma of Thelma & Louise to Betty of Ugly Betty to Katherine of Hidden Figures to Daenarys of Game of Thrones. In what way do they become different over the course of the story? Those are the words to use in place of beautiful.

If you’re still worried that you’re falling into the use of an annoying cliché or that you might be perpetuating the omnipresent stereotypical or overused narrative with your descriptions, ask somebody to give you feedback on them.

… and if you don’t have anybody to give you this kind of feedback, feel free to bring your character descriptions to the WGF Library. This script librarian would be happy to give you slightly objective perspective on your character intros.

I’ll keep calling attention to this issue until empty words like beautiful, pretty, attractive and cute are replaced with a slew of dynamic adjectives and nouns and we feel empowered to become each and every one of them.

I’ll soon be back to my regular posts on cool scripts to read in the library. Now and always, keep writing!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Last Detail

While thinking about Veteran’s Day and stories about military life, I want to use this week’s Script Cavalcade to talk about one of my favorite, distinctly character-driven screenplays. Adapted by Robert Towne from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail tells the story of two Navy lifers assigned to transport a cherubic younger shipman from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to a prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The younger sailor, Larry Meadows, has been sentenced to eight years in the brig for the crime of attempting to steal forty dollars from a commanding officer’s wife’s charity box. The two petty officers, Buddusky and Mulhall, have a simple initial plan—get the kid to the pen in two days, then spend the rest of the week having fun with their per diem.

Their plans change slightly when something unexpected happens. Buddusky and Mulhall start to feel for and take a liking to their prisoner, making a point to use their limited time to help him experience everything he’ll miss out on while locked up. This road movie offers insight into America’s state of mind during the 1960s and ’70s. As the story progresses, Mulhall and Buddusky grow a conscience, slowly recognizing the absurdity of an eight-year prison sentence for such a meager crime. Still, they scrappily carry out their orders. In its own quiet and personal way, the script seems to reflect the country’s feelings of helplessness around events like Watergate and Vietnam—all of it giving way to the notion that maybe we’re all longing to escape and find freedom from the day-to-day prisons of our own making. These are big ideas and questions for a movie about three sailors shooting the breeze and going on small detours as they hop buses and trains through the Mid-Atlantic.

Robert Towne, perhaps best known for writing Chinatown, here delivers another tour-de-force script, but in this adaptation the dramatic punches are delivered through the subtle uncovering of the characters’ pain and humanity.

In this blogger’s opinion, the script for The Last Detail is just as essential a work to study as Chinatown. The screenplay offers pointed instruction on how to reveal character on the page in a way that elicits curiosity and empathy; it offers insight into how to craft sharp and meaningful character interactions and, perhaps most importantly, how to build a compelling character arc in an everyday, real-world kind of story.

The plot isn’t hinged on slaying a dragon or stopping a madman from causing destruction. There’s no major secret to uncover—no nefarious business man who impregnated his daughter—just a kid to drop off who’s awaiting punishment for a petty crime.

As the prison-type destination looms closer, questions arise. Will Buddusky and Mulhall get Meadows to Portsmouth on time, or will they somehow screw it up? Or will they choose to abandon their detail and let him go free? These questions give rise to drama and keep us engaged in the story. Every element of the script is made just a bit more poignant with the knowledge that these are Meadows’ last few days as a free man for a long time. It makes the other two sailors internally question the last time they were truly free.

As the sailors continue along down the road, sucking the nectar from the week, they get to know each other. This is the beauty of putting three disparate characters on a journey together. The script sets Buddusky and Mulhall up as chasers and mean bastards, getting us to make assumptions about them by giving them nicknames—Badass and Mule— assumptions that will be satisfyingly shattered by the script’s conclusion.

The script also makes it a point to set Meadows up as a criminal, but then shows us that he’s merely a naïve kid, who probably doesn’t deserve such a harsh sentence for a minor offense. These are good lessons in how to use names, hearsay from other characters and even uniforms to build up a persona and gradually chip away at it until we see the truth that’s underneath. And honestly, what’s more compelling than that when reading a script or watching a film?

Towne ensures that his scenes pop by giving his sailors contrasting personalities and different ways of handling situations. In navigating to Portsmouth, Buddusky is a troublemaker and button-pusher, giving Mulhall the task of constantly having to play defense and rein him in. Similarly, Buddusky is always trying to provoke and entertain the shy and contained Meadows. Automatically, the scenes are bubbling with playable conflict that deftly and discreetly moves the story forward while also giving the actors much to sink their teeth into. It’s very interesting to chart Meadows character arc from frightened kid to attempting to be more belligerent and manly like Buddusky.

Notice that no expletive goes unspoken. Towne makes sure these sailors talk like sailors, citing in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind that people resort to cursing when they feel powerless.

Most screenwriting wisdom compels us to create heroes and heroines who stand up for what they believe in no matter how gut-wrenching the personal cost to them. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from The Last Detail is that it can be just as wrenching a dramatic choice to have a character know or feel they ought to stand up or do something, but then not do it, perhaps choosing their professional, personal or societal obligations over what their heart or conscience tells them is right. If we’re being honest, that’s the choice most of us would probably make anyway.

What we’re left with, then, like Buddusky and Mulhall, is an aching sense of regret, a sensation familiar to anybody who’s ever lived a life.

Why write or make a movie if not to elicit such a universal feeling?

If you want to learn more about Robert Towne, watch our Writer Speaks Oral History interview with him here. It’s also currently playing on the monitors outside the library.

Find out more about the Writer’s Guild Foundations Veterans Writing Project and how you can support it right here.

If it’s military stories you’re interested in, check out the WGF Library catalog. We have everything from Platoon to Hacksaw Ridge to scripts from CBS’s recent hit Seal Team.

Halloween Script Cavalcade: The Munsters

The following anecdote is from a development / pitch document for The Munsters (1964):

In honor of Halloween, I’m here to make a different kind of pitch for The Munsters. The WGF Archive recently processed a bounty of scripts and materials relating to the zany, ghoulish family. Most of this collection hails from Norm Liebmann who is credited with developing the show alongside his writing partner Ed Haas and creators Allan Burns & Chris Hayward. The Munsters collection is expansive and features many useful highlights like the aforementioned pitch document—items that will appeal to writers of all stripes as well as TV history fans and scholars.

Newspaper clippings from the collection tell us that The Munsters premiered on CBS the very same week in September as another show about a strange, macabre family living in a large and ominous house at the end of a suburban, neighborhood street. That other show was, of course, The Addams Family, which premiered on ABC. As it happens, Bewitched also made its series premiere that same fateful week. It might seem strange or coincidental for three shows of similar ilk and like themes to hit television airwaves within mere days of each other.

David Levy, creator of the TV Addams Family, didn’t seem to think so. In a Los Angeles Times article dated August 11th, 1964, Levy, a former head of programming at NBC, states that:

Ideas float like confetti over Madison Ave. and it is not surprising that when the time is right for a particular type of show that two networks might decide to go with it.

The 1960s in America became a time of counterculture and unprecedented pushes for civil rights. We can see this reflected in shows about unconventional families trying to assimilate with “normal” people in the suburbs. Indeed, the Munsters, the Addams, or Samantha Stephens become stand-ins for any group of people who might feel marginalized or on the outs in American society or family life, calling ideas of normalcy and conformity into question and possibly making an argument for wider acceptance.

In addition to commentary, the idea of monsters or a slightly off-beat, deathy family trying to interact with or fit in with regular folks produces a lot of comedy.

Shows like The Munsters gain legs on the strength of their concepts. What makes the WGF Archives’ Munsters collection so informative is that those who mine it for information and inspiration can see how a show evolves from mere idea to full-fledged television program—how it moves from a successful pitch to a TV microcosm that fans are able to relate to and take part in.

Munsters Concept Illustration, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Liebmann & Haas put the concept across in such a cogent way on paper that one visualizes the series and how it will work on screen from week to week. Furthermore, most of the episodes from the show’s two-season run, are available as outlines, step outlines, rough drafts and final drafts so one can trace the full process of an episode’s writing. This kind of information can be helpful even to writers working in today’s current streaming atmosphere.

It’s particularly fascinating to examine the evolution of certain jokes within an episode. Having written for such late night and variety show luminaries as Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, Liebmann & Haas are quintessential joke masters with endless ideas brought forth onto the page and even more refinements. (See my earlier blog post about Liebmann’s contributions to The Roast of Bette Davis here).

No part of the writing and show-creating process is spared from this collection. In addition to scripts, there’s correspondence and notes from the show’s other writer/producers Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher who, prior to joining The Munsters, produced Amos ‘n Andy and Leave It to Beaver. Because Universal Studios produced The Munsters, the show had almost unfettered access to Universal’s most well-known scary creatures. This is the reason the show was able to include characters like Herman molded on Frankenstein or Grandpa molded on Dracula. In fact, the recognizability of such characters is a likely part of the show’s appeal.

Munsters Promotional Material, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Norm Liebmann took great care to save most of his writing-related documents. The Munsters materials shine a light on everything from how the writers negotiated their contracts to how early Fred Gwynne had to be in his make-up chair every day on set. There’s even fun paraphernalia from the show’s fan clubs like this membership card from the The Jeepers Keepers Fan Club.

Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Library

It’s an ideal collection for anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of a classic sitcom’s evolution from script to screen. For more information on this collection and others available in the WGF Archive, please visit our website.

And if you’re looking for other spooky fair to get you in the mood for Halloween, try checking out some scripts from the library’s collection of features. We recommend:

  • John Carpenter‘s script for Halloween
  • Hocus Pocus written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert
  • Charles Schultz‘s dialogue script for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown