Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Choose from a variety of quality items, including jackets, jerseys, t-shirts, mugs & cups, bags, baby gear, diaries and other unusual and original accessories. Great for gifts and presents for cast & crew. Rare items for discriminating filmmakers and their friends. Custom orders may be placed using your own logo/graphic and/or film/tv project title.

Apply to Stoneking Seminars for special, custom orders, e.g. gifts for cast & crew.


And be sure to check out THE ANNEX while you're at it!

Monday, April 25, 2011



A dramatic story presents an identifiable character (or characters) in pursuit of understandable and emotionally logical objectives. In the quest to attain his/her objectives, the dramatic character encounters increasing opposition and risk tht carry with them even greater stakes, thus heightening the audience's identification and emotional involvement with the character.

Collaboration is a largely intuitive and mutually respectful, creative interaction among skilled individuals working towards a common goal based upon a shared understanding of the nature of the work in which they are engaged.

Given the nature of dramatic stories and the collaborative character of dramatic, screen storytelling, WHERE'S THE DRAMA? posits that filmmakers and film crews have a better chance of succeeding when their actions are guided by a "common understanding" of the nature of the work and the play in which they are engaged. This common understanding is constituted by - though not necessarily limited to - the following:

Dramatic stories are structured presentations of emotional energy that involve characters whose incompatible agendas produce disconnections or conflicts that create meaningful and often substantial risk for the characters’ well being, forcing them to act in the hope of re-establishing some degree of order or control.
The rhythmic and proximate interplay of these conflicting agendas is enacted by characters and is the source of a story’s emotional energy.

A dramatic story proceeds by either building or releasing this energy.

These two elemental tendencies – the building and releasing of emotional energy – are what characterise the movement of all dramatic stories.

A story’s power is proportional to its effectiveness in building and releasing energy in ways that are fresh, unexpected and thoroughly credible.

When a story stops building energy, or is unable to effectively release it, the energy dissipates, which is another way of saying the story becomes undramatic.


Regardless of form, effective storytellers will have a passionate interest in the source, manifestation and transformation of this energy, i.e.: the characters and their actions.

In mastering the language that IS dramatic screen storytelling, the collaborative team of storytellers and their characters become partners in finding the emotional meaning of the story that is to be told.

This partnership also includes the audience and the tribe or tribal groups whose story is being found and shown. In a sense, ALL of the participants, including the filmmakers are characters.

The presentation of characters internal to the script is mediated by the capture of images and sounds relevant to those characters, their world and the dramatic questions that the characters’ problems cause us – as both storyteller and audience – to ask.

All effective dramatic screen stories proceed via the building and the strategic release of emotional energy conveyed through these images and sounds.

Essential to the effective rendering of dramatic screen stories is the compelling selection and ordering of these images and sounds, as guided by the emotional energy generated by the actions of the characters.

A screen story that is dramatic and effective produces fresh, unexpected and credible images and juxtapositions of images by which this energy is built and released.

The finding and the capture of fresh, unexpected and credible images and their juxtaposition is made more possible when the filmmaker/storytellers are working from inside the emotional life of the character.

The images should serve the story, not the other way around.

Therefore, all craft questions are implicitly questions about character and story.[1]


Meaningful dramatic action is, by definition, an expression of a character’s problems, goals and plans. The changes that occur within any dramatic story are the actions of that story, and are predominantly manifested by a story’s characters. A story begins and develops when a character first creates and then transforms or transfers emotional energy. This should happen in every scene, and from one scene to the next, and even between scenes (in the cut). The source of this energy is CHARACTER, hence the success or failure of every dramatic story is inextricably bound up with character, into which, through which and from which the emotional energy of any story is constantly rushing.
[1] E.g.: Coverage implies an understanding of a character’s actions, and the meaning of each scene in which a character acts... remembering that characters also live (and ACT!) in the cut.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


“Coming to meet halfway is possible only between people who are mutually honest and sincere in their way of life.” I Ching

I gave up reading books about the craft of screenwriting a long time ago. The two or three I actually dipped into made my head ache. Forget about inspiring vision or even a modicum of passion; they simply reduced the process of dramatic narrative to a manipulation of events, turning points and positive and negatively charged actions. Fair enough, I guess, if you’ve managed to actually get past the 100 or so blank pages that go into the writing of a feature screenplay. Alas, none of them inspired vision, let alone an ear for character.

In 2001, when Robert McKee came to AFTRS (the Australian Film, Television & Radio School) to present his legendary “medicine shows” on writing the thriller, comedy and feature drama, he managed to do little more than bequeath a lexicon of jargon that would colour and create a semblance of communication and knowledge where in fact there was almost no understanding at all. For a fortnight after his visit the school’s corridors, cafeteria and conference rooms were alive with buzzwords. “Story-arcs”, “turning points” and “inciting incidents” enlivened the discourse, or at least provided a type of delicious gravity and sophistication that had not been there before. The old language game had been renovated into a new language game – somehow more relevant and profound than what had been there before. Armed with this new jargon and encouraged by the dramatic power of a forceful and charismatic speaker, the students attacked the scripts that were being written and rewritten, produced and directed, shot and edited with a renewed sense of creative dedication. But it was just another language game, or rather a differently worded version of the old game with a sense of sophistication that was merely symptomatic of the malady of the usual mind-set in which ego, unmanaged fear and manipulation continue to inform the values of the ambitious, blind and deaf.

The screenwriter working as a medium can find no solace or encouragement in the pronouncements of those for whom story is reducible to what the writer DOES to the story ant the CHARACTERS. This sort of creative chauvinism is anathema to the mediumistic screenwriter and filmmaker. What is important is not so much what you do, but what you don’t do. To understand this better, consider for a moment the Chinese concept of Wu Wei (无为.). Wu Wei is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. “Wu” may be translated as “not having” or “not possessing”; and “Wei” (2nd tone) may be translated as “action” or “doing”. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" or “no action” – a strange concept to be introducing into a dicussion about dramatic storytelling, in which action is central to its movement and meaning. Paradoxically, the application of Wu Wei to dramatic screen storytelling (or story-finding) is expressed more directly by the concept of “wei wu wei” : "action without action."

The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamentally the achievement of a state of perfect equilibrium, or the alignment of action with intention. In practical terms this alignment manifests as spontaneity, resulting in an irresistible form of "soft and invisible power" over things (the self, others, a country).

Spontaneity is a quality of performance - what sports people refer to when they speak of a player or a team as being “in the zone”. Mediumistic screenwriters write “in the zone”, and they do so not by force of will but by learning to act without acting.

Confucius once compared a virtuous prince to the North Pole, saying that he did not move; everything turned around him. There are magical, occult justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by 'inaction'. In the ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to slowly erode solid stone. Water is without will (i.e.: the will for a shape), opposing wood, stone, or any solid material that can be broken into pieces. It can therefore fill any container, take any shape, go anywhere, even into the smallest holes. When sprayed in thousands of small drops, water still has the capacity to reunite. Eventually – as is its nature – it returns to its source, to the eternal sea. Furthermore, while always going downward, water rests in the 'dark valley'—where biological life is regenerated. The creative vision of the correspondence of birth with death, youth with age, strength with weakness – the yin and the yang of our being – the situation of irony that is the story of human history – that makes truth out of existence and existence out of the irony inherent in good and evil – enlarges our understanding of the story that we are telling, which is also and equally the story that is telling us.

Several chapters of the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tze, allude to 'diminishing action', or 'diminishing will', as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the universe already works harmoniously according to its own laws; as a person exerts her/his will against the world s/he disrupts the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a screenwriter/filmmaker should not exert will. Rather, it is how s/he acts in relation to the natural processes already extant that is critical. In terms of a story the natural processes involve more than the writer, the writer’s knowledge and the means of notating the writer’s ideas. A story’s natural processes are the actions of the characters and the sources of these actions – and the characters here referred to are not simply those characters that inhabit the screenplay, but also the character that is the story’s audience and the characters whose tribe or tribes are being dramatised by the actions of the dramatis personae.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. It is evidenced in the spontaneous gestures of artists and dancers, sports persons and musicians, acrobats and actors, indeed anyone that instinctively understands the value of getting out of the way of the creative energies that move in and through them. The act of letting go or relinquishing control does not mean sloppiness or any dulling of the mind; in fact, it is the very liberation of thought, an effortlessness that does not strain to be either open or closed, interested or disinterested – it is akin to pure consciousness – a being INSIDE THE MOMENT, inside the drama, naturally open, available and responsive to one's own multifarious nature and the natures of those with whom one shares the finding that is the dramatic story played out in the actions of all of the characters.

As one diminishes doing, one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao (read: the natures of the characters and the nature of the story itself), which already exists like the sculpture inside the uncarved stone - the already present natural harmony. As one begins to cultivate Tao (or Being), one becomes ever more in harmony with it and, according to Chuang Tze, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'.

It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing that he does not do.'

It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that both the sage and the truly original and revolutionary filmmaker begin to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the filmmaker – like the sage - will work in harmony with Nature to accomplish what is needed and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

“Coming to meet” is best understood as a contract made between two people. If one is indolent in performing his part, or has mental reservations about what he is willing to do, the contract may fail. Although such a person may have entered the contract without any immediate objections, his attitude may contain objections which arise only at the time his obligations are to be performed. Such a person may secretly feel that contracts are not to be taken seriously, or, on seeing how difficult it is to fulfill his part, he may hedge on doing it because of some idea that all contracts are subject to fitting into his concept of what is “reasonable.”

We must avoid egotistical enthusiasm when we think we are making progress, or discouragement when the dark period ensues. Throughout the cycle we learn to remain detached. Holding steadily to the light within us and within others. The instant we strive to influence, we “push upward blindly.” If we insist on accomplishing the goal at all costs, our inner light is darkened and our will to see things through is damaged.

Inner withdrawal is an action of perseverance that has its own reward, but only when it is modest perseverance, not an attempt to impress others by getting them to notice our withdrawal. In many situations the problem is resolved, not through any external action that arises spontaneously on our part, but by simply “letting it happen,” through letting go of the problem. Our “action” is to “let go".

Friday, April 1, 2011

YOU TALKIN’ TO ME? - Dialogue & the search for syllables to shoot at the Unknown

"I wrote the script of Patton. I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I was fired.” - Francis Ford Coppola

Most young screenwriters I meet have an almost obsessional aversion to dialogue. Some will even go to the extreme of avoiding it altogether, and if asked why, a not uncommon reply might be something like: “better silent than cheesy”, as if those were the only choices.

A good deal of the dialogue I read in most of the scripts that come my way is invariably tortured, artificial and frequently unnecessary. But this doesn’t mean that dialogue per se is something better left out of your screenplay. Rather than avoiding it, a more constructive and potentially more creative response would be to ask the question: what must one do in order to write dramatic speech that sounds natural and at the same time multiplies the dramatic values of the action?

Dramatic dialogue is NOT like every day speech, no matter how realistic the best of it may sound. The writer, Paddy Chayevsky, who composed some of the most realistic and memorable film dialogue ever written was fond of pointing out that the task of the screenwriter is not to slavishly copy spoken speech, but to write it down in such a way as to make us believe this is way people actually speak. Effective dramatic dialogue almost never presents language in the way that it is actually used. If that were the case, all a screenwriter would have to do is carry round a tape recorder and faithfully transcribe everything he recorded into notebooks to be mined later.  

The Australian film editor, Bill Russo, and I often spoke about the editing that is writing and the writing that is editing. They really are much closer to each other that they are to any other of the disciplines associated with filmmaking, apart from, perhaps, music.

Scripted dialogue is edited speech, and the operative word here is EDITED. The stammering, the pauses, the "uhs," and “ahs” and "likes" that many people stick in front of or between their words, the pauses in which a speaker  searches the right word or strives to exact the specific emphasis,  or merely the interval or intervals in which one quietly struggles to figure out what they're going to say next, seldom appear in the text of the majority of screenplays that I read, as if such hearing was to be reserved for the directors and the actors.

When it comes to dialogue, less is usually more. This is not to say that there is never a place for monologue, but one must develop a feeling and a nose for monologue, which means one must cultivate a sensitivity to the “hidden dialogicality” (Bahktin’s phrase) of  that form of address.  Imagine, for example, two men – soldiers, perhaps – meeting one another prior to setting out on a dangerous mission. Imagine a dialogue between of two men in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense of a dialogue is not lost. The second speaker is present but he doesn’t actually use any words. Nevertheless, owing to what we see in his demeanor and know about him from past actions and interactions, we sense the deep traces left by his unspoken words, simultaneously perceiving  their determining influence on all present and visible words of the first speaker. In other words, though only one of the characters is actually speaking, we sense a conversation. And it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each and every word uttered by the first character is responsive in every way  to the invisible speaker, and points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of that character.

Now imagine this kind of dialogic going on amongst ALL of the characters, with all of their various voices and silences, as they collaborate in the dynamic interplay that is the constructing or finding a dramatic screenplay. Writer, characters, audience and tribes, all interactiing and speaking to one another in a kind of extravagant form of block play. Remember the sorts of dialogues one indulged in as a child? For children, understanding comes when they actively respond through external social speech, such as engaging in a dialogue with an adult, or in private speech by assuming the role of two or more characters and talking aloud, or through inner speech by responding internally to what has been said.  As with children, so too with effective screenwriters. As I have said many times, the most impotant part of the worl screenplay is “play”.
It is not uncommon to hear a child talking to him/herself whilst in the storyworld creation of doll or block playing. In the act of constructing a double-decker bridge, for example, you might hear a child say: "It goes up here" as he places a block on the top of his structure.  But Bahktin's notion of hidden dialogicality accounts for understanding and dialogue not just in block play, but also in screenwriting. When the screenwriter plays with the story, he is engaging in a set of ongoing relationships and dialogues, inner and outer, with the other participants in the story process, namely the characters, the audience and the tribe.

Certainly, most great films have at least a few if not many memorable sentences or speeches – "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,"  and  “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” are synonymous with the films they are from. But what really makes them memorable is the context in which the words are uttered. In both of these cases, the lines are funded with an emotional charge that comes not only from the words but also from the visuals and the reactions of the other character’s operating within the scene.
Consider Johnny Depp's characterization of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox), for example. He is given to long, rambling speeches, but there is always something going on in the background, even if it is an hallucination. The dialogue plays off the images, alternating between comic and harrowing but reinforcing the impact for both.

Making dialogue conversational and believable resides in the small details, in the ability to hear what doesn’t need saying. In the wisdom to speak the word that evokes what can never be said. It involves rhythm and having an ear for tone, timbre and pitch.

Characters have their own, identifiable rhythms. If one knows them well enough, one feels their identity in the rhythms they make – both bodily and verbally. Training the ear and the body to listen and respond to the way people speak – on a bus, in a pub, at a party, in the act of making love  – is useful so long as one trains the ear and the physical vehicles to listen and not take notes.

Nevertheless, a writer worth his or her salt will always be listening for good dialogue, to the intrinsic music and rhythm of the character that is speaking.  And don't be afraid to edit and re-edit and re-edit if a section of dialogue isn't working. Go away from it and come back to it later. Sometimes one hears the right phrase in the faintest speech, like one sometimes sees the faintest star by catching it in the corner of one’s eye. Most good dialogue comes when one is NOT sitting in front of a computer. Go for a stroll; take the story, not the dog, for a walk.

If you’re going to give up “square writing” you must also be alert to every possibility of every character’s internal contradictions. Develop an instinct for grasping the multiple and oft-times hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface of the characters’ public quests and private fears. Don’t bother making up lists. Get to know them, inside and out, watch them like you’d watch a prospective lover, confess something to them, expect them to confess something to you.

The ability to hear and appreciate subtext is instrumental to the conception and presentation of emotionally sound and compelling dialogue, which – if it is to be potent – is never that obvious. Ham-fisted subtext is not an oxymoron but it is moronic. It’ll set your audience to laughing and you to tears.  Don’t curry favour with, or indulge the desires of, the three bastard muses. Sentimentality, propaganda and pornography (or scatological discourse) are ultimately of little use to you unless you’re first love is advertising.

 Subtext – when effective – invites the audience to become participants in the creation of the story and in that participation to feel an intimacy with the characters that renders them fully present.

At the end of Rushmore (written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson), while Jason Schwartzman as Max and Olivia Williams as Miss Cross dance, they have the following exchange:

Max: Yeah, it went okay. At least nobody got hurt.
Miss Cross: Except you.
Max: No, I didn't get hurt that bad.

During the play, which serves as the climax of the movie, Max is injured physically. Of course, with subtext, the audience understands his reference to emotional pain. This understanding forges an emotional connection between the audience and the character that would not be there without the engagement offered by the “reading” of the subtext.
There is usually a through-line (the spine, or driving force) that applies both to stories and to characters. The impetus to action, the pursuit of salvation or justice or love – which propels story and character along from one action to the next.  But within every obsession or compulsion are many angels and many demons, and there is really no credible way of getting to either unless one does so obliquely, through what is NOT said and NOT show, but implied in context and subtext. Most screenwriters would do well to remember David Trottier’s advice in The Screenwriters’ Bible: "Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can."

Another thing to remember is that dialogue is written to be spoken. Always read dialogue out loud. Read it back, have others (preferably in a workshop with other writers or actors) read it aloud as well. Listen to the rhythms, the tone, the syntax – FEEL it bodily – the way the words come off the tongue, the facial gestures that accompany the words, the breath – all of these are clues to the veracity of the music that is dramatic speech.