Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure is a new book out by Christina Kallas.  It will get you thinking about movies -- and your scripts -- in a fresh way.
writer/producer Christina Kallas
Kallas is a screenwriter, producer and academic.  She's also the President of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe.   

She presented a lab recently held by the Writer's Guild of America, East. 

Kallas champions writing emotion and imagery in your stories.  Plot points are important, but so is  emotion.  We've all seen movies that were supposed to move us, but somehow didn't quite accomplish what it set out to do.  That's why movies rely so heavily on musical scores to manipulate our feelings -- have you really LISTENED to a romantic comedy lately?  Not watched it, but listened... the music takes our hand and leads us along to make sure we're getting the message.

Kallas suggests a writer excite his imagination by turning to Improvisation.  I know about improv when it comes to acting class or stand-up comedy, but screenwriting?

She gave a great example in the lab.  Two actors, male and female, were given key information about a scene. The information was a young couple was divorcing (the relationship), they have a three year old son involved in a custody battle (goal), and the husband has returned to their home to retrieve "his books" (action).  Haven't we all ended relationships and had to go divvy up all the books and CDs before parting ways?  Not a pretty scene.  Talk about emotions and subtext.  Kallas had the male actor leave the room and she told the female actor that her motivation (action) was to get the husband to get violent (for custody points).  The male actors returned and was told his key emotion was anger.  Begin scene...

What resulted was completely unexpected by us in the audience and Kallas.  The actors started out angry, bickering, name-calling, swearing, but then soon softened, joked easily and reconciled right before our eyes.  It was amazing.  The dialogue was rich, spontaneous and deeply emotional.  Actors have to remain truthful in order to reach an audience, as does the writer.  Emotion and truth.

The point of the exercise?  To be innovative, creative and open to your scene with actors (or friends) and see what develops from the main situation.  We tend to get to locked into our beat sheets, outlines and rigid notes. Improvisation is a way to see a scene come to life in an authentic way... you may use what you hear or toss it away, but you will get some direction from the actors interpreting your work.

In this example above, the husband was so set on getting "his books" because he revealed later that he's lonely staying in a hotel room twelve blocks away from his family... and reading is his only salvation under the circumstances.  The actress/wife quipped "Read the Bible".  It got a big laugh.  

I recommend Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure.  Be warned, it's not a breezy read -- you'll need to have read several screenwriting books before getting this one.  It refers to Aristotle, Plato and all the classic screenwriting mechanics and theories.  But, it should make it's way on your writing shelf along with books by Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge and Robert McKee

The book is available at Amazon and at www.palgrave-usa.com and www.palgrave-com in the UK and the rest of the world.

Go tackle your scripts with images, thematic richness and feeling.
Nice Guy Johnny by Edward Burns
Which reminds me...  one of my favorite filmmakers is Edward Burns.  I had the pleasure of meeting him this year at a Tribeca Film Festival event and he couldn't have been sweeter. Support his new indie movie Nice Guy Johnny (I liked it) -- it's available to rent this week only for .99 cents at iTunes!!
Here's the trailer.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBT00dP43_k

Until next time.


zs said...

Dear Janet,
My name is Zsuzsi Várady, I'm dramaturg and improv actress in Budapest, Hungary. I'm in a post graduate program now at the Hungarian University of Film and Theatre. My thesis is using improvisation techniques to improve film screenplays and to teach scriptwriters. I guess this is very similar to the method of the book you mentioned. I'm basically making classes where improvisational actors play and improvise on the ideas or scenes of scriptwriters and this way they can develop their scripts. Anyways I'm trying to apply for a scholarship so I could go out to New York to look around in the improv and scriptwriting business because I'm sure there are many similar attempts there. (In Hungary, improv is very new, so me and my group are basically pioneers.) Do you have any ideas, which school or organisation should I try to contact? I need some sort of an acceptance paper from an institute saying, it's okay with them if I do research there. So I'm looking for an institute that might be interested in some methods like mine. Many thanks, I'm grateful for all kinds of ideas.
All the best,
Zsuzsi Varady

Janet Lawler said...

Hi Zsuzsi,

Thanks so much for writing and for reading The NY Screenwriting Life. I love that I have a follower in Hungary. I often wonder how far our reach is, so thanks for writing and reading. As for improv, I'm not super familiar with the topic, but I know it's growing more as a tool for screenwriting. I would try by contacting New York University, The New School in NYC, Pace University and the Film Academy in NYC. These schools may offer classes, workshops or should be able to point you in the right direction.

Good luck with your thesis!