Actor Moments

Note: This post is written by Howard Allen, founder of CoyoteMoon Films and ScriptDoctor.


When I teach Screenwriting and work with my clients at ScriptDoctor, I tell them:

"With me you are getting a professional actor and director who is also a script analyst. Unlike any other script analyst I’ve met or read, my approach to writing and revision is inside out rather than outside in. Why? Because that’s what a good actor or director will look for in your script. This is not just the text, it’s the structures and the landscape you create in the Subtext that finally make a script pop, make it fly and make it sell to actors and directors. They look at how dynamic and exciting your story is in the Subtext -- not in how well you have applied some formulaic template for story to your script from the outside in."

In every action line, in every dialogue exchange, how much more is going on there than you see on the page? Directors and actors create the moment-by-moment reality of your screenplay and they are looking to see if you use Subtext. What are the characters trying to do that's not obviously being said? I recommend screenwriters take an acting class just to see how much is possible.

Aaron Sorkin was asked about writing The Social Network last year in Script Magazine. He liked the 14-page book proposal from Ben Mezrich’s publishers that he had a chance to read. He wanted in.

"Sorkin goes on to admit, “I didn’t know anything about Facebook any more than I know about a carburetor: I’ve heard the term, but I couldn’t open the hood of my car and point to it or tell you what it does.”

What drew him to the tale was its universal qualities. “The irony of it is, you could tell pretty much the same story about the invention of a really great toaster.

The story is as old as storytelling itself: friendship and loyalty. Jealousy and power. [emphasis added] Things Aeschylus or Shakespeare would have written about, or Paddy Chayefsky would have written about just a generation ago. Fortunately, none of them was available, so I got the job.”

I think his script did pretty well, don't you? It's because he works in the boldface areas above, in the Subtext: where directors and actors can make great Actor Moments out of the spaces he's given them in the script.


Book or Film? - LR Simon

This post is the third in a series of CoyoteMoon Films people answering the question:

If a movie is being made from a book, do you make a point of reading the book first, or do you avoid reading the book before seeing the film?

I used to make sure to read books before seeing the movies based on them. I thought that reading the book would give me insight into the story and characters that I might not get just from the movie. Unfortunately, this also meant that I was unable to judge the movie on its own terms—there was always the book, informing me of subtle points that didn’t make it to the screen, or coloring my opinion of an actor’s performance.

I also thought that the movie would show me what someone else thought was important in the book. Watch the many adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and you’ll see several similar but different stories, some of which exclude important details. The Laurence Olivier version (from 1940), for example, omits Wickham’s attempt to elope with Darcy’s sister, a decision that probably is due to the Production Code; this omission, however, renders Wickham an almost decent fellow, and eliminates any reason Elizabeth has for changing her opinion of him or of Darcy.

Another reason I waited until after reading the book to see the movie is that I didn’t want the movie to spoil the ending of the book. I always thought it was worse to spoil the book. As I’ve matured, both as a filmgoer and as a novel reader, I’ve learned that a good story told well can stand up not only to multiple retellings, but also to having its secrets spilled. Return of the Jedi was spoiled for me just days before I saw it, but I don’t think my knowledge of the nature of Luke and Leia’s relationship diminished my opinion of the film (after all, that had nothing to do with the Ewoks). The Sixth Sense was spoiled for me within an hour of my seeing it, but I don’t think that my prior knowledge of that film’s big twist affected my ability to judge the film’s quality. I suppose I should finally get around to seeing The Crying Game.

Lately I’ve stopped trying to make sure to read the book first, in part because I have a to-read list that’s several miles long, but also because some books seem to be written with the eventual film adaptation in mind. Some writers seem able to combine cinematic elements with internal monologue, allowing filmmakers to see how the book can be made into film, while still giving the reader a satisfying experience. Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River featured scenes that seemed to have been written from a camera’s perspective, and these cinematic scenes play in the film essentially as they read on the page. But Lehane gives his book enough literary meat to keep it from reading like an early draft of a novelized screenplay. Some other writers don’t seem to possess that skill.

I’ve also found that reading a book can affect my decision to see any film based on it. For example, I found reading The Da Vinci Code to be a sufficient reason not to read other books by Dan Brown nor to see any film based on one of his books. He is no Umberto Eco. I find it doubtful that any of the wonderful film people associated with the films based on Brown’s books (and I have nothing by admiration for Ron Howard and Tom Hanks) could elevate that material without changing it wholesale, but if they made such drastic changes to the source, they’d lose the films’ built-in audience.

Book or Film? - Csenge Molnar

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts written by CoyoteMoon Films people answering the question:

If a movie is being made from a book, do you make a point of reading the book first, or do you avoid reading the book before seeing the film?

I typically see the movie before reading the book. I don't have a particular reason why, just mostly because before the movie comes out, all copies of the book it is based on are usually checked out. So it's better to wait until the 'hype' has died down. Another reason is that if the movie is interesting enough, I like to see/read what it was based off of.

--Csenge Molnar


Book or Film?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts from CoyoteMoon Films people about how they approach the movie-going experience.

If a movie is being made from a book, do you make a point of reading the book first, or do you avoid reading the book before seeing the film? Why?

I do tend to try to read the book first. In the instance of the Hunger Games books I really want to finish the series before the movies come out. I generally do this because I feel that movies have a tendency to leave out important elements. They might not seem important at the time, but they make the story better in the long run. An example of this is in the movie Watchmen. The character Rorschach is a crucial character to the comic and he is written so clearly that he is undeniably the POV character. In the comic they go much more into his childhood, his life as an outsider and the reason his costume is so important to him. All that description might have seem unnecessary in the filmmaking process, but it was actually needed to complete the character. It was unclear at times who the POV character was in the film version and that made the movie long and confusing. Don't get me wrong, I think that the movie was good in its own right, but the characters just felt empty.

This is however not always the case. Very occasionally you run across a movie that is exponentially better than the book. Examples of this would be Dolores Claiborne, Stand By Me (The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption. Had I only read the books I don't think I would have run right out to see the movies. This just proves that if you can get the right people behind a movie they can make cinematic magic out of a mediocre script/novel.

Teresa Skibinski


Meet the Crew

This is the first in a series of posts introducing members of the crew on CoyoteMoon Films' latest production, the short film The Three O'Clock, written by Michael Grady and directed by Howard Allen.

L R Simon, Still Photographer and Craft Services
Photograph by Kathleen Gradillas

I worked previously as a Production Assistant on CoyoteMoon Films' first short, Se Habla Español, so many of the lessons I learned on that film were reinforced or expanded on with The Three O'Clock. Some of those lessons apply to businesses other than film or art, such as: there is no job description--if something needs to be done and you're available to do it, then do it, and take pride in doing it. You build your reputation with every job and every task.

Because I documented both pre- and post-production on The Three O'Clock, I became much more aware of how important pre-production is than I was before. Watch the end credits roll on any film and you know that film-making requires teamwork and organization. The director needs to visit the set several times, and it helps to have producers and cinematographers and sound supervisors and other crew visit the set before production, especially if the director is relatively new to filmmaking. If everyone is aware of the issues with the set (for example, surfaces that might reflect equipment in the shot or ambient sounds from the air conditioner), then it's easier to prepare for those issues ahead of time. Time taken in pre-production is time saved on the set.

Working in Craft Services, I also saw first-hand that good food can make for a happy set, and happy sets seem to function better than gloomy or grumpy sets. After good story and good people who want to tell the story to the best of their abilities, good food may be one of the most important factors in ensuring a happy set. We saw to it that fresh fruit was available all day every day, along with breads, yogurt, snacks and drinks, and we made substantive and healthful lunches. We had regular traffic in the kitchen, despite the fact that the kitchen and the set were on different floors, and sound considerations made it inconvenient to leave the set for a snack.

I look forward to working on CoyoteMoon Films' next production.


Howard Allen at IFP Phoenix

On August 18, Howard Allen will be speaking at IFP Phoenix's Screenwriters Group. The event will be held at the IFP Offices in Phoenix at 1700 North 7th Avenue (Suite 250) and is free of charge.

Howard will discuss several major screenwriting tools, including Dramatic Irony, Dramatic Action, Triangularity, and of course, Subtext, using the movie Juno for examples of each. He will also take questions about writing screenplays that are good and can be sold.

Be sure to check out IFP Phoenix's site on the event for more details.