Steve Cuden inspires and provides just the kind of inner positive voice that writers crave. As one of the leading authorities on writing for the stage and screen, Steve Cuden has been a professional screenwriter and educating students for over two decades. Published in 2013, his first book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations has been an invaluable resource for just about anyone who writes for and about the theatre.
Following the same successful and informative format is his newest book, Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays released in December.
Beating Hollywood is an invaluable resource for just about anyone who writes for and about film and television, including novices, expert writers, professionals, and storytellers of any kind for small and big screens. Cuden packs 150 tangible tips about how to develop character, structure, plot and dialogue in his two-part book and analyzes 40 classic films including the film, Chinatown, that is included in this excerpt.
See and hear Steve Cuden in person on Saturday, May 21, 2016, 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m (FREE Event). when he signs Beating Hollywood at The Writers Store, 3510 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank. Wine, snacks, tips, tales, and more!
TELL US A STORY
Rare is the individual who doesn’t enjoy being told a great story. And who doesn’t like being the teller of grand tales, too? Storytelling requires a mutual understanding between storyteller and audience. Both must be aware that a story is being told, or else what’s being expressed is likely no more than idle chatter leading to nothing much. Not that there’s anything wrong in joyfully gabbing about nothing with friends, but for a story to be acknowledged as such, it must necessarily follow a structure and contain various elements that both the teller and the audience recognize. Becoming a professional screenwriter requires a deep understanding of various elements required to create stories that are ready for consumption by a hungry worldwide market. Following are a number of tips that will help you create unforgettable stories for the screen and beyond.
TIP 9: MOVIES ARE ENTERTAINMENT FIRST
Movies rarely succeed when they are preachy or educational. People pay their hard-earned money to see a movie because they want to forget about their troubles, not because they want to worry about their lives even more. A viewer is perfectly capable of forgetting his woes by becoming engaged in the woes of characters deep in conflict on screen.
Spend a little time thinking about how enjoyable and entertaining your story will be before you start laying down the “important stuff.” First and foremost, you must want to tell the story. Why else would you bother spending your time on it? Beyond that, ask yourself if you think anyone else would find it entertaining, too.
Entertaining does not necessarily mean happy or uplifting. It means holding the audience’s attention, gluing them to their seats and leaving them wanting more. No matter if your story is a drama, comedy, tragedy, or a mixture of them all, it must be compelling.
TIP 10: PLAY WITHIN THE STORY’S SANDBOX
Story is the sandbox that screenwriters play in. Once you’ve established or determined the parameters of the story that you plan to tell—the story’s sandbox—you are, for the most part, obliged as a writer to stay within the confines of that sandbox. Is that true in all cases? No, but it is for most tales.
Story encompasses the world of the movie. It requires both heartfelt passion and logic within an established framework in order to be palatable to an audience that wants to understand what is happening. For example, audiences would likely be thrown off if after the opening scene of The Godfather, Attila the Hun rode in on horseback leading a horde of warriors seeking to do battle with Don Corleone’s mobsters. It would be highly illogical within the established story parameters.
Think of the openings of the following movies: Star Wars, Easy Rider, Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Hangover, Children of Men, The Dark Knight, and Little Miss Sunshine. The screenwriters of each of these films set up the story’s world quite well. Each of these stories unfolds in very different settings. The writers then adhered to the logical world of each story throughout the rest of the tale. In short, the stories stayed contained within a specific world. You must do the same with your stories.
Screenwriters of all stripes are, without exception, storytellers. Story is the foundation of the moviemaker’s craft. Without story you would have random events in no particular order and with neither a point of view nor a purpose. Without story, a tale would quickly devolve into chaos. Some people tolerate chaos well; most do not. Most people can tolerate some chaos, usually when it is limited and managed as a smaller piece of something else. Each story lives within its own contained universe, its individual sandbox.
Good storytelling is the opposite of chaos—even when the perception of chaos operates within a story. In my early days in Los Angeles, as I struggled to find my way as a writer, I designed the lighting of numerous live stage productions. I once had the great privilege of working for six months designing the lighting for three plays that were produced and directed by the legendary filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes. Cassavetes starred in popular Hollywood movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen. He also wrote and directed seminal independent films such as Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, Opening Night, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence, and Gloria. Cassavetes’ work influenced several generations of filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Sean Penn, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Cassavetes’ son, Nick, who acted in one of the three shows I designed.
While working with Cassavetes, it seemed to me that he thrived on chaos. Frequently, the moment an action he had staged would start to gel, he would work to change it, sometimes in significant ways. He loved to retool all three productions (all first stagings of original plays) and did so constantly. Eventually, of course, the shows had to be set in stone so that we could open before live audiences, who generally appreciate polished, uninterrupted productions. Those productions, which featured terrific performances by Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Jon Voight, Leigh Taylor-Young, Michael McGuire, and numerous other wonderful performers, came off brilliantly with each curtain rise.
The hallmark of Cassavetes’ most beloved and revered movies is that they play as if the actors are improvising—as if real life is unfolding before your eyes. But I can tell you from watching his process that when performances seemed to be improvisational it was mainly due to his diligently working with the actors to establish the appearance of improvisation when, in fact, the staging was quite specific. Creating chaos takes hard work. Creating a story’s sandbox takes both hard work and discipline—especially when the story’s world must appear to be filled with unexpected and chaotic moments.
Camera, lighting, art direction, editing, and all the other artistic elements needed to make a motion picture can only be realized after a production’s various artists and craftspeople understand and interpret the story. All of those artists and many more must rely on the script in order to give them clues about how to do their job. The writer, director, actors, and all of the other craftspeople become the audience’s guide to understanding the story and its various meanings. If you, the writer, don’t create the story’s sandbox for the artists to play in they will be lost—and so will the audience.
TIP 11: KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DRAMA AND MELODRAMA
One of my favorite film directors, Sidney Lumet, wrote in his inspiring book, Making Movies, “In drama, the characters should determine the story. In melodrama, the story determines the characters.” He is so right. Stories tend to play best when the characters drive the action, not when the action drives the characters. There is nothing wrong with melodrama per se, but melodrama usually plays more on the surface than well-written drama does. Melodrama tends to be more about plot. Many great thrillers and action movies are melodramatic. Such movies can be truly entertaining, wildly popular, and make a lot of money. Successful melodramatic stories keep Hollywood going. The key to success in most memorable melodrama is in the story having a single character, a hero whom we care about who goes on a quest to achieve a powerful goal. Without such a hero, you would find movies with two hours of car chases that only a racing enthusiast would care about.
Stories work best when a protagonist makes things happen because of his desire to achieve a powerful objective. Think of exciting, memorable melodramas like Star Wars, The French Connection, Die Hard, and every James Bond movie ever made. But also think of the power of such unforgettable, character-driven dramas as Casablanca, Chinatown, Thelma and Louise, and The Godfather. You must understand what kind of movie you want to write in order to write the best, most moving script possible. If you write an action-heavy thriller, try to avoid letting the action dictate the plot. Instead, work hard to ensure that the protagonist’s goal motivates his actions; that is what ought to drive the story.
TIP 12: KNOW YOUR GENRES
You must know and understand the genre that you intend your story to dwell within. This is critical to your success. Though most unforgettable movies adhere to the well-known storytelling form, each of the various genres has specific conventions that help audiences to instantly recognize such stories for what they are. Familiar genre tropes help shape the structure of a story. Knowing such conventions will allow you to alter or break them in a way that will make sense to viewers. I encourage you to study many different genres. Why? As audiences become habituated to certain kinds of stories, becoming bored with them, it will be to your advantage to freshen things up by “cross-pollinating” one genre with another.
There are dozens of genres. Study as many different kinds of movies as you can—even if you are only interested in writing within a single genre. This is necessary today more than ever before because many producers want to play with audience expectations in order to take old tales to new levels. Combining genres is a useful way of refreshing story lines that have become all too familiar. Here’s a great example: Star Wars is a sci-fi adventure that also liberally borrows from westerns, samurai stories, romance tales, fighter pilot movies, swashbucklers, and others. Westerns tend to have big landscapes, with cowboys, horses, cows, six-shooter fights, black-hatted villains, and so on. Science fiction movies frequently take place in dystopian futures with advanced technology, aliens, robots, and themes of humanity being lost. Samurai movies usually contain sword fighting, honor, and discipline. (Certain great westerns are based on samurai movies, too. One good example would be John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, which is a take on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.) World War II air force dramas feature dogfights in the sky while swashbucklers feature a handsome rogue pirate who plunders the fortunes of others for his own gain. Star Wars taps into all of these genre conventions and more. Here are a few other popular movies out of a long list that are genre hybrids: Blade Runner (sci-fi, film noir, dystopian future, detective, mystery), Blazing Saddles (western, comedy), Pirates of the Caribbean (swashbuckler, ghost story, horror, comedy) Scream (horror/slasher, comedy, mystery), and WALL-E (sci-fi, love story, comedy).
Wise screenwriters know their story’s genre(s) well. Successful screenwriters are unafraid to manipulate the tried-and-true into something bold and new. Let genres inspire your stories. To learn genres well, watch a lot of movies!
TIP 13: MOST UNFORGETTABLE STORIES GO SOMETHING LIKE THIS
An interesting three-dimensional protagonist is prompted by an outside force to pursue a goal. Along the way he runs into a seemingly endless series of obstacles that complicate the path to his objective. Yet he stays true to achieving his goal no matter what comes his way, even as his world becomes ever more challenging. Even in the face of ultimate defeat, he wills himself onward until he reaches the final confrontation that stands in the way of resolving his goal. In the end, either his goal will be achieved or it will not. Either way, he will have grown and learned something significant about himself or the world around him—ideally both. We, the audience, will have done the same.
TIP 14: KNOW WHAT UNFORGETTABLE STORIES ARE NOT ABOUT
Unforgettable stories are never about objects, places, or events. Such things are just background for the real story, which always focuses on the interactions of humans, or human surrogates (typically anthropomorphic creatures, such as WALL-E, C-3PO, or HAL 9000). That intense World War II story that you so deeply love will really be about characters caught up in the middle of the war, not about the war itself. Even the documentary about World War II that you enjoy watching on the History Channel, is likely to be about people dealing with events and not merely the events themselves.
Places, events, and objects provide the background against which characters are set. This in no way diminishes the importance of settings, events, or objects, for those are essential elements of any story’s structure. But remember that worthy stories are always about the struggles of a character or characters striving to reach a powerful goal.
- FIRST MOVEMENT, NORMAL WORLD, CHAPTER ONE—THE RULES OF THE ROAD In his office, Private Detective JAKE GITTES shows his client, CURLY, photos of Curly’s wife having sex with ANOTHER MAN. Curly groans at the pictures, becomes despondent, and cries. Gittes pours Curly a drink. Gittes doesn’t want Curly’s last dime.
- As Gittes escorts Curly out, Gittes’ secretary, SOPHIE, tells Gittes that a “Mrs. Mulwray” is waiting to meet him with WALSH and DUFFY.
- “MRS. MULWRAY” tells Gittes that she believes her husband, Hollis Mulwray, is cheating on her. She wants to hire him to follow her husband. Gittes advises her to go home and let sleeping dogs lie. But she needs to know if he’s cheating or not. Hollis works at the Department of Water and Power. Mrs. Mulwray claims that Gittes’ fee is no problem.
- In a Los Angeles city council chamber Gittes observes the MAYOR advocating for the building of a dam and reservoir to help bring water to Los Angeles. HOLLIS MULWRAY rises to speak. He explains that the shale beneath the dam will not support the weight of the water in the dam. Hollis won’t build it because he won’t risk collapse. FARMERS bring sheep to the meeting in protest. They accuse Mulwray of stealing water from the farmers.
- Gittes follows Hollis to a dry riverbed in the desert. Gittes observes through binoculars as Mulwray meets with a young MEXICAN BOY on horseback. The Boy rides away. Hollis retrieves plans of the area from his car.
- Gittes follows Hollis as he drives to a cliff overlooking the ocean. Gittes watches Mulwray get out of his car and head for the cliff. Gittes watches from the top of the bluff as Mulwray goes down to the shoreline and stares out at the sea. Gittes waits a long time for Mulwray to leave, but he doesn’t. Eventually water pours out of a sluice, nearly hitting Gittes. Mulwray stares up at the water.
- After dark, Gittes heads back to his car and finds a flyer on his windshield that reads: “SAVE OUR CITY. LOS ANGELES IS DYING OF THIRST. VOTE YES.” Gittes retrieves a watch, one of many, from his glove box. He places the watch under a tire of Mulwray’s car.
- Next morning, Gittes looks at the crushed watch in his office. Walsh picked it up. Had to go back three times. Mulwray went to three reservoirs, a men’s room at a gas station and the Pig ‘n Whistle. Mulwray has water on the brain. Walsh shows Gittes photos of Mulwray in a big argument with NOAH CROSS outside the Pig ‘N Whistle. Walsh heard only one thing: apple core. Gittes tells Walsh this business requires finesse. Duffy calls in. He is following Mulwray and a cute girl at Echo Park. They’re in a rowboat.
- Gittes and Duffy paddle a rowboat on Echo Lake allowing Gittes to take pictures of Mulwray and a YOUNG, BLONDE GIRL in another boat.
- Gittes tails Hollis and the girl to the El Macondo Apartments. As Gittes takes pictures of them from a tile roof, he slips, and one of the tiles drops to the ground. Alerted by the sound, Mulwray looks up. Gittes flees rapidly.
- As Gittes gets a shave in a barbershop he reads a newspaper article about his exposure of Hollis and the girl. A BARBER SHOP CUSTOMER accuses Gittes of exposing people like Mulwray for money. Gittes defends himself, challenging the Customer to step outside. Jake backs down saying he helps people out. He makes an honest living unlike the bums down at the bank do.
- Back in his office, Gittes tells Walsh and Duffy a dirty joke. Walsh and Duffy unsuccessfully indicate that the real EVELYN MULWRAY is standing behind him. It’s a big surprise and embarrassment for Gittes. The real Mrs. Mulwray threatens him with publicity he won’t like. Her LAWYER serves Gittes with a notice that she’s suing him. INCITING INCIDENT, CHAPTER TWO—A GRAND GOAL
- Gittes goes to Hollis Mulwray’s office. After talking his way past the receptionist, he searches Mulwray’s desk. He finds drawings and a handwritten note about seven water channels at the Oak Pass Reservoir. DEPUTY YELBURTON enters and introduces himself. Yelburton escorts Gittes to his own office. They’re all a bit worried about things since the article in the papers. Yelburton tells Gittes that Mulwray isn’t the type to kid about having an affair. Gittes asks Yelburton for one of his cards.
- In the hall, Gittes bumps into an old rival from the police force, thuggish CLAUDE MULVIHILL. Gittes learns there have been threats to blow up the reservoirs. The Water Department has hired Mulvihill for his services.
- Gittes drives to Mulwray’s house, rings the doorbell. A BUTLER answers the door and takes Gittes’ card. Gittes is escorted inside and told to wait. He wanders into the backyard where a JAPANESE GARDENER works. Gittes sees eyeglasses in a garden pond, is about to fish them out when…
- Evelyn appears through a gate to greet him, accompanied by the Butler. Gittes tells her he’s there to see Mr. Mulwray. She and Gittes sit down. Mulwray is nowhere to be found. Gittes tells Evelyn that he was set up. She says she wants to drop her suit against him. He wants to speak to Mulwray. Somebody’s gone to a lot of trouble, and Gittes doesn’t like being caught with his pants down. He tells her that Mulwray’s girlfriend has disappeared. He thinks someone is out to get her husband. Gittes thinks he can help Mulwray. She thinks he’ll find Hollis at the Oak Pass at the Stone Canyon reservoir.
- Gittes drives to the reservoir, where he finds the place crawling with cops. Gittes uses Yelburton’s card to gain his way in. There he sees TWO BOYS in swim trunks speaking to LIEUTENANT LOU ESCOBAR. DETECTIVE LOACH meets Gittes. Escobar greets Gittes. They are former partners. Gittes wonders if Escobar is still putting Chinamen in jail for spitting in the laundry. Gittes would like to talk to Mulwray, but he’s dead. His body is being fished out of the reservoir. SECOND MOVEMENT, THE POINT OF NO RETURN, CHAPTER THREE—THROUGH A ONE-WAY DOOR
- At the morgue, Evelyn identifies her husband’s body. While Gittes eavesdrops, Evelyn claims to not know the name of Mulwray’s “girlfriend.” Escobar asks if Mulwray was morose or if he might have taken his own life. Escobar believes Mrs. Mulwray has hired Gittes. She had hoped to stop the rumors about Hollis. Gittes covers for Evelyn.
- Gittes escorts Evelyn to her car through a sea of REPORTERS. She plans to send him a check so that she can officially say that she hired him.
- In the morgue, Gittes examines Mulwray’s body. The CORONER tells him that it’s odd that the water commissioner drowned in the middle of a drought. Gittes learns that a drunk named LEROY drowned in the dry L.A. River—similarly to Mulwray.
- Gittes investigates the riverbed where Leroy drowned. There he finds water in the nearly dry riverbed. He meets the same Mexican Boy on the horse that he saw with Mulwray. The Boy tells Gittes that water comes from different parts of the river every night—always from a different part.
- Gittes returns to the reservoir that night. It’s quiet. He climbs the fence to get inside. Someone shoots at him. Suddenly a major release of water knocks him off his feet, nearly drowning him. Sopping wet, Gittes climbs over the fence. Mulvihill and A SHORT MAN with a knife stop him. The Short Man slices Gittes’ nose. CHAPTER FOUR—GREAT DISCOVERIES
- Next morning in Gittes’ office, Walsh and Gittes discuss the idea that a contractor who wants to build the dam may have killed Mulwray. IDA SESSIONS (the phony Mrs. Mulwray) calls. She’s a “working girl.” Gittes wants to know who employed her, but she refuses to tell him. She tells Gittes to look in the newspaper obituary column if he wants to find, “…one of those people.”
- As Gittes waits to meet Evelyn at a restaurant, he tears out that day’s obituaries. Evelyn arrives. He got her check in the mail. He tells her it isn’t good enough. He wants more information. He realizes that more than the death of her husband was upsetting her. He thinks she’s hiding something. He believes her husband may have been murdered. She admits to knowing of her husband’s affair. She claims to have been grateful for it. Gittes finds that odd—unless Evelyn was cheating on her husband, too. She admits to sleeping with other men. He wants to know where she was when Mulwray died. She won’t tell him. She wants to avoid publicity. She tells him that her maiden name is Cross.
- Outside the restaurant, he tells her to go home. Her husband was murdered. He tells her that somebody’s been dumping water in the middle of a drought—and there’s a cover-up. He still thinks she’s hiding something.
- Gittes goes to Yelburton’s office. As YELBURTON’S SECRETARY checks on Yelburton’s availability, Gittes notices framed photos of Noah Cross and Mulwray on the wall. The Secretary tells him that Yelburton will be tied up for a long time. Gittes sits down to wait, quickly becoming a nuisance to the Secretary. She reveals that Noah Cross and Mulwray were partners. They owned the water department together. Mulwray thought the public should own the water; Cross disagreed. The Secretary goes back into Yelburton’s office. He agrees to see Gittes.
- Yelburton hopes Gittes isn’t still working for Evelyn. Gittes accuses Yelburton of dumping water and setting him up and killing Mulwray. Gittes learns water is being diverted to irrigate orange groves in the Northwest Valley—far enough that it might as well be Arizona. Gittes only wants to know who put Yelburton up to it.
- Back at Gittes’ office, Evelyn waits for him. She hires Gittes to find out what happened to Hollis. Gittes still doesn’t know how they profit from water dumping, but it’s all about money. He learns that she married Hollis sometime after he and Cross broke up the Water Department. Gittes notices that she’s nervous when speaking about her father. Hollis wanted the water to belong to the public, but Cross didn’t. Hollis never forgave Cross for talking him into building the Van der Lip Dam—a dam that broke.
- Gittes travels by boat to Catalina Island. MIDPOINT, CHAPTER FIVE—DESTINY BECKONS On the island he is driven to the Albacore Club where he meets NOAH CROSS for lunch. Cross tells Gittes he has a nasty reputation, which Cross admires. Gittes admits that he gave Evelyn the idea that Mulwray was murdered. The cops are calling it an accident. Cross believes that Escobar is a competent cop, which makes Cross thinks Gittes is taking Evelyn for a ride. When Cross asks if Gittes is sleeping with Evelyn, Gittes gets up to leave. Cross warns that Gittes may think he knows what he is dealing with but he doesn’t. Gittes sits back down. Cross offers to double Gittes’ fee and give him a bonus if he finds Mulwray’s “girlfriend.” She might have been among the last to see Mulwray alive. Gittes has pictures of Cross and Mulwray arguing outside the Pig ‘n Whistle. Gittes tells Cross that he’ll look into the girlfriend after he checks out some orange groves.
Steve Cuden speaks and signs books at The Writers Store, Burbank, CA on Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 3:00-5:00 pm.
At a Glance:
- Free Book Signing and Talk with Author Steve Cuden
- Steve Cuden inspires and provides just the kind of inner positive voice that writers crave
- For any professional screenwriter, producer, story analyst or film school student hoping to “beat” Hollywood at its own game