screenplays

From Book to Screen: Adapting Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’

On Thursday, December 20, New York Film Academy (NYFA) hosted a guest lecture by producer, production attorney, and NYFA board member, Avy Eschenasy. Eschenasy is the principal of Eschenasy Consulting, which provides advisory services in connection with all business aspects of motion picture production, financing, and distribution.

Previously, Eschenasy was a senior executive at Focus Features from 2002 until 2013, where he was Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning, Business Affairs and Acquisitions. Eschenasy is known for producing Indignation (2016), Casting JonBenét (2017), and A Prayer Before Dawn (2017).

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy began the lecture by discussing how the book Indignation by Philip Roth, was optioned to be produced as a feature film. In order for a producer to option a book, they must pay the publisher an “option fee.”

“That fee entitles [producers] to exclusively have the opportunity to buy the rights [to produce the book as a film]” said Eschenasy, “for a limited time period, usually 12 to 18 months” if the producer can find a production company or movie studio that wants to produce the optioned book as a film.

If the producer can find a production company or movie studio that is interested in producing the book as a film, then they would pay the publisher an additional fee for the exclusive opportunity to produce the book as a film. That means that once Eschenasy purchased the rights to produce Roth’s Indignation, Roth’s publishing company was not allowed to sell the option or production rights to any other producers.

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy went on to discuss turning the book into a screenplay. In order to get a book adapted to a screenplay, the producer must negotiate with a screenwriter, usually a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

In the contract with the screenwriter, the producer outlines fees paid for the first couple drafts of the script and many times will pay an additional fee if the film makes it all the way to production and distribution. The fees paid to a writer also depend on how they are credited: for example, a writer that has written a script alone would be paid more than a writer that co-wrote a script with one or more partners.

Once the script is finalized, it is time to focus on production. The producer needs to have a “package” ready to prepare for launching production, said Eschenasy. “The script, cast, the director, and the budget.”

Avy Eschenasy

The budget is put together by a line producer and then the producer must try to raise that amount of money to make the film; with independent films like Indignation, this money is typically raised with “pre-sales” to distributors. A “pre-sale” is a contract between the production team and distributors that outlines stipulations that the production team must follow in order to secure financing from the distributor; usually the distributor’s agreement is contingent upon the producer promising a script and a known actor. A way to save money during production is to shoot in a state or a country with tax credits for film and television productions; because of this and a few other reasons, Indignation was shot in New York.

For Indignation, a big part of the production “package” was the actor, Logan Lerman, best known for starring in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Eschenasy needed a name like Lerman to get distributors interested, but he also needed to make Lerman and his representatives feel confident in Indignation as a production; producers get actors and their representatives to trust their productions with contracts. The contract outlines the shoot schedule, the actor’s “billing” (much like the writer’s “credit” discussed earlier), the fee paid to the actor (including bonuses if the actor wins awards for the role), and perks if applicable.

After all the negotiations and contracts were completed and all of the necessary funds were raised, Indignation went into production. Everything went well during the production phase and then it moved to post-production. Once the final cut of the film was finished, Indignation was entered in the Sundance Film Festival, where it was received very well by critics. Lionsgate Entertainment made an offer to distribute the film in the United States and Sony Pictures Entertainment made and offer to distribute the film to the majority of the international market. After all of their hard work, the Indignation production team got the film made, critically acclaimed, and distributed all over the world.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Avy Eschenasy for sharing his industry expertise and experiences getting Indignation produced with our students!

How Does ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Fit the Biopic Mold?

Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of rock band Queen and iconic frontman Freddie Mercury, has already won Best Drama at the Golden Globes and is a contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s also the latest in a long line of biopics about famous 20th century musicians, including Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, Get on Up, and Straight Outta Compton.

How does Bohemian Rhapsody fit the mold? Here are some of the most important ingredients to gather into making a successful biopic:

The Roots

Many biopics start with at least a scene from the subject’s childhood, and if they don’t, they usually at least include flashbacks. Bohemian Rhapsody is no different, giving us a look where Mercury is originally from.

The Love Interest

Biopics tend to distill the love life of their subject to one or two key relationships that define and drive the character’s motivations and keep them grounded as their fame and world explode. The focus around Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin is prominent among the rest of Mercury’s several romantic partnerships, men and women alike. The real-life Austin approved the script but didn’t want to be involved in interviews or in any promotion of the film whatsoever.

The Music

While some biopics avoid playing the hits of their subject due to expensive or inaccessible music rights, many rely on their iconic soundtracks as a huge selling point for the film. Queen’s hits are numerous, catchy, and famous, so of course Bohemian Rhapsody includes as many as it can. Indeed, much of the film is shot as if it were concert footage to mimic what it was like to be at an actual Queen show.

Lookalike Stars

Hollywood has no shortage of talented stars, so often casting a biopic depends heavily on physical looks–to help sell the idea that audiences are watching true events unfold. Rami Malek not only physically transforms into Freddie Mercury, but is a strong talented actor–it’s no surprise he’s nominated for Best Lead Actor at this year’s Academy Awards, especially after winning the Golden GLobe for his performance.

The Title

Most biopics avoid naming themselves after their subject–that would be too on the nose. Instead, most go with a song title from the artist, often one of their bigger hits. This includes Beyond the Sea, Walk the Line, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Get on Up, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and of course, Bohemian Rhapsody.

So what’s next for the Hollywood biopic? Well for one, later this year in theaters we’ll see an Elton John biopic titled, naturally, Rocketman. In the meantime, we’ll find out soon if Bohemian Rhapsody is not only a hit biopic, but also this year’s Best Picture!

Ten Iconic Films Written by Screenwriting Legend William Goldman 

William Goldman, one of Hollywood’s most influential screenwriters for several decades, passed away early November 16, at the age of 87. 

In addition to writing several famous (and infamous) major motion pictures across a wide variety of genres, Goldman cemented himself as an authority of Hollywood screenwriting when he published Adventures in the Screen Trade in 1983. In the book, Goldman not only shared with readers his mastery of all things writing — story, dialogue, character — but his incisive, honest look at Hollywood’s modern studio system in the 60s and 70s, and what it would eventually evolve into over the next few decades. 

His rounded, honest view of the system that gave him great success was both cynical and appreciative, from the ground level as well as a bird’s eye view from the top, where he laid out and accepted both the good and the bad of the massive and powerful industry that produced an artistic medium he very much loved. 

Here are just some of the films he contributed to the Hollywood canon:

Misery

Director Rob Reiner and producers of the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery, in which a psychotic fan ties her favorite author to her bed and forces him to keep writing, felt like they needed to dial back the horror of the book to make the film more palatable for mainstream audiences. In the novel, the character played by Kathy Bates severs the foot of the author played by James Caan, rendering him unable to escape.

What screenwriter William Goldman came up with as a solution was perfect, and became an iconic Hollywood moment. Rather than sever his foot, Goldman had Bates smash Caan’s ankles with a sledgehammer – less bloody and less gory, but somehow in its specificity, even more brutal to watch. Goldman was proving a valuable lesson in screenwriting: sometimes less is more.

Harper

Goldman had already finished the script to the hardboiled detective movie Harper, starring Paul Newman, but producers needed a scene to play over the opening credits. Goldman quickly came up with a simple, but poignant moment — the disgruntled PI getting ready in the morning, realizing he was out of coffee, and reusing an old filter from the trashcan. In one quick dialogue-less moment, Goldman established the get-it-done character of his protagonist before the opening credits had even finished rolling.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Goldman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on this seminal western that paired together two of Hollywood’s most charismatic and popular leading men — Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The film highlights the genre-bending abilities Goldman seemingly wielded without breaking a sweat, going from comedy to thriller to drama to even musical from scene to scene without ever missing a beat. 

Chaplin

Chaplin was a star-studded biopic in 1992 that portrayed the life and career of silent film megastar Charlie Chaplin, and was one of that year’s most prestigious films, with a talented cast, incredibly high production values, and direction by Richard Attenborough. While it received mixed reviews, it was one of the first major dramatic roles for the young comic actor Robert Downey, Jr., who was nominated for his first Academy Award for his work.

A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far was also directed by Richard Attenborough, and was an epic World War II film with a large-for-its-time budget and loaded cast that featured stars from other Goldman films like James Caan and Robert Redford. In a genre overstuffed with classics, A Bridge Too Far managed to make a name for itself for its wide scope and intense battle sequences, especially since, unlike many of its brethren, it focused on a major historical loss for the Allied Forces.

Marathon Man

Marathon Man, like some of Goldman’s other screenplays, was adapted from a novel he wrote himself. As a book, and later as a film, it attracted the attention of producers and critics alike for its stark violence and themes of Nazi war criminals still existing in society decades after the end of World War II. A major casting coup for the gritty thriller was Sir Laurence Olivier as the antagonist, who earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

Maverick

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Marathon Man is Maverick, a big-budget western comedy adapted from the 50s television series of the same name. The film reunites Lethal Weapon’s director Richard Donner and star Mel Gibson (and a cameo from Danny Glover) at the height of their Hollywood powers and proved to be a definitive audience-pleasing popcorn movie in a year full of tough competition. 

The Stepford Wives

The science-fiction horror film The Stepford Wives challenged the norms of gender dynamics between husbands and wives and, when it was released in 1975, received only moderate success. It has however gained a solid cult status over the decades, and was even eventually given a big budget remake starring Nicole Kidman in 2004. The term “Stepford Wife” itself has now become slang for the type of doting, robotic homemaker featured in Goldman’s script.

The Princess Bride

“Anybody want a peanut?” 

That’s just one line out of dozens from the eminently quotable screenplay Goldman wrote for The Princess Bride, itself an adaptation of a novel he wrote with the same name. Ostensibly a comedy, the film also plays with genre, and has firmly rooted itself in the hearts of multiple generations of film and adventure lovers. Can you imagine a world without the line, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”??? 

Of course you can’t… it’s “”inconceivable!!!”

All the President’s Men

Goldman won his second Academy Award for the screenplay adapted from the book All the President’s Men, written by the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. The film, which is still regarded by many as one of the greatest of all time, takes the real-life investigation of newspaper journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they run up directly against a Nixon administration fighting to stay in power. Who would’ve thought its themes and even plot points of cover-ups and political corruption would be more resonant than ever forty years later? 

There are several other fantastic films written by William Goldman in his decades-spanning career, too many to list. Watching them all would not only be a great source of entertainment, but a Master Class in screenwriting from the man himself. 

RIP William Goldman – your contributions to cinema will not be forgotten.

 

Great Techniques to Write a Script with an Unexpected Ending

Don’t you just love epic film endings that you never saw coming? These endings are the ones that stay with viewers for a long time and inspire talk about the movie and the reasons why the screenwriter decided to give the story such a mind-blowing plot twist.

Building an unexpected ending in movie scripts is difficult, but can give a movie a lot of buzz and leave the audience breathless. It can be a fine line between a well-earned shocker of an ending and a contrived, seemingly desperate, last minute attempt to save a bad movie.

What’s the secret to making a successful twist ending? There may not be one magic bullet, but a pretty good understanding of some script writing techniques can help you make a memorable ending stick with your audience:

  1. Misdirect the Viewers

Misdirection is a widely popular technique among screenwriters. The main purpose is to make viewers think that they have everything figured out before subverting their expectations entirely at some point, usually in the film’s climax. What could be better than gradually guiding viewers’ attention away from the real plot resolution and reveal it only at the end, right?

Achieving an effective misdirection requires you to use some tools, including the following.

  • Sleight-of-hand. Gradually bury clues to the real ending in preceding scenes where the viewers will be focused on something else. For example, many screenwriters do it during fast-paced moments such as fight scenes because the attention of viewers is focused on the action.
  • Red herrings. This technique steers viewers in the wrong direction by planning false pieces of information and cues pointing in the wrong direction.
  • Dead ends. Similarly, these wrong directions could lead nowhere and stop short, throwing the audience off balance — in a good way.

Always keep in mind that you need to be as subtle as possible, so the viewers won’t notice you’re trying to steer them in the wrong direction, or so your writing doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. This isn’t easy — you’ll need a lot of time, energy, and focus, so schedule screenwriting appropriately so it fits into your daily routine.

 

Screenplay

  1. Make Your Twist Emotional

An effective way to generate a good twist at the end of the movie script is to look at it from an entirely new point of view – whether the ending would be uplifting or a downer.

If your story has been more or less optimistic throughout the first 2+ acts, a downbeat ending can really gutpunch the audience. Conversely, if your script was mostly gloomy and bleak tale that finally offers its characters some hope or a happy ending, the audience can be overwhelmed with sudden relief and make their experience that much sweeter. Either way, you’re putting your audience through an emotional roller coaster.

  1. Put Yourself in the Reader’s Shoes

This is a simple but effective technique that could make a huge difference for your ending. Imagine that you’re a stranger reading your script cold. How would you react to the narrative? Is there a direction that you found yourself expecting the story to go? What other endings could you foresee for the plot and characters?

Write down and make note of every potential ending you come up with, and then discard them all when writing your ending. The result would be an ending that one would never see coming before it’s revealed!

  1. Use the “No One is Safe” Technique

Clearly, not all movies have happy endings. Not every character will achieve their goals or, depending on the story, may not even survive. Why not take the opposite route and subvert the viewers’ expectations by adopting the ‘no one is safe’ mentality?

By killing off characters or having the plot take unexpected turns earlier in the screenplay, your audience will know not to take anything they’ve come to expect from typical Hollywood movies for granted. With everything unpredictable, they’ll just have to follow along for the ride, and wherever they end up could be a total surprise.

These are just some of the ways to build your story to an unexpected twist ending. But, depending on the genre, your plot should usually come naturally from what your characters would do. Betray that, or any of the other core elements of a screenplay, and everything you’ve built could collapse. But if you navigate successfully between the lines and use the tips above, you could come up with a twist that movie audiences will be buzzing about for a long time after the lights in the theater come up!

Interested in learning how to craft a screenplay? Check out more information on New York Film Academy’s screenwriting school here.

Lucy Benton is a writing coach, an editor who finds her passion in expressing her own thoughts as a blogger. Currently, she works at A-Writer. She is constantly looking for the ways to improve her skills and expertise. Also, Lucy has her own writing blog Prowritingpartner where you can check her last publications. 

The Biggest Writers Guild of America Award Winners

February is an exciting time to be a fan of film and television. The BAFTAs arrive early in the month to honor the top British and international contributions to the industry. At the end of the month we of course have arguably the biggest film celebration of them all — the Academy Awards.

But right in between those two red carpet events, we get to recognize the best writing achievements of the past year. Below are some of the most notable winners from the 69th Writers Guild of America Awards, which took place Sunday Feb. 19, 2017.

“Moonlight” Takes Home Best Original Screenplay

The award for best original screenplay has always served as one of the top honors of the awards show, and this year it went to “Moonlight.” This coming-of-age story by an independent team has been racking up an impressive collection of trophies and is nominated for eight awards at the Oscars next week.

Winning this award meant defeating many other films that have been earning their own trove of awards this season, including big favorite “La La Land” as well as “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Hell or High Water.”

“Arrival” Bounces Back from Golden Globes

Fans of the sci-fi movie were no doubt bummed by the results at the Golden Globes. “Arrival” was nominated for best performance by an actress (Amy Adams) along with best original score, but won neither. But at the WGAs, “Arrival” earned one of the biggest awards of the night: best adapted screenplay.

Things could get even better, as “Arrival” enters the Academy Awards with eight different nominations. Among those categories include best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best cinematography.

The Best in Interactive Storytelling

No one can deny the growth and influence of video games in the last few decades. As computer technology advances at a quick pace, so too does the ability for games to absorb us into virtual worlds. Now, video games are considered one of the best forms of storytelling since only they can offer choices, nonlinear narratives, and more.

The big winner at the WGAs was Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, an action-adventure game that follows a treasure hunter named Nathan Drake around the world. To many of us this win is no surprise, considering Naughty Dog’s reputation for providing some of the best story-driven games of all time. Other nominees were MR. ROBOT 1.51exfiltratiOn, Far Cry Primal, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

FX Goes Home Happy

The 21st Century Fox channel has once again proven itself one of the best producers of excellent TV shows. Three of their latest series left the WGAs with some of the best awards the night has to offer.

While “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” took home the adapted long form award, “Atlanta” won both best new series and best new comedy. “The Americans” also beat strong contenders like “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Westworld” to win best drama series.

What did you think of this year’s WGA winners? Let us know in the comments below! Interested in screenwriting? Learn more about the craft at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.

5 Brilliant Screenplays That Were Rejected … Repeatedly

In an industry dominated with rejection, sometimes a single “yes” is all it takes to change the face of cinema forever. Here are five truly groundbreaking movies that, for some studios, were a little too groundbreaking…

1. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Despite being a quickly rising star in Hollywood at the time, Quentin Tarrantino had a lengthy battle in trying to get any studio interested in his follow up to “Reservoir Dogs.”

Why “Pulp Fiction” was Rejected: According to Columbia TriStar executive Mike Medavoy, the script was “too demented.” TriStar initially optioned the film and was even in talks to produce it, but then did a 180 by declaring, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.”

Very few studios were willing to touch a movie featuring heavy heroin use, and the search for a new backer was extensive before Miramax picked it up.

2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Initially dubbed “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” even the attachment of industry superstars George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wasn’t enough to garner significant studio interest.

Why Indiana Jones was Rejected: It wasn’t actually Lucas’ screenplay that lead to it being rejected by every single studio in Hollywood, but more the fact that he was asking $20 million to make it. Paramount ended up footing the bill and Lucas shrewdly negotiated a five-film contract; it ended up grossing nearly $400 million at gross and is frequently heralded as the best action-adventure movie of all time.

3. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Another ‘80s classic that nearly got passed up entirely (incidentally, “Back to the Future” ended up sharing the same budget and box office gross as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

Why “Back to the Future” was Rejected: It was either too family-friendly or not family-friendly enough, depending on who you asked. Pretty much every major studio rejected the screenplay, with Disney advising that a film alluding to mother-son incest was not “appropriate under the Disney banner,” while Columbia thought it was a “really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.”

The great Steven Spielberg always loved the script, however, and committed it to Amblin Entertainment as soon as he was able. The rest, as they say, is history — but it nearly got titled “Spaceman from Pluto.”

Naturally, Spielberg replied to the memo and told Sid Sheinberg that he had to be joking. The suggestion was never mentioned again.

4. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

Now listed by the Writer’s Guild of America as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, the ultimate mystery crime thriller nearly became as elusive as Keyser Söze.

Why “The Usual Suspects” was Rejected: Much like “Pulp Fiction,” the non-linear plotline of this screenplay completely baffled studios. After numerous rejections (and nine different drafts), the only company who would touch it was a European financing company. Somewhat surprisingly, director Bryan Singer managed to make the movie a masterpiece despite only having a $6 million budget.

5. “Casablanca” (1943)

The curious case of “Casablanca”: a screenplay rejected by numerous agencies 30 years after it had already become one of the world’s finest movies.

Why “Casablanca” was Rejected: It wasn’t rejected the first time around. But in 1982, freelance writer Chuck Ross wanted to see whether movie agents would recognize the screenplay if he sent it out again … and if not, would they recognize its greatness?

It was a clever experiment. Ross retitled the script “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play on which “Casablanca” was based) and sent it out to 217 different Hollywood agencies.

The results?

  • 90 returned the screenplay because they weren’t looking for submissions.
  • 33 agents recognized the script immediately.
  • 8 spotted a similarity with the 1943 classic, but didn’t spot that it was exactly the same.

However, 38 of the 217 read and rejected the classic script. Among the feedback Ross received, agents claimed there was “too much dialogue” and that the storyline was “too weak.” One even suggested it needed “a professional polish.”

But funnier still is that three agencies loved it and wanted to turn it into a movie.

It just goes to show: even the best screenplays on the planet get rejected. All it takes is just one “yes.”

Do you have an interesting experience of taking a project through many rejections to find success? Let us know in the comments below!