Friday, March 24, 2017
Orange County Screenwriters Association


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Mark Sevi is a professional screenwriter (19 movies) and scriptwriting teacher.

Devil's Knot - No One Is Untouched by Violence

This is a series of occasional articles on my experiences writing "Devil's Knot."

banner3 index2As writers we need to always remember that any movie based on a true story has real people's lives behind it.  Everyone surely knows and understands that.  It's hard, though, to embrace that thought wholly when you're trying to fulfill  story obligations and decisions, and when the story you are trying to tell is as complex as "Devil's Knot."  This is a lesson I took from my work on my script for "Devil's Knot."  It took me a while to fully "get it" but I did.  I carry that lesson with me now and for always.

dkIf you don't know, "Devil's Knot" is a non-fiction book by journalist Mara Leveritt that explores the truths and falsehoods behind the accusations of murder in Arkansas in 1993.  It was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth in 2005.  Witherspoon played one of the mothers of one of the victims and Firth played a private investigator.

The background: In 1993, after a horrifying discovery that three eight-year-old boys were brutally killed, three teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley (16), Jason Baldwin (17) and Damien Echols (18) were then railroaded by a court and community panicked and hungry for closure. 

What happened was terrible and frightening by anyone's standards.  The mind boggles at how anyone can torture, mutilate and kill three eight-year-old innocents.  Anyone responsible for that just doesn't seem human.  The term demonic did and does easily come to mind and was used frequently by the residents of that area at the time.

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Put A Face on the Devil

hannibal Recently, a student started a very complex script.  It had flashbacks, flash forwards, non-linear narrative framing, illusion, delusion and just about every other non-standard story device you can imagine.

When I read his synopsis I cautioned him the story probably wouldn't work as envisioned.  For one thing, it was horribly complicated - I've been doing this for 20+ years and I wouldn't attempt it.  And, although the student was a good writer in other ways, this was his first script. 

He started it several times, getting feedback about the things that worked (not much) and what didn't (a lot) and he worked to improve it.  And although it has gotten a bit better and more digestible it still doesn't work.

But not for the reasons I thought although those are still there.

Without getting into too much detail his story involved a man who was destined to be destroyed and in the process the world.  That seems like terribly important stakes, right?  The entire fate of the world.  And it is.  The problem is that the man was fighting against something he couldn't see.  And by extension, something we couldn't see,

This is not a drama like "A Serious Man" where his actions caused a problem.  This was big picture, big world stuff - a very large, supernatural agency that was out to get this guy.  It had big scope and big villains...

But we never saw them.

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Jeff Lyons at OC Screenwriters

AOPL 3D WebsiteJeff Lyons doesn't like the appellation of "GURU" - he considers his insights as basic understanding of story and how drama unfolds. 

And he should know.  He's studied his craft for years, applied it to many seminars, including a yearly event at the Producers Guild (PGA) and many, many events like the one we had on Saturday in Fountain Valley.

40+ rapt attendees absorbed Jeff's wisdom and knowledge on how to break a premise line (more than a log line, less than a synopsis) into components and tease out the story under the story.

In a word, he was fantastic.

Rather than cover the event in detail I will point you at the videos embeded in this article and Jeff's book "Anatomy of a Premise Line" available on Amazon (LINK TO BOOK ON AMAZON).

Our sincere thanks to a terrific student and teacher of story.

Video (also available after the jump) courtesy of one of our wonderful board members, the incomparable Rudy Garcia.

There's also gallery of photos up by another great board member, Robert Rollins:  (LINK TO PHOTOS)

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Ideal Home

ideal home h 2016This wonderful movie, "Ideal Home," could not have come at a more symbolic time from a standpoint of the dialogue that is occurring in this country.  I'm not going to stand up and say it's an important movie but it sorta is.  Because it's about people, not stereotypes or labels, and we need so much more of this and less of that.   We need to be reminded that no one category of men or women has an exclusive on love, relationships, anger, or pain.

Paul Rudd and Brit Steve Coogan play an odd-couple, gay couple.  Actually, let's take the "gay" out of the equation and just say couple.  Odd is optional but wholly accurate.  Rudd is a producer/director who sometime longs for a bigger stage (the Rachael Ray show) and Coogan is a world-renowned chef who can be "fabulous" anywhere.  They live in the Southwest in a stunning home and have a nearly-perfect life.  They entertain the mayor, shoot Coogan's cooking show and bicker constantly. 

Unfortunately, their little slice of paradisaical routine has become familiar, stale and toxic.

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Cardinal

cardinal caI admit that I am a sucker for these shows.  A body is found or a person is killed and a flawed detective has to solve the crime.  Along the way will be surprises, twists, solid drama and a killer you probably could guess - well, maybe.

"Cardinal" is just such a series Giles Blunt’s acclaimed crime novels "Cardinal" takes place in the cold climes of the North Bay, Ontario.

Let me also say that 10 episodes can be a long sit.  With ten episodes the attenuation of actual narrative thread is almost always guaranteed.  "Forbrydelsen" at 20 episodes didn't seem long at all; The American version, "The Killing" did.  So maybe it's just the way the story is told.  But I like that I like that "Cardinal" is six.  That means that we won't have to put up with much filler and we'll get more actual connected story.

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The Good Fight

good fightWhen I grow up I want to be The Kings. As in Robert King and Michelle King who were responsible for the incredible "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight" which picks up after the main character of the "The Good Wife" (Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick) has left for other pastures.

I'm going to steal this excerpt from Wikipedia to explain the main premise because it covers everything needed to say:

The series follows Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, as she is forced out of Lockhart, Decker, Gussman, Lee, Lyman, Gilbert-Lurie, Kagan, Tannebaum, & Associates after an enormous financial scam destroys the reputation of her goddaughter Maia (Rose Leslie) and Diane's savings, leading them to join Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) at one of Chicago’s pre-eminent law firms.

The series stars Baranski, Leslie, Jumbo, Erica Tazel, Sarah Steele, Justin Bartha and Delroy Lindo, and features Paul Guilfoyle and Bernadette Peters in recurring roles. The series is executive produced by Robert King, Michelle King, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Liz Glotzer, Brooke Kennedy and Alison Scott, with Phil Alden Robinson producing and co-writing the first episode.

109352 1309b copyWhat all that means (basically) is the original show is back but different.  Between "Wife" and "Fight" the Kings did a short-lived political satire show "Brain Dead" which involved alien critters invading the brains of people in Washington and creating even more politically polarized parties.  Hmmm.  Truth is very much stranger that fiction.

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Powerless / Apple Tree Yard

powerlessI have been a comic book fan since childhood when my dad would take me and my sisters to the local drug store to peruse the offerings after church on Sunday; something I'm sure the priests would not have approved of. 

"Powerless" would have been a welcome addition to that ritual although I'm positive it would never have been considered at that time.

The concept is simple: the world has superheroes from the DC Universe and some that haven't been created yet, I'm assuming.  I'm at a disadvantage here because beside the big marque characters I haven't followed a lot of any comic book series for a while.  "Jessica Jones" was new to me although I did remember "Luke Cage."  I can't honestly tell you what DC has been up to - but "Powerless" is a fun step!

In this world, as you can easily imagine, there is a lot of collateral damage in any superhero/super villain fight.  Marvel has already covered this somewhat in "Jessica Jones" a heroine who lives in a post-Avengers battle world where superheroes aren't loved for the destruction they've instigated while saving the world.  Supervillains are one thing, yo; getting to work when entire blocks are closed down due to buildings falling is entirely another.

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Riverdale / 24 Legacy

riverdale header3I wonder at times if I would enjoy being a TV or movie critic.  I do like finding gems and telling my friends and students about them.  Shows that inspire me to be a better writer are always a treat.  But then there's the other end of the spectrum so that would all be a wash I guess. 

In the middle somewhere is most of what I end up watching.  Not groundbreaking material, like "Archer" or "Game of Thrones" but well-conceived and well-written like the two shows in this article.  Both "Riverdale" and "24 Legacy" are well-above middle ground though.

I didn't think I was going to like "Riverdale" - it's not exactly geared to my demographic.  But I did.  A lot. 

Re-envisioning the "Archie" comics (or maybe the comics are now like this - I don't know) has the characters of Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead, Reggie and others living large in Riverdale: a small town with dirty undercurrent, including big time murders and hot affairs between teachers and students.

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Your Script Sucks - Why Are You Seeking Representation?

ranting angry manTHE RANT

Who exactly do you think you are?  Are you a writing genius who has figured out what took the rest of us many months, maybe years to understand?  Has one of your masterpieces gotten so many kudos that you now think you should be elevated to a place that normally takes hundreds of hours to accomplish? 

This is a rant, pure and simple.  You won't learn shit about screenwriting and you'll probably dislike me by the end of this article - if you even get that far.  Fine.  I accept your disdain.

Just don't ask me how to find an agent, manager, production company or anything else until you've written at least three scripts and those scripts (at least one) have gotten a lot of good word of mouth from someone beside your mom.

Deal?

What am I on about?  Simple.  I had a student ask me how to market his/her script.  I stopped what I was doing, blinked three times and had to ask him/her to repeat it. 

I mean, huh?  At the very least, finish a script first then ask me that question.

How in the world can anyone think they're ready to sell anything if they haven't been working for a certain amount of hours to hone their craft?

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Sh*t! That's my idea! What To Do When Hollywood "Steals" Your Baby.

o PICKPOCKET facebookIf you're doing it right as a writer, you're channeling the societal gestalt and the world in general in which you live both locally and globally.  At this moment in time, you're observing the situations taking place societally, politically, culturally, internally, and also exploring the past as things become apparent to you.   Movies and TV are reflections of our world but they also serve to show us truths from the past that cause us to explore further.

This is all to say that what you think is some sort of Hollywood conspiracy is just the hard, cold facts that there are a lot of writers out there processing the same information as you - and then they are writing that information into articles, scripts, novels, etc.  You shouldn't be surprised if more than one person has your idea and has written it.

But you also never capitulate to those "thieves."

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In Praise of - ARCHER

Archer Banner

Admittedly, I'm late to this party.  I've only been watching "Archer" for the last few seasons although I have recently gone back and I am re-watching everything from the first season that debuted in 2009.

How was I so blind?  I heard the word-of-mouth from a friend whose opinion I trust and didn't follow up on it.  I saw the awards, I heard the reviews...I just didn't act on any of that. Damn my lazy viewing spine!  I have miles to go before I sleep and watching a show this terrific should be on everyone's first up list.

And thank god for streaming.  Netflix specifically which has most of the seasons available allowing me to continue to right this egregious wrong.  😀

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Write Your Truths

Write Truthfully In Imaginary Circumstances
Explore the Mythology Inside You


inner truthAs a science fiction fan and screenwriter, I often chuckle at the axiom to “write what you know” - as if Isaac Asimov, a rather robust, Jewish man, knew what it was like to be a spinster scientist or a robot. How exactly did J.K Rowling, a then thirty-year-old, unemployed, working-class mother, create a young, male wizard who went to an exclusive magical school in a mythical land?

People write young, old, male, female, alien, king, peasant, and every variation imaginable. What’s their secret? Good research? A keen observational eye? Channeling a secret muse? Yes, and perhaps. But let me share what is really meant by “write what you know”. It means write your truth - write what you already know as a human being.

Are women and men really that different? Don’t we all share the sting of rejection, the joy of love? Emotionally-speaking, isn’t life, in all its myriad variations fundamentally the same for those in the bush and those in the Hamptons? Is the inevitability of a terminal disease different today than it was 100 years ago?

So how to bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t empirically understand?

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The Mick

The Mick banner

It's rare for me to find myself laughing aloud at a show, especially one that's done by a network.  "The Mick" made me guffaw several times.  Yes, guffaw - don't judge - that's the word I want and it perfectly describes my reaction to this delightful new comedy.

"It's Always Sunny in Philladephia" alum Kaitlyn Olson spreads her wings (and if you saw the pilot you'd know just how clever a usuage of a cliche that is) in this excellent and hilarious show from producers/writers Dave and John Chernin who were also a bigpart of "IASIP."

The premise is ridiculous and simple:  Olson (Mackenzie "Mickey" Murphy, AKA The Mick) is trying to hit her millionaire sister up for some cash at a party when the FBI swoops in and arrests sis (Poodle) and her husband.  Mickey is tapped to watch the kids for one night on the promise that sis will give her the funds she denied her earlier.  Unfortunately, Poodle and hubby have to flee the country and Mickey is stuck for a while longer watching the brood.

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Doctor Strange

Cumberbatch Rocks the Free World

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Rogue One

Like Star Wars But Different

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What's Wrong With This Scene?

Found this article several years ago and I couldn't have said it better.  I see these mistakes every day in my students' work not only when they start but even in experienced students' work. Scriptwriting Clasess

The credits for this article are included below.


This Scene Sucks: 15 Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid
By: Script Magazine | November 20, 2013
by Timothy Cooper

Please enjoy this scene from my nonexistent, Birds vs. Bees.

I wrote this opening scene specifically for this article, but there isn’t a single error in it that I haven’t read in actual screenplays hundreds of times. I’m serious.

Can you spot all 15 (at least) errors?

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TV - A Vast Wonderland

television is deadOnce upon a time, television was called a "vast wasteland."  Granted, this was years before PBS and many groundbreaking dramas and comedies but the perception has remained.  And, to be fair, for every brilliant series (like "Game of Thrones") there's double the amount of crap being foisted on the viewing public whether that viewing is online, streaming or on "traditional" TV or cable.

Here's a few new shows I thought would be worth mentioning.  Some are "bingey" and some are being released more traditionally week-by-week.  They also share the fact that it's a pretty disparate list of production entities that have traditionally not been involved in original programming.  This is, in a word, wonderful.  The more the better as far as I'm concerned although it can be a challenge keeping up with them all.

This list, which is simple and by no means comprehensive, doesn't include so many other worthy series but these are just the ones I've been watching lately.

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SPOTLESS

spotlessOne the things I absolutely love about today's entertainment landscape is the ability to see shows that we might never have seen given where they were made.

I've always embraced the shows that were coming across from other countries.  BBC America probably started it but Netflix really pushed this effort. This continues with "Spotless" a Franco-Brit combined production that deals with a quite unusual premise but the world set up here slants everything including normally familiar relationships and consequences of those relationships.

The Premise: Jean Bastier (Marc-André Grondin) who owns a business that cleans up crime scenes, gets involved with gangsters after his shady brother Martin (Denis Ménochet) comes back into his life, forcing Jean to use his cleaning skills to eliminate evidence of crimes.

It's hard to describe this show in some senses.  It's well written, acted and shot.  What also works all the time are the relationships which seem both mundane and profound. spotless

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GOLIATH

goliath"Goliath" is the newest show by super-producer/writer David E. Kelly. 

It stars Billy Bob Thornton and features some great supporting actors like Maria Bello (ex-wife/rival attny), Olivia Thirlby (rival attny), Sarah Wynter (client), Tania Raymonde (hooker/paralegal), and Molly Parker (attny in rival firm.)  William Hurt plays a demonic figure (ala "The Natural") who sits in the dark and uses a clicker to show his anger or disdain for people (you'll just have to see it.)

Kelly tells a personal story of how he promised his kids he wouldn't write any more lawyer shows.  But this isn't like anything you've seen from this prolific writer.  Bad words, drinking, drug use, violence...it follows the trend of the  edgier shows that have been coming out.  It's an Amazon Prime original so they can get away with challenging the audience.

And it does.

Taking place in Santa Monica with locations at the famous dive bar Chez Jay, "Goliath" features an attorney on the edge of slipping away from the legal world until he's approached with a redemption-type case.  The storyline of redemption borrows heavily from "The Verdict" the Lumet/Newman/Mamet courtroom masterpiece that for me never gets old.

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Leah Estrin - A True Pro

leah estrin

Event review
byMark Sevi

THE PRO

The first thing you notice about Leah is she is a no-spin zone - the good kind.  Ask a question and she gives you a straight and honest answer.  It's a reflection of her years in the industry reading and evaluating scripts.  But more than that, it's a true reflection of an industry pro; someone who has seen what being disingenuous can lead to - unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings that becomes heartache and heartbreak as you try to navigate an industry (Hollywood) that you don't understand.

She does understand it oh so well.

The amazing thing about Leah is that this honesty can make some people sound cynical and mean-spirited and Leah is nothing of the sort.  She is open, always smiling, always ready to give someone a great tip.  That was abundantly clear at our event before, during and after.   (more after the jump - hit CONTINUED below)

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