Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bookshelf: Hello to Blake Snyder!

In his 20-year career as a screenwriter and producer, Blake Snyder has sold dozens of scripts, including co-writing Blank Check, which became a hit for Disney, and Nuclear Family for Steven Spielberg -- both million-dollar sales. Named "one of Hollywood's most successful spec screenwriters," Blake continues to write and sell screenplays, most recently a 2006 sale of a horror-comedy. His book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need was published in May 2005, and is now in its thirteenth printing, having sold over 50,000 copies. Blake has a B.A. in English from Georgetown University and lives in Beverly Hills, California. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, west.

INN: When you were a teen, did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
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BS: Yes! My father was a TV producer. I was in "the business" from a very early age. He put me to work doing voices for his cartoon series like "Roger Ramjet" and "The Big Blue Marble." When I visited my Dad at his office, he always parked me in the "writers room." I got to hang out with the guys who wrote Roger Ramjet -- Jim Thurman and Gene Moss -- and I thought they had the greatest job ever! So when it came time to sit down and write anything, "Fade In" was the first thing I ever wrote.
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My first script was a comedy and I wrote it when I was 17 or I should say, I almost wrote it. I did not finish that script! I didn't finish it primarily because I did not know anything about how to structure a story. At the time it was very frustrating! I wanted to write a screenplay, I had read a few screenplays so I knew the secret meaning of what "INT." and "EXT." mean (these stand for INTERIOR and EXTERIOR the indiciation of whether a scene being shot is outdoors or indoors).
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I had a lot of wonderful ideas and pictures and characters in my head, but I could not finish that script because I did not know what was expected of me. It's one of the reasons I wrote Save the Cat! Now as a successful screenwriter for many years, with million dollar sales to the likes of Steven Spielberg, and getting to write fun movies like Blank Check for Disney, I want everyone with a "great idea" to not have that frustrating experience of "running out of gas" and only being able to write "half a script."
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INN: Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, your second book to Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need is a guide for all writers to the basic nature of stories. Why do you think that, as people, we still like to hear the same stories over and over again?
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BS: Well, I agree we like to hear the same story.... only different! Here's an example of a type of movie I talk about in that book called "Monster in the House" that we've all seen a million versions of, but it goes back to a very primal, very old story type we've been telling for centuries. I can tell you the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Maze. It's scary! There's this really cool monster -- a half man/half bull! And there's this really scary place our hero is sent to do battle with this monster -- a maze. I can see it in my mind, it's dark and spooky in there, with lots of twists and turns, maybe a few survivors trapped in its dark corners, waiting for our hero to come free them and kill the monster. Great story.
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Now flash forward to the movie “Alien.” You have the same elements: a very scary monster -- a space creature that keeps morphing into a bigger and scarier creature; you have the twists and turns of the spaceship The Nostromo where the "monster" is running amok killing all on board. And you have a new kind of hero for our age -- a woman -- Sigourney Weaver. We love this story! And the lesson, the moral of the story is the same as the Minotaur in the Maze: don't... get... EATEN! And yet “Alien” resonates with us and this era -- relatively speaking -- because to us it's a slightly different version.
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Now flash forward a little more. The movie “Saw.” Same set up. Same lesson. You may think it's brand new -- but it's not. It's just the same story told for a new age. The trick for writers is to learn why certain stories, and certain elements in them, will always attract us, and learn how to tweak any story to make it relevant to a new generation. To me, this is the coolest aspect of being a writer, learning a craft that has a long and honorable tradition.
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INN: You've been involved with a project in the LA school system, helping seniors write an industry-standard screenplay as their final paper. Why did you get involved, and what was that experience like? ( http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-draft12-2008may12,0,3848254.story )
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BS: I love writers. I love working with writers to help them formulate their ideas into stories that resonate. I love making it as simple as possible to jump in and play with these very powerful storytelling tools. Save the Cat! is the book that does this and has broken open the seemingly impossible to break into movie industry. This book fell into the hands of Peter Cook, a veteran high school teaacher who thought he could use it to teach screenwriting to his senior class. Peter contacted me, and I was thrilled to particpate along with our software partners Final Draft (the only screenwriting formatting software to use in my opinion). Well, would you believe it -- every one of the students in that class wrote a full, perfectly structured screenplay.
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But we had even greater success there! One of those projects, a zombie movie called “Dead Halls,” was actually optioned by a major Hollywood producer. I am now working with Peter and with Final Draft to bring out a version of Save the Cat! specifically designed for a high school curriculum and I couldn't be more exicted. Again, my goal is to help everyone who want to write, do so.
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INN: Apart from being all dialogue, what makes screenwriting different from other writing genres?
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BS: I don't know if it is. Story is story. That's my favorite motto. In my book, I have something called the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (named after someone we all know and love!) It has 15 key plot points that occur in EVERY story. No, it's not a "formula" and no, it's not a strait jacket to make you feel confined into having to tell a story with certain beats happening at certain times, but it IS a guide, a map, a loose organization to help anyone who wants to tell a story. You will find these 15 beats in a 30 second commmercial on TV, you will find them in a novel, a musical, even in a speech by a politician.
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Why? For the same reason we like to hear similar stories over and over again -- because it works. The only real difference I see in screenwriting is that the finished product -- an actual script -- is not a finished product. Unlike a a book that is in itself complete, a screenplay is only a blueprint for further action. Someone must take it, invest in the possibility that it will be a successful final product, and use it to do something else -- use it for the basis of a film.
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This is why it's so important for screenwriters to ask key questions that other writers don't have to ask, namely, who is this for? Will anyone else be interested in seeing this besides me? And is this easy to understand and attractive on its face? Can I get you interested in my script just based on its concept? All these considerations are talked about in my books, and I think it's what makes Save the Cat! readers the smartest and best prepared writers out there -- no matter what type of story they are telling!
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INN: What's the coolest thing about writing in Hollywood?
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BS: I had an office in Santa Barbara, (California) across the street from a movie theater. I wrote a script. Sold it. And a year or so later it was playing across the street from me. I kept thinking to myself: "I write it here, it comes out there!" (a paraphrase of Albert Brooks’ line in the movie, “Broadcast News”) but that was maybe the coolest thing about being a Hollywood writer. When your work actually shows up on screen for others to enjoy, it's an extremely rewarding feeling.
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INN: Any advice for teen writers?
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BS: Try every kind of writing there is. In my career I have been the editor of my high school and college newspapers, been a rock critic, a movie critic, written ads for a real estate magazine, been the poetry editor of my college literary journal and also worked in theater, radio and TV as an actor, editor and producer. Every experience in communication is valuable, and there really is no such thing as a small job, or a small part, they are all helping form your skills and your experience. Do it all! And mostly, have FUN doing it!
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Thank you so much, Blake! Visit Blake's website at http://www.blakesnyder.com/ and buy Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies here http://www.amazon.com/Save-Cat-Goes-Movies-Screenwriters/dp/1932907351.

2 comments:

thatonegirlemily said...

AHH! I love the movie Blank Check!!

Erin said...

LOVED this interview--thank you so much for it!