Gerald Hanks Filmography

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Concept vs. Character, or What a Talking Raccoon and a Walking Tree Taught Me About Screenwriting


A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on some panels at the Comicpalooza convention in Houston. I moderated a horror writing panel with a number of accomplished writers, including Joe  R. Lansdale. The next day, I was on a screenwriting panel with Joe's son, Keith. These two gentlemen provided a wealth of information and advice to aspiring screenwriters about the importance of characterization.

As I walked the convention floor, I also talked to a number of writers who were displaying their books. When I would talk to most of these writers, they would pitch their books based on the concept of their story world, rather than the struggles of their characters within those worlds. This pitching approached turned me off, as I'm sure it did to other convention-goers, based on the number of copies left on the authors' tables.

As I've said in previous posts, audiences fall in love with characters, not ideas. The biggest example of the importance of characters over concepts often come from the genres that are also the most in love with its concepts: sci-fi and fantasy.


The examples I use in my teaching and consulting work are the characters of Rocket Raccoon and Groot from Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy films. On paper, the concepts of these characters are so absurd as to be laughable.

  • A three-foot-tall talking raccoon with a gun fetish? 
  • An eight-foot-tall walking tree that says the same three words?

If any writer were to pitch these characters in almost any venue, be it film, novel, or TV series, they would likely be laughed out of the room.

So why did it work? Why do millions of people love these characters, even if they aren't always likable?

The main reason is that writer/director James Gunn treated Rocket and Groot like characters, and not like caricatures. In the first film, he showed Rocket's pain and anger at his transformation, which he hides behind his false bravado. He showed that Groot was a loyal friend and slow to anger, until he was pushed into action and made the choice to sacrifice himself to save his friends.


At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the films of the DC Extended Universe, most notably “Batman v.Superman: Dawn of Justice”. On paper, these concepts are a no-brainer: take the most recognizable superheroes in the world, pit them against each other, and then put them against a foe so tough that they have to work together to defeat it.

Simple, right? So how could two award-winning writers in Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Dark Knight Trilogy) get it so wrong? One of the points of failure in the story was that they failed to make the main characters relatable. Both heroes (and their alter egos) come across as aloof and disconnected from their world, and from the audience, despite their “maternal connection” to each other.

This infatuation with concept over characterization is a major reason why writers, especially writers of genre fiction, struggle to build and audience. As I wrote in my first post, no one cares about an “original idea” or “ground-breaking concept” until they care about the characters. Strong, well-developed characters can save a flimsy premise, but a great premise won't save flimsy characters.

If you need help in creating strong characters for your screenplay, novel, or comic book concept, contact us at Story Into Screenplay. Whether you have the seed of an idea, or a fully-completed feature-length script, Story Into Screenplay can help. We offer script consultation, coverage reports, and rewrite services to ensure that your screenplay is ready for the most discerning reader.

You can reach us by email at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send us a message on our Facebook page.



Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Room, The Disaster Artist, and The Joy of Being Terrible

Theatrical Poster for
The Room

I realize I'm late to the party, but I recently had the “pleasure” of watching The Room in a double feature with The Disaster Artist, the adaptation of actor Greg Sestero's book about the making of the infamous film.

Since The Room came out and became a cult hit (in spite of itself), many screenwriters have asked, “How does a piece of garbage like that get made, when I can't even get anyone to look at my scripts?”

The answer is simple. The Room was nothing short of a vanity project for writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. He reportedly poured more than $6 million into the project in 2002, which comes out to nearly $8.5 million in 2018 dollars.

Aside from the amateurish acting, the inconsistent direction, and the excruciating love scenes, one of the hallmarks of The Room was its poor script. This attempt at a screenplay featured characters whose relationships were unclear, characters who appeared for the first time past the halfway point, and storylines that were picked up and dropped with no explanation.

If The Room was a train wreck, then The Disaster Artist shows how the engineer and the driver got together to drive the train straight off the rails. The film shows Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) as a modern-day Don Quixote, with Sestero (Dave Franco) as his Sancho Panza, both of them tilting at the windmill known as “Hollywood Stardom”.

Where The Room is excruciating to watch, The Disaster Artist is oddly inspiring. It shows how someone with no talent, no experience, and a complete unwillingness to work with others can succeed if they're stubborn enough. (Insert contemporary political reference here.)

In its own way, The Disaster Artist parallels one of the finest films of all time, and my personal favorite to use as a teaching tool: Rocky. In both films, a lead character with an unrecognizable accent attempts to reach the heights of their profession, assembles a rag-tag crew, and achieves their dreams, but not in the way that they had anticipated.

The success of Rocky, the cult status of The Room, and the Academy Award-nominated screenplay of The Disaster Artist shows that audiences love a great underdog story. The lesson to take away from the successes of these three films is simple: Don't be afraid to be terrible.

Your ideas suck. Your writing is unreadable. Your dialogue sounds like it's coming from an alien who's just recently learned the concept of social interaction. Your characters have the depth of wet tissue paper. Your story has the frenetic pace of a tranquilized sloth.

Your first draft will suck. Get used to it.

Your rewrites will feel like a never-ending root canal in your brain. Them's the breaks.

Every reader will find something new and different to hate about your script. Just accept it.

You will hate your script, your characters, and your life. You will become a miserable excuse for a human being.

How's that for motivation?

As the old workplace poster says, “You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.”

As a writer, you have to be crazy just to get started. You have imaginary conversations in your head with people who don't exist. Not only that, you expect companies to pay millions of dollars and employ dozens of people to take your writing from the page to the screen. Then, you expect people to pay up to $15 a ticket to watch what you wrote. If that's not crazy, then what is?

Was Tommy Wiseau crazy? By nearly every objective measure, he was, to use the clinical terms, nuttier than a fruitcake. But did he succeed? He made his movie, his way, with his script. A decade and a half later, people are still watching it, talking about it, and (GASP!) blogging about it.

So enjoy writing your terrible script. Have fun pounding your pile of garbage into something resembling a usable screenplay. Make party hats out of those harsh coverage reports and form rejection letters.

Tell your story. Write your script. Get it made. Tilt at those windmills.

Because you're the only one who can.

*****
If you need help in improving your “terrible” script, Story Into Screenplay can help. We offer script consultations, coverage reports, and expert advice on how to hone your screenplay. Contact us at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send us a message on our Facebook page.

*****
Gerald Hanks of Story Into Screenplay will be appearing at the Comicpalooza sci-fi convention again this year. The convention will be held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, from Friday, May 25, to Sunday, May 27.

Gerald will be on two panels:

Saturday 5/26
1:30 - 2:30pm
Horror for the 21st Century: Film and Literature

Sunday 5/27
3:00 - 4:00pm
No Money, No Problem - Screenwriting for Low Budget Filmmaking

We'll be posting more details and panels as they become available.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Force Awakens vs. The Last Jedi: Do Characters Serve The Plot, or Vice Versa?



NOTE: This article will contains LOTS OF SPOILERS for The Last Jedi.

At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finishes her quest to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and hand him his lightsaber. The music swells, and the audience awaits Luke's reaction to encountering his old weapon and, in many ways, his old life.

At the beginning of The Last Jedi, Luke takes the weapon from Rey, and casually tosses it over his shoulder like an old gum wrapper.

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) worships Darth Vader, even crafting a masked helmet to resemble his idol

In The Last Jedi, Ren smashes the helmet and shows his true (scarred) face throughout the rest of the film.

In so many moments, The Last Jedi takes many of the premises built in The Force Awakens, as well as those from many of the previous Star Wars films, and tosses them away as casually as Luke tossed away his “laser sword”.

The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson was the first director of a Star Wars film to also write the script since George Lucas did double duty with the “prequel” trilogy. Die-hard Star Wars fans panned the prequels, and have voiced their disapproval of The Last Jedi over The Force Awakens.

The crucial difference between Lucas' and Johnson's approaches stem from their approaches to plot vs. character. Lucas primarily used the characters as instruments for his plots, specifically his ideas on the “hero's journey” and conflicts between fathers and sons (or mentors and students). Johnson gives the characters more agency, making for a looser and less structured story.

While many fans may complain about the more chaotic nature of The Last Jedi over the films of the “classic” trilogy, writers should keep in mind that the ability to give characters agency and put them into conflict will be what drives your story.

At nearly every turn, Johnson gives both old and new characters power over their “destiny”, including the power to make some boneheaded mistakes.
  • The brave X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) believes that there is a plot against the remnants of the Resistance, so he organizes a mutiny. He fails to realize his mistake until General Leia Organa Solo (Carrie Fisher) forces her way onto the bridge and shoots him with a stun blaster.
  • The revered hero Finn (John Boyega) attempts to desert the Resistance, until he gets caught by Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran).
  • Even the legendary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker makes mistakes. He lets his bitterness over both his own failures as a teacher and those of the Jedi Order throughout history prevent him from teaching Rey how to use her new-found powers.

The Last Jedi had a lot of fan expectations to meet. Fans wanted to see their heroes victorious, the villains vanquished, and their hopes fulfilled. Instead, they got a film in which the characters were more developed than in previous films (despite so many interwoven storylines), but those characters did not meet the fans' expectations.

Writers should always find a way to give their characters more power over their stories. When the plot serves the characters, the story is always fuller, more exciting, and more relatable. When the characters serve the plot, the story is flatter and the characters are puppets. The audience watches the strings, rather than the story itself.

If you have ideas or concepts and want to learn more about how to turn those ideas into marketable scripts, Story Into Screenplay can help. We work with aspiring screenwriters and show them how to create strong characters, develop well-crafted stories, and deliver marketable scripts that will get you noticed.

If you already have a script, Story Into Screenplay also offers script reading and critique services. We can read your script and deliver a detailed coverage report that analyzes your script's characterization, action, dialogue, pacing, and other aspects.

For more information, sample reports, and a rate sheet of our services, please contact us at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send a message to our Facebook page.


Good luck, and May The Force Be With You!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Most Important Class Any Writer Can Take


Rookie writers have asked me about the best books, classes, and seminars they can use to turn themselves into better writers. While I have a shelf full of books (soon to include my own current work in progress) and have attended numerous classes and seminars, I can attest that the one class that shaped my approach to writing was a class that had little to do with putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

The most important class a writer can take isn't a writing class at all.

It's an acting class.

“But I don't want to be an actor,” the Rookie says. “I want to be a writer. I want to sit in my lonely office and spin stories out of whole cloth, while keeping my interactions with other human beings to an absolute minimum.”

My argument is that, if you want to be a writer, you have to create characters than engage an audience. If you're going to be a screenwriter or a playwright, you have to create characters that actors can use to deliver performances that resonate with an audience.

While I'm far from the first writing blogger to push writers into taking acting classes, I've always maintained that plot, structure, theme, and message should be used as tools to deliver stories about characters. The VOTE Method I teach is adapted from an acting class I took in college, and I've used it ever since to help me be a better writer.

No More Meat Puppets
The biggest mistake most rookie writers make is that they view their stories the other way around. Characters are not mouthpieces. Actors are not meat puppets. Writers should not use them to deliver their sermons on the human condition. When a rookie writer takes this approach, the readers, the actors, and the audience will see through the writer's sanctimony and self-satisfaction.

The best way to avoid this “writer-first” mentality is for writers to put themselves in the actor's shoes. Scene work can also help writers understand the importance of every character in their work. Many rookie writers view the secondary characters as tools to serve their main character's story. When a you work through a scene playing a secondary character, you'll understand that failing to give these characters adequate substance gives the actor too little to do, which leads to a poor or disengaged performance.

Dispel Doubts About Dialogue
One of the major difficulties that rookie writers encounter comes from writing dialogue. They either try to make it sound “natural” or they use it to deliver exposition or “on the nose” observations. Acting classes can teach writers that each line of dialogue must serve one of two purposes:

1. Reveal an aspect of the character
2. Move the story forward

Whey you attempt to learn dialogue in an acting class, you can tell when the lines serve either or both of these purposes or when it sounds stiff or unnatural.

Conflict and Chaos
In real life, most of us try to avoid conflict. In writing, you should seek it out. When you take an acting class, you can see the power that conflict between characters has on creating a memorable scene. When you take part in a scene as an actor, you can feel what that character feels, what fuels their desires, what stands in their way, ans what they'll do to get what they want, all of which will make you a better writer.

Writers ARE Actors
A core requirement of your job as a writer is to deliver characters that will keep an audience riveted to the page, the stage, or the screen. The writing process is all about inhabiting those characters' lives, feeling their experiences, and bringing them to life.

In all of these senses, the writer must serve as an actor for every single character. When a writer understand the process by which an actor inhabits a character, the writer can apply that process into their own methods. From there, character arcs become tools by which the writer delivers a strong character for the actor to portray and a powerful experience for the audience to follow.

Get Help From Story Into Screenplay
If you have a script and you would like a professional-style coverage report, let Story Into Screenplay help. A former screenplay contest judge will evaluate your script and write up a report that will evaluate factors such as character, plot, action, dialogue, and much more.

For a sample report and a rate sheet, email storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send a direct message through the SIS Facebook page.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Screenwriting With The VOTE Method: Wonder Woman

The latest entry into the superhero movie genre, Warner Brothers' Wonder Woman, works so well on so many levels. Fans of the character get to see an iconic figure brought to life by Patty Jenkins' direction, Gal Gadot's performance, and Allen Heinberg's screenplay.

Those audience members who have never picked up a comic book will enjoy Diana's journey from a naïve new arrival into “Man's World” to a powerful source of inspiration for those around her. The supporting characters are also well-developed, despite the fact that the true antagonist remains a mystery until the climax.

One of the most appealing parts of superhero “origin stories” is how they fit into the VOTE template, and the story of Diana of Themyscira is no exception. Here's an illustration of how three of the major characters in Wonder Woman get their own VOTE:

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Diana (Wonder Woman)
Victory:
  • She wants to find and kill Ares.
Obstacles:
  • She doesn't know where to look.
  • Her involvement with Steve Trevor and his missions both complements and compromises her own goals. 
  • Her innocence about how “Man's World” works leads her into dangerous situations.
Tactics:
  • She charges across “No Man's Land” into heavy machine gun fire.
  • She barges into high-level meetings and berates Allied leaders. 
  • She follows Steve when his mission works along with hers, then disregards or fights him when he gets in her way.
Energy:
  • She needs to fulfill what she sees as her mission in life: to bring peace and understanding to the wider world.


Steve Trevor
Victory:
  • He wants to stop Luttendorf and Dr. Poison from launching their new weapon.
Obstacles:
  • Diana's headstrong tactics and naïvete compromise his mission as an undercover agent and his standing with his superiors.
  • His superior officer, Sir Patrick, orders him to stop his mission for fear of endangering the upcoming armistice. 
  • He's running out of time before the upcoming German gas attack.
Tactics:
  • He keeps Diana close so that he can prevent her from endangering his mission.
  • He disobeys orders and rounds up a ragtag crew to take out the gas factory.
  • He sneaks into Luttendorf's gala and attempts to seduce Dr. Poison.
Energy:
  • He needs to fulfill his mission: stop the war and bring and end to the suffering.

General Erich Ludendorf
Victory:
  • He wants to win the war for Germany with a final gas attack.
Obstacles:
  • Dr. Poison's formula isn't ready yet.
  • Allied troops are closing in on his position.
  • The politicians and generals are in the process of negotiating for an armistice.
Tactics:
  • He orders a gas attack on a nearby village.
  • He takes Dr. Poison's “steroid gas” to boost his energy and strength.
  • He sets up a gas attack on the generals negotiating the armistice.
Energy:
  • He needs to prove that he's right and the generals, politicians, and the Kaiser are wrong in seeking the armistice.
As an exercise, you can try to map the VOTE structure onto other characters in the film, including Hippolyta, Antiope, Ares, and Etta Candy. This exercise can show you the strengths of this simple system and how it can help you create strong, memorable characters in your scripts.

If you need help with your scripts, Story Into Screenplay offers a wide range of services. You can ask about our one-on-one consulting, script coverage reports, and script writing seminars.

Contact us at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send a message through our Facebook page.

Good luck and keep writing!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Kill Basil Exposition

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the Comicpalooza Sci-Fi and Pop Culture Convention in Houston. I met a number of wonderfully talented writers, including C. Robert Cargill, the screenwriter for Marvel's Doctor Strange and the Sinister horror film series.

One of the things I encountered is that many writers, especially genre writers, attempt to sell their works based on their “high concept”. While the high concept makes for a great tool for pitching a script, it isn't the best place to start telling a story.

The biggest problem with a high concept is that it requires some explanation as to how the world works. In genre fiction, such as sci-fi and fantasy, the audience needs to understand how the technology works or the “rules of magic” in this setting. These scenes can require long stretches of exposition that can slow down your story and make the reader skim through these intricate details.

When you present these details in a novel, the reader will gloss over the pages until they get to the action. When you try in in a screenplay, the reader will toss the script and move on to the next package in the slush pile.

Techno-Babble-On


One of my favorite shows of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was infamous for its conference room scenes filled with “techno-babble”. These scenes involved attempts to explain how the crew would apply 24th-Century technology to escape that week's threat to the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The Austin Powers movies even hung a lampshade on this tired trope with the character “Basil Exposition” (Michael York). Basil would explain the latest mission to Austin Powers,

With only a hundred pages (give or take a few) to tell your story in a feature-length script, you don't have time for techno-babble or Basil Exposition to explain your script's world. So how do you explain the rules of your world...without explaining the rules?

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't


One way to show how the rules work is to show what happens to your characters when they follow the rules.

  • What rewards do they receive for using your future-world's advanced technology according to the approved methods? 
  • What does it cost them to comply with the laws of magic in your fantasy setting? 

When you show the benefits and costs of following the rules, you get the reader to invest in both the characters and the rules of their world.

You can also use the flip side of that coin and show what happens when they break the rules. The most effective way to show the consequences is to place your characters in situations where they stand to lose something vital to them in either case.

For example, if your character follows the rules, a loved one dies. If they break the rules, the loved one lives, but the character faces a life-threatening punishment. When you make the stakes for breaking the rules high enough, the reader will sit on the edge of their seat waiting to find out which way they go.

Attitude Problem


Another way to draw the audience into the rules of your world is to show your character's attitudes toward those rules, especially if that character has a cynical or dismissive attitude toward those rules. While voice-over narration can be a sign of lazy writing in most cases, a few instances in classic modern films use it to great effect.

  • The classic “Rules” speech in Fight Club not only let Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) establish the rules of his underground club, it also reveals his attitudes toward the rules of the mundane world. 
  • The weary tone of Rick Deckard's (Harrison Ford) narration in Blade Runner gives the audience a backstory on the replicants, while also revealing his cynicism toward his job.


Rules Are Made To Be Broken


Readers, agents, producers, and actors all relate to characters before they relate to rules. You can get your audience to understand the rules by showing how they tie to the character's VOTE:


  • How do the rules help or prevent the character from achieving their Victory?
  • How do the rules create Obstacles that stand in the character's way?
  • How does the character break or manipulate the rules as part of their Tactics?
  • What Energy drives the character into conflict with the rules?


These tools can help you maintain the reader's interest, reveal aspects of your characters, and keep the story moving forward.

Let Story Into Screenplay Help You With Your Story


If you need help in explaining the rules of your story world in ways that will grab a reader's attention, let Story Into Screenplay help you. We offer coverage reports, script notes, and one-on-one consulting services. We also offer seminars for writers' groups, both online and in person.

For more information, contact Story Into Screenplay at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com. You can also keep up with Story Into Screenplay through our Facebook page.

Monday, February 27, 2017

What Do Moonlight's Oscar Wins Mean For Aspiring Screenwriters?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have not yet seen Moonlight. The only Best Picture nominees I saw were Lion and La La Land, two wonderful films, but I will try to see Moonlight at the earliest opportunity and post a VOTE breakdown when I get the chance.

Putting aside the blunder during the Best Picture award presentation, the multiple Oscar wins (including for Best Adapted Screenplay) for Moonlight carries some serious meanings for aspiring screenwriters.

The success of this film during awards season shows how so many rookie writers ask themselves the wrong questions. In too many cases, writers new to the craft ask themselves, “Is this hot in the marketplace?” or “Will this sell to a big studio?” or “Will this get me an agent?”

As a screenwriter, the questions you ask yourself as you write your story should revolve more around the story and less around the marketing hype that propels the Hollywood machine. In fact, every part of this script and its process sets itself up in direct opposition to the “conventional wisdom” of the marketplace.


  • The script tracks Chiron through three periods of his life (early teens, mid-teens, early twenties), rather than limiting the scope to a few days or weeks.
  • The main character is a “double minority” (African-American and homosexual), not exactly a “hot seller” in the traditional sense.
  • The script is based on an unknown, unpublished, unproduced play written by a drama student, with no “pre-sold” audience who would be familiar with the material and rush out to buy tickets.
  • Co-writer/director Barry Jenkins had only one other feature-length screenplay credit, 2008's Medicine for Melancholy.
  • Jenkins and co-writer/playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney were based in Miami, more than two thousand miles away from the Hollywood establishment.


So how does this little film, with a largely unknown cast and a budget of under $2 million, beat out the betting favorite (La La Land), the redemption story (Hacksaw Ridge), the big-budget sci-fi epic (Arrival) and the gritty modern western (Hell or High Water)?

In the immortal words of Alfred Hitchcock (who never won an Oscar in his long and illustrious career), “To make a great film, you need three things: the script, the script, and the script.”

Tell your story. Tell it as well as you possibly can. Don't let trends or money or “the market” tell you what you should write. The only one who can tell your story is you, so you'd better get to it.

If you need help in telling your story, Story Into Screenplay is here for you. We offer coverage reports, script doctoring services, and one-on-one script consultations. To find out more, drop us a line at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send a message through our Facebook page.