Film Courage: What part of the screenwriting process would you say you’re the best at and then maybe not so great? Are you great at the first draft? Not so great with rewrites or maybe it’s the opposite?
Todd Berger, filmmaker and co-writer of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: I would say I’m really good at the first draft let’s say. I’m really good at plotting. I’ve figured out the mathematical formula to a plot of a movie and being able to figure out exactly when everything should happen. Because really when you think about writing a movie (especially Hollywood movies) I know there are movies that break the formula, but it is all math, it’s all mathematical formula and you need certain things to happen on certain pages and the inciting incident needs to come around here. The emotional character journeys to kind of happen on here and you need this, that and the other thing.
I feel like I’m really good at figuring out a plot and then figuring how it all goes down. My weak spot definitely on the first draft is Why aren’t any of these characters doing this? Or Why do we care about them? What the emotional journeys of the characters sometimes I think of as almost secondary. I’m such a plot person that I love to figure out what actually happens in this movie from A, B to C? How does it start, what is the middle, what is the end?
But then I have writer friends who are totally character people, they think of the character first and the entire backstory of that character and what happens with that character’s emotional journey. Then they figure out the plot of the movie. I’m the opposite. I think of the plot of the movie and then I figure out who are these characters really? What do they want? What are their emotional journeys? And that’s what I figure out in the rewrites, that’s when I go back in.
I’m super OCD and I won’t finish a script…if I start a script, I have to finish it, I won’t do anything else. And I’ll write an outline number 1 to 100 (I’ll just number a page 1 to 100) and I’ll be like this is what happens, this is every minute of the movie, this is every page, what happens on every page? What happens in every minute of this movie? One page 1…this is what happens. Page 15…this is what happens. Page 82…this is what happens. Page 100…this is the last scene. And I’ll fill in all those gaps and put it on my desk, I’ll print it up (actually print it out), put it on my desk and actually start writing. And I’ll be like I’m not going to be happy until I’ve gotten through all 100 pages and I’ll just spend…I’ll ignore all other aspects of my life. I won’t go out, I won’t do anything, I won’t go see movies. I’ll work on it. I’ll wake up at 6:30 in the morning and work on it until my brain is fried and I can’t work on it anymore and I’ll just do that until I have the first draft. And the first draft often sucks but at least it’s done. And then you can set it aside, take some time off from it and then come back to it. And then the rewrite is the fun part for me.
Film Courage: Do you always know what’s going to happen on line 100? Is the end always clear to you?
Todd: Yes, the first thing I do is write down what happens on page 1, what happens on page 30. That’s the end of the first act, that’s your inciting incident, that is your movie, right? It’s what happened because what happens on page 30. If you were going to go see a trailer for the movie page 30 is the thing, it’s in the trailer.
And then I write down what happens on page 100. How does it end? What is the ending? I need to know where this is going and then I find out how do we get there and then you fill in all the holes.
On page 80-ish is the end of the second act, dark of night, what’s gone really bad for everybody? Why is this the end of the second act. And then you fill in all the holes in between.
I like to come up with really cool endings, really cool third acts, and then move backwards in a way. I want to know where this is all going and how it ends. I feel like a lot of people (a lot of writers) spend a lot of time on their first act and when you see a lot of movies the first act is really awesome and then they just kind of don’t know what to do with it. Like they have a really good idea that they don’t know what to do with.
Why I strive really hard to think about the second half of the movie…to a fault. Often people’s criticisms of my work is Yeah, your first act is really meandering or really long. But your second half is great.
I try to focus on the second half of the movie. But the hard part of being a writer is most people don’t even get to the second half of the movie when they’re reading your script, they read the first 10 pages and your first 10 pages better blow them away.
Whereas I often believe in the slow burn of a first act, take it really slow, let stuff develop which is to my detriment often. But I’m getting better at it.
Question For The Viewers: Do you start with plot or with character?