Today’s guest is author Daniel Calvisi. Dan wrote the book Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay. He breaks down stories and shows you how to map out your own by analyzing how the masters construct their screenplays. Here’s a bit more on today’s guest.
Daniel Calvisi is a story analyst, speaker, screenwriter and author of STORY MAPS: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay, STORY MAPS: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot, and Story Maps: 12 Great Screenplays (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Up, Rocky, Sex and the City, X-Men, Black Swan, Juno, The Matrix)
He is a former Story Analyst for major studios like Twentieth Century Fox, Miramax Films,and New Line Cinema. He coaches writers, teaches webinars on writing for film and television with The Writers Store and speaks at writing conferences and book signings. He holds a degree in Film and Television from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
So stop reading this and listen to the podcast already. Enjoy my conversation with Daniel Calvisi.
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Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome to the show Dan Cal VC, man, thank you so much for being on the show.
Daniel Calvisi 3:15
Thanks for having me.
Alex Ferrari 3:15
I appreciate it, man. So I wanted to first get into how'd you get into this crazy business?
Daniel Calvisi 3:21
Well, I went to NYU film school and like everyone there I wanted to be a writer director. And but I really got into screenwriting there, I really found that the screenplay was was really where my heart was. And I took a script analysis class that I really liked. So that was kind of the first time I ever really took apart like professional scripts, their structure and everything we studied, you know, Sunset Boulevard, and the silence of the lambs and really a wide swath of scripts and movies. So that really turned me on and I heard about this job of being a reader. So when I got out of college, I found my way to becoming a reader for various companies like Miramax, and Fox 2000, and I worked for Jonathan Demi's company, clinic estetico, and new line and other things. So that was freelance reader work that I was doing. But I was working for enough companies where I was supporting myself and I learned on the job, you know, quickly, I had to because they give you a bunch of scripts, and you have to return them two days, or maybe the next day, you know, maybe do an overnight job. So I had to do written analysis of all of these scripts and a lot of books as well. And so I really learned under fire and I started course finding patterns and similarities and the bad scripts and the good scripts and seeing what worked and what didn't, especially structure. And that's how I started to develop my story maps structural method as well. So
Alex Ferrari 4:55
so how how does a young screenwriter break into Hollywood? As a script reader, like, What's that process like? Well,
Daniel Calvisi 5:03
I think these days probably hone your craft a little bit, get your feet wet with contests. With contests and film festivals. They probably won't pay you at first. So I would say do some free reader work, you know, reviewing the first round of submissions to, you know, the Austin screenwriting conference or something like that, or the final draft contest. So contact them directly. Say you want to volunteer to be a reader. Hopefully, they'll give you a test script to do test notes on and confirm that you do know what you're doing. Then from there, I would say it'll either be word of mouth, you'll hear about an opening or contact directly agencies, management companies, production companies and studios. And if you contact enough and you send them in sample coverages, hopefully eventually there will be an opening and they will hire you for that I got my one of my first jobs, the way I got into Miramax Films was through their genre unit Dimension Films.
Alex Ferrari 6:12
This is and then you got in at a time when Miramax was at the height of its powers.
Daniel Calvisi 6:16
Yeah, they were absolutely at their peak, they were winning Best Picture. And I this was Dimension Films, they had the Spy Kids franchise, the screen franchise, they were huge. Yeah, they were huge. And it was funny, because I was told by a friend that he had been a reader there, he knew a guy there. But he said don't call them because I know for a fact that they don't have any openings. And so I call them anyway, the guy dimension and the first thing he said was, we have an opening for a reader Do you want to test for it? So the lesson there is be persistent. You know, somebody tells you not to do something as long as you're not a jerk about it. Go ahead and try and get your foot in the door. It doesn't hurt to make a phone call. That's one thing I always tell people is, you know, people still make phone calls in this town. Mm hmm. So cold calling can work. You know, it's it's
Alex Ferrari 7:09
pretty remarkable. You know, doing this show for so long. I cold. I don't cold call cold tweets. Or I cold email like I did to you. And it's amazing. You know, you ask and people will like Yeah, sure. I'll come on. Yeah, for sure. I'd like to have a meeting. Sure. It's, it's fascinating when you ask what happens?
Daniel Calvisi 7:28
Yeah, yeah. So what I find one thing, it's hard to do. But if you can give them something like a piece of information they may not have had. Or if you can stroke their ego to maybe in a unique way, like let's say, you're contacting a company that makes a lot of big blockbuster movies. But you're talking to an executive who happened to have made this really small indie film 10 years ago. And you tell them, hey, oh, my gosh, I saw that film. I really loved it. You know, I'd love to learn more about it. Because you're, you know, you're kind of appealing to them to their passion, you know, not just their their latest superhero movie, which they may not have had anything to do with, you know,
Alex Ferrari 8:11
yeah, that's something and now with IMDb, you can literally do that research fairly quickly. Mm hmm. Yeah. And do you agree that when you are reaching out to to gatekeepers or or people that you're trying to work with in one way, shape, or form, providing value of some sort is or, like you said, stroking the ego is one way in, but also providing some sort of value in whatever that might be? Whether that be free work, whether that be anything? Do you think that's a good rule of thumb?
Daniel Calvisi 8:41
Yeah, yeah, totally, totally, if you can offer them something, because Because I mean, really, they get, if they're getting 20 scripts a day, they don't really need your script, you know, or your whatever you're trying to send to them, you know, they don't need to give you your break. So if you can somehow offer them something of value, you know, a piece of information or I don't know anything, maybe a bottle of their, their favorite barbecue sauce from Brooklyn. You know,
Alex Ferrari 9:10
if you do that kind of research, I guarantee you if you do that kind of research, and you hit up an executive, and that they you that you found the favorite barbecue sauce, and you're like, Hey, I heard this was your favorite. It could be a little creepy, but yet it opened the door. Yeah, totally,
Daniel Calvisi 9:23
totally. I also find if you if you see them talk on a panel. Mm hmm. It helps to say Hey, I saw you talk on this panel. And I really liked what you had to say, you know, space and then given a specific example, because you know, people go to talk on panels because they want to be listened to, you know, and they want to be adored, and they want to, you know, feel like they made a difference in somebody's life. So they may not have actually taught maybe they had to leave quickly. So they didn't talk to anyone in the audience or maybe they were only approached by annoying people after their Talk, you know, God. So you guys, we all know there's there's always that person in the front row who just has the most inane questions, right? Una
Alex Ferrari 10:09
Yeah, like, how do you get $100 million? To make my first feature? I'm like, Oh,
Daniel Calvisi 10:12
yes, yeah. So you can show, you know, say something really smart and say, you know, you got some value out of their thing, then that sounds really nice to them, you know, they're glad that they did it.
Alex Ferrari 10:22
So what's the big difference between a script reader and a story analyst in regard? Are they the same thing in the studio system?
Daniel Calvisi 10:30
They're the same thing in the studio system. outside the studio system, I would say, a story analyst is probably more of a consultant like me, a writing coach. And also someone who feels comfortable analyzing any kind of narrative, whether it's a book, a movie, a TV show, or a video game, you know, or a myth or something like that. So that's something I like that term story analysts because it's kind of a universal thing, saying, I have years of experience analyzing narratives and you know, taking apart the structural differences between let's say, a fairy tale and a studio feature film, you know, so I analyze story.
Alex Ferrari 11:13
What are some of the common traits? You see, since you've read so many? Since you've read so many stories in screenplays? What are some of the common traits you see of successful screenplays?
Daniel Calvisi 11:25
Wow, well, um, well, I always say you got to come right out of the gate and suck in the reader. So your opening has to be great. Open with something unique, ideally, something we haven't seen before, or something that really endears us to your main characters. They need to have really strong motivation that we identify with them, and they have a really strong need. That's one thing that you just don't see enough in scripts and in movies as well. You know, someone, an actor, being a movie star is not enough, anymore game by Yeah, and not just at the box office, just when you're watching a film to gain my interest in following them. If their character is a total jerk, and just an immoral person. They still need a code of ethics that we believe in, they still we still need to believe in their goal. And root for them, you know, and so that can be tough to generate that rooting interest in the reader or the audience.
Alex Ferrari 12:27
Can you give an example of a movie that did it right? Like that opening? I mean, I'm thinking off the top of my head like Shawshank or diehard or lethal weapon or these kind of characters. Do you Do you know of a can you come up with a movie that has that kind of opening? Like you really just fall in love with that character? And that character, that leading character has that need? Mm
Daniel Calvisi 12:48
hmm. Wow. I mean, I mean, there's so many. The classic example is Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, we see this guy do this amazing thing where he rescues this, you know, golden idol from from this temple. And then it's, and then it's taken from him by by this evil guy, so we really, we really, you know, feel for him, and then he makes this dashing escape so So and I think that that was necessary in that opening to have a Balog, the villain, you know, so we don't just think okay, this is just a random archaeologist who's just trying to get this golden idol because it's worth a lot of money. You know, you needed the villain to come in there and say, hey, you know, I'm, I'm the evil guy who, who wants this for myself, you know, where's your your the pure one. But trying to think of a more a more modern film, I would say, Well, let's look at this summer there was the Spider Man homecoming, you know, we do feel for Peter Parker because he's a kid. And he doesn't really know what he's doing. And he's struggling with, you know, kids stuff like he likes the pretty girl. And she won't give him the time of day. Although she does kind of like him too much. That was one thing about it. I thought it was kind of too easy for him to get the girl kind of already liked him. But um, so and that's something with like superhero movies, you still have to endear us to the character, especially even more because they have these superpowers. Right so they could be just a superhero. Not a regular person. But so in Spider Man. He wasn't normal kid with normal problems. Yeah, I thought that was really intentional on their part.
Alex Ferrari 14:36
I think they did it. I mean, out of all the Spider Man movies, I think they nailed and I do like to Tobey Maguire first and second one but I felt that that in Spider Man homecoming they nailed the comic book spider man there. He was a kid with me. It literally almost turned into a John Hughes movie. When you're watching it, you just feel like this really emotional attachment to his kid problems. By the way, he's also fighting villains and dealing with his form of puberty, which is superpowers.
Daniel Calvisi 15:07
Yeah, and he's not, he's not that powerful yet, you know, he's still figuring out his superpowers and making mistakes. So right,
Alex Ferrari 15:13
which was endearing. So you know, he doesn't just come out and he's perfect right away, especially with the character we have such history with, I think they did a fantastic job. But that's a really good, a really good example. Now, what are some of the common mistakes you see screenwriters make? Again and again?
Daniel Calvisi 15:31
Well, speaking of openings, you have a slow opening. Mm hmm. That just doesn't suck in the reader, it starts with maybe too much exposition. That's one description that explains too much. And it's too wordy. Those, you know, canyons of description, that black ink on the page, those super big paragraphs, that's just death to a reader, you know, that's a reason why they're going to stop reading the description and start reading only the dialogue, which I always tried not to do. But it's your job as the screenwriter to make them want to read the description, you know, to come out of the gate, because they're going to read everything, let's say the first few pages, you know, there's that bleary eyed reader who's up at 4am. And they've already read three scripts that day, and they're cracking your script. And they don't, the last thing they want to do is read another script, right. So firstly, you don't want it to be 127 pages, because they don't want to read that much. They're getting paid the same amount of money to read the 127 page script as they are to read the 95 page script. So if you can keep it lean and mean, that's great. Keep it in that 95 to 110 page range. And then if you there, so no matter the length, they're hopefully going to read at least the first two to five pages, you know, description, and dialogue. So it's your job in those opening pages that have such great, lean, terse, descriptive description that really captures tone and mood, and really makes them want to enter this world and explore this world with your lead character. And then endear us to their character. I hate to say it, but that save the cat moment. Blake Snyder was brilliant and identifying that, you know, that moment where we really do connect with the main character. And we really do root for them that rooting interest. So if you can nail that in the opening pages, that's great. That overall length is huge, having a really strong midpoint halfway through that, really ups the the stakes and the conflict and launches and new, through line unforeseen through line that's going to push to the end of the script, you know, a disaster that we didn't see coming, right? And then of course, hitting all hitting all those those great signpost speeds, you know, along the way.
Alex Ferrari 17:58
Right. And those are that what leads me to my next question, what is the structure that professional screenwriters use as a general statement?
Daniel Calvisi 18:06
Well, I call it the story map. And it's my estimation is 95% of commercial movies use this structure. Because pretty much 100% of movies that I study, and I've studied a wide swath of, and read a lot of professional scripts use this structure. It's always in the same order. So I'm not, you know, mixing and matching and placing beats all over the place. But to just mention the titles, excuse me, the titles of my beachy, my story map specsheet, it would be the opening, inciting incident, strong movement forward, end of Act One turn and decision, first trial, first casualty midpoint, declaration of war slash assumption of power, end of Act Two, turn and decision. And it's important to end those acts on a turn and direction and a decision that propels us and the main character into the next act. And then now we're in Act Three. And we have the true point of no return the climax and the epilogue, and you want to end as soon after that climax as possible. So obviously, there's a lot of lot of characteristics that go with those beats. But those are just the rough titles just to you know, get you thinking in that direction.
Alex Ferrari 19:23
Now, and this and this is the structure that you found that most professional scripts about 95% of the scripts written in Hollywood use
Daniel Calvisi 19:30
good ones, yes, professional, good ones. And there, there are professional bad ones as well. So then,
Alex Ferrari 19:35
so and I always like using this when I have when I have a screenwriting expert or story analyst on the show, I always like to bring up the script of Pulp Fiction. And what a genius script that was. And a lot of people feel that that script was not in the conventional beats. But because the story was thrown all over the place out of order but from From my understanding, it did actually hit all those beats in a weird way. And that was the genius of that script. Do you agree with that? And what's your? What's your analysis of that script?
Daniel Calvisi 20:10
Well, I haven't seen in a long time, right? I don't know. I'm guessing that it does hit every one of the beats. But the the overriding point to make is that even if a story is told, nonlinear out of narrative order, it still should hit the beats, you know, so an example I know better would be momento. No, I broke down memento, in my book story maps the films of Christopher Nolan, because I'm obsessed with Christopher Nolan, as you should be, as I should be. Yes. And so in Memento, obviously, it's told in this crazy backward structure, it's not quite backward, it's uh, it you know, it has its own unique thing going on. It's kind of a horseshoe structures is what he called it. But even though it's told backwards, quote backwards, it still hits all of those beats, you know, the inciting incident and the strong movement forward in the end of Act One and all those things. It's just the order that it's told it hits those beats. That makes sense. It makes
Alex Ferrari 21:20
perfect sense. And that that movie is, I mean, if you're a young screenwriter, he I mean, to watch to try to break down or try to analyze that movie with Will will screw with your head. Yeah, I think you should break
Daniel Calvisi 21:31
it off. It almost killed us. When we when we were doing that.
Alex Ferrari 21:34
It's it's just such a well, he's such an amazing filmmaker, and screenwriter and storyteller that he's on a different level playing field than the rest of us. Well, he's,
Daniel Calvisi 21:46
you know, he's saying, How can I make this different? You know, like, he just he just had Dunkirk this summer. And instead of telling an absolutely straightforward, historical epic biopic war film, he said, How can I make this different so he did a triptych structure where he was telling the sea air and land story. And he decided for better or worse that he was not going to give any real context to the battle, he was going to throw us into it and give us that you know, ground level view of the grant the troop, the troops view of the situation. So if they didn't know much, we didn't know much either. And he told us out of order, there was that moment where you realize that came together where you realize that it was told, slightly nonlinear, you know, because you had the the boat, the boat sequence was one day, the sequence on the beach with the Mole was one week and then the aerial sequence with with Tom Hardy and the plains was one hour, but they all did converge at a certain point, I think probably
Alex Ferrari 22:56
done 75 minute mark, and no support. Yes.
Daniel Calvisi 22:59
Okay. No problem. But anyway, you did. Without any spoilers. It's you realize the true structure. Well into the film. You know what I mean?
Alex Ferrari 23:09
It since we're on since we're on Christopher Nolan, I'm such a huge fan of his as well. What do you feel is his best screenplay and film? Wow, you had to pick one.
Daniel Calvisi 23:22
That's really tough. It's tough, but it would be between Memento the prestige. And I would have to say inception over the dark night. That dark nights amazing, but he wrote and directed inception. Right. He wrote and directed momento.
Alex Ferrari 23:45
Wow, Inception is it's such a unique film. It Yeah. It's basically the biggest budget. Independent Film. Oh, you think so? Yeah. Because of the concept. I mean, look at that, look, what he's trying to do. It does take big, broad strokes, you need big, you need a big brush. With that movie. You can't do that on an independent level. But to tell that story inside of a studio system is pretty remarkable on the last person I could even think of ever doing something like that would be Kubrick, you know, and what he used to do constantly with every one of his movies inside the studio system. And I think Nolan is one of those guys right now. That is probably the closest thing to a Kubrick we have currently in cinema Do you Would you agree with that statement?
Daniel Calvisi 24:32
I would say well, I like to say he's our modern day Spielberg just because he works with big budgets. He makes popular films with universal themes, but with incredible directing and visuals, you know? But yeah, he's a little bit more I guess cerebral than Spielberg was in his in his period when he was you know, in his 40s as as Christopher and also basically
Alex Ferrari 24:56
Kubrick and Spielberg had a kid and it's it's Nolan.
Daniel Calvisi 24:59
Yeah. He's British. He always wears dashing clothing and he looks very dapper.
Alex Ferrari 25:05
Yes, he does. Actually, I actually met him once at the powwow, I met him in the back lot of Warner Brothers. And he is he's always got a suit on. He now has no phone does not care to have. He's not on any he doesn't have email. Yeah, that's crazy. He does everything through his wife, and who's his producing partner, and she is he she's like, Look, if something's important, it'll get to me. And that's, and he goes, that way, I have more time to work. And more time to tell stories. I was like, Wow, that's so amazing. But he's in a different he's in a different world than the rest of us. In many ways. Yeah. So I'm back back to our interview. What is the what's more important in your opinion, structure or character? Which is the ultimate question in screen Wow. Or are they both combined? The same? What do you think? Well,
Daniel Calvisi 25:58
it's funny? Well, the great structure doesn't really matter if we don't believe in and root for your character and want to follow them, you know, right. So I like to say character equals action, because characters are defined by action. And then of course, the structure is the form in which you put their actions into it's not formula, its form. It's the shape of the story. So I don't know, I guess I would say, if I had to say I would say structure. If you're talking about unforeseen actions taken by characters surprise, you know, surprising us within the traditional classic structure. We don't want to be able to predict the beats you know, we don't want to be able to protect predict the turns that has to still be surprising. And that's good writing. Guy, but you know, character? Well, I guess it means you can't you can't root for
Alex Ferrari 27:03
Daniel Calvisi 27:04
you root for character. Yeah, yeah. But I if I really was pressed, I would say structure because that would mean an intriguing, surprising story that's compelling. You know, God,
Alex Ferrari 27:16
probably feel that I would probably feel that they're both without the structure. You you. I mean, can you have a movie with great characters and very loose loosey goosey structure and still be successful?
Daniel Calvisi 27:28
Yeah, I think you could, you know, if if we want to turn the page if we if we just really want to follow these characters. I mean, Paul fiction's a good example, Pulp Fiction. If you really want it to get nitty gritty, you could probably cut 10 to 20 minutes from it, you know, and still have the same story. It's definitely an hour or two or film that was made by a director who loved his dialogue and loved his characters and was willing to, to spend time with them, you know, just sit and hang out with them. But the editor in me and the script analyst, and he would like to cut time from that and pretty much cut time from almost every Tarantino film.
Alex Ferrari 28:11
Yes, he does. He does talk a bit sometimes
Daniel Calvisi 28:13
he does enjoy, you know, his his dialogue and storytelling a little bit too much. It's sometimes you know,
Alex Ferrari 28:21
I would I would I would agree with you as a critique of Tarantino if there's anything sometimes he just goes a little too far. And I think he's gotten worse over the years, like Hateful Eight. I thought he really let that go a little too much. In my opinion, but but he's still I mean, he's a once in a generation kind of filmmaker.
Daniel Calvisi 28:38
Yeah, yeah, he's still absolutely unique and and you're not gonna see anyone who's like him. You know, I didn't see Hateful Eight I was to the point where I'm to the point where I almost feel like I don't want to be tricked by him anymore into watching, you know, ridiculously long dialogue scenes and overly violent scenes. You know, I just I think he he almost is gleeful and his violence and it goes past. Like what it really needs to be you know, but he's got millions of fans and they love them. So
Alex Ferrari 29:15
yeah, and I'm looking forward to seeing his his Chuck Manson film. That should be interesting.
Daniel Calvisi 29:20
Yeah. Wow. That's interesting. So I say I will say one thing about Tarantino, which is a good exam, which is a good lesson to screenwriters is he he usually makes movies about movies or straight genre films that don't necessarily give us a lot of insight into the human condition. And that's my main problem with his him is I don't really know what he cares about in the world. You know, I don't really know who Quentin Tarantino is. I don't really get universal themes from him, other than making you You know, like, let's say the Kill Bill movies for example, I really enjoy the Kill Bill movies and they're really cool kung fu operas, you know. But I'm not taking away much about the human condition. I'm not really that invested beyond watching a cool revenge story.
Alex Ferrari 30:19
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. But I think you know, I think that Tarantino in this is just my humble opinion, I think Aaron Tinos point of view is that he his movies are a complete reflection of who he is, which is that video store guy who loves movies and thinks he thinks of cinema as a religion. And he's not really interested in delving into the human condition. He's more interested in delving into cinema, and his his pure of a cinema, cinematic director as I've ever seen in the history of cinema. Because he you're right, he does all his films, you know, after you watch Django Unchained, there's really not a lot to discuss a little bit maybe about the human condition, but generally, you know, Kill Bill, Hateful Eight, these are all cinematic operas. Yeah, about cinema, or about the making of cinema. So I think that's Are
Daniel Calvisi 31:19
you say, I mean, are you saying, not in a bad way that he's a shallow person who only cares about movies? Because that's probably accurate, right?
Alex Ferrari 31:26
I mean, no, I think, look, I think his entire world revolves around cinema. I mean, everything in his life his cinema has been for since he was a child. And so ever since I've definitely since he was in Tibet, in that video store. Me being a video store clerk for four years, I feel him. I understand. I understand that completely. But I think that that is his religion, that honestly cinema is his religion, and whether it's shallow or not, it's his point of view. And it's such a unique point of view that there is literally no one else out there on the planet on planet Earth, that has Tarantino's perspective on anything. So whether it's shallow or not, that's that's opinion, but that he really lives for cinema completely. He will die with celluloid, wrapped around him. But that's but that's who he is. And that's what he wants to me. He owns the Beverly here, theater that only shows 35 millimeter here in LA he has an insane 35 millimeter print collection. Like who has. I mean, I know Scorsese does, but you know, but like, who has the collection, like his collection will be on archive? Because there's movies that he has, uh, nobody else has. I remember listen to a story that it was a or I forget who it was. I think it was from Wu Tang. When he was scoring Kill Bill told them. Oh, man, I got this kung fu movie. I just got it on VHS is super rare. He's like, Yeah, that's nice. I got the 35 print. And he's like, whoa, okay, so I'm on a different playing field. But that's who he is, I think that think about
Daniel Calvisi 33:11
and this is I know, this is we're getting off in it. No, no, no, no, it's
Alex Ferrari 33:14
Daniel Calvisi 33:15
What if you had a painter who only painted referential works to other painters? At one point, wouldn't you want to say well, what's what's your what is it about you that you want to put into these paintings? Or what are you saying, really about the world? I agree with that not matter because there's already a million other painters that are doing that? Well,
Alex Ferrari 33:40
there's a difference between painting and cinema cinema has so many more elements involved with just painting. So if I had a painter that, I mean, if you had a painter that would just kept rehashing any Hall on any nanny Hall on Warhol and Basquiat and Van Gogh, and all these guys, and just kept putting his that wouldn't be as interesting. It might be for a little bit, it wouldn't be that interesting. But the wealth of cinema that there is and the the masters of different masters of art, that you need to be master of the different kinds of art forms that you have to be a master of to be a filmmaker is so so vast and deep that for someone like him, he could continue to make movies forever, and never get boring because of that, that debt and then he also has that knowledge. I mean, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every movie he's ever seen it
Daniel Calvisi 34:33
Okay, well, here's okay. Then here's my conclusion. Yes. I want to see him do other genres. I want to see him do a character drama. I want to see a comedy. I'd love to see romantic comedy, you know,
Alex Ferrari 34:46
can you imagine?
Daniel Calvisi 34:48
If he truly is a student of all cinema, not just action films, thrillers, exploitation films, you know, I want to see him go on to try some really different things, you know, I would think that would be really fascinating.
Alex Ferrari 35:02
I would agree with you. And I think he has kind of, he has stuck to a little bit of of same genre films and but he has in recent years kind of moved on to me he did the Western, he loved the Western so much that he did Hateful Eight. And you can argue Django obviously is a form of Western but more blaxploitation. So he is going to different genres within the genre world within his likes and dislikes. I'm really curious to see what he does with the Manson murders like that is insane. I can't I mean, and he wants Brad Pitt to pay Manson. You know, so I'm really curious to see where he goes. But that's the thing that how many filmmakers, can you say I'm curious to see what he does next? There's very few filmmakers out there like that, in today's world, and he's one of those guys. So I'm glad that we've gone on a complete Tarantino tangent. But I think it's
Daniel Calvisi 35:59
I would say to bring it back to screenwriting. A good thing that he does is he does focus mostly on genre films, you know, yes. The thriller to action, Kung Fu westerns, exploitation, at least for exploitation, at least for his last like, you know, three or four films. And for a screenwriter, if you're looking to break in by selling spec screenplays, it's good to focus on genre, you know, you're the thriller guy, you're the horror guy, you're the romantic comedy, woman, you know, whoever, whatever your genre is, write five or six scripts in that genre. And maybe by the time you get to the fourth or fifth, you have something that's really, really ready for submission, and could really establish you and get your foot in the door, you know, so you
Alex Ferrari 36:46
do suggest that screenwriters stick within a genre at the beginning. So they could because if you got a and I know, that's, that's like, the common mistake a lot of screenwriters make is in there. They write five screenplays, but they're a comedy, a drama, horror thriller to show range. And that's wonderful, but that's very difficult for an agent to sell.
Daniel Calvisi 37:04
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, definitely. I would say, right, you know, be willing to write different genres to find yours that you're best at, you know, but if you're, if you come out of the box, and like you love horror, that's your passion. And that's pretty much all that you want to write. It's okay to stick to horror, you know,
Alex Ferrari 37:26
right, and MB. And then eventually, you either get locked into that horror, or you move into something else, but at least you're in the picture. You're in, you're in the business at this point, you're making a living. And then if you want to go off and make something else, you can go off and make something else later, but like, you know, Sorkin and, and all these big screenwriters that, you know, they were in one form, but then they started to branch out into, you know, like Charlie Kaufman, for God's sakes. Did you ever read? I mean, I'm sure you've studied Charlie's work, right?
Daniel Calvisi 37:56
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I've definitely seen his films. And I'm trying to think if I read any of his scripts, the the beast casually I didn't read any on the job. But I did. You know, I have read them.
Alex Ferrari 38:07
He's, he's pretty amazing. He's a pretty, pretty amazing screenwriter. Now, what is the difference between protect a protagonist in a film a feature film versus a television pilot?
Daniel Calvisi 38:20
Hmm, well, a feature film, the big difference between a feature film and a TV show is that closed ending that a feature film has a closed ending. So it's that it's that beginning, middle and end, and it does end. And it's a satisfying story unto itself. Whereas a TV pilot has to have some kind of open ending, some kind of cliffhanger that makes you want to come back for more, you know, as far as the main character goes, I would say probably the, the TV main character has more emotional baggage, which may not be, we may not and probably shouldn't see all of it in the pilot. So there's still stuff left to come that you can explore in the rest of season one, and then season 234, etc. So there's going to be more complexity and emotional baggage that will come out over time. I would say a nice sense of mystery also about your main character really, really helps. You know, even if there's something that you know, like, let's say in scandal, we know that she had a lie. We know that she had a an affair with the President, the United States, he actually says that he's still in love with her. But we don't know the particulars. We don't know Well, how did they meet? You know? How far did their relationship go? Where are they at at this point? Did they break up at some point? Does the wife actually know? Does anyone else know? So we're just hinting at that. And that's a pretty fascinating thing to find out. Okay. Well, she had an affair with the president United States. He's still in love with her. Wow, I really want to tune in to episode two and see see what this is all about. And then in season one they do explore when she was an intern at the White House and, or a new new hire, and you know how they actually develop their relationship? So yeah, so there's kind of more of a sense of mystery more to explore about them. That makes us curious about them. But it doesn't give us everything.
Alex Ferrari 40:26
So then would you say, like, one of my favorite television shows of all time is Breaking Bad, which on paper is the worst pitch ever? For a television show?
Daniel Calvisi 40:37
It's the best long term pitch long term pitch by Mr. Chips to Scarface, which Okay, over time, yeah, this is going to be a massive character arc.
Alex Ferrari 40:46
Right. So So can you kind of break down Walter White and how that because that pilot, honestly, I was listening to Vince Gilligan, talk about it. And they said, if you just change a few things that's in release, that's at Sundance, it's probably one of the greatest independent films of all time coming out, because it's just so brilliantly done. It was so wonderfully done. Can you can you talk a little bit about that? Or do you have enough knowledge about breaking bad to discuss it a little bit?
Daniel Calvisi 41:17
Yeah, yeah, well, I break down the pile. And in my book, story, maps, TV drama, so I have a full beat sheet of that. And I mentioned it a lot. So I'm definitely well versed on Breaking Bad. So that the famous pitch was for the show was Mr. Chips to Scarface, so basic, boring guy ends up becoming this incredible drug lord, who will kill at a moment's notice, you know? And we begin with, he's a high school chemistry teacher. And one of the great things is that motivation that he has cancer, so and, and the decision to keep it from his family at first, right? And he needs money, because he has, I think he had $7,000 in the bank, and he used all of that to buy this RV, which they're going to use to cook the method. So we know he has no money. He has cancer, he needs money. He's a family man. He has a son who has, is it cerebral palsy or something? Yes, yes. So I'm sure that that costs a lot of money. So he has a credible amount of motivation. And to the outside world, he's the nicest guy in the world, and the biggest just kind of wimp nebbish Mm hmm. And you say, Wow, this guy's going to become Scarface. That's, that's a journey I want to go on. Now, it's a risk because the executive say, Well, wait, he doesn't get there for another three, four seasons. And he's not going to get fully into, you know, murder or mode until Season five or six? Well, that's a big investment, you know. So it took someone coming off of a couple of hits shows like then scale again, in order to sell that, you know, I don't know if a completely new writer who just has one pilot is going to be able to sell that pitch, but it's still a great pitch, you know?
Alex Ferrari 43:14
Right. Right. And it's, it took it took a brave company, it took a great studio to do it, it took a very and it took them a while to find the audience. It took them a little bit, it took them a couple seasons before it started to pick up. So I didn't pick I didn't grab on to it to probably runs season four. Season Four is when I first like I'd heard about him, like let me just sit down and start watching and I binged it. And I actually got all the way to like half of season five, the last season left. And so I watched the last five or six episodes like everybody else did, but I binged everything up until that it was such an amazing script. And it says something to study, because it's such a remarkable footnote in, in television history, I think.
Daniel Calvisi 43:58
Yeah, yeah. For me, it was just the show that came on. It was either before or after, I think was after madman. Excuse me, because I was such a huge madman fan. It was Oh, what's this show? And I just started watching it and got sucked into it, you know,
Alex Ferrari 44:15
and it doesn't work without Cranston. I mean, he just was amazing in that character. Now what I'm
Daniel Calvisi 44:23
right there, the casting, excuse me. One second. Excuse me. The casting was perfect because they cast it a guy who was previously known for playing a dorky dad. Yes. Yes. So we can't imagine him becoming this heartless murderer, you know, right. That was the genius of the casting.
Alex Ferrari 44:45
They actually fit they actually said that Malcolm in the Middle was the I think it was the prequel to Breaking Bad and then that Breaking Bad was a bad dream. That he wakes up and he's like, what? I thought it was amazing. pin or something like that, and they actually shot it, they actually shot that scene like that, that Bob Newhart. It was all through the whole, the whole, the whole series was a dream. And he wakes up in bed with his old life from Malcolm in the Middle. Like I had this dream, I was a drug kingpin, and I killed people. He's like, just go back to sleep. Now, can you tell me a little bit about story maps and what you're doing with story maps?
Daniel Calvisi 45:24
Well, story maps is my structural method that I've written a number of books about. And a story map itself is a really powerful outlining tool that breaks down your narrative into its most crucial basic dramatic elements. And then the, the four to six main story engines. And the 10 to 15 major story beats those signpost beats in your plot. And you can use the story map to construct a new story, a new screenplay, TV, pilot, or even even a novel or short story. And you can use it to deconstruct an existing narrative like, you know, your favorite movie or a bunch of movies from your genre of choice to see how they were done by those professionals, or a bunch of TV pilots to help you learn how to write a TV pilot. The great thing that I always suggest that people say, okay, so structure is so important form is so important. Again, it's formula form, not formula doesn't dictate your choices. It just gives you a shape and a form to put your choices into that's based on years and years of successful structure of films and TV. Excuse me. Wow, okay, sorry about that yours. And so you can not only deconstruct your favorite films and stuff, but you can use them as structural templates. So let's say you want to write a crime John crime drama pilot, and you want your main character is going to be a guy from quote, the normal world, you can use the Breaking Bad pilot as your structural template. So you start with breaking it down into a story map, or you get my book story maps, TV drama, the structure of the one hour television pilot, and you look at that beachy for Breaking Bad. And you use that as a template to write your own script, at least the first draft, and then you can deviate from that as your story demands that allows, you know, so such a starting point, it's a great starting point. Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 47:37
I'm a big I'm a big, a big proponent of, of structure, because I feel it, it's like a roadmap for you to kind of like start tossing your characters into and start moving them around. Yeah, it just gives you, you know, posts along the way as your journey makes life a little easier.
Daniel Calvisi 47:53
Yeah, and being and having come from the world of being a reader on the job for for studios and production companies and, and, you know, professional companies, I was looking for those structural signposts, you know, I was looking for an act one that was around 30 pages now, a lot of act ones, and exactly on 30 pages. And that's great. And I would give them a standing ovation for that. And that would make me feel really great. Because that was familiar, but it could end on page 29, or 28, or 31, or 32. And that would be okay, you know, as long as it was working, and in every other way. So it doesn't have to exactly be, you know, a 30 page Act One, but you want to have those story beats in there that are the classic story beats that are in 95% of movies. And the thing is that the reader is looking for that. So if you have a 47 page, act one, then that reader is going to know their red flags is going to go up and they're going to say, okay, maybe this person doesn't understand structure. Maybe they are overriding because they're in love with their, with their words, you know.
Alex Ferrari 49:07
And that's when that's when story maps or structural guy kind of helps you along the way.
Daniel Calvisi 49:13
Yeah, cuz you can look at these other examples from so many other films and you can map out your own favorite films and say, Okay, well, they had a they had an exactly 30 minute Act One. Well, there's must be something there. You know, if Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg and and Darren Aronofsky had an exact 30 minute Act One, and every one of them was working in a different genre, there must be something about that 30 minute or 30 Page Act One, so maybe I should stick within that structure.
Alex Ferrari 49:45
And then once you get three or four or five or 10 or 20 screenplays and you want to start playing around with structure and making a little bit more artistic that's that's your prerogative but I think you need to learn the rules before you break them.
Daniel Calvisi 49:56
Yeah, yeah. And and even in in mapping popular films and scripts, you do find little anomalies and things that are interesting. Like I just mapped lala land I gave that out as a freebie to my newsletter subscribers. And if you want to sign up for that it's on its act for screenplays calm.
Alex Ferrari 50:17
I'll put it in the show notes. Okay, cool.
Daniel Calvisi 50:21
So, I mapped out lala land and I originally had the turn the end of that one turn coming right at 30 minutes, because that that 30 minute arc is when they're at the party. And she she's marked him because she sees him in the 80s, the 80s cover band, right. And he had previously always thought he was such a serious musician, and she sees him in this cheesy 80s cover band. And he confronts her, they argue, and he says, Alright, I'll see you in the movies. And he stalks off, and that's like, exactly 30 minutes. And so I thought, Okay, well, that's the end of Act One. But I ended up changing the end of Act One to 25 minutes. And I'm trying to remember what was the moment I don't quite remember what the moment was, but it was. It was an earlier moment, which I felt really capped off at one it was them. Oh, it was the moment when she we we seek we finally realize the fruition of what she was looking at when she heard that and chanting, jazz music, piano music and she comes into the club. And we originally had to see her eyes looking off camera, you know, really in trance, and then we cut away. So now we come back 10 minutes later, and we see what she was looking at. And it's him at the piano. So it's that big moment where they already had their quote, meet cute, which was her flipping them off, you know, in the traffic
Alex Ferrari 51:49
and lovely LA traffic. Yes, yeah,
Daniel Calvisi 51:51
yeah, but, but this was really the fruition of them, the first moment of them romantically coming together. So I said, You know what, this was a 25 minute hack one, which may not sound like that big of a deal. But when 90 95% of act one's around 30 minutes to change that by five minutes, it can actually kind of be a big deal sometimes,
Alex Ferrari 52:16
depending on the story, depending on the story. So now I'm going to talk ask you a couple questions. I asked all of my, all of my guests. So what advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business?
Daniel Calvisi 52:30
Okay? Does it have to be one piece of advice, you can get two or three, go for it. Okay? Well read as many scripts as possible that you can get your hands on, you can download a lot of them online, you probably have friends that can send you the PDFs, read as many scripts as possible professional scripts, and break down or StoryMap as many films as possible, to really see how the professionals do it. You know, use those as templates. Don't just watch movies and think about them do written analysis of the movies, even do your own coverage reports, you know, do do a page or two of actual notes, commentary critique of an actual film. And maybe you want to take that professionally and become a reader, you know, but do written analysis, whether it's a beat sheet, or your own little essay about film, because it forces you to really take it apart, you know, to really think about that. Okay, where is the end of Act One? Is it 25 minutes? Or is it 30 minutes. And if you force yourself to decide on that and map it out, then you're really going to see how how these things work and really take them apart and see how they run.
Alex Ferrari 53:51
Perfect. Now, can you tell me? Can you tell me what book had the biggest impact on your life or career besides story maps? Of course.
Daniel Calvisi 54:00
Yes. Um, you know, I have to go back to Syd field screenplay, because I got that. I can't remember I think it was my senior year of high school actually. I think my mom found it or something and and that just was my the first time I even learned about feature film screenplay structure, you know, so that just really blew the doors open for me.
Alex Ferrari 54:24
Same here. When I read that book in college, I was just my mind was blown. Like what? Every movie is the same what it just it kind of blew my mind as well. What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?
Daniel Calvisi 54:39
Wow. Well, it's funny, I will say something that I'm learning now is I'm pursuing more the independent route with my own scripts and pilots. I'm working with friends to ideally produce my own work, you know, we're just Still in the development stage, but because it is really hard to if you only have a script to convince that studio production company, network, agency, whatever to take a chance on you, because it's just a script, you know, you don't have actors attached, you don't have financing behind you, you don't have a director attached audience, an audience built up anything an audience built up a track record. So I think I'm coming to the point where I'm just like, you know, what, got to do it yourself. You know, and I've been getting that note for the past 10 years. Even more, you know, especially with the dawn of YouTube, and all these streaming streaming services. Everyone keeps saying, do it yourself, do it yourself, you know, you, you can get your hands on a camera, that's, that's cinema quality. If an iPhone can shoot a movie, Now, anybody can shoot a movie, you know. Now, the problem with that is anybody can shoot a bad movie that's unprofessional and never sells, you know, and maybe goes to 10 film festivals, and you have to pay to travel to 10 film festivals. And before you're done, you're $20,000 in debt. But you know, let's look on the bright side. And say you're going to make a good movie, you know, that is going to go somewhere, or is just going to become your, your sizzle reel or resume to get you a good manager and a good agent and really get you moving. But I would say it's the do it yourself thing, you know, a script. A single great, awesome script should be enough. But the reality is, it's so competitive, that isn't always enough.
Alex Ferrari 56:43
I mean, the block, the blacklist is a good example of that how many amazing scripts are on the blacklist? And it's still hard?
Daniel Calvisi 56:49
Yeah, it's still hard for them to get produced, you know. But the only thing that you have, the only thing you need, the requirement you need to start is a great script. Okay. So if you're going to produce it yourself, for $10,000 and shoot it with your iPhone, you still need a great script. If you're going to sell it to Warner Brothers for $100,000, you still need a great script. You know, if you're going to attach an indie producer who has a track record, who won Sundance, you still need a great script. And that means you're going to have to spend years developing your craft, you know,
Alex Ferrari 57:26
Hmm. Well said, sir, well said. Now, what are three of your favorite films of all time?
Daniel Calvisi 57:33
Well, that's interesting, because I have, I always say, my two favorites, I can't choose which is my, I can't choose which is my number one favorite film. So I actually have three favorite films. They are Raiders of the Lost star, Goodfellas, and the Wizard of Oz
Alex Ferrari 57:52
Daniel Calvisi 57:53
They're incredibly different films. I mean, you can't get any more different. You think, but, but they're so different. You know, I mean, they're so amazing that those are kind of my top three spots. And depending on how I'm feeling at the moment, one of them may be number one, or they may all three be number one, but yeah, got it. They're amazing.
Alex Ferrari 58:15
Now where can people find you and your work?
Daniel Calvisi 58:18
Well, you can find me at act for screenplays.com That's my homepage and that is a CT fo you are screenplays.com and you can learn about my consulting and you can get my books and you can get a lot of free advice and downloads and things like that. You can also sign up for my newsletter there, and I give out exclusive articles sometimes leads from producers, and sometimes free story maps through my newsletter. So you can learn about that. You can also learn about my story maps masterclass, which is an eight week program that begins with an eight week program where you develop a TV pilot or feature from the ground up from concept and logline straight through to a finished draft. You probably won't finish the eight weeks with a finished draft, but you'll definitely be on your way you'll probably finish with a rock solid story map, a great scene list, you know, comprehensive scene list and the first 10 to 30 pages of your screenplay. So then from there, you're armed to, to you're well on your way to creating a great script. And what's unique about a masterclass is that I bring in channels to actually give advice on your loglines and to actually do q&a conference calls with my writers to give them career advice as well. That's awesome. So let's say you're workshopping to log lines. You're not sure which one you're going to write. I'm going to give you notes. If it's a group class, your peers will give you notes and then these two industry professionals like right now I have a Former studio executive who was at the studio level, he was involved with films like Groundhog Day, great movie, Lord of the Rings, you know, so he was really top like President of Marketing at big companies like newline and MGM. And then I have a very successful screenwriter Jeffrey Radek, who is responsible for the final destination franchise. He's big in thrillers and horror. So these guys are going to give notes on concepts from my writers for my next for my next class. Awesome. So you get this feedback from these people who are executives, managers, assistants to agents, screenwriters, they've been in the business for a long time and they say you know what, this first logline sounds interesting, but this is more of a passion piece. This is not something that in the current marketplace from a newbie is really gonna go anywhere. But this second logline feels more commercial to me, although you maybe don't have all the elements worked out yet. So then you have this information, and you're going to decide whether you want to go with the first concept or the second concept. Very cool.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:06
That really helps. Well, Dan, man, thank you so much for being on the show. You've dropped a bunch of knowledge bombs on the indie film hustle tribe, so I truly appreciate your time.
Daniel Calvisi 1:01:16
Well, thank you. Thanks for having me on. My goal was to drop knowledge bombs.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:19
And you did sir.
Daniel Calvisi 1:01:22
That was achieved.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:24
I want to thank Dan for coming on and dropping those knowledge bombs on us and I hope you guys got something out of it, you know, after he's been reading just 1000s of screenplays. Over the course of his career. I think he has a decent grasp on story. And if you guys want to check out his books, just head over to the show notes at Indie film hustle.com forward slash BPS zero 27 for all the links to all of his work, and that does it for another episode. So 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.com That's B u ll e t e r o f s CR e n PLA y.com
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