Today on the show we have Jim Mercurio. Jim is a filmmaker, writer, and author whose screenwriting instruction has inspired tens of thousands of writers around the world. Creative Screenwritingranked him as one of the country’s top story analysts:
“The best example of how an analyst can give concrete help without veering off the track of your story… (Jim) is not just telling you how to rewrite a particular script… but how to apply it to future work as well.”
Jim is a true champion for undiscovered writers and filmmakers. He produced Hard Scrambled which, like the horror-thriller he directed Last Girl, was discovered in a contest. The film stars Kurtwood Smith (That 70’s Show) and indie stalwart Richard Edson. It premiered at Cinequest and won Best Dramatic Feature at Garden State Film Festival. His experience as a filmmaker informs his approach to the material. He helps you to execute your vision with vivid and cinematic storytelling that can attract allies like directors and producers.
He directed more than 60 hours of Screenwriting education including the first 40 Workshops in the Screenwriting Expo Series including classes by some of the other top screenwriting teachers in the world. His own course Killer Endings was one of the best sellers from the collection. He wrote and directed Making Hard Scrambled Movies, filmmaking tutorials, as bonus material for Hard Scrambled’s original release.
The Washington Post called them “a must for would-be filmmakers.” Inspired by his work on the Expo series, Jim applied his entrepreneurial “go big or go home” attitude to the six-disc DVD set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, a behemoth of screenwriting instruction. It is one of the most comprehensive screenwriting resources in the world. It’s a fast and furious ten hours with an hour of stunning motion graphics that help to explain seldom-discussed topics like theme, concept and character orchestration.
Jim wroteThe Craft of Scene Writing: Beat by Beat to a Better Script, the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing. It will be released on February 1, 2019, by Linden Publishing.
Together, Jim’s course and book illustrate his forte, to illustrate advanced craft and nitty-gritty insight essential for mastery of screenwriting craft. Enjoy my conversation with Jim Mercurio.
- Bulletproof Script Coverage – Get Your Screenplay Read by Hollywood Professionals
- Audible – Get a Free Screenwriting Audiobook
Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome to the show, Jim Macura. Oh, man, thank you so much for being on the show.
And he was so kind, and giving of his time to come in and share his knowledge and experience with you guys, the tribe. So without any further ado, enjoy my conversation with Jim mercurial. I'd like to welcome to the show, Jim Macura. Oh, man, thank you so much for being on the show.
Jim Mercurio 2:21
Hey, Alex. Thanks for having me. It'll be Well, I think we'll have some fun today.
Alex Ferrari 2:24
Absolutely. Man, I'm here to pick your brain, about screenwriting and how to write a better script.
Jim Mercurio 2:30
Alex Ferrari 2:31
So first of all, how did you get into the film business in the first place?
Jim Mercurio 2:35
Oh, you know, I always wonder if I'm really like in the film business, you know, I spent a decade making these low budget films from like, 2000 to 2010 and didn't make a bunch of money. But, you know, it's like, the passions there, the experiences there. So I've kind of been like I'm outside of the Hollywood system. And you know, the last decade things have changed a lot. So I'm back to where like, a lot of writers are, you know, writing spec scripts, and, you know, taking a little assignments here and there. So I just saw, you know, I love filmmaking. I don't want to sound the cliche, I want to be director, I thought speed reading was definitely the way through. I got a master's in film, but it wasn't a huge emphasis on screenwriting. So when I first moved to LA in the 90s, I want to figure out between where to cut inside and out, like I had to kind of teach it to myself. So you know, kind of over the years of like, being the student and then, you know, segwaying into like development, and, you know, producing and teaching and stuff. I don't know, it's always been just about wanting to eventually direct and just be able to tell stories on this big grand scale on. Like, even as even as a kid though, like, you know, like my friends were watching Star Wars and I was watching like 70s Scorsese movies and conspiracy theories, I always came to film like, as an adult, like they can could do really smart stuff, and, you know, theme and like, you know, really gritty character stuff. So, I don't know, I've always loved movies, I'd love storytelling. And cinema just seemed like maybe the Hollywood that I imagined existed where I, you know, first came out to Hollywood never really was there or something like I missed by a couple of decades. But I just, you know, always wanted to tell, you know, be part of telling these great stories, great character studies, and like, great, exciting stories, you know, on this big grand scale.
Alex Ferrari 4:22
Now, how did you get involved in teaching screenwriting and your theories behind it?
Jim Mercurio 4:27
Well, like I said, part of my quest was I have to figure out the screenwriting thing for myself. So the first few years in Los Angeles, I was like, working another job, and I was just like, you know, reading every book, writing and then I started writing for creative screenwriting. And I said to him, to Eric, my buddy, who eventually produced a couple movies with me, I said, let me go take all these story guru classes. I was trying to like, you know, be smart and resourceful, save myself a few $1,000 You know, write a review about it. So I don't know 20 Some years ago, um, you know, I went to a I think I take him lucky.
Alex Ferrari 5:01
But I had everyone's advocate.
Jim Mercurio 5:03
I think I didn't before that. But then as part of this process, I did Truby and Walter and kitchen and Hague, and, and just just a bunch of people. So it was like, and then eventually, it was interesting. I ended up directing, like 40 DVDs with a lot of those people. So it's like, I was immersing myself as the student, but it's like to know something so well, you kind of have to, like if you can teach something, you know, better than if you can't you know what I mean? So, like, I was learning this stuff, and I was integrating it. And I wasn't thinking about teaching, I was just like, trying to learn it for myself. But then these chances came up to like, do notes for a friend, you know, write a script review. Oh, you like my notes? Someone else? Why would you notes. So as I started kind of figuring out for myself, I would call on what I learned from other people, because I started kind of like figuring out oh, wait a second, she there's kind of the rules or principles that I'm using for myself. They seem to be working, they seem to like, align or, or pull together 15 different theories, or three or four different gurus into a way that makes sense for me. So it just started kind of naturally like, oh, I can explain it to myself. So I can explain it to someone else fairly well.
Alex Ferrari 6:12
So why do most people and screenwriters when and where screenwriters fail at screenwriting?
Jim Mercurio 6:18
Well, you know, it's interesting. The thing with like, first time script writers getting script writers people always ask me, Well, what's the most common thing that's wrong with the script? And I'm like, well, kind of everything. Not only that as a slight, no, I don't mean, it's a slight. I mean, like, they don't know what they're supposed to know. Like, they don't know the care and the time and the attention that it takes. So it's like a lot of times I think like with beginning screenwriters, or from working with someone as a coach, or, you know, consultant, it's like, the first and best thing I can do is kind of open their eyes and say, This is what great screenwriting is, these are the expectations you kind of you have to have. And if I'm allowed to go on a little tangent, sure, you know, you shouldn't move with your rival. Yes, I did. A cool sci fi movie, they used a hyperbolic version of this thing called the dissapear Whorf hypothesis, it's this idea that language to like, your language that you have affects your worldview. So in that it was very hyperbolic. And that movie was like, if you learn their circular language, you'll be able to, you know, visit the future in the past. And that'll be super powerful. And obviously, you know, real life doesn't quite work that way. The cliche example, and I don't even know if it's true, or if this is scientific anymore, but like, let's say an Eskimo has 40 different types of snow they recognize. So when it snows, they see something different than say B, we're all C, because they know it exists. So like there's a different view of the world. And same thing with screenwriting. Like if you know, 30 different things, and you just have named for them, like, you know, whatever, and ellipses or exposition or reframe, just like little tricks that writers do, or craft principles, even if you don't know how to do them yet, but you're aware of them, you're already ahead of the game, because you're going to be learning them faster, you're going to recognize them and other movies, you're going to expect that you're you know, that your films and your story should have them. So it's like if I say, Hey, man, you opening image should always augur theme, and be like, right on on the nose or on point with what the movies about. And you've never even thought about that. But now that you think about it, you go back and watch your 10 favorite movies, and you're like, Oh, hey, wow, like, I didn't realize it. But Citizen Kane has an opening image. It does that exactly. And so does, you know, this movie is still the seven, which I know you're Fincher fan in these movies, it's all of a sudden, you're like, wait a second, every great movie that I've loved, I just realized, has a really profound and concise opening image that like augers theme, and sets up the character, and every time the character is introduced, it's like, the dilemmas right there. So it's like, if you start seeing things that you didn't even know existed, you know, like, you're already entered the game, you're going to learn faster, you're going to start having expectations for your script. So it's like a lot of it is, I mean, not to, you know, say, hey, those of you who aren't in the club yet, it's hard, you don't know what's going on. It's like, hey, no, just respect this. Like, there's a lot to learn structure and character in theme. And then when you get all that stuff down, then there's like rewriting a subtlety and nuance towards like, I just feel like it takes a while to do a lot of times. It's, it's not even that a beginning script is like, it is a problem. It's like, No, you're exactly where you're supposed to be. Like, there's there's talent, there's some intuition, there's some great moments, you know, you know, in depending on your skill level, or if you believe in innate talent, there might be different levels of where script is, but it's not supposed to do everything, like, the first time or the second time. It's like, that's why, you know, I respect and like, you know, like, it would be like, you know, it would be bad self esteem for me to say like, oh, well, I spent all this time trying to help people learn all the nuances in you know, and finesse is that can be done with screenwriting. If it's like, oh, yeah, it's kind of easy and like, you know,
Only 10 Things You Should Know. And if you know that and read one book, that's enough, it's like no, and this is, this is really hard. And like, you know, I'm still learning myself or, you know, or like in the last five years of my 20 years of figuring this out, there's still stuff I'm learning when I read like great screenplays.
Alex Ferrari 10:14
Absolutely. No, absolutely. And that's the thing, a lot of a lot of screenwriters and filmmakers, for that matter, think it's an easy process. And like, Oh, if I just, if I just put the hero's journey on everything, or if I, or if I just, you know, use troubIes technique, or if I just use this technique or that technique? It, there's no one answer.
Jim Mercurio 10:33
Yeah, but the thing is, though, like, will you want to talk about this later, but like, I have a kind of focus on sheet writing, and I write about it somewhat. And it's like, you know, that that specific approach is, it's not that, you know, to be structure or Syd field or save the cat. It's not that I have to say no to any of that. But just like, like, an improv is yes. And it's, but it's like, you know, one thing isn't going to answer at all, like, you know, like, volger stuff is really good, especially for some sorts of stories. But like, you can, I would say, like, look, a lot of older stuff for a lot of stories is what's, how do you phrase it? It's, it's necessary, but not sufficient. So it's like, you know, yes, every story will have some kind of reluctance in the first act, maybe. And there'll be threshold guardians, there'll be some kind of forces or people or elements that try to stop the person or the, the protagonist from going to that new world. But if it's just an obstacle, if it's just an ogre, in the road with a club, that's not going to be enough, it has to be also on a psychological level. So it's, it's, it's, it's true that yes, all these stories will have these obstacles. But if you have the obstacle, it's not enough. It also needs to resonate on a psychological level. It also has to be aligned to that character. So it's like, I'm very often saying yes, and like, yeah, we save the cat. Read Richard Walter Reed, Michael Hague, if Truby works for us, especially the genre stuff, yeah, use it. If nothing I say should really ever contradicted. It should just kind of enhance it, or maybe reframe it in a way that works for someone better.
Alex Ferrari 12:07
So you're what you're saying is that ogre with the club should be the long lost father of the character. That creates, and we're just
Jim Mercurio 12:15
playing rugby, so on the nose. Right, right. But it might be just the smallest hint of that, like, you know, I'm ready to I'm ready to leave town. And I'm driving out of my hometown in a policeman pulls me over well, that's, that's like over with a club. But wait a second, what if it's like a guy from high school, who kind of thinks I think of a big shot or kind of puts me down or thinks or kind of reminds me that, hey, you're not really supposed to leave this town, you're, you're destined to be this small town person that's supposed to go to Los Angeles, or who you have these big dreams. And all of a sudden, it's like, yeah, it's the negative father figure, or it's like, you know, your uncle, who's a foil character who failed at it, reminding you the stakes, it's like, it could be very subtle way. But like, I don't, I don't want you to get a ticket for a policeman, because you're going too fast. And that's the point I want, I want that to represent something. And if it doesn't, then that policeman doesn't belong in the script like that, that incident, that scene doesn't belong there, you have to find the thing that does two things, both story and character. And, you know, like, when I talk about, you know, seeing just like you want your scene to change at the story level, but also the character level, in pretty much your goal has to be always doing both, like, really, there's almost no reason to only do one of them. Or if you do it a few times, that's fine. But you know, you only have a certain amount of opportunities to get insight into character and to make these important changes in the story. So why would you pass them up, you're always looking for like, the internal and the external to kind of like move forward and change the same time. And that's a tricky thing to do as a beginning screenwriter, so it takes a while to learn as a skill.
Alex Ferrari 13:45
Now, what makes a character? Since we're on the topic of characters, what makes a character interesting to an audience and your opinion?
Jim Mercurio 13:54
I don't like that. That's interesting, because I don't necessarily, I don't necessarily like to, like have these rules of like, well, this is what makes them likable. This is, I'm more like, Here's how you make a good character. And the essence of a great character is very simple. It comes down to one simple dilemma. Look at a craft level. Like if you could ask the God of screenwriting or the muse of screenwriting, like one question that would pretty much define or help you write your entire script? It would be it can be phrased a couple of ways, but one of them is like, what is my character's dilemma? At his core? You know, what is it that he's afraid of? What is the hard choice he has to make? Because that will pretty much answer everything. So if you have that nailed down, really specifically, that's what makes a great and complex character. And I'm not going to be the one to judge like, what was he likable enough? Or what kind of traits does he have to have? I'm not going to say that I'm just going to be pushed. I push writers and storytellers to be like, I want you to be good at this. And I want you to be good at writing characters. I want you to understand what makes a dramatic character work like it all boils down to one thing And one time I was saying this to a class and they were like, you know, oh, why don't think Shakespeare but I'm like, okay, Shakespeare, what's the first thing that comes to mind? They were like, well to be you're not to be like, well, da, right? I mean, you know, like, one thing, you know, Godfather, Michael, you know, be in or out or the family's gonna fall apart. Pardon, that's horrible. I have to be I have to be a criminal, which will eventually lead to me killing my brother. But, you know, to protect my family and the legacy of my family, it's all going to go away. If I don't step up and do this. And obviously, you know, he has his own flaw. But, you know, even Napoleon Dynamite, like, the most important thing to Napoleon Dynamite is to be cool, right? But then what does he risk? Right, but what does he risk at the end? For Pedro, he does that dance in front of everybody. He's willing to be a dork. And it's like, that's actually huge. Like, if he's just like, hey, Vote for Pedro. Because I have this logical argument that that's that's not? Well, that's not good storytelling. But it also doesn't give me insight into character. Oh, well, the character is smart. And when push comes to shove, he's able to use rhetoric to defend his friend, he's running for president, I know, a guy who's so afraid of being unliked. And being a dork was willing to sacrifice to make the choice of I will risk not being like being so uncool, if, because of friendship, and support. In my alliance with a friend, it's like, you know, the idea of dilemma is kind of there at its core, and it'll basically help you write, I don't know, 90% of your script. So it's not so much I want to tell people what a good what like a good character should be. But like, I want to give them the power to bring to life the characters they're trying to aim for. And to know, kind of what their, their aim should be, like, how well they should know a character, because if you know, a character really super specifically, it then allows you to, you know, create the supporting characters that are more specific, it allows you to write great dialogue, everything stems from that really specific understanding?
Alex Ferrari 16:52
Do you agree that a hero is only as good as their villain that they're facing?
Jim Mercurio 16:57
Well, yeah, it's kind of back to what I was saying. It's like chicken egg. The perfect antagonist is the one who tests the weakness of the character. So if you don't know what that is, it's so like, Oh, hey, hey, I'd like to the protagonist and the antagonist I'm going to get in your way. I mean, does that mean like, I put my arms up and like, move to like to block you from taking a step forward? Yeah. You know, in a story, that's part of it, but like, but if I know your weakness, and if I can prey on that, then that makes you better antagonists. And that challenges you more. So now there's more conflict. So you have more, you know, you have more to kind of fight, you know, at the beginning of LA Confidential. You know, Dudley Smith is a great antagonist. He's a little bit like Darth Vader, and that he's like, he's more and full and more whole than Luke is. And he says, to actually his, you know, by the book, goody two shoes, he says, Would you plan evidence? Would you rough up somebody to get a confession? Would you shoot somebody in the back. And ironically, that's foreshadowing what has to happen later, but he's also saying, I know, you two goody two shoes. I'm reminding you as conflict, but I'm also for myself testing. I know, you wouldn't do those things. So I know, you already beaten like, you can never beat me because you're limited into what you can do. And, and once you know that, that specifically, then you can write better scenes, like for instance, there's a little moment like a second where I show it to my class. And the first time they watch it three or four times they don't get it. It's Christmas party at the at the precinct, right. And he goes off to the side to talk to him. And he grabs two glasses of punch from you know, someone he hands it actually, and he won't drink it, he doesn't take a drink. And it's like, oh my God, he's so British shoes, even at the Christmas party, the holiday party, he won't take a sip of punch, because it has alcohol. And that's breaking the rules. And it's like, do you see how that's why that script wins an Oscar because that moment and that specificity of character is able to be put on display. So you might in your head, think your character so well defined that you know him or her, but until you can use craft to reveal that, you know, it's it's back to intention, you're not doing great screenwriting until you find ways to express that.
Alex Ferrari 19:08
So, so I mean, I always use the example of the Joker and Nolan's Batman, which is as perfect of an antagonist as you can create, would you agree? Absolutely,
Jim Mercurio 19:17
absolutely. I mean, I mean, the way he wants to kind of break the value system of Batman wants to show people are corrupt and he wants to Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean,
Alex Ferrari 19:29
he has his own. He has his own methodology methodology and his own his own his own his core beliefs that are counter and he wants to literally break Batman psychologically, as opposed to like the 1960s Batman, where the Joker was just a kind of buffoon in his way there was no depth there. If you're gonna compete if you're gonna compare like the same Carol
Jim Mercurio 19:51
was written to Sally I would say that's totally apples and oranges, but I don't it's not really fair. You may have done some this because I know I've seen Like, a lot of people go into depth about tab relationship and philosophy, and that's the thing like, you know, ideally, you have on, like, I don't believe that you have to write that 100 page on, you know, backstory for everybody. I actually kind of believe in precision, like, if you can do your antagonists dilemma in a sentence, like those values then become like a contrasting sentence for the, you know, for the antagonist. You know, it's like, almost exact values, like, you know, in a love story, you know, if he's, if this character supposed to believe in the power of love to overcome stuff, well, then the the antagonist is someone who obviously is negative doesn't believe that it is really kind of good at showing what convincing that person that love is can't overcome, and maybe isn't real, you know, saying like, they're challenging the exact most important things to the protagonist. So it's like, kind of chicken egg like, yes, your antagonists become stronger, your protagonist has to become stronger to fight them. So it's like, you need to align them kind of perfectly, because you might have a great antagonist this wrong antagonist for the story? Well, you might have a great protagonist, but it's wrong protagonist for the story. So you have to make sure that what the antagonist is good at challenging and making difficult, or the weaknesses he or she can pick at, or specific to align with the protagonist. Does that make sense?
Alex Ferrari 21:21
It makes perfect sense. I mean, and I want to ask you a question. This is now a personal question I have because there's a character that I found extremely difficult to write for, which was Superman. Superman is such a difficult character because he literally is a god. So it's so difficult to create an antagonist that could even right, even do anything against them. So you got the Lex Luthor with the real estate scams that's of two different movies, right?
Jim Mercurio 21:51
Well, a couple movies that are pretty well, yes. The Superman The Movie, The 1978. Renaissance. Excellent. Right. Right. Okay, so a couple things. It's set up with the who's the father, drill drill? Yeah. He says, you know, that you kind of you should, you must not reveal who you are, because then people will hurt the people you love. So it's like, okay, this is our setup. Okay, Superman is our vulnerable, but people who love could be vulnerable show. So what is Lex Luthor, he sends the two rockets in opposite directions. And Lois Lane is in one direction. And you know, New York's in the other. Yes, kind of the same thing as the Joker did it, you know, in, in Batman with, you know, with Harvey and yes, and that.
Alex Ferrari 22:30
Yeah, I never saw that. gacha. But it's the right he creates, he creates
Jim Mercurio 22:33
the dilemma. And then it's also set up and this is, you know, it's a little bit contrived, but you have to do the work, you know, you can't change the course of things. So Superman has to decide whether he'll go in circles and turn back time, which is a little bit out of the blue. But it's like it's at least some point, he has a big huge moral question. Will you tamper and play god, you know, as Superman or will you not do he makes a mistake, but don't mistake me he chooses it, which makes him imperfect and cute when human away which, you know, we kind of like and then in this in the, the Man of Steel, I some fluff stuff, a couple things. Like, it's really interesting that, you know, when Kevin Costner, the dad character says, You can't let people know about your news for slightly different reasons, because they won't understand Oh, yeah, you know, his face. But an interesting thing was he was so dad shall let those kids on the bus. I let them have died. He kind of said, and I forget if he says or if he just kind of implies it was kind of like, yeah, maybe it's like, Whoa, I go that's like that's pretty intense. So in that final scene, where you know, he breaks the neck of Zod. The dilemma is right there, Zod is fighting to hurt humans is like his, his his vision is right inches away. So he's fighting to pull his neck back. So it's like the only way he can stop him from killing those humans is to kill him. So Superman makes a choice that he never really makes her words very kind of bold and like, know exactly, but at least it's set up. So it's like, you can't say well, he killed him because it was all he really could do. Or he was mad. No, he killed him because it was either kill him or humans would die. So once again, it's like they they have to make var will people be important to him? And then the vulnerability to the bad guy comes through the humans that are vulnerable. And it's you know, it's I I'd say it's an effector Saturday because otherwise you know what else? What else you're going to do?
Alex Ferrari 24:29
I mean, that's what I loved about Superman to the Donner cut, not the original but the dot the Richard Donner cut, which he had literally three Superman versus him and he lost his powers. And he had to do all the things that he didn't need. And there was just a lot of complexity there. Which with which, arguably, I think one of the better Superman those two are probably the best still to this day.
Jim Mercurio 24:51
I'll tell you what, I mean, like story wise, and plot wise. Yeah, there's a lot of fun stuff going on here. But I have a question though. Like if I say like When you come out of Superman movie, the first one, would you kind of learn and look? And I say, Yeah, you know, like, Hey, man, he shouldn't play God shouldn't turn back time and, and you're really vulnerable humans. But like if I say what do you like, but what's the theme? What's the character arc? Or what? What's the thing he learned in Superman to, like, now I'm studying, we might go back and I might be there might be several, but like, like, do you have an answer? Like, like, like, it's I feel like, um, it doesn't resonate as much for me. And this is back to my, like, kind of telling you like, I can't have movies as an adult, you know, like, so it's like, I don't want to be simplistic and say, well, movies should only be deep, dark siematic character studies. But But also, I don't believe movies should only be obstacle course rollercoasters. Now, when I say that people always say what about waiters last car? I'm like, Okay, I tell you what, if one time in the history of cinema, like the most talented kinetic filmmaker ever was able to make a movie that was mostly roller coaster. That was amazing, you know, Steven Spielberg, but like, you can't be your goal. It's like, it's like a dilemma. So a lot of times writers think they have a choice, I need to make it the roller coaster. I need to plot, I need to have this cool twists. Or I need to be deep enough character and you know, like, in my kind of growth as a teacher, and as a writer is like you it's not either or, it's both you and it's a choice. You have to choose to attack your weaknesses or to make sure that the side that's harder for you to do that. You work on that and make sure that hey, my character study doesn't have to be boring in my genre piece doesn't have to be fluffy and light. I mean, LA Confidential, Lethal Weapon seven Silence of the Lambs. I mean, these are some of the best Hollywood movies, you know, and there's genre movies, they don't, they don't compromise. They're not like, well, you know, science a lamp, we take away some thrills because we're so thematically profound. No, no, it's, it's like, yes. And it's like, you know, and this is what screenwriters see, like, oh, well, I'm a first time screenwriter and I want to write something deep and dark. Fine, but this is fun. Is it hit the genre beats? Well, I don't have to because I I'm doing this extra stuff. It's like no, man, like, do that extra stuff. Do you want special to you, but but then don't like shirk responsibilities of like, what did everybody has? So it's like, you know, you know, my kind of thing is like, as a writer, you have a dilemma and Issue two choices, kind of like, No man do both. Like, like, choose the hard choice of, you know, movies can be both things. They can do more than one thing at a time.
Alex Ferrari 27:26
No, no, absolutely. So what are some of the story elements that you find in today's blockbuster films? That make it good? Because I mean, look, Marvel obviously, as you know, it has done something that nobody has ever done in the history of cinema. So they obviously are doing something right. Some of the movies are amazing. Some of them are not as good
Jim Mercurio 27:48
well, I've top your head what are your favorite ones? What which ones work the most? The ones
Alex Ferrari 27:52
that work the most are the the one on a story point, the story, you just on story and structure and script and screenwriting and storytelling. Winter Soldier is excellent. I thought it because winter soldier to me was just like, a just a good spy movie. Like, okay, kind of like the Dark Knight was a heist film. Right? You know, you do Batman out of it. It's just a damn good heist film.
Jim Mercurio 28:17
You know, it is but it's funny because I'm like, the things I love about dark night or like, lower the things that like I don't like what dark night or sometimes bog me down and watching it again is like is the actual sequences I'm like, the character stuff in the theme stuff and like a dialogue is so amazing. So good. Like, forget that JC like Yeah, I know what's gonna happen. Oh, yeah, no, well done. But like, I want to get back to this stuff. But about Winter Soldier though. Okay, so give me I mean, I've seen him once or twice, haven't tested it. So so give me like the one sentence log letter when her shoulder just just just refreshed me and then
Alex Ferrari 28:51
under soldier, he's got to fight his because I haven't seen in a bit. I just remember loving it. Um, he has to fight. Not only he has to stand up for his for his ideals, but he also has to defend his best friend.
Jim Mercurio 29:09
So okay, stop, stop right there. Hey, remember I said about a dilemma? Is their strong dilemma. They're very you said it but even even in your description, which were you know, which was unprepared and that's fine. It wasn't it wasn't perfect you it you really went to a resonated with us like man, a guy is caught between his values are fighting his friends versus his best friend defending him or defending his best friend versus what's supposed to be right. It's like, well, there you go. And so it's like, it's like once again, like I'm not unlike the super commercial guy that's going to tell you all these elements that make
Alex Ferrari 29:46
it these save the cat right? But
Jim Mercurio 29:49
but you know what, though, but but the things that make a story great rep potential be great. Are those deep things like lemon keratin theme they have to resonate? It obviously doesn't they're the earth Spider the Spider Man movies that Sam Raimi did yeah. Alvin Sargent wrote them, I mean, the coming of age aspect, but it's the dilemma and his uncle teaching them the lesson, you know, with great responders, great repetition comes great redundancy. I'm kidding. That shows up a few times, but actually, they somehow didn't make it this last one, but but their movies where the characters have something at stake, right, where it's real.
Alex Ferrari 30:27
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now, back to the show.
Jim Mercurio 30:38
Now, once again, if you do those movies, and they're boring, and they're just a drama, I'm not gonna I don't think that makes it like, you know, like, if I was the film snob, maybe I was in my 20s. And I said, Well, that's what makes great movies. Well, no, that doesn't really make a great superhero movie, right? But these, but these movies have like, like we do with Superman, especially Dark Knight, I mean, these characters have really crisp and clear dilemmas, things matter to them, you know, they relate to the real world. And it's like, these are the things that can make something powerful, that can anchor it. That can make it once again, I don't know how to say popular, I don't know how to say like, you know, commercial, but it makes it good at being story. It makes it being good at what like, you know, really pulls people in. So it's like,
Alex Ferrari 31:25
well, I mean, look at Iron Man, you know, that was pretty much launched the Marvel Universe. Right? That was remarkable. I mean, a lot has to do with with Robert Downey and his amazing performance of that character. But that character changes dramatically from the opening character to the one at the end of the movie. And he does have dilemma, and he does have, you know, issues with who's the antagonist is? And it was really well, well done. What's your opinion?
Jim Mercurio 31:55
Yes. And he has the full character like the father, who is the flat, I wouldn't say evil, but the flat morally, like the material morally ambiguous, rare deficient, I mean, the father made the choice of like, make this stuff so I can make money like this. Like he never had it. He never had the conscious, or the, you know, the doubt of his conscience. But But he does. So it's like, there's a foil character, are you going to go that way? You know, or are you going to go some, you know, perfect goody two shoe is for you don't do it all. And he literally becomes like, the Iron Man, he becomes the mixture. I mean, I don't even know if this is like on a conscious level. But like, he becomes the machines and technology, and it becomes human like he's the iron human. So he's a guy who find some way to bridge the technology and the power with humanity, guess what? Well with a heart, right?
Alex Ferrari 32:51
Literally, literally and figuratively.
Jim Mercurio 32:54
Exactly. Know Exactly. And the thing is, though, you're forcing me to talk about these things. You know, a lot of times I'll watch these movies and just have fun with them, like, but if it works, and you start thinking about why it should work, it's like, there's a dilemma. He's the, he's both sides, he represents them. He's the only character who can straddle that. So it's like, you know, like a protagonist, who can synthesize and be in two worlds at once. It's really kind of powerful. And it's really a lot of times what makes someone special. This isn't necessarily like some deep literary theory that like I smile, you know, it's, other people have talked about this, but it's okay. So Iron Man can be iron in technology and weapons. And he can be humor, you can have a heart, but you know, in Good Will Hunting will can be the blue collar guy who beats the crap out of Harvard. And he can be the most efficiently productive mathematician in the world, and solve problems that can save the world. And to have a character that can straddle things like that. We need the whole or they have the potential to be whole that's really you know, that's really kind of interesting. Because even like in a okay even like, you know, this isn't a superhero film, but like a great genre film with a weapon
Alex Ferrari 34:06
a rifle Shane Black at his best,
Jim Mercurio 34:08
right? But like okay, character dilemmas or character struggles, one character wants to live up to orphans or wants to die. Right right. Can you be more Can you be more concise you know in specific and it's like each of them has to grow to say the story so I would say like the pretty much one of the times we that you have co protagonist like right before the climax of the movie Did you know The daughter is taken and it's the all is lost moment when we're not only are you physically and this is back to the paradigms so like that all is lost rock bottom dark cat of the soul, whatever like Snyder calls it. Yes, you need to be as far away as possible from the goal. So in Lethal Weapon, they've kidnapped the daughter. That's pretty funny. But, but that's not, that's necessary. But that's not sufficient. You also need to have the character, the most furthest away psychologically the most regressed the most the furthest distance from the where they need to be in order to save the day. So like a love story, it's not only boy loses girl, boy becomes a girl becomes the worst version of themselves, that aren't worthy of love that that couldn't win that love back that don't deserve it. So So Roger, is lost his daughter or his daughter, you know, he's got her back, right? He's really far away from the goal. But he is by the book is safe, because he wants to survive. And he has this guy in front of them, who's presenting the attitude of lethal weapon, whatever to kill. And he says, you have to do it. Mine is really, you know, and it's really like, great craft is foreshadowing his alley setup. He's like, You have to listen to me, we shoot to kill, we take no prisoners, we can arrest this crap. That's the only possible way. And he believes them. And trust them, they go. And even though they get it doesn't work right away. Like he has to grow and learn from him in order to have a chance to save the day in order to kind of kick but at the end of the day, it's like, well, wait a second. Yeah, well, what what Riggs has to do well seen before that, when they fake his death, remember, right, he reason why they can fake his death. As he gets shot, he goes through the glass, and water goes over and worried about him. And he's like, surprise, you were the you were the bulletproof vest, you have proven that you love yourself in life again, that you're not self destructive, that you're not suicidal, I trust you now. So when you say we get a risk, it's the right thing to do. I can believe you now. Because now I don't think you're that self destructive suicide thing that I was like ready to, you know, kill or hate, you know, 3040 50 minutes ago in the story. So it's like, he needed to do that and have that growth, so that Roger would then accept his risk taking attitude as not as self destructive, suicidal stupidity, but as like a conscious, clear choice that he's making now as his friend. So it's like, you see how like, in this, Hey, man, it's just fun people getting shot and kidnapping and shooting stuff. No, it's also this character stuff. And it's like the same thing. Superhero Movies man, like, I don't know. Like, it's like I you know, there are people who probably specialize and talking about all the elements of the universal, they can compare movies, when a client comes to me with that kind of story. We'll pick two or three movies, and we'll look at them and I'll break them down. And I'll kind of like, you know, when I put my mind to something, to see something, I'll see stuff that other people don't see. And we'll find that. But like, all I can say is like, you know, what, if you want to write that superhero movie, here's what a good movie is. His Word of the story is, and don't think that you can't have themes and spoil characters, right after, don't think that it can't be unified. Because, you know, the dilemma, the specificity the character is what brings unity to everything. And that unity is what kind of, you know, brings you power. So it's like,
Alex Ferrari 38:02
I mean, it's a perfect example. And I use this example, a lot on the shows, I've said this before, is like you look at the Avengers, and then you look at the Justice League, right, and one failed, one launched an entire universe that made billions and billions of dollars. So to analyze the two of them and how both of those films, what led up to both of those films, you can obviously see so clearly, were one you were so emotionally connected to all the characters, because you had wery went on individual journeys with all of them, as opposed to the other one where you kind of knew somebody and then there was a new Batman that no one ever knew. You know, like,
Jim Mercurio 38:42
it's interesting. It's interesting, you say that, because you're talking about, you know, the level of how good a movie can be is based on the antagonist. Wasn't the attack. Stupidest antagonist ever. But eventually, he want to have some power and do stuff. Like I mean, like, what what was, right? Yeah. So so it's like, you know, the like, like, they were trying to rush it. They were doing they were doing fun stuff, like Superman coming back and being a temporary obstacle. You know, like, that was interesting, I guess, or scary or interesting. Sure. Then it's like that was more interesting, Then. Then. Then the dilemma or the meaning of trying to kill the other dude. I mean, the bad guy was like, Well, yeah, kill him, cuz he's a dude. And like, oh, yeah, you all have complementary skills, and you use different ones. Well, that's interesting for like a seven or 12 minute cartoon, but like oh, you're special skills. We're gonna come together and do it like the 80 that was the 60s Patrick Macnee Avengers, you know, like for 47 minutes British spy show,
Alex Ferrari 39:41
but it doesn't. It doesn't fly today doesn't fly. Yeah.
Jim Mercurio 39:45
It's just interesting enough we're actually you know, if you want to tangent on this, you know, Fincher in some of the genre stuff might be a great because I know I know your Finch, right. So in one of the movies, I was talking about a seven so we're gonna have to do this moment but like a Some point we can kind of like segue over because I think he's a good example of like, like the best genre Hollywood movie making. But that doesn't sacrifice these higher, you know? Oh,
Alex Ferrari 40:11
I mean, look at Fight Club. I mean, look at God girl, I mean, look at any of his work the game, you can create a spectacle, but yet have so much depth and character and theme and hidden things that you will see years later. Like I go watch Fight Club now, right? And it's a different movie than I saw when it came out.
Jim Mercurio 40:32
Right? I tell you what, Fight Club is a movie that watch once or twice, love it, I recognize his brain. I just never really kind of reason or like to like, I don't wanna say ruin it. But like, I just never started it to death like, like, I get it the legal stuff. In our second viewing, it has extra levels, because all the setup for the like, he'll do the fight scene with the guy and then he'll to the point of view, by themself, right. But that's but that's, that's brilliant. I mean that that's, that's how you like, if you can get surprised and twist in scenes that are completely based on setup from what you've already shown us, then that scene doesn't need to set up an exposition It just is. And then the power is that you're seeing it with already set of expectations and already an understanding of what you want to get from it and why the things you see are surprising. So rather than having to have the moment where you explain why this next scene coming up is interesting, or what people want in it. It's already in the texture of the movie and talk about what's it look, it's Taco Brewer Fincher, for a second, give me just let me let me disclaim this. I don't I don't think that my appreciation for venture, or my finding some common ground with with, obviously, where I feel like is his ethnos of filmmaking. I'm not saying I'm as good as that, or I'm worthy, or whatever. I'm just saying. It's like, I watch his stuff. And it's like, if I had written the perfect screenwriting manifesto, and put it out in the world, it was as if like, he embraced it, because he never ever violates a principle that I teach. And it's like, I'm actually more proud of myself that like, I've come up with, like, all my theories and stuff. And then one of the greatest filmmaker, storytellers, you know, alive working right now seems to kind of, you know, implicitly, almost prove or show that I'm on the right track in some way. Like, like, he just, he just wants to like, for instance, like I say, opening image is always right on, if you remember the opening image for a gang girl,
Alex Ferrari 42:29
I don't know, off the top of my head, I don't remember. It's in a
Jim Mercurio 42:31
book too. So good for her. Because, you know, the author was doing this, but it's the picture of the wife's head. And he's like, I want to get in that head. And it's like, Oh, my God, he mean, psychologically understand this even social path. But it might mean it does mean I want to crack it, open it, that's what you're supposed to think it means. It's like, oh my God, in like, an image in five seconds. This movie has already announced what it's about what it's gonna be about, like the irony of like, the two of like, well wait a second, is she getting in her head? Like, you know, you know, figuratively where's he break into our heads? So it's like, it's so right on. So like, like, it's simply an introduction to characters like in the game, which I haven't really studied that much. But like, one time, I said, you know, Fincher always introduces his characters very, very, very concisely. So I say one of the first images of the Michael Douglas character is that beautiful side of San Francisco, down the hill, and his car is smoothly in the grooves of the trolley tracks. It's like skies on autopilot. He's like, he's on the tracks. He's going straight forward. There's no whole lot of thought and someone said, Oh, my God, no, that's you're still reading into it. That's so like, stereotypically, you know, bad teachers during this like, okay, I'm okay. Okay, so let's just imagine that I'm wrong. And when you introduce his character, he doesn't make them so specific. It's so unique to the character. Okay. Well, how do they introduce the brother? Oh, on the phone call? Oh, line to your brother. No line to a guy named Seymour butts. So he's already playing jokes. He's already practical joker before we even see him. And the brother instantly knows. Okay, that's my brother, cuz my brother plays jokes. And then in the restaurant, and then this takes work. I don't know if it's in the script. But as he's walking up to him, Sean Penn has grabbed it off. Whenever he has it with him. He's a spray bottle with him. He goes up to and he sneezes, sprays, right. That's like a pretty extreme specific thing. Why is that? Because he's a trickster. He plays games. He's a practical joker, and you need that because you know what? The entire movie is gonna be based on you believing that this guy would spend I don't know $100,000 To play a joke, a game with his brother. If that's not the essence of the character, if he's not someone who lives and breathes and walks and talks like that. It's like well, yeah, believability. Here's the thing, you might say, well, that's too far and this non-credible Not that always lost me fine. But you know what? That filmmakers were good storytellers. They did everything they could do to make that kind of work. So it's like, so it's all there. So, so opening images and introductions characters can talk about that for a second. Sure, please. Okay. So, you know, I was talking about opening images being like, so powerful, so important. And then I tell writers, you know, writers say, Well, how long do I have to do another page, paragraph two pages, well, into Kevin Walker, and his draft of seven, created an OnPoint opening image that did what I'm telling you that they should do. In the first five words. He says, light fights through the suit, right? darkness, light, trying to find light. And and I think in his draft, at some point, Somerset takes a switchblade and scrapes away grime off the wall, there's a rose there. So this idea of, you know, light, trying to fight to the darkness, good trying to find good and through evil, all that stuff. That's right there. So so he did his job as a screenwriter, like he knew what his movie was about. And he did it in five words. Right? Right. I mean, I mean, you can almost say, you know, it's dark, you know, it's about darkness, you probably even know, like, it's a mystery, because what's, you know, what's shrouded in darkness and you know, a story about light and darkness, you know. So it's like it gives away it tells you the genre, it tells you the themes, it is going to actually tell you about the character second, too well, Fincher did something a little more specific. He, which is what you're supposed to do. And this is what you can do as a writer, like, you look at your first draft, and you say, Oh, well, it takes me a page and a half to get to my like, theme and all the stuff but Jim says it should be done in a couple sentences. And Susan Cain does it like in a couple sentences, Susan Cain, like no trespassing, right?
No trespassing. The fence, guess what the camera moves up and over and you are gonna get you invade this guy's life. And you're gonna like, you know, that was the whole point of the movie, like, you're gonna like violate this guy's life, you're gonna think that you can figure out what's going on. So it's a Fincher takes, what some of the ideas in that draft, and he does something really specific. So the very first shot is rather than trying to kind of, you know, I don't have to show and I'm not gonna let you into it. It has a shot where Somerset walks in, pours out, coffee walks out. But he's framed between two very peculiar specific things. The background is the window with the sounds of the city, in the script is set up that the sounds of the city were there, he was trying to block them out. And it was like chaos. And it was like the evil world and stuff in the front of it is something that I couldn't quite tell what it was. But they look really closely. And it's a chess set. So I'm just gonna lead you to it. So in the very first frame, the very first shot, you have a character who's visually caught between unknowing chaos evil that's out there, you can't know it's uncontrollable, or a finite, logical, complete information world where wisdom can win where there's a clear winner, and you can do it. Because like chess is like an interesting game. Because chess, you have perfect information, unlike poker, where you don't see the other person's cards. You see. I mean, how you got, right, right, right. But there may be effects it but like, you see everything that's available to anybody, right there in the thing. So right there, he sets it up. So it's like, sorry, I bumped the mic. It's all good. So, so merely sets it up. You say? Well, once again, Jim, you're being a little bit too much. Right? Okay. Just let's stick with me for a second, let's say if the chaos and the evil and the unknowing let's call chaos, versus the order versus wisdom, and experience and knowledge can win, right? This the say, chaos and order for second, right? Well, the very first order from getting ready for work, which is getting for work ready for work, showing he's a cop that's necessary, but it's not sufficient. You want to do more than that. It happens to show him picking a piece of lint off his jacket. So it's order and then the next shot, which is order, but ironically, his order it has cast within it shows the five or six tools of his trade pen, the bags, switchblade a notebook, right. And they're all lined up. So so as content, it's Oh, that's order he has these things all lined up. Right. So it's the first shot was chaos versus order. That's the question, Dennis order. The week is dressed in this order. The surprise within that order is the badge in the notebook and the pen versus the switchblade. Right. Right. Violence versus order or, or, you know, knowledge and taking notes in the pen versus a switchblade and then it goes back to him getting dressed. And it's once again what part of getting dressed it's him adjusting this time, right. So it's back to order. It's not just oh, I'm putting on my pants or this is my badge my uniform. It's I'm you couldn't show a more specific like, you know, orderly aspect of the dress. Right. So then if I'm right, right before he walks out in the sequence is over, we're gonna hit, you know, the note of overcast again, right? Well, as he walks by he walks by his bed, the camera pans and lands on something. Do you remember what lands on?
Alex Ferrari 50:13
Don't off the top of my head?
Jim Mercurio 50:15
It's on the metronome. Oh, yes, yes, yes. So, and actually, in the writers draft, the metronome is there, like, you know, or like, literally the most specific, unique, most powerful example of what order is right. And he's using go to sleep, I might even like resonate with like the way puppies, you know, you put a ticking clock with a group of puppies and makes it sound like the mother's heart, it might even have like more resonance, but he's sitting there listening to the metronome to block out the sounds coming in from the window. So all those ideas were there, but look up what Fincher did chaos and order and a shot, then order, then order which has some chaos and then order, then complete order, then the absolute next shot is a jaggedly framed image of a bloody dead body show in content and form. Chaos. Right? So metronome to bloody red body so so it's like, you know, kind of like in a true Roman so in my life when I say you know, tell me tell me for Lion like chaos and order that that unity and specificity is so right there in Fincher is like, he's like a precision surgeon where it's like nothing is is wasted in like, Iran will see that the floor of his of his kicks in is checkerboard, right. At one point, he gets frustrated, and he throws you throws his footplate and or the metronome on to the checkerboard, right. So he's colliding these things. And it's like, once again, this rule of like, well, if you know, we open a gym you're supposed to do, and you know how fast you can get to it. And you know, you can introduce characters, like the very first thing you see about them, you know, here's a guy who's struggling to keep things in order, and and believe that he can with Tick, tock, tick tock approach to the world, he can save things. Here's a guy who's struggling with that, right? And it's all there. I don't know, 3040 seconds, seven shots, 10 different paradigms. So like, if you see that specificity, and that's your job to be so specific. Right? So like, so you do it, your first draft, nothing to do your second draft, I'm not going to do it, then you guys sit around in like your beginning writer, your third time writer, you're like, Okay, well, I gotta aim for that. So then you write a version that's a little bit on the nose, but you're getting closer, but like, you're not gonna let that go. You're not gonna think, Oh, I'm done. Until it does, what that does. So it's like, you know, these ideas of dilemma in knowing things and specificity. They, they turn into magic, they turn into the elements in the in the scenes that make your stories kind of special and unique. Does that make sense? It makes
Alex Ferrari 52:55
it makes perfect sense. And I know a lot of people listening will partake. Oh, I think I think Jim's going a little too deep on Fincher. As far as like, I think he's, he's reading into stuff that Fincher is doing. But I would say from my point of view, that you are not because the only thing and everything that Fincher does has purpose
Jim Mercurio 53:13
will listen. Okay, so if Jim material can come up with this, and you believe some of it, so guess what, David Fincher is better at this than I did affect David Fincher the master I mean, I mean, he, I mean, some people even criticize him. He's two cores into intellectual, but like, okay, so, so already, you have a guy who working in commercials, he's already worked in the smallest sort of forms, known as like, you know, a monster for details. And it like, if someone in the world is gonna do a perfect movie, or perfect sequence, we're going to do something when nothing is wasted on why wouldn't it be one of the top two or three directors working right? I mean, so it's like, you know, no, no, trust me, he's doing that instead. Once again, if you think I'm wrong, go pick the top, take your top top 10 movies or, or be a film snob and tell me the top five movies you think are the greatest movies of all time. And I promise you, eight or nine of them will have that amazingly succinct introduction to character, that amazingly succinct opening because it's like, Wait a second. So you tell me the guy who has her head in voiceover I want to get inside that head as the very first five seconds of Gone Girl doesn't know what he's doing doesn't control? No.
Alex Ferrari 54:23
Right? All you got to do is what seven and fight club and social network and all of them
Jim Mercurio 54:28
know exactly, exactly. Same thing. Social Network, you know, he has an eight minute long scene, right? The Talking scene? Yes. And but then I see an opening image sums it all up. So you see my gym. That was an opening image that was a page of talk. Well, first of all, if you listen to the 10 things opening image is supposed to do that does eight of them sets up the world sets up the rules are okay. But then in the script, there's like four or five lines, three little paragraphs of him walking back to get to the dorm. And it says any place he feels comfortable fit Turn that into like a $3 million sequence. It's one of the biggest sequences in the movie. He goes to Harvard. Every single moment someone's doing something always in couples going the opposite direction. No one's ever going the right direction. Oh, that's, that's you picking that? Well, okay, look at the 17 shots and tell me how come never one person is alone, never one person is pointing the same direction or moving the same direction. He's going against all that stuff. He gives you the opening image second, but he goes through. And even though he kind of doesn't have to, because you probably nailed it in all the dialogue. Oh, he says, Sorry, spends 90 seconds for stroking does. But Fincher decided to spend two minutes of the film in like four days of shooting and a $2 million sequence of him going, right Rex, it was so important to get them crushed. And so that instead of up so it's like, once again, tell me I'm not lying like so yeah, he broke the rules about opening him just No, he didn't. He bent the rules, and then did exactly exactly what I said he, you should do. And he should do. So it's like, yeah, he broke the rules bent the rules. But guess what, he did everything we just said we should do? So it's like, you know, I playfully challenge you, you know, or some point to do a follow up. Like, you know, let's let's think about 10 classic movies of all time. And just ask yourself, Wait a second. Did they do that? Yeah, those filmmakers? And you're gonna find you're gonna find always that, you know? pretty much always that is right there that, you know, the filmmakers are doing that is funny because I sometimes do people say, Jim, you go too far because as a filmmaker, I definitely bring my my kind of filmmaking and understanding of like all the other parts of filmmaking, editing and lighting and you know, some photography, I bring that into my screenwriting teaching. If you were to say, well, here's where most people say screenwriting and directing and filmmaking kind of begin, you know, on a scale from one to 100. Let's say like screenwriters enter 40. And then the price filmmaking process takes over right now, there's definitely been times when I might talk, maybe somewhere else talking about movies, some of it is a little bit more of the filmmaker, stuff like that the checkered, the checkered floor is probably, let's say, I talk about stuff that's in the 80s 90s. Like, you know what, that's definitely director stuff. But I'll tell you what, almost are not on a 10 screenwriters would be better off, you know, misfiring in my direction, starting trying to put a little bit too much or a little bit too much details. Because in movies, what you see and what you hear, the only difference is on a screenwriter has the page, a director has the whole actual canvas in the screen to do it. But it's like most screenplays are not as visual as they could be. They're not using as many of the tools and understanding of what you know, kind of what film can do. So it's like, I definitely believe that on average, screenwriters need to come more my direction, and kind of take more responsibility for the visuals and images and details that they put on the page. If they overshoot by a little bit fine. It's really easy to cut back Oh, it's much easier,
Alex Ferrari 57:51
it's much easier to pull back than it is to push.
Jim Mercurio 57:53
i And the thing is though, I promise you almost 99 of 100 screenwriters would be better off if they err a little bit more, if assuming I'm wrong, or towards my side of like, well, wait a second, go a little bit further what the screenwriting books tell you as far as what you can do, because, you know, if you if you can nail how someone dresses, how it sums them up, then, you know, kind of put you know, put put that in there. And it's like, or if you even know Wait a second. I know that wardrobe is something that I can use so like in in Dark Knight. Remember he goes to Matthew Modine character, and he says it's not like I'm expecting you to walk down Main Street with your dress your dress, blues honor, you know, your your fancy, you know? Guess what, then the climb his climb actually run the movie, his character has on that blue outfit. He's walking down the street. So it's like, Oh, he did do the most audacious bold thing that he was challenged to do. He actually did that. So like the fact that you knew wardrobe could have meaning, but and actually what you did more so than the wardrobe was you use for shadowing, and, you know, worse to charge that item. But it's like you see how like, you can do something that maybe another person another way wouldn't event but like, like, I don't think that's outside the realm of screenwriting. That should be part of screenwriting. And if you doing those kinds of specific things, you're going to be a better storyteller than the average Dre, you know, the average writer and go on?
Alex Ferrari 59:17
No, no, no, go ahead.
Jim Mercurio 59:20
What is nowadays, a spec script, you just have to execute it. Like there's no development money. People don't want to develop stuff. They want to be on the page, you want to write like actor B, you want to write director Bay, you want to write scripts. They're like, Oh, hey, you know what? This is on a page. This can be shot in three weeks, I could send this out to directors, I could spin this out to actors, like so like my focus on scene writing, in the nitty gritty details, but I focus on it because the best thing I can do for you business wise, is help you write and execute the scripts in your head, the script you want to write, because if you can nail it, and make it really attractive to all the other allies you need, like an agent can say, Wow, this is really the set piece seems really showy. I could send this to a director or this role is really Fun it does monologues are great in this subset P scenes for the actor to do. I know actress who played this, if you didn't get that in your storytelling in the execution, you were you were so far ahead of the game because people don't want develop stuff and applying concepts anymore. He's done that the 90s were like a logline and a concept, you know, we'll get a million bucks. Exactly, exactly. So you have to, you have to know you have to be great. You have to be you have to be both sides. Yes. Genre. Yeah, transcends genre. Kiss was great characters. It's great themes. It's, there's roles that people would want to play. So like, you have to be all things.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:37
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. Without question, how do you suggest writers outline their screenplays?
Jim Mercurio 1:00:53
Of course, but once again, like it's it's a back and forth process. Like I think I listened to your podcast, and they were saying, someone were saying, you know, a writers make mistake because they don't do enough preparation. They don't, they don't outline enough. But here's the thing, somebody they don't, it's, that's true. But also, they can't, because like to do it right? To develop a story that's both working on the external level and the internal level, which is what your goal is, like, a lot of times, people talk different ways, like you want a story that has resonated with resonates, or that's deeper, or has meaning or steam, there really what it means is that every step of the way, is an eternal journey, an external journey. And it's like, you can't do that right away. So it's like writers should work on structure, they should be prepared. But then they write a little bit, and then they stumble upon in discover turning points, and things that come next. And then they can use that to augment and expand their outline in as long as they don't like, you know, write 3040 pages really fast. And they get stuck to and say, these pages aren't going anywhere, but are willing to look at that as like, that's kind of your outlining, you know, and you discovered, so you wait 1015 pages, you just you might discover a turning point, after reading 10 pages, you throw away all those pages. But now you know, the turning point you're aiming to with a Fincher like precision, and like that created your outline. So there's two days of writing what wasted, they help you write an outline that covers 10% of your script, right, but you had to write 10 pages and throw them away. So it's like, it's a back and forth. It's a chicken egg. So like, you always want to ask yourself, what happens next. But like, I'm just trying to build good habits, your scene should always have a change that has a story and the character. Also another way to think about it, what happens next, but also different way to think about is, what would my character do next. And if you can follow those things and align them. That's the skill it takes to be a good storyteller. That's not something's gonna happen the first time you sit down, it's not something that you're gonna be able to do for like outlining 100 page story. So it's like, if you know, that's your goal. He had the habit of like, well, okay, the next thing is he has to go after and target these people. Okay, that's generic. Well, how does he do it? Well, now, he's really impatient. Or now he's mad. Now he's willing to break the law, you know, so it's like a perfect example is another confidential you know, he was told earlier, would you rough up somebody to get you know, a confession? No, wouldn't do that, when he goes to rough out the DA with, with a bud white. But it's perfect. Because bud whites the mentor, leading the way, he's like, on your journey, to quit being the goody two shoes, quit being a super ego and getting your hands dirty. Here's the second or third step before the very end. So we're gonna take you on that journey, you're gonna get information from Da to turns the story, but you're gonna do it in a way that's really fun. Because it's new to you, like you haven't done it before. It represents growth. It represents like you moving like direction. So it's like, that's a perfect example of like, the story external stuff. And the inner journey internal emotional character arc stuff, you want to put those together. And yes, you do have to be prepared, you do have to have preparation. But don't lock yourself into thinking I'm gonna nail it all in the structure in the outlines, stage. No, you are working for I call it a phantom treatment or phantom outline. It's something that grows and builds as you're writing. But don't be afraid to explore a little bit then come back and explore but come back because it's gonna take work the first few times to get you know all these things working and that's back to the thing about a lot of times veterans don't know what to aim for your first chapter. You don't know you're aiming for that. You don't know like that the next step of all the capacity interrogate the people also has to have some personal character aspects specific to your flaw, or the antagonist has to make it harder in some way that's specific to that character. So it's like, you know, first time screenwriter, maybe they don't know that's, that's not like just a lofty goal. That's the bare minimum. Like that's what that's what storytelling is. That's what great storytelling is. So it's like, yeah, it's they have to but also You know, it's not about rigidly like, okay, just commit to it. And because you say you're going to do it, you can just magically have those skills they need to develop over time.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:10
Now, can you tell me a little bit about your new book, The craft of screen or have seen writing?
Jim Mercurio 1:05:14
Yeah, it's actually the first ever book that focuses, you know, just don't scenes. And at first, you know, I was defensive about it, like, Oh, it's just for people who do short form stuff, commercial stuff. But as I wrote it, I kind of realized, oh, no, no, a scene is, you know, really small unit. I mean, a beat is the smallest unit, like a little change a little moment. And then a few beats beat up to a change. And that's a scene. But it's seen as the first unit of drama, that's a story in and of itself, is storytelling is pure form, and you leading up to a change in the craft to turn that change, to understand the climax, like I just said, to make the character and story change. That's a skill. That's probably the most important skill in Screenwriting. And people will say, Jim, you're being too extreme. No, no, I mean, your climax of your movie is where your character arc comes. And like the clever solution, guess what that is, that's that story change. And that's the character change, I call the killer ending where the goal and the need the external and the internal, unifying the ones who seem to action that aligns and the pulls them together. So it's like, if you can turn a moment using both character and story, and you do it perfectly, that will perfectly means you've drawn from character you drawn from the deep recesses of the character you'd want from the clever setup you created. Um, you know, I'm saying like, like in Fight Club, we has that fight with himself. You see just him. Right, right. Well, that scene works. And the surprise comes from the fact that you saw the fight the first time, right? Without it, or, or I know, yeah, you know what? I know. You know, like an eight mile I knew everything you have to say about me. I know your favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. Yes, but But look, I mean, that's the movie that that a lot that a lot of success is having great scenes is so carefully planned out. So think about how carefully it's orchestrated. They decide to switch over, they switch the perspective a few times, but they decided to show the escape from the wardens perspective. So it's a mystery. It's a suspense, right? And we see it come up. And so then we're ready to show it later on, which is a really conscious choice. It's like a scene reading choice. But also, like on one level, the scene or sequence where it's shown now has power because of the setup you created for it has a couple things, it answers the question of, Hey, how did that happen, but also, because Red's telling the story in voiceover, it actually has an extra level to it. So it's like, if you can nail scenes and understand how structure they work, that's going to help your scenes be sharper and crisper, that's going to help your sequences as can help your x, it can help the entire story. So it's like if I see three or four scenes, the first few pages are wishy washy, and the climax has fat after it. It's not concise. I know why would I think that your climax is going to be any difference? Because that's all it is just to change this reversal. So yeah, I feel like my focus in craft is something I do this kind of special, I think writers will get something really unique out of my really kind of microscopic approach. It's not a niche. It's really something that's really super universal. And I'm hoping that it'll kind of get people kind of excited. It'll be like a new canonical book. Because I mean, all the great great screenwriting books, like if I were to list them all but one or two from like, you know, I don't know 30 years ago, I'm used to go back right back to Walter Haig field in some ways, right? my keys, my keys book is solid, he's good, but it's hard to read. Like I can't say, Hey, first 15 minutes go read
Alex Ferrari 1:08:40
it. Yeah, McKee is not an easy day to me
Jim Mercurio 1:08:44
as a teacher, I gotta read it or someone who like is trying to synthesize all the stuff of course, or advanced screenwriter, you might you might do it, but um, you know, it's hard and very first thing my book now anyway, does EPA grant epitaph, EPA, EPA epigraph, the epigraph of my book, little quote in front of my book is from Renoir, Pierre Augustine Moore, he says, First learn to be a craftsman. It won't keep you from being a genius. So it's like learning this stuff, seeing what other people do. Like, it's not gonna prevent you from using intuition, or every piece of talent you have. If I tell you, your opening image has to argue the theme and be right on that book. What are you going to argue? Well, no, I thought I start my movie off with some junk that doesn't really, nail it doesn't really belong to it. Well, if that's the case, guess what happened? You cut that? You know, like, if you have that your script, well cut, cut, cut, oh, here's what the story becomes itself. Here's where the story presents itself and its themes in what it's about and its essence. That's where you start your movie. Why would you start with that? So it's like, even if you follow my rule and do that, you still have to have the magic. You still, you know, you still have to find a way to clever, unique way of being on point and saying, Hey, show me or I'm going to show you the essence of my movie. In a sentence, or an image, right, or three sentences in, you're going to go back on a second or third reading, you're going to know are you going to appreciate, oh my god, this movie is what it was about neuters about from the very first frame, their very first story. That's, that's something that is hard to achieve in your great movies that you love. Not you, but like the movies that like, you know, aspiring writers or beginning writers love, they probably do that and not even aware. And that's the very first thing I can do is say, Man, appreciate this craft. Look, let me be able to show it to you inside the Sapper Whorf hypothesis, if you know what exists, it should change your world. Like if you know that nine out of 10 of your favorite movies do these things? What are you fighting against? You know what I mean? Like yeah, it's hard. It'd be easier not to shortcuts are obviously shortcuts. But
Alex Ferrari 1:10:57
was you know, I didn't mean to interrupt you. But like, it's a perfect example of like, if you don't know what the hero's journey was, if the hero's journey has never been brought to you or even brought into your world. Imagine when you first heard about the hero's journey, Joseph Campbell, like it changed everything, whether you use it or not, you know, it's there.
Jim Mercurio 1:11:17
What's the can you steal from all this stuff? So it's like, okay, so we know stories go up and down. We know things have to go down. So okay, dark night of the soul and JoJo Tim's rock bottom character goes down. He's far away from the goal. Psychologically, he's regressed to be his worst self, like Budweiser. But what goes on punches girlfriend in the face, he becomes his father, he becomes the worst version of himself before he goes on, and then starts thinking and helping out with actually he goes from his very worst to his character. I think that's the twist. And that's the, you know, surprise reversal that I talked about my film with, like, you know, with great detail like, if you can do with line of dialogue, or a couple of words of ActionScript and then you can do it with entire story. So this is back to the USN. So like, you know, stories go up and down. And you know, at some point the characters are farther away from the goal and also regret for the worst self like the other confidential bud white punches girlfriend, the face comes as father becomes his worst self, the moment reflect the split second before he becomes the character arc of like, you know, helping out using his brain not being like this angry it like creature. So let's say you know that you haven't your story. But then you read Vogler, then you think about mythology, and then you think Phoenix, rising from the ashes, oh, well, that's a cool image. So like one of the Spider Man movies, something crashes in on Peter, and then boom, he jumps up, and all this stuff flies out. And like, to me, I always thought of like, oh, it's like the phoenix rising from the ashes. So like, you may get an idea for an image, or a beat from like, one of these paradigms. And it's, it's not like, oh, well, I was never ever going to know about this beat. But it might just give you like a specific idea, or might just give you a specific way through it, or my challenge to say, Okay, make him the furthest away possible from the goal. You know, if you're the guy who's writing a drama, you might be able to say, Okay, I need to push the story further away. Or if you're the guy who writes the story will coaster obstacle course movies, you might say, wait a second, regression psychology, I didn't think about that. But let's take, I gotta think about that for a second, what is the worst thing that could possibly you know, and it's like, some little paradigm, or some little specific insight, or example, might give you a scene, or visual, or just open up something for you. So it's like, it's to me, like, if any of these parents resonate with you, it just, it just means they're working. It just means because we're all metaphors. So like, if if it resonates with you just means there's some truth to the metaphors, it's mapping somewhat accurately, or some truth and honesty, storytelling thing. I don't think any of them are perfect. I don't think mine is perfect, or I don't think any of them are necessarily complete. But if like all of them do 80%, or all of them have some good things you can pull from them. Like, yeah, definitely learn from 10 different places that that's how, you know, I mean, that that's how I became a good teacher is like, I went down all these paths and different perspectives. And I said to myself, well, I'll take the best lead the rest of all these, I'll collide them, I'll compare them and like, I kind of came up with this, like creative like, way of like, you know what, I don't think my stuff violates or, or goes against or puts anything down that's out there. I just think I just think it also will add something specific and give you different new tools, no matter where you are, what paradigm you're thinking about, I believe Mitel complements it. So it's like, I'm kind of positive guy wants to be yes. And I want you to do all things. I don't want to do just one thing. I don't want to do just my paradigm. I don't want to say Michael Hayes better than Truby. I think this Hague stuff is good. I think it's tricky stuff. That's good. It is my stuff. That's good. Who cares at all, but I would rather you say yes, to like seven things out of us than say, Well, I say yes to three of those things with others. Things are kind of counterintuitive and hard for me. So I'm just not going to make that policeman Threshold Guardian, I'm just not going to give a big psychological resonance. I'll just make it funny. It's like no man, like, you'd lost the battle right there. It's like, you can't take away for every time you take away from something, you have to add more, and probably even add more than you take away. And even like, sometimes, like, you know, Robert, Robert Altman used to make these like deconstructions of genres where he would like, trim stuff down and take things away. But I would argue, as an art film, or as a smart guy, or as a experimental filmmaker, he was adding way more than he was taken away. So it's like you always you always want to look for like, you know, ways to say yes, then yeah, I'll do what everybody else does. And then I'll transcend it. And then I'll go deeper in these areas that usually most people don't do. It's like, you want to be able to set yourself apart. You want to aim, aim to be great. Your expectations have to be, you know, shouldn't be aiming to go I'm gonna do like a cool buddy cop movie, this kind of funny, or this kind of reminiscent weapon. It's like no, right? Nowadays, you get to write something this bedroom for what was good with a weapon, or that's the modern day version with a weapon. It's like, you have to kind of go for it.
Alex Ferrari 1:16:11
Alright, man. So let me I'm gonna ask you the same questions I asked. All my, all my guests. What advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?
Jim Mercurio 1:16:22
Well, like I said, I mean, just go I mean, start writing. Understand that your writing process yourself is going to lead you to things like there are things you only learn from writing. Sure, right. Read screenplays, read some books read or reports or books, or recent blogs. And it just go back and forth with it. And it's like, you're going to do all these things at once. Because the more you know of the more you're aware of, if if you go and read an article, or analyze a screenplay, and like he points something out that Fincher does. Now, you know, it's possible you could do that, for another guy gives you a good idea about how to break in your second act. Well, that's cool. If you read three scripts, and you see, every single modern comedy has an inciting incident, the first eight pages rather than 11, then you can you know, I'm saying like, just just go blindly for for a while, and things will start catching up and kind of aligning and occurring and like, don't think that there's one way I can, I must outline and most rigidly plan, or I must just write for the seat of my pants because I'm a genius. The answer is no to that. No to this, it's yes. And yes, yeah, write some don't be afraid to throw it away. You know, discover, go back and let that be your structure. And then, you know, one of the people you come to is me, I had this big, huge 10 hour DVD set on my book eventually, or, you know, I work with clients that have made billions of dollars in box office and complete beginners. So it's like, you know, that is something I do, you can check, you can check out my website for
Alex Ferrari 1:17:51
that. Now, can you tell me what book had the biggest impact on your life or career, screenwriting book, either screenwriting or any other kind of book?
Jim Mercurio 1:18:01
You know, I mean, I don't know. I don't I don't know how to books did I mean, when I was in college and writing my first screenplay, like, I went to the bookstore, and there's two or three books on a shelf, so I picked up like, I think Walter and field and they were like, they were like, a complete but they were solid. And they were like, you know, they gave me a framework. You know what I don't I don't have a mantra. If
Alex Ferrari 1:18:28
you don't have a good answer, we can move on. It's all good.
Jim Mercurio 1:18:31
I think the screen already works. I think Michael Hague's reading screenplays that sell really started aligning theme and character with story. I love that. And I think Linda seghers book, yeah, making the script Great. Which is, which is actually in some ways, not because of her writing. But because of the complexity and the details, is a hard read, you actually need to watch the movie almost have in front of you almost outline it, because to really understand what he's saying is setups and payoffs and nitpicky stuff, you really have to kind of know it. In my book, I do the same kind of stuff, where it's like, I'm going to get five examples, and three of them are gonna be like, Oh, I'm not sure about that movie. But the two that you know, are going to be so specific. So on point so her book was very specific, and really about so you how movies were about setups and payoffs. I think that was very powerful. And then as a as a director, a friend of mine who produced the movie, said, You don't know the actor, actor language. You don't talk to actors yet. He made me read this book called audition, but Michael Shurtleff, and it was like, oh, actors prepare Yeah, for and, and what it did was, the book is amazing. It's helped me amazing helping my writing to take those principles, but the idea that you must consider the other perspectives of other people, cinematographer, editor, actors, if you understand their point of view better, it makes you better screenwriter, not just on some theoretical, like, intellectual level, but like a deep personal emotional level. If you You know, that extra that act of playing that small role is a person is invested into spend 40 hours making a backstory for the guy gives the tickets out on the boat, you're going to put more emphasis, you know, and, and details and thought into your minor characters. Because you know, an actor, a real live person is going to play it to like sympathy and empathy and understanding for those other things intellectually and emotionally. I think that that was a book that was like, first opened me up to that mindset.
Alex Ferrari 1:20:29
Very cool. Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?
Jim Mercurio 1:20:36
See, I think is that, that that Yes. And or do both like, like, for 10 years, I was making movies 2000 2010, a little bunch of movies. And, you know, there's this thing called deliberate practice, like, I was learning to be a better screenwriter, and I was learning to be a better teacher. And it wasn't like that time was wasted. But I think I wasn't running as much during that time. Because I said to myself, well, I'm making movies. So I don't have to be the writer all the time to, I don't have to crank out scripts, you know, as the guys who aren't also spending 5000 hours making movies. And it's like, no, no, you know what, man? It's hard. But you have to do both. Same thing with, I want to write action movies, what do I care about the main character? No, you have to do both. I write dramas where I care about twists and turning points. No, you have to do both. So this idea I think of like being whole and not, or I don't want to mark it, because I'm just a genius. I gotta admit, I don't teach anything about marketing in business. It's not my strength. I don't like it. So as a teacher, I'm allowed to do that. As a writer, guess what I have to come up I have to write the logline, which I hate, I'm not good at, I have to query people, I have to do everything. So it's like you got to do both things. You have to make yourself whole like you have to have your character arc as a writer as a person, write business and craft, character and story and you know, fun, internal external, you got to be whole you got to like kind of, because for you to put your best self out there, you have to access your wholesales
Alex Ferrari 1:22:04
and three of your favorite films of all time.
Unknown Speaker 1:22:06
Oh my god. Well, okay.
Alex Ferrari 1:22:08
Just the ones that come to your mind right now.
Jim Mercurio 1:22:10
Okay. Okay. I guess to give you two quick answers. The cliched version is everybody loves these and I feel like I'm boring Godfather Chinatown. Any hall like everybody. Yeah, Bicycle Thieves is that is probably like my favorite or the classical. I'm Italian. It just hits me movies that like I thought I appreciated it real personal that I found something surprising in breaking away. Being that cowboy angers not as a hunter. In movies, I say like, you know what, there's my voice. I wish I could have written that. Alexander Payne election sideways kind of comes to mind. Breaking Away Been a Cowboy are so jam packed with theme and coherency. They're just
Alex Ferrari 1:22:48
Well, that was like, that's like 10 movies. You did a good job.
Jim Mercurio 1:22:53
But it's all he can't be pinned down. It's like, No, I gotta, I gotta tell you what, though, if you think I'm going too far, like, you can watch the first like three minutes of Midnight Cowboy. And you could pick out 30 I'm not kidding. 30 things that point to theme, the way we talked about seven the way you think I went you are what you imagine that someone would say when you fart, you could look at the first 345 minutes of macabre and you could easily pick out 30 clearly defined craft, you know, techniques and attempts to make meaning and to set things up and it's it's so JAM PACKED is perfect. And where can people find you? My website? James P. Mercurial comm you can sign up for our newsletter there, which is free from back issues. My DVDs DVD set there is they're at a really super reduced price now. And if you want to, you know, talk to me about the coaching or script consulting, you can email me we can have a talk no pressure. I mean, my sales pitch usually is you've listened to me if you'd like what I said, you think I can help you? You know? So like, that's the there's the pitch. So like, if you want to talk about it, or if you want to check it out? Yeah, go to James P. mercurial.com. Jim,
Alex Ferrari 1:24:03
man, thank you so much. This has been an epic conversation to say thanks.
Jim Mercurio 1:24:07
But also, like I said, Man, it's an appreciation for screenwriting. Like, you appreciate it. And like, I think you get excited because sometimes you'll learn stuff too. But like, it's so fast. It's so fast, that you know the things you have to know, you know, and I appreciate you fighting the good fight to get that out there.
Alex Ferrari 1:24:22
And I appreciate him. And I look and I've listened, I've listened to or spoken to many of the people you've talked to almost almost all of them that you quoted in this in this interview. And it's true. Like I've learned so much over the course of the last three years of doing this. Because you learn from these different, you just learn it you I always look at it this way. We're all looking at different pieces of the elephant in the room. No one's got it all figured out. But if you start piecing all of them together, you get a much whole more holistic approach to storytelling, and I think it's beneficial to everybody to to learn from as many different things sources as humanly possible. So thank you for dropping some major knowledge bombs today on the tribe. I want to thank Jim for coming on the show and dropping some major knowledge bombs on the tribe today. If you want to get links to his course, his workshops on ifH TV, or if you want to get in touch with him for some consulting, head over to indie film hustle.com forward slash BPS zero 33 for the show notes. And guys, if you have not already, please head over to screenwriting podcast.com And leave a good review for the show. It really really helps us out a lot on iTunes. Thanks again for listening guys. And as always, keep on writing no matter what. I'll talk to you soon. Thanks for listening to the bulletproof screenplay podcast at bulletproof screenplay calm that's b u ll e t e r o f s CR e n PLA y.com
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.