Lessons From Sundance 2024, Part II

If you’ve watched the first episode of the Lessons from Sundance podcast, you know that JKS faculty member Christian Lybrook and I recently recorded a series of short form videos for our social media (@thejkstudio) about what you can learn as screenwriters from the films, lectures and documentaries we saw at Sundance. We’ve now compiled them into this two part podcast series, which we think is going to be tremendously valuable for all of you.

In this second installment, we’re going to have a treat for you documentary filmmakers, looking at four vastly different documentaries, Nocturnes, (which won Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Craft), Every Little Thing, Black Box Diaries and Eno.

If you’re not a documentarian, don’t worry, we’ll be gleaning lessons from the structure of these films that will be valuable for screenwriters and TV writers of any genre.

We’ll also sharing some insights from lectures by Jonathan Nolan and Steven Soderbergh on the art of storytelling, the importance of theme, and the use of research in scriptwriting, as well as script analysis of two very unusual action comedy features, Thelma and Kidnapping, Inc, with a really cool discussion about the use of humor to tackle serious issues in your screenwriting.

We’re going to learn about alternative forms of structure, how to build through big and small choices, how to use obstacle and threat in your writing, how to write believable antagonists, how to listen to your characters, how to find a balance between the subconscious and the conscious mind, how to find your voice as a writer, how to find your hook and your take on source material, how to develop hot relationships in screenwriting, form as function in screenwriting, how to use theme, and much much more.

There will be some minimal spoilers, but we’ll keep you posted between each analysis so you can skip ahead if you want no spoilers at all.

And if you’re listening instead of watching and the sound is a bit different than normal, know that’s because each video was recorded live from a unique location at Sundance to give you a feeling of the festival.

We talk a lot in our classes about character driven structure. But how do you find structure when writing movies that aren’t driven by traditional characters, or by characters at all? Let’s jump in and find out with our discussion of Nocturnes, by Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan and Every Little Thing by Sally Aitkin.

Nocturnes and Every Little Thing: Approaches To Structure

Jacob Krueger:   We’re going to talk about two different documentaries in a way that will be valuable for you, whether you’re a documentarian or writing a feature film or TV show. The two documentaries are Nocturnes, which is a beautiful meditation about moths shot in the Eastern Himalayas, and Every Little Thing, which is a story about a woman in Los Angeles who is rescuing thousands of hummingbirds. 

These two documentaries are fascinating, because they’re built in the exact opposite way. And we’re going to be exploring how much your take and your premise matters in building a script.

Every Little Thing, even though it’s actually about hummingbirds, is built around a traditional character journey. There is a particular hummingbird named Cactus. 

Christian Lybrook: Oh, poor Cactus. Cactus was found with barbs sticking out of her chest. A tiny, baby bird. And Terry, the hummingbird whisperer, it is her goal to get Cactus back out into the world. 

Jacob Krueger: So with Cactus, we have this very traditional narrative storytelling inside a documentary.

Sure, we have lots and lots of birds, but really we have the story of Terry trying to save Cactus. And of course, Cactus is a lost cause. Cactus fell into a cactus, and cannot fly and is going to die. 

And over the course of the movie, Cactus. Of course… spoiler alert:

Cactus makes it.

You know it’s going to happen from the very start. And yes, Cactus makes it. And yes, you want to cry, even though you saw it coming, when Cactus makes it. 

And that’s traditional narrative storytelling. 

The character is Cactus.

And the hot relationship is the relationship between Terry and Cactus.

Christian Lybrook: There are lots of different tools in our kit as screenwriters. And, these tools can cross over between narrative and documentary.

As narrative screenwriters, we can often learn from documentaries and vice versa.

One of the things I always talk about with the writers I work with is: small moments, big impact.

There’s this small moment in Every Little Thing: all Terry is trying to do is get Cactus, this little hummingbird, to jump off this little twig onto another twig.

And she lowers the twig, again and again, and we’re waiting– is Cactus going to be able to do it? And you can’t believe the amount of tension it creates! And when Cactus finally makes the leap, what happens?

The audience breaks out in applause. 

Jacob Krueger:  We are literally cheering for a little, tiny hummingbird who just jumped from a little stick Terry calls her “magic wand.” It’s a  tiny stick that she’s raising and lowering– trying to get Cactus to jump onto a little wire thing inside of the cage.

But it’s the first time that we see hope for Cactus. 

And if you think in traditional screenwriting terms– we’re not talking about just documentaries here– in traditional screenwriting terms, this is want, obstacle, completion.

From Cactus, the character’s, perspective:

I want this. It’s so hard. I’ve got cactuses in my back. I’m failing to thrive. It’s not going to work.

We have this relationship with this woman who’s trying to care for this bird that probably isn’t going to make it. 

And then, oh! You get that first moment of hope. And yeah, you want to cheer. 

Christian Lybrook: Our brains are always grasping for big moments that it knows are dramatic.

But one of the games I play is, “okay, here’s the big moment. I got it. What’s the smallest moment that can create impact in my character’s journey?” 

And sometimes that’s the most surprising one. 

Jacob Krueger: Now I want to pop over to Nocturnes. Because Nocturnes is built in a completely different way.

There are characters, technically. We’re watching these Indian scientists who are studying these moths. And there is an obstacle. There is a very particular moth they are trying to study and they’re trying to map the effects of climate change on this moth.They’re trying to understand how growth and elevation change match up. 

The question they’re really asking is: what happens when this moth runs out of territory? And what happens to the entire ecosystem when that happens? 

But unlike Every Little Thing, Nocturnes is built like a meditation.

It’s a completely different approach to storytelling and profoundly beautiful. But you are sitting there ,and sometimes there’s a shot that’s three or four minutes long and you are just looking at a screen, a brightly lit fabric screen, that is swarming with moths in the middle of the high jungle of the Himalayas.

And it’s magical and beautiful, but it’s built in a completely different way. It’s built, as the filmmakers described it, to transcend story. And it is built to force you, the audience, to get out of your way of thinking, and instead. to have to surrender to looking a little bit closer.

They just linger on this screen swarming with moths, and it’s beautiful.

And at first you’re thinking, “wow, that’s really cool.” And then you’re taking in the sound design, which is just extraordinary. It’s immersive. You feel like you’re in the forest. And then they keep lingering. And what happens is, you start to get curious.

What is going to happen? Why are we lingering here?

And then they keep lingering and you stop waiting for them to answer the question. You start to answer the question yourself. You start to notice what must be interesting about this. 

So there’s a little dramatic thing that’s happening inside of you, as you are forced to stay with something longer than you expect and the effect of that is it forces you to surrender to the jungle and to the pace of the jungle. It breaks you out of your traditional storytelling expectations and it forces you to tell yourself the story. 

Nocturnes is doing something profound that you might think you could only get away with in a documentary. But you can see this same kind of thing if you’ve listened to my podcast on Saltburn

Saltburn does the same thing. If you’ve seen Saltburn and you’ve seen the graveyard scene, they just linger on him on that grave… for so long.So much longer than you are comfortable with. 

And of course it gets more and more extreme because it’s a narrative driven film.

(I’m not going to ruin it for those of you who have not seen Saltburn, but they linger and they start with something that’s dramatic. And then it becomes kind of gross, and then they just keep lingering, and you start to laugh, and then most people would cut… but she just lingers there.

Emerald Fennell just stays and you start to laugh harder and the longer she stays the more you’re laughing because you’re telling yourself the story of your own discomfort.

There are really two profound lessons here for screenwriters. Number one is every choice you make as a filmmaker is based on what you want to do, and what you want to do may not be the traditional thing. The second thing is the power of pace to force an audience to do something that they’re not used to doing that you can use your pace as a tool for your audience and for your writing.

Christian Lybrook: One of the things that Nocturnes communicated to me is how theme permeates that piece and you don’t even realize it, but you experience it. So these long shots mimic what part of the theme is, which is about time and time passing and how we are participating in it as human beings and our impact through time on, in this case, moths. And as writers, we can use theme to help sharpen scenes, to help even provide direction to the overarching narrative of our characters, obviously. But the small choices, too. Now we can’t go in and say this shot’s gonna last four minutes. But we get to exert ourselves in terms of how we use theme in the story. 

Having talked about the value of small choices with big impact when building structure, we’re now going to talk about another documentary that builds in exactly the opposite way, finding its impact through huge choices in relation to obstacle, threat, a traditional “antagonist” and an important political theme. Black Box Diaries, directed by and starring Shiori Ito,  was one of Christian’s favorite films from the festival, and I think you’ll all benefit greatly from some of his insights.

There will be a few small spoilers in case you want to skip ahead to the next section:

Black Box Diaries: Obstacle, Threat & The Protagonist/Antagonist relationship

Christian Lybrook: Black Box Diaries is really a journey towards justice. It’s about a young woman who is a journalist in Japan. She gets sexually assaulted by one of her superiors, and Japan is not a culture where this is discussed.The laws do not support women She’s not listened to. Cases are thrown out. Police don’t follow up on things. And all these odds are stacked up against her. 

And she steps forward. As a journalist, she holds her own press conference, and that creates a snowball effect, both opening up the opportunity to talk about this, but also making her a target. 

Jacob Krueger: We’ve talked about looking for those small choices with big impact, but sometimes you want to go exactly the opposite direction when building structure: what is the biggest choice your character can make? What is the hardest choice your character can make? What is the choice that their societal rules or the rules that they live by, their own internal rules, their own internal architecture, what is the rule that they live by and what would it take for them to break it?

And what would live on the other side if they were to break it? 

Christian Lybrook: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So this young woman tells her family that she’s going to speak out against what has happened to her, and her family tells her not to do it.

She’s got obstacles right out of the gate. She’s got huge obstacles, meaning the culture and society and the laws of the land, the police force, etc. But she’s also got a very personal obstacle, in terms of her family, and how they’re processing this. And it’s based actually in trying to protect her, which is really interesting.

And on the other side of that, she’s got everything to lose. Her career, perhaps her family, certainly her sense of privacy. And she’s got to put it all on the line, to decide she’s willing to sacrifice herself and her own public standing to pursue her want and the bigger emotional need of justice.

Jacob Krueger: Not every documentary film needs to have a narrative structure, but most of them do, with exceptions of Nocturnes and a few other outliers. And when you’re building narratively, even though you may be doing so through interview, conceptually it’s the same dramatic structure of a feature.

What does she want? What makes it hard? And what’s the threat? What happens if she does it? What happens if she doesn’t? What is there to be lost? 

Christian Lybrook: Structure is this big idea. We hear people bat it around, and no one defines it. They just say, “ah, you gotta look at your structure.”

But, at its core level, we talk about structure as giving your characters choices that have consequences. And all along, this young woman has to make really hard choices that have big consequences. And that creates an incredibly emotional, compelling story that allows you to participate in what’s going on in a way that is entirely visceral. The amount of times I broke down and wept during that screening…

Jacob Krueger: This relates to a concept called Threat.

You’ve all had the experience, you’re watching a horror movie, and the character is about to run up the stairs, and you’re thinking, “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.”

But you also understand why they’re going to do it. And what that is, that’s threat

And you don’t need to be writing a horror movie to create threat, because the truth is, our lives are full of threat

If we didn’t feel threat in our own lives, outside of writing– we all feel threat in writing– but if we didn’t feel threat, then we would all be self actualized. 

Sometimes we want to make it so easy for our characters. This is a nice woman, and she’s brave and she’s strong, and we want to just give her a break. Don’t punish her for making the right decision! 

And in a documentary, obviously you’re just mining the truth, but in feature film writing and TV writing and playwriting and novel writing, we have to actually let the worst thing happen. We have to punish our characters unfairly for making the right choices.

Because what lays on the other side of that is the real test and the real change. It would be easy for all of us to do the right thing if it wasn’t for the threat that comes with it. It would be easy –, “I want to be a writer. Okay, I’ll just write a script and get it out there.”

If it wasn’t for the threat of rejection. If it wasn’t for the threat of learning that you’re “not good enough.” If it wasn’t for the threat of, “oh my god, what if dad’s right? What if I can’t? What if I have to change my whole view of myself?”

Without threat, everything’s easy and therefore we don’t have to change. But when we start to confront the threat, when we start to ask, “what’s the thing that my programming says I can’t do? What are the rules I’m living by that aren’t real rules?” When you or your character make that kind of choice, you discover what lays on the other side.

And what lays on the other side is always profound. 

Christian Lybrook: You mentioned truth earlier and writing honestly and truthfully is one of the hardest things to do. But when you’re able to ask yourself, “what would my character actually do in this moment” and let them make that choice and pursue that thing, no matter how much it upsets your plans, that’s where the unexpected moment happens, not only for your character, but also the audience.

And now the audience is participating: “oh, wow! That’s what happened? That’s the choice they’re gonna make?”

Jacob Krueger: Everybody says “you’ve got to work on the structure,” but no one tells you what structure is!

Structure is this simple: what does she want, what makes it hard, what’s the threat, and what the consequence that lies on the other side of that choice that the character’s not prepared for?

That’s structure, because that’s structure in our lives. 

So the truth is, if you feel like you’re not good at structure, that’s baloney!

You do structure every day in your life, you just don’t call it structure. You call it “making choices.” You call it “consequences.” You call it, “I’m afraid.” You call it, “I was brave.” And really, structure is just choice in relation to what you want and what you need against huge obstacles.

Christian Lybrook: Sometimes we don’t realize that we’re giving our character a choice. It gets so buried in creating the tension around the want and the obstacle. And then you get to slow yourself down, and really be deliberate instead of just jumping through the hoops. 

First draft, it’s fine. Great. Put it on the page. Second draft, it’s fine. But the deeper you get into the process of rewrites, the you want to really slow that stuff down and just be curious.  

Jacob Krueger: There’s a related concept you were alluding to early when you spoke about the main character’s family trying to stop her from her pursuit of justice in Black Box Diaries.

Oftentimes, we think of antagonists, or obstacles, and we judge them, “that’s bad, they’re evil, they’re wrong.” 

And one of the things you said that was quite beautiful is that her family’s making the wrong choice for her, and they’re telling her the thing that is wrong for her, not out of hatred, but out of love.

If you’re a writer, you probably have this person in your life, who’s telling you , “maybe it’s time for law school.” “Are you really gonna invest in a screenwriting class? That’s crazy!” We have these voices around us, and it’s easy to think “they’re evil, they want to stop me.” But they’re not evil. Very few of us have actual antagonists in our lives.

But what we do have is people with good intentions, but different values. 

Christian Lybrook: When we set up the protagonist-antagonist relationship, our brain wants to make the protagonist good and the antagonist evil. But in the best scripts and the best stories, it’s going really be about figuring out where both parties are right.

Because now, as an audience member I’m thinking, “that guy’s a dick,” and then I’m realizing, “…but actually he’s got a point.” And now I’m participating in the story because I’m conflicted. 

And even when the “good guy,” has to make choices, they have to be true to themselves, and sometimes they make the wrong choice, but for the right reasons. And sometimes the right choice comes with consequences the character’s not ready for yet. 

The only conflicts worth dramatizing are the ones where both sides are right.

We’re now going to switch our conversation to a delightful little feature action comedy, Thelma, written and directed by Josh Margolin. This screenplay is such a great illustration about how to keep your main characters active, and how to deliver a twist on a beloved genre.

There are only a few very small spoilers over what you will likely see in the trailer so you can feel safe listening even if you haven’t yet seen the movie.

Thelma: Active Main Characters & a Twist on the Action Genre

Christian Lybrook: We are going to be talking about Thelma. Its simplest description is Mission Impossible… with a grandma.

Jacob Krueger: It’s essentially the slowest action movie you have ever seen! They do all these famous action sequences, all these action movie tropes, but every single action sequence, every single “stunt,” is something a 93 year old grandma could actually do.

There’s this fabulous moment where she’s just trying to get to something high and she rolls over on a bed.

And then another when she’s trying to navigate an antique store…

Christian Lybrook: It’s like a Mission Impossible sequence. 

Jacob Krueger: Even though Thelma is filled with old people jokes, at the center of it, there’s really a story about taking responsibility for your own life. 

Christian Lybrook: We have these choices that we make as writers. We can either lean into the character and their perceived deficiencies, or we can give them a lot of help. One of the things that I loved was that the screenwriter- director, Josh Margolin, really leaned into what it means to be somebody who’s older.

The setup is that Thelma’s family thinks that she is incapable, and then she gets scammed, and gives 10k to a scammer, which sets everything in motion for her to be very capable in her quest to get the money back.

Jacob Krueger: In a way, it’s like a P. I. movie. She’s slowly solving the case, getting into deeper and deeper danger.

One of the wonderful things about the film the way it plays with tone. You have all the excitement. There are gasps at some points during the “action sequences.” But we never get outside of the reality of what a grandma could do. We’re always playing in this sweet genre.

The film is really an homage to the writer-director’s grandma, whose name is Thelma. 

You have a grandma. She’s 93 years old. Her primary relationship is with her grandson, and one of the really interesting parallels is, he’s a kind of similar conundrum in his own life. 

Christian Lybrook: Just like they do to his grandma, Thelma, his parents are constantly telling him that he’s incapable, “have you gotten your driver’s license renewed?” “Maybe you should go back to school.” “Maybe you should get back with your ex girlfriend.” 

Jacob Krueger: There’s an over parenting of the grandma and there’s an over parenting of the son. 

The easy choice, structurally, would be to send the son and the grandma on an adventure together, because it’s such a sweet relationship. But it would also lead to a challenge in relation to what the writers want to say…

Christian Lybrook: These are choices that we have as writers. One of the things we always focus on are these hot relationships.

The term hot relationships simply implies that there’s some kind of friction. And the strongest relationship is the grandmother and the grandson, so we do want to see them together.

But we don’t want the grandson to do everything for the grandmother, otherwise we take power away from our protagonist. 

Jacob Krueger: So the writer-director makes an interesting choice to deprive us of that thing that we want, and instead send both grandma and grandson on separate journeys. 

And what that does is force both of them to learn that they can move under their own power. And it also makes it so wonderful when they come back together at the end.

Jacob Krueger: Just because you’ve got a great premise like “Mission Impossible with a grandma” doesn’t mean that the bad guys have to be super dangerous. We don’t need shoot em ups. we don’t need the kind of threat that’s in an action movie if you want to keep that super sweet tone.

This movie could have also skewed way darker, in a different filmmaker’s hands, it could have been a wonderful dark comedy, about growing old and not being capable. But that’s not what Josh Margolin is trying to say. 

Christian Lybrook: One of the keys that Josh Margolin zeroed in on in the screenplay for Thelma was the obstacles. And the obstacles had to all be relative to the grandmother and her universe.

But the key wasn’t necessarily just making sure those obstacles were appropriate. These obstacles have to be really hard for your protagonist. And so what we start to realize is, obstacles are relative to the character, where they are in their journey, and what their goal is.

Jacob Krueger: So for Grandma, just walking across a field can feel like Tom Cruise jumping off a building. 

Christian Lybrook: I gasped at that moment, (spoiler… she falls). And I was like, “”Ahhhh!” what a great way to use what’s already organic to the story. 

So remember what your movie is doing, allow your movie to do what it’s doing.

And that can mean making choices with the tropes, but also against the tropes.

Christian Lybrook: If you’re writing an action movie or a parody of an action movie, make sure you use the tropes. Use them all! All those things that are already there. All you have to do is pluck them out and think, “now how do I recalibrate them for this universe?”

Jacob Krueger: We hear about comps all the time. Often we think comps mean “this meets that.” So if you’re looking for an idea for a movie or in a TV show, often you can just think, “what if I did Mission Impossible with a grandma?” “What if I did some kind of archetypal film with a twist?” 

And suddenly you have an idea that no one’s thought about before, that, like Thelma, is just beautiful and charming

Christian Lybrook: And not every script is going to fall into this category. But when you do find that little genre twist, producers love somebody coming in and saying, Mission Impossible, but with a grandmother, because they can immediately see what that movie is in their head. 

Jacob Krueger: To wrap it up, what does your movie want to be? What’s your twist on the genre? How are you using and playing against the tropes? What are the obstacles that are most challenging for your character in their world?

And go check out Thelma

Next, we’ll be talking about one of the biggest challenges for any writer: research. As a jumping off point, we’ll be talking a bit about a lecture at Sundance with the great writer/director Jonathan Nolan, in which he spoke about some of his strategies for research, and then transitioning into some of the techniques that have been most valuable for me and Christian when it comes to using research in our own writing. 

Jonathan Nolan: How to Research Your Screenplay

Christian Lybrook: Jonathan Nolan, who started his career with a short story that his brother Christopher Nolan turned into the film Memento, went off from that to write all the Batman movies with Christopher Nolan, then created Westworld and a bunch of other great films and shows.

Just by tracking through his list of credits, you can see that one of the things he’s obsessed with is technology, science and its impact on our lives. And it’s an easy rabbit hole to go down when we start talking about research.

Jacob Krueger: If I allow myself, I can start research today, and 16 years from now I’ll tell you, “I’m almost done my research.” The more research I do, the more I feel like I’m not ready to start, that I don’t know enough. 

And that’s the thing about research. It can become a giant rabbit hole, especially because it’s a lot less scary than screenwriting. It’s so much more fun to sit down and research, than to confront the fear of facing the blank page. 

The other mistake that I see a lot of writers make with research is mistaking the research for the story.

You start out with this really nice, beautiful, clean premise with a clear want and a clear journey. And then suddenly it becomes Information-fest 2024, right?

You’re suddenly just jamming information in. And what that ends up doing is diluting your story.

So it’s important to remember that the research helps you set the world and helps you understand the characters and helps you understand the journey, helps you find those little details. But the research is isn’t movie, the characters are the movie. 

Christian Lybrook: Jonathan Nolan had a really interesting take on research that we can all learn from. He does a ton of research, you see it in the fabric of his work. But he says that the more research you do, the more boxed in you get by the rules of the research itself.

And so this really graphs with what you’re talking about: story and character. We need that research to make everything feel authentic and real. But at a certain point, the more research we do, the worse the movie gets. Because, information is the enemy of emotion.

Emotion is the only reason we care about stories. Some stories really do need the authenticity of research. But it can get in the way of creating an emotional experience for your audience. 

In my own writing, research bears heavily.

A lot of the stuff I do may be historical, or it’s very specific in relation to an unusual occupation. And I love getting into the weeds on that. There are things that you can discover in research that you can never make up in a million years.

But, I get to a point where I’m doing this surface level research, and I may dive down in particular subjects, but really I’m just looking for that thing that makes me say, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that!”

And once I get a few of those beats, that’s all I really need, 

Jacob Krueger: Many years ago, I was working on a project about Pompeii, And I get caught up in research, so I made a rule for myself. I had to choose three books, max. And then I had to start writing. 

I like to bring in heavy research after I’ve done my first draft. So in my first draft, I read three books. If I’m working on a true life story, I’m going to obviously interview people. But what I’m looking for in those early drafts, I’m looking for the weird stuff.

I’m looking for the stuff that doesn’t quite make sense, that piques me for some reason. And what I ended up finding from those three books about Pompeii– the one thing that really mattered– was that there are all these unsolved mysteries, The producer had asked for a project about Pompeii, that was the whole prompt.

And I realized, “Oh, it’s a mystery.” And so the research pointed me there. 

And it’s the most complicated script I’ve ever written. It’s a limited series. There’s a mystery in the present, and there’s a mystery in the past, and the two mysteries enfold each other. And it’s a lot of fun. And it was hard. 

But I finished that first draft, and then I found an archaeologist. 

I went to Pompeii and sat down with the archaeologist and the archaeologist had all kinds of comments that, if I had come to him at the beginning, would have destroyed my script.

One of the mysteries was that there was a cross found in Pompeii. And in the book, it raised the question: was Christianity in Pompeii? This is 79 AD. Could it have spread that far already? And so I wove that into the story. 

And I meet the archaeologist and he goes, “it’s a cabinet bracket! It’s not a cross, That’s ridiculous! It wouldn’t have been a cross at that time. It would have been a fish!”

And if I had gotten that information at the beginning, it would have destroyed everything I was trying to build.

Fortunately, I got it later, and I was like, okay, “how can I make this realistic?”

The other bit of amazing information was finding out that archaeologists are the only people in Pompeii who eat bad food.They’re the only people in all of Italy, because they have no money. And they’re working a millimeter by millimeter, sacrificing everything in their effort to preserve the truth. And then you have the tour guides, and they hate the tour guides, because the tour guides are going through saying, “And hear the chariots rush…”

And the archeologists are walking by, fists clenched, grumbling, “there are no chariots in Pompeii!”

And I realized that the piece had to be about truth, which I didn’t know when I was writing the first draft. It had to be about how the need to get everything right, and preserve every aspect of the truth can actually get in the way of being able to do their job.

If they unearthed Pompeii today the way it was unearthed back thenwe still wouldn’t know there was a Pompeii. They move so slowly because they don’t want to lose anything, and they don’t have the budget to live up to their own standards and actually accomplish anything…

And I realized, okay, that’s what the movie is really about. And then that brought me back to do a rewrite. But what I think what’s interesting about this is, both of those pieces of information I would not have known what to do with at the beginning.

So think about much information do you need to get started? And then bring the experts in after you know what it is. Because the experts are going to be obsessed with stuff that actually isn’t that important to you. They’re going to be obsessed with all these little details.

I like to use experts and deep research to help me understand all the little things I got wrong after I’ve written the first draft, and then I can use that to invoke a larger a more detailed landscape in the piece.

Christian Lybrook: Some writers are terrified of research. They don’t even know how to get started. When we’re in that situation, we just run to the fun. We go to the thing that is most interesting to us, and we just build on that.

Once you do have a sense of maybe what this thing is about, there are academics all over the world who live in their offices and teach their classes and live in their bubble.

Reach out to them. Send them an email and say, “hey, I’m a screenwriter working on this topic around biofuels and I’m wondering if I can get 20 minutes of your time.” And you will be surprised at how many people gets excited to know you’re working on a movie about something that they love dearly, and will be happy to hop on the phone with you.

Jacob Krueger: And they’ll work with you for free! Don’t promise them anything. They will be delighted to work with you for free. 

We do want to write authentic movies.

And when you see a movie that has that feeling of authenticity it’s so incredibly powerful. We talked about Reinas last episode, where you’re dropped into that world of Lima, and it feels so real. And it’s these tiny little details that make it real. 

I’ve got another embarrassing story about myself. My first screenplay was a script called The Tree of Life. Not the brilliant Terrence Malick The Tree of Life, a much worse film. It was set in the American West when Ohio was the frontier. 

And the main character has a land grant, and he goes out to, Ohio and I got caught up for months on how he’s supposed to build a house. You’re a brand new settler, you just showed up in the middle of the woods in this little town… do people help you? How do you build your house? How do you live while you build your house? I got obsessed with it. I couldn’t find the answer, and I’m reading book after book, until I finally realized this movie is not about how Tom builds a house! 

I was a little tiny infant baby screenwriter, still in diapers., But that’s the kind of stuff that happens to beginning screenwriters. When that happens, don’t go down the rabbit hole, but also don’t just leave a blank. If you don’t know the answer and you can’t quickly find the answer, do some imaginative research. Create something that you can react to later. Because when you just put a blank, that gives you nothing to play with for the rest of your script.

If you can’t find the answer, don’t spend a month trying to find something that might end up getting cut out of your script. Because in the final script, Tom shows up and then he has a house. And nobody cares.

Nobody cares because that’s not what the movie’s about, but you don’t know in those early drafts. So you want to stay out of the rabbit hole. 

You want to do enough research to make it believable, to make it specific, to find those little weird things. And if you can’t do the book research, do the imaginative research in the early draft and then come back and bring an expert in once you really know what the script is.

Christian Lybrook: This is a little bit of a tangent, but I was a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago. You’re packing the night before you leave to go to this new country to do your work. You’re packing for two and a half years of your life. And the advice they always gave was: pack your bags, then take half out.

And I think that’s a great metaphor for thinking about research. Having come through all these wonderful craft and structural ideas, we’re going to pivot to talking about voice. Voice is the only thing you have to sell as a new writer– it’s the ability to write like yourself and it’s both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. We all have a thousand other voices– internal and external– shouting at us about what we are supposed to do as a writer and what our project is supposed to be. Steven Soderbergh gave a brilliant lecture at Sundance about the art of listening as a writer and a director, so we’ll be using that as a jumping off point to learn more about how to find your own voice as a writer.

Steven Soderbergh: How to Listen To Your Characters

Christian Lybrook: Steven Soderbergh, writer, director, you’ve probably seen all of his movies. He gave an hour-long informal chat. And if you’re a screenwriter and you’re at a festival like Sundance, take advantage of these opportunities, because these are once in a lifetime things. There’s nowhere else you’re going to get a chance to hear Steven Soderbergh talk about craft. And one of the things that he zeroed in on was when he’s on set, from inception all the way through post, he’s always listening to the story 

Jacob Krueger: What is Soderbergh mean when he says listening and what is listening mean to you Christian? 

Christian Lybrook: Soderbergh gave the example that he doesn’t give a lot of “attaboys” on set, whether it’s actors or crew or whatever.

He told a story about an actor who came up to another actor and said, “I think he hates me.” And that wasn’t the case at all. What was really going on there was Soderbergh just trying to be quiet. The more he starts talking about things, the less he’s actually in tune with what’s happening under the surface.

So part of that listening is simply being quiet and quieting your brain. And by doing so, hopefully you get closer to what’s really going on under the surface, both for the character and for the story. 

Jacob Krueger: Because we all have all these voices in our heads. And we think those voices are serving us. When the voice says, “That’s not good enough! You’re not good enough! ” Or, “Maybe it should be like this!” Or “What if… this or that!” Sometimes it can sound like a very positive voice coming at you.

But what all those voices do when they’re coming at you with that frenetic energy is get in your way of being able to listen to the characters, being able to listen to the script– or, if you’re a director, being able to listen to the actors and the scene– in order to do your job. Like Christian was saying, you do have to be able to quiet your mind, and it’s the hardest thing to do in life. And it’s the hardest thing to do in writing.

Christian Lybrook: When we talk about listening, for me, there’s this transition that happens. Everything starts as what I call “writer want.” It’s “I want to do this, I want to explore this.”

But, if I’m doing it right, I become a conduit for the characters, for the story, for the themes, And that’s when I know I’m listening, when that little voice starts to say, “hmmm…” And it’s very quiet. I have to be listening really hard.

Jacob Krueger: When I was a young writer, I remember going to lectures like these and hearing writers say, “you just listen to your characters,” or, “I’m not really a writer, I’m just the conduit from the thing from the universe.”

And I remember thinking, “what a bunch of bullshit! I’m working my butt off!” And I was good at working hard. And I wrote a lot of mediocre to good screenplays doing that. 

And then one day I learned what it actually means to be a conduit. And it was like “oh…” 

I actually hadn’t been a writer. I had been half a writer, because half of the writing does take place in the conscious part of your mind. But most of the writing does not. And you think that you’re trusting yourself when you trust your mind. But you’re actually trusting yourself when you trust your intuition. And those are different things. It’s so scary to let go of mind.

By the way, let go of mind doesn’t mean letting go of mind forever. What we’re trying to reach, eventually, is that perfect balance between the subconscious and the conscious, that perfect dance where you have just enough tension between these two parts of your mind. 

But, if you come from Western society, unless you grew up Buddhist, or with an incredible meditation practice, all of your work has been likely been pushed towards this conscious part of your mind. You can end up forgetting that the subconscious part exists, because it’s just not valued in our society.

But that subconscious part of you is the part of you that’s a good writer. So learning how to quiet your mind, learning how to listen, learning how to perform that radical act of trust in yourself, and learning how to make peace with all the voices in your head. 

What I do when I’m bombarded with all those frenetic voices in my head: I write them down. If I don’t write them down, they stay with me.

In my personal life, that’s often journaling in the morning, just doing three pages of morning pages, just get that garbage out. 

In screenwriting, what I do is jot all those thoughts in the margins (if I’m writing on paper, which I like to do in early drafts). And if I’m writing on the computer, I’ll jot it on a yellow pad or on my ipad. 

I put all those frenetic thoughts on the side, because I want to remind myself: this is just a thought. 

This is not writing, This is just garbage off on the margin. And it might come back and be important, but learning how to get past the chaos of all those voices is vital to learning how to listen as a writer.

And you know you’re listening to your real voice because it comes at you differently. 

Your real voice doesn’t come at you like, “AHHHHHHHH!”

It doesn’t come at you with anxious energy, it comes at you in a quiet, calm, clear and directive way.

I took a yoga class years ago and the yoga instructor said yoga instruction should feel like this: Left foot down. That simple.

And when it comes at you like a yoga instruction, that’s your voice.

When it comes at you with that kind of simplicity, and there’s no charge underneath it, it’s just true. This belongs in the script. This is true. This made me cry. This feels off. Those quiet answers, that’s when you know you’re listening 

Christian Lybrook: What I would add to that is, when you get a sense that something isn’t quite there, you don’t have to fix it right then. The most important thing is to acknowledge it, and just write it down, because when you write that down, your brain goes “Oh, you want me to think about this.” It’s working on it in the background. And that’s when you’re walking your dog or whatever and all of a sudden you realize, “oh!” 

My brain is constantly hammering me. “Figure it out now. How come you haven’t made a decision yet? If you were a better writer…” But that’s not actually the case. This is the process. And how reassuring is that? To know that I’m not doing anything wrong. This repetition, this iterative nature of the process is simply how it works.

Jacob Krueger: So take a little bit of advice from Steven Soderbergh via Christian Lybrook. Instead of concentrating on fixing your script, instead of concentrating on making it right, instead of concentrating on what you want it to be, see what happens if you quiet your mind for a moment and just look for that quiet voice. What if you just start to listen? ​

Next, we’ll be looking at Eno, a revolutionary documentary film by Gary Hustwit about legendary music producer, Brian Eno. Eno pushes the limits of how structure can be built in a movie, integrating an AI engine that builds a new structure each time the film is shown. So how do you make this kind of radical choice without it being just a gimmick, and what can Eno teach us about finding structure in early drafts of our own screenplays… stay tuned to find out!

Eno: Form as Function in Screenwriting

Hello, this is Jacob Krueger. I’m now home from Sundance, but why should the party end? There are some movies we have not yet talked about, and the first one I’d like to discuss with you is a documentary film called Eno about the brilliant music producer Brian Eno.

There’s a lot we can learn from this documentary, whether we’re documentarians or feature filmmakers or TV writers. The first thing I want to talk about is a concept called form as function

I first learned this concept back many years ago when I was in college from a wonderful professor named Bill Cook.

Bill Cook wasn’t a screenwriting professor. He was a poetry professor. And the concept, as he described it, was always that the form of the poem and the function of the poem should be one thing. The choices you make for the shape and the rhyme and the rhythm patterns– every choice you make should relate to the function of the poem.

What is the poem supposed to do? 

Screenwriting and poetry are more alike than people think. A screenplay is also like a poem in that every line, every moment needs to push the story forward, needs to have a function, needs to do something

So the Brian Eno documentary is a wild example of form as function in that they’re doing a documentary about a producer and musician who worked with all of the greats: David Bowie, U2, The Talking Heads… it’s an endless list. 

But what they do that’s really interesting is take part of the functionality of what Brian Eno was trying to do as a producer in order to inspire their use of AI and their radical choices about the structure of the movie.

Brian Eno was not only interested in producing songs, he was interested in producing engines for songs. He was interested in compiling the raw components of songs that a computer could then iterate and iterate and iterate so that you could have music forever, and that no one would ever hear the same song.

What these filmmakers do is basically take the form of what Eno is trying to do in his music, and turn it into the function of their documentary. And the way that they do that is by creating an AI bot, and doing an extensive editing and  labeling process, (there were actually two different editors on the film). 

There are certain moments that are bookmarked– they’re going to always occur in a certain section. All the other scenes are labeled by topic and theme and type of interview. 

And what the AI does is then put it together into a structure. 

Now, this may be a little terrifying for you if you’re a screenwriter. We’re all afraid of being replaced by AI. But one of the reasons that this works really well is because of form and function meeting.

In other words, they are creating a documentary about Brian Eno in the way that Brian Eno would have created it. And because it’s a music documentary, it doesn’t need a rigid structure, And we have this wonderful experience, where literally no two audiences will ever see the same movie at the same time. There are gajillions of different permutations. 

I also think this is really interesting as related to the editing process, and to the structuring process for any screenplay. 

You can think of the end of each act of your movie, (if you’re using a seven act structure) like a buoy. It’s something you’re navigating towards, just like those bookmarked scenes in Eno

In most movies, there are certain big moments that we’re navigating towards, And often we end up doing too much outlining. We think that we have to connect every point on the timeline between these great buoys.

But what’s wonderful about buoys is you’re not on a train track. You can head directly toward a buoy, you can go off and pass it on the port or starboard, you can run right over the buoy, you can realize there’s a cooler buoy out in a different direction and head in a different direction. 

So we take a lesson from the editing of Eno and from the creation of this A.I. to think about how it relates to finding structure as a screenwriter.

Rather than having to figure out everything at the beginning, what if you start by figuring out a few really big important things and a general location of where you think those things need to be in your structure? 

Imagine the creativity and the freedom you’d have if you could create, just like these artists have done, a big library of potential content for your movie (in other words, a rough draft) and then gently find your way, through many permutations, until you finally find the form that feels most powerful to you. 

The final movie in this series is Kidnapping, Inc. a brilliant, broad, action comedy out of Haiti, with a palpable political message. We’ll be discussing how writers Jasmuel Andri, Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. and writer/director Bruno Mourral use humor to lower their audience’s defenses and deliver the medicine of their political message in the most appealing and powerful possible package.

There will be some spoilers of the opening sequences of the movie… but most of our conversation will be focused there so you are probably safe listening even if you have not yet seen the film.

Kidnapping, Inc: Using Comedy For Social Change

Kidnapping, Inc is the last movie that we’re going to be talking about in this series. The best way I can describe Kidnapping, Inc. is like Pulp Fiction if The Wolf hadn’t shown up to help these guys. 

What’s really interesting about Kidnapping, Inc. is that we are dealing with a real, horrific social problem. Haiti had, in 2022, over a thousand kidnappings. Think about that as a percentage of their population. In fact, during the shooting of this movie, three different team members from the crew were actually kidnapped.

They’re shooting in one of the most dangerous places to shoot a film, about one of the truly horrific social problems facing the people of Haiti.

But instead of playing it seriously, they play it for comedy. 

And instead of playing it from the perspective of the victims, they play it from the perspective of the kidnappers.

Approaching the story in this way draws you into the movie in a way that you couldn’t imagine. It lowers all of your defenses to this story.

You hear the title, Kidnapping, Inc., find out it’s about kidnapping in Haiti, and maybe you think, I better put a shield up… This could be really hard to watch. Then you meet these kidnappers…

These are the first people you meet. And they’re hilarious, They are like the hitmen from Pulp Fiction. They’ve got a kidnapped guy in their trunk and they’ve got a flat tire.

The whole first scene is just these two guys shooting the shit while they try to change a tire, while they’ve got a live and bound kidnapping victim in the back of their car. It’s hilarious, and disturbing, but you fall in love with these guys.

And like the “Royale with Cheese” scene in Pulp Fiction what they’re talking about makes you fall in love with them even though you can’t possibly agree with what they’re doing or the complete lack of concern they have about the human being in their trunk.

Their conversation is about a dream that one of them had. The previous night, one of them had a dream about being sexually assaulted by a rat in his sleep. He’s terrified that perhaps that dream makes him gay. And it is a really funny and endearing and complicated scene, but it also sets up a metaphor for the whole piece.

Because what the filmmakers are really talking about is an entire culture, an entire place, that has been penetrated against its will by a rat. They’re talking about an entire place that’s been assaulted by a rat.

They’re talking about this social problem that destroys every single aspect of their society. 

And so even though they’re playing for comedy, they are attacking an extremely serious subject, But we’re following the kidnappers. And the effect of that is that we start to understand the sociopolitical elements that are creating the problem in the first place. We understand it all through the eyes of these low level kidnappers, who are just trying to survive.

Of course, they make a terrible mistake…

They accidentally kill the guy in the trunk. 

And just like the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, they desperately need some help. 

Except for these guys, no help is coming. In fact, what is actually coming is a guy on a motorcycle straight out of Raising Arizona, who is going to try to track them down and kill them.

This leads to some awesome, broad comedy action sequences. You are laughing your butt off nonstop for about an hour and a half. You just cannot stop laughing as these guys dig themselves deeper and deeper and deeper.

Realizing they are definitely going to get killed for having killed this guy (he is the son of a senator who is now running for president)– they were supposed to bring him alive and he is dead. So what are they going to do? 

Certainly they’re not going to come up with a brilliant plan. They’re going to pretend that they had an accident, crash their own car into a wall and pretend that somebody hit them… and maybe get off that way. 

Instead what happens is this:

They’ve been having a problem with the trunk. It’s been an ongoing gag, and as they back up to crash their car, the body falls out of the trunk. Then the body starts to run– it turns out he’s alive after all- and we get this unbelievable comic action sequence that races us through the ghetto of Haiti.

The filmmakers run us right through the place where the poorest of the poor live. And again, it’s played all for comedy, but we’re actually seeing the challenges that these people are struggling with, and the way that everyone is preying on one another.

They’re going to chase the guy that they thought was dead. Their airbags have gone off, so they’re covered in white powder and they’re running through the ghetto, in this hilarious chase sequences, where all the obstacles are different residents.

And at the end of the chase sequence, they finally catch up to the guy, and rather than shooting him, they throw a potato at the man.

The potato hits him in the back of the head, and… slight spoiler here…

He hits his head on the curb and he dies again. 

So they’ve now killed the same guy twice, and this sets off a chain of ridiculous events that show you the corruption that goes all the way up to the senator, through the police department, and through all those who, in trying to survive, who have lost their compassion and empathy for those around them. 

So we get this sociopolitical landscape through the goofiest most comedic possible lens.

Making this movie took Bruno Mourral about seven years, three kidnapping victims, running out of money multiple times, dealing with their equipment getting stuck at customs, bribes…

So next time you think, “I can’t make a movie.” Remember, this guy did.

He made a movie in the most dangerous place– next to zero films come out of Haiti. 

And Though you don’t have to do a broad comedy to write a really powerful issue movie, there is medicine there. 

Because when you get your audience to lower their guard, when you meet the audience where they are, it allows your message to get in, in a much more profound way than when you come at somebody hard. 

If you want to change somebody, if you want to change their point of view, if you want to make them aware of something that matters to you, you can’t start by saying “you should be where I am,” because you’re probably an expert and they are probably not, 

Even if you’re making a drama, if you start drum rolling, “this is going to hurt you…” What happens is your audience subconsciously starts to put up a wall to protect themselves. 

If, from the very beginning of the movie, you’re telling your audience, “You’re thinking wrong. I’m going to tell you how to think.” Your audience puts up a wall.

They don’t want to be hurt. They don’t want to be attacked. They don’t want to be wrong.

But if you can find a way to say to your audience, “Come on in. The water is fine. Come on in. This is going to be fun. Come on in. I’m going to meet you where you are…” It gives you a tremendous power to say something that you might not normally get away with. And not only to say it, but to say it in a way that gets past the person’s defenses into their subconscious. that activates empathy rather than resistance and that actually moves someone in relation to the things that matter to you.

I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you are getting a lot out of it and it’s helping your writing, come and study with us. We have a free online class every Thursday night, foundation classes in screenwriting and TV writing, a Master Class for those of you who want a grad school education at the tiniest fraction of the cost, and a a wonderful ProTrack mentorship program that will pair you one on one with a professional writer, who will read every page you write and mentor you through your entire career at less than you would pay for a single semester of grad school.

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