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BPS 198: Secrets to Creating Great Character Moments with Chris Riley

Chris Riley is a screenwriter whose first film, After The Truth, an award-winning courtroom thriller written with his wife and professional partner, Kathy, sparked international controversy in 1999 when it was released in Germany.

Other credits include 25 To Life, a dramatic thriller for Junction Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures; The Other White House, a political thriller for Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films and Intermedia; Aces, an action-adventure romance for Paramount Pictures; and a screen adaptation of the book Actual Innocence for Mandalay Television Pictures and the Fox television network. A veteran of the Warner Bros. script department, Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. He serves as professor of film at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego and previously taught in the MFA program in writing for screen and television at Pepperdine University.

He served as creative director at Yellow Line Studio where he executive produced the web series Bump+ and produced the feature Red Line. He is a founding partner of the online Story Masters Film Academy.

His new book is The Defining Moment How Writers and Actors Build Characters.

Aimed at both the head and the heart, The Defining Moment plumbs the depths of the most memorable characters ever to appear on the screen, the stage or the page. The book focuses on those moments so pivotal in a character’s formation that they create a distinct boundary of before and after, moments without which the character couldn’t exist and moments through which characters can transform before our eyes. Writers, actors and storytellers of all stripes will discover a powerful new key to unlock any character they seek to develop, write or portray. They may even unlock a deeper understanding of themselves.

Features:

  • The first in-depth study of the essential principles that will redefine the way storytellers understand their characters and themselves.
  • Essential insights into the forces that create character
  • Dozens of examples of character-defining moments from film, television, theater and literature
  • An exploration of pivotol moments: birth, death, discovery, decision-making, injury and healing
  • An examination of how writers and actors employ defining moments in their deepest and most unforgettable works
  • Insights into how directors, editors, cinematographers and composers dramatize key moments
  • Practical exercises for defining and redefining character
  • Tips for discovering the moments that matter most
  • Deeply personal stories from the authors’ lives to illustrate the variety of moments that define us.
  • For every storyteller, no matter their medium, The Defining Moment will redefine the way they understand their characters and themselves.

Right-click here to download the MP3

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Chris Riley 0:00
Well, I think you do start with that kind of question. Like I know I have a character who's going to dress up like a bat and fight crime. Why?

Alex Ferrari 0:08
This episode is brought to you by Bulletproof Script Coverage, where screenwriters go to get their scripts read by Top Hollywood Professionals. Learn more at covermyscreenplay.com I'd like to welcome back to the show returning champion, Chris Riley. How're you doing, Chris?

Chris Riley 0:24
I'm doing well. It's good to see you again Alex.

Alex Ferrari 0:26
Good to see you. My friend. Last Last we spoke we talked about formatting and the Hollywood standard and how to format a script properly. And it was a very successful conversation and episode people really loved it. And when you wrote your new book, The defining moment how to write was it how writers and actors build character, I had to have you back on the show to talk about it. Because it's a really fascinating book on the process of character development.

Chris Riley 0:55
It's been a fun book to write. And it's, it's fun to talk about. Talking about script format is a little dry topic. But yeah, in this book, we get to sort of go straight for the heart,

Alex Ferrari 1:10
The more sexy parts of writing, it's like, that's the formatting not so sexy.

Chris Riley 1:14
Yeah, without, you know, it's necessary. But that's not what draws us to stories. It's the characters. And that's what this book is about.

Alex Ferrari 1:22
Absolutely. So let's get into it. How do you build deep characters in your pitch?

Chris Riley 1:28
Well, it's a, it's such an important part of the work we do. as storytellers, characters, are the most interesting thing. And it's, it makes sense characters represent people and people are the most interesting thing. So the challenge for a storyteller for a writer is the people and characters are complex, there's an infinite amount of stuff you could know about them. But what do we really need to know to go deep with characters and the idea of the book is that there are a small number of moments that define each one of us that define a character. And if we know what those moments are, that have been the moments that have most profoundly shaped a character, then we can get a deep understanding of them without knowing a million details about them.

Alex Ferrari 2:28
So you're, you're talking so so that so that the definition of a defining moment, or what is the defining moment,

Chris Riley 2:34
So a defining moment would be one of those moments that creates a before and after for us that, you know, we were one thing before that moment, where something else after it, so it can be a moment of birth or death, like literal or figurative, can be a moment? You know, we're talking to filmmakers here, the moment when the birth or the dream of making movies was born. And you're one way before that, and then after that, you're you're hustling, you're obsessed, and, and you but like nobody really could be said to understand you deeply. If they don't know what that moment was.

Alex Ferrari 3:18
So So Bruce, Wayne, was hunky dory until that night of the theater.

Chris Riley 3:24
Exactly. So that's a moment where something died, literally, his parents died. But something else was born in him what which was his drive, to stop crying to prevent other people from suffering, the way he suffered, it was also the birth of his lifelong emotional agony.

Alex Ferrari 3:48
I mean, he's got some issues. I mean, he's dressed up to the bat. So there's, there's other psychological things that he's going to have to deal with growing up. But but you know, I think the great defining moments in in Hollywood history are in films. A lot of it comes around death, the death of of a parent the death of Uncle Ben for Spider Man and Star Wars, the death of his his family, and forcing him to go with a with the Obi wan to, you know, train and so on. That seems to be the big catalyst. Can you give me example of birth and how birth? I mean, obviously, when a child is born into your life, life changes. That's in real life because I know I was one person before my kids were born. I'm definitely a person after the kids are born. A few more wrinkles and a few more gray hairs. But, but in movies, though, are there examples that you can kind of give for the audience as

Chris Riley 4:49
Well, so we can think about the events in Finding Nemo surrounding the birth of Nemo? There's deaths that precedes that Um, it's it's really a traumatic scene to open a children's movie with a barracuda shows up and eats mom and several 100 of the babies and just leaves dad Marlon, and one little egg Nemo. And so Nemo is birth represents the opportunity for life to go on for Marlin to build a family. But he also carries with him the damage of his losses. And so often, you know, birth and death are linked deaths, clears the decks for something new to come. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents leads to the birth of Batman key as you can understand, Bruce Wayne, if you don't know that moment of death that has defined him,

Alex Ferrari 6:02
Yeah, because if you look at you know, I use Spider Man as example. I mean, he was so brilliant at what Stan Lee wrote in that first step. And that first issue was, what would you do if you had superpowers as a kid? The first thing you're going to do is not fight crime. First thing you're going to do is like show off, and how can I get rich? How can I get chicks? How can like that's a teenage boy's mind is exactly what he did. And he went to go fight and he won. But when he was so self involved, he let that that burglar or that robber run by him, and then later that guy kills servitor. Spoiler alert, everybody kills Uncle Ben, which then sets him on his paths. So that was so brilliantly done, because you needed that catalysts are else who knows where spider man would have gone without the death of Uncle Ben, he might have gone into debauchery, and gone down a dark path, where he could have very easily turned into a villain. If he wouldn't have if he would have just kept going down the self indulgent ego state stick way of going about things. So Uncle Ben's death was absolutely necessary for his character development.

Chris Riley 7:11
Yeah, it was absolutely defining. And really, we've got two defining moments there. In that story, we've got the death of Uncle Ben, which sets Spider Man's course. But before that, we have the moment when Spider Man is born in response to the bite of the spider. So we have to understand both of those moments, if we're going to have an understanding of what's up with Peter Parker.

Alex Ferrari 7:37
And why and why does he do what he does and how he does it, and so on. Yeah, it's fat. And what I always find fascinating about story it is it's such a complete analogy for our own journeys. The Hero's Journey is our journey, we everything that characters go through in movies, and books, and novels and comic books. I mean, you know, to a certain extent, we go through in our own lives, we all have birth moments, we all have death moments, we all have defining moments of what makes us who we are. I was so funny when I wrote my first book shooting for the mob, which is about me almost making a $20 million dollar movie for the mafia. I said, we could talk about that later. I said it when I announced it on the show, I go, if you guys want to know what my origin story is, this is why I do what I do. And if it wasn't through that horrific experience that I went through, and all of the shrapnel that I've picked up since being in the film industry, that's what prepared me to do a show like this, to speak the way I speak about the business because I'm speaking from a place of being in the trenches, and going through it and and also having an urge to help others not have to go through those things. So if I said it out loud, this is my origin story, if you want to know where the grizzled voice comes from, this is it.

Chris Riley 9:03
Yeah, and it's, you know, it's so fascinating when we learn those things about one another or even about ourselves. And so I think it's fair to say that your closest friends, the people who understand you most deeply know that story about you. And if they don't know that story, they're more of an acquaintance. And to the extent that we can excavate our own defining moments, and face up to them, sometimes they're painful moments that we don't want to look at. We we understand and know ourselves more deeply. And we can then draw on those things. When we shape and develop character. So whether we're actors, directors, writers, we are then drawing on the real stuff of life rather then being derivative of something that we saw someone else do.

Alex Ferrari 10:04
I mean, those moments in our lives when we are tested, you know, like, the metal gets stronger. The more that you beat down on it, the more it's heated, the more it's beaten, the more it's it gets stronger and stronger. So those defining moments in our lives really do shape who we are. And if you could take those, those experiences in your own life and add them into your story. That's when you have really deep characters really deep story. That's not like you said, derivative. I always and I've said this 1000 times in the show, and please forgive me audience but Shawshank Redemption, again, it's one of those movies that has no reason to be as good as it is on paper. Not anything, particularly, you know, mind blowing, horrible name, one of the worst titles of a movie, ever. And yet, when you watch it, it touches you in a way, and it touches everybody no matter. I saw it when I was a knucklehead in my early 20s. And my knucklehead friends even felt something, you know, and I was like, if it can connect to that kind of mentality, what did Darabont do in the script that made those characters so, so vibrant, to the point that they connect with us on such a almost spiritual level, honestly. And if we want to look at Andy the frame, I mean, his defining moments, the finding of his wife, his wife is cheating on him to find the moment number one, to being charged with a crime he didn't commit, I pretty much said those are two big defining moments. But there are some defining moments within the story that he decides I'm going to fight back. And I'm going to, and then also the the moment that he finds out spoiler alert, that the rock is weak. Those are those defining moments in that movie,

Chris Riley 12:03
I think they are, you know, some of them have to do with plot finding out that you can you can cut into the rock wall is the, you know, the opportunities are different after you know that. There's this, you know, beautiful, defining moment when he makes his escape. And it is, it is a we can think about all the ways his life is different before and after. He's a prisoner. He is without hope. We actually believe that he may have taken his own life.

Alex Ferrari 12:45
Oh, that's a beautiful

Chris Riley 12:48
Yeah. And so he has at a moment of death. But he goes through this. We can all different kinds of transformative imagery. He passes through a birth canal. Oh, yeah. Into life. He has a baptism. It's a baptism in the sewage,

Alex Ferrari 13:07
Of life the sewage of life.

Chris Riley 13:10
And then he comes out, he comes out clean, he says, that is a that is a life transformed when we see him. Next on the beach in Mexico. He's a new he's a new man.

Alex Ferrari 13:24
Yeah. And so it's red. And so it's red.

Chris Riley 13:28
Yeah, red is also transformed. And red is also at that place where he could tip into death for a while. And and so he, and he has wrestled with this idea of hope and the danger, how dangerous is hope. And he's a guy who rejects hope and the before version of himself. But when he decides that he is going to go and get that message that's buried in the wall, he is choosing hope he's choosing life, that is a defining moment of healing. Now, I think the reason that it reaches us knuckleheads is because it's credible, I think it's drawn from life. And that's the great thing if if I can identify not only moments where I got broken, or where I got damaged, but moments where I actually grew and experienced some restoration or healing, then I can draw on that and create incredible moments for my characters that the audience will recognize and say, oh, yeah, me too. That is how life is.

Alex Ferrari 14:51
Yeah, I've said that as well that I feel that that story specifically is an analogy for life in many ways that we many times feel like Things are thrown up, like we're accused of things we didn't do, which could be or things happen to us. And we're punished and it's not our fault. And how he's able to transcend that almost again, it almost be I love the spiritual imagery that you use is like going through the birth canal, being baptized, you know, being coming up free. There's such there's so much subtext in those that imagery, and and that story that connects with arguably, almost anybody watches it, because I mean, it's not considered one of the, you know, ranked according to IMDb, even sometimes higher than the Godfather, you know, so it's really interesting, I always love using that as an as a movie to look at. Because on paper, it makes no sense that it's just like, it's a very basic, it's not a horror, like, okay, guy, you know, he, he's accused of something he didn't commit those through jail, escapes. Life is good. It's not, I mean, complex on paper and the pitch.

Chris Riley 16:05
The plot is not what's great about it, is the characters with the character transformation. So we both reveal character, but we also then transform character and defining moments are the basis of who we are when the story begins. But they are also the way then that we are transformed. So there, they both form the character, but also transform the character and storytelling concerns itself with both of those processes.

Alex Ferrari 16:38
So when you're writing a character, how do you discover what their defining moment is? So like, when when Bob Kane or I forgot, they just discovered someone else who wrote Batman? You know, writes Batman, like, what's the thing like I got, I want to dress this guy up isn't bad. But what does it cause this guy? What is what has to happen to this guy to dress up isn't bad, and fight cry? So like, how do you discover that moment for your characters?

Chris Riley 17:06
Well, I think you do start with that kind of question. Like, I know, I have a character who's going to dress up like a bat and fight crime. Why? Why? So that's both a a dream or a drive a goal. But it's also there's, there's damage. And so what sort of moment what sort of experience gives rise to that? The way that you find the answer, I think, is not by resorting to reading other people's comic books or watching movies. Because then your work is just derivative, I think you look to your own life experience. Why do I do what I do? Why do I go to the crazy lengths I go to achieve my goals? And why am I so messed up? And how did how does that happen? And out of that, you end up with something that is real? And that is relatable? Because, like, don't we all swim through a river of sewage hoping to come out clean? On the other end? Aren't we all? Yeah, as you say, we're suffering with shame, much of which somebody else dumped on us? And yet, how do you get clean? And so we can look to if, if we will do the hard work, first of looking at our own moments that have defined us and then pausing when we have this great idea of a man who dresses as a bad what a great vigilante, and we can just rush headlong, without pausing and asking ourselves the question you asked, why, how did he get to be this guy? And if we do that, and we think, yeah, there's probably a handful of moments that have defined him. And we look for those until we recognize a moment that rings the rings true to us. And then you grab on to that.

Alex Ferrari 19:17
It's fascinating. I'm gonna I want to bring two characters to the very famous characters into the conversation, Indiana Jones, and James Bond. Now, James Bond had multiple movies, without really is knowing anything about him. Indiana Jones had two movies, before we really truly knew why he does what he does. And which was going to bring me to my next question, can a character have a defining moment outside of the current story that happens before the story? And I think the answer is I'm going to answer my same question, I think is yes, if we use those two examples, because if you look at Indiana Jones The third part, we discover his relationship with his father And that that one moment when he was a kid, where he did the cross and all of that stuff with a guy in the, in the quasi Indiana Jones that he met when he was a kid launched him on his path. And then with James Bond, it was Casino Royale. And those are two probably, I argue, because it was probably the best Bond movie because there's so much character in it. And it's not just, I'm cool. I have a gun. I sleep with a lot of women, which is basically what James Bond was for decades. And then Indiana Jones you have that loving back and forth between him and Sean Connery is probably one of the most beloved of the Indiana Jones series. Do you agree with what I'm saying?

Chris Riley 20:37
I do. And I think that when you you know, when you find out the defining moments for your characters, you don't do it in a in a sort of a cynical Oh, that'll be a good scene and that I can put that you know, great ending back to, but you're seeking to understand the character, you don't know how you're going to play those moments, or if you're going to play those moments. In the book, I talk about my experience on the set of the movie Twister. And that movie was rushed into production before the script was finished. Helen Hunt plays this obsessive storm Hunter who's trying to place scientific instruments inside a killer tornado, which is a dangerous, obsessive thing to do. And there's a scene from her childhood in the movie where you come to understand why she does that. Well, that scene had not been written when I was on location with them. And they had decided we'll write that later, because we're not going to shoot it until later. So you can imagine, Helen Hunt the actor, running around chasing tornadoes, putting herself at risk. And you could imagine that it would actually help her performance,

Alex Ferrari 22:05
She might have done it in her own head that she created that.

Chris Riley 22:08
She's a yeah, she's an Oscar winning great performer. So she probably created that for herself. But wouldn't it be better? If she knew that, wouldn't it potentially shape her performance? If she knew that moment, even though it might never appear on screen, and for for writers and directors as well as actors? I think that knowing those moments that have shaped your characters, whether or not they appear on screen, helps you know what they'll do, what they'll say, and why they will say and do it. Many of those moments do end up coming into the story one way or another. But I would say maybe half of the moments that I developed for my characters. Really, I'm the only one who will ever know them. But I can write that character so much better. And I have more compassion for that character. So I'm not writing even my antagonist, I'm not writing with contempt for them. I'm writing with a sense of empathy for them, because I know what they've been through.

Alex Ferrari 23:22
Well, and that's the thing about writing good villains, and is that a good villain is not a villain in their own store. Nobody is the villain in their own story. We're all the heroes in our story. Even if you're doing gnarly stuff in the world and bad stuff in the world, you are that you're the villain. So I always find it. When you have the villain that is twisting their mustache at the railroad tracks. That's not very interesting. But you got someone like Thanos, who truly is actually trying to help the universe, but he's going about it the wrong way. Snapping half of it in existence is probably not the smartest way of going about it. But he actually has good intentions, if you will. The Joker, his I mean, the movie Joker, my God, you go into such deep understanding of the torture of that soul and you get it. You just you actually identify Joker as the hero of that movie. Which is is the antihero, Wolverine and other anti hero, Deadpool The Punisher, these kinds of superhero characters. But the greatest villains are always the ones that have the most traumatic or damaging backstories that you feel for them. You feel for Darth Vader, you don't feel for him in Star Wars, then you hope when you first see him, you start to feel a little bit more an empire and then you truly feel in return to the Jedi. And then when you go back to the prequels which we generally don't like to talk about. But but there are some moments in those films that you go, Oh, okay, I get why he is the way he is. So those are listening, please, when you're writing villains write something they have to have. They want it, they have to have a good reason for doing what they're doing.

Chris Riley 25:18
They really believe in the justice of their cause, even though it may be twisted, completely evil and destructive in its outflow. Michael Corleone is another great example of someone who does horrible things, destroys his family in the name of saving it. And yet, because that storytelling so brilliantly brings us along his journey, including in that moment in the middle of the first Godfather film where he picks up a gun, and guns down, the two men responsible for his father's shooting. That is the moment that that makes Michael, the godfather. And without that moment, you don't understand it with that moment. You go with him on that journey, even though you're kind of, you know, you're watching through your fingers, and you're recoiling at what he's doing. And with K, at the end of that first Godfather film, you recognize, Oh, Michael is now a monster. But like, I'm fascinated, and I get it. And it's because I was privy to the moments that shaped and transformed him.

Alex Ferrari 26:37
I mean, well, Tony Soprano, I mean, look at Tony Soprano. And there's a scene in, I think, episode five or six, that HBO had a major problem with it was a moment, it was a defining moment in his character, where I think there was a rat, or something along those lines, and he found the rat, and literally killed him on screen choked him to death. On screen, vividly, the camera was in, no one had ever done that before. I'm on a television show. Like, it was so brutal. And that's the defining moment for that character in the series, because it's also a defining moment for the audience. Because you gotta go, am I gonna follow this gut? Like, am I gonna keep watching this, this, this monster, you know, because he's not a good guy, and the whole shows about him and his family, what he goes through. So I feel that there was that that was such a wonderful moment that David Chase brought in, and he fought for it big time. That because the HBO says, like, you're gonna lose the audience. And he's like, No, we're not, he knew more about the character in the audience than, than anybody else did. Even the audience didn't even know what they wanted until they saw it,

Chris Riley 27:51
You know, exploring interesting characters who are like us in some way, revealing their secrets. I mean, that's such a draw to us, as an audience. I, I really think that, you know, one of our, one of our giant drives as people is to, to know to connect. And that's really hard in real life. People don't share their secrets with us. You know, you're at Starbucks. And you got so, you know, what was your most wounding moment that defines

Alex Ferrari 28:26
Those conversations all the time, Chris, I don't

Chris Riley 28:29
Tend to edge away from you. Right, but great storytelling, great movies, great television, allows us to know some characters better than we know, our closest friends. And I really do think we're hungry for that.

Alex Ferrari 28:45
And I think that's, I think that connection is your right, we all want connection, you know, we're all striving to connect with other human beings, and in a deep, meaningful way. And when there's lack of that, in our lives, we connect with the characters in movies. I know I did when I was growing up. You know, when you don't have friends, you can still pop in a VCR tape. That's how old I am. And and watch Indiana Jones or watch a movie and go on an adventure and connect with those characters. I mean, look at the Brockie I mean, I mean, Jesus, you you know, a movie like that, that still holds up from that there's very few movies from the 70s that can be watched today. And it still has the same impact that it did back then. Rocky is that that story? I mean, if you want to talk about defining moments in his in his story, I mean, the moment Apollo Creed shows up and says, Hey, do you want a shot? Pretty, pretty big, defining moment.

Chris Riley 29:45
Absolutely. He was he was a failed boxer sleepwalking through life, and someone opens a door of opportunity for him and he would He would talk about his life, if you, you know, interviewed him later on, he would say, well, before Apollo came along, this is me after, this is me. And that, for me is the great telltale sign of any defining moment that it creates this boundary of before and after. So, you know, your family would talk about, oh, that was before the house burned down. That's that was after the house burned down before the diagnosis after the diagnosis, before we met, after we met, not, it's not all sad. Some of them some of the stuff is good, you know, before therapy after therapy. And it is in discovering those things that we we recognize the person and we also recognize ourselves and and realize, Oh, I'm not the only one, I'm not alone. And that is, that's the great relief that comes from connecting with characters is just discovering. Like, oh, other people are, are struggling, like me, and then when Rocky Balboa is able to find meaning and triumph in life. Maybe I can do maybe I can't tell exactly

Alex Ferrari 31:31
What I mean. Isn't that interesting, though, that story is something that is so integral to us as a species. We're the only ones on the planet who tell stories. Truly tell stories. I'm going to show what some of the Apes do, but I don't think they'll you know, they're not they're not telling Batman stories. But we tell stories, it's not only that, we tell stories, it's that we need story in our life, we need that expression of this journey to help us understand what the hell this whole life thing is, it's a way for us to grasp on to something because we show up. And it's a this is a mess. And most of us walk through life as this is a mess. All this stuff is happening to me. I'm going through tragedy and going through highs and lows. What does this all mean? You're trying to find meaning in what you're doing. And story provides that, and it doesn't have to be a complex novel or movie or comic book. It could be like, Did you hear what happened to Bob down the street? That little little gossip of what might have happened? A tiger ate them around the corner? Well, there's a value to that concept, like don't go down the corner, because they're Tigers down there, and that can eat you. So there's that that function of it. But I think that I mean, without story, I don't even know how we function as as as a human being. Yeah,

Chris Riley 32:51
I don't I don't think we can. And I think that one of the insights of neurology is that when we lose track of our own stories of ourselves, and we can't remember, if we've got say Alzheimer's disease, we can't remember our stories. We're not just losing contact with our history, we're actually losing contact with our identity. Because our our identity is built out of our stories, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And as you say, we're also looking at the cause and effect of like, why did that happen? And what does it all mean? So a story that could look like a very lightweight comic book story may really be like, philosophically, undergirding our whole sense of the meaning of life. That's, that's what it's getting at is, what does it add up to? And the most satisfying stories help us understand what the events of the story add up to?

Alex Ferrari 34:02
And also, when you are able to go on a ride with a character and live vicariously through the character, it's a way for you to kind of almost disconnect as well, obviously, from your day to day stuff. But there's some times there's some times when especially when you're younger, you watch a movie and it just hits you in a way that you can't let go. I mean, Shawshank was not for me, believe it or not, I mean, I know it's it's just one of those movies that doesn't let go of me. The Matrix was one of those films, doesn't it doesn't a Fight Club was one of those from they don't let go of you. There's concepts in it that connect with you in a weird way you, you know, I don't connect with Tyler Durden. You know, but a lot of the concepts and ideas that Fincher and Jim rules and the writer Chuck was trying to portray in that story, connected with me personally. And in The Godfather and those kinds of things. There's just those things, but at the end of the day, it always comes back down again. Correct, because how many people say how many people can truly remember? plots from James Bond?

Chris Riley 35:07
Yeah, I mean, interesting.

Alex Ferrari 35:09
How many plots do we really remember from James Bond other than maybe something you just saw? You don't really remember plots? I vaguely kind of remember the plot of Temple of Doom, vaguely. But I remember key moments that have to do with character.

Chris Riley 35:26
Yeah. Yeah. Kathy, my wife and co author of the defining moment, and I draw heavily on Band of Brothers. Yeah, World War two series. There's so many life lessons from those characters. We think about there's a battle scene with a terrible leader, who, who sort of bogged down in the middle of battle. And winters, our main character, just keep shouting at him keep moving forward, you have to keep moving forward. And that refrain of keep moving forward in the face of Battle of danger of resistance. That's, that's something that we we draw on. And then there's, during the Battle of the bolts, there's the troops that just been there being shelled, for days, and days and days. And there's just a little line in narration that says, If a man could just get off the frontlines, even for an hour, it made such a difference. And, and we will, sometimes when we're engaged, and it feels like we're on the frontlines of the Battle of life, we'll look at each other. And so I think we need to get, you know, 45 minutes away from the front lines just to catch our breath and decompress. Yeah, and so those, those lessons of life, don't stay on the screen, we incorporate them into our actual lives.

Alex Ferrari 37:14
I mean, I mean, George Lucas said it very, very distinctly when he wrote Star Wars, and he used the hero's journey that Joseph Campbell laid out, he did it so perfectly, according to Joseph Campbell's work. He's like, stories are the meat and potatoes of society. And, you know, that's what keeps these big lessons, these big ideas moving forward. You know, there'll be generations who will watch that movie or read that that story about Star Wars, and there's obscene amounts of life lessons, that maybe you and I will look at and go, Oh, that's we completely understand that we know that we've been through, it's not that big of a deal. But imagine you're 15 Watching that for the first time. And you really haven't had those kinds of lessons before about life. That's pretty profound. It really is.

Chris Riley 38:02
Yeah, for me, when I was in that age range movies are some of my defining moments, because they taught me things about life that I didn't know. They were the first really well made. movies that I had ever seen. And the impact on me was, was life changing. I can say, you know, there's, there's me before, I saw ordinary people in the deer hunter, and there's me after, yeah. Wow. And the me, the me after, wants to make movies. And to do that, the me after also understands that I'm not the only one who struggles because those movies taught me that. And the me after also understands that because other people struggle, even though they don't look like it, they look like they have it all together. I gotta treat people with more compassion. And so I'm a different person in those three important ways after watching those two films, but I mean, these are defining moments,

Alex Ferrari 39:11
But according to Instagram, everyone's having a fantastic time. It's just me that's having horrible life. I'm just saying.

Chris Riley 39:19
Right, right. And so Instagram will not tell you the truth. That's either a news flash or a spoiler alert. But yeah, but stories can I mean, I think stories can also lie to us and send us chasing after mirages. But good storytelling can tell us the truth about us about life.

Alex Ferrari 39:46
Now, you speak about in the book, the awakening of longing in a character How do you awaken longing in a character? Because I know so many of us just as human beings walking the earth in so many ways where we're lost looking for that meaning in life looking for that thing that we're here to do. And it's so painful, become bitter and angry because you're not getting what you want. But when you happen to fall into the thing, that the door is open, that you happy, you wake up in the morning, and you're happy to go do it. That's what we're all searching for. We're also searching to be happy with our day to day business. Truly, I mean, in every way possible in our relationships with our family, you know, career based, we're looking for happiness. And but to find that meaning, and to also awaken the longing to find that meaning is not very easy. Took me a minute to figure out some get it when they're born, they get there, they know at four years old, I'm gonna sing and they become Mariah Carey, or they're 65 and start KFC. Like the Colonel Sanders did you know he started at 65? He's like, I'm thinking I'm gonna start a new company. And he was 65 when he started it. So obviously, it took him a minute to figure out what his purpose and purpose was to make chicken.

Chris Riley 41:10
Yeah. delicious chicken.

Alex Ferrari 41:13
Yes, very healthy, very healthy.

Chris Riley 41:14
I think that was one of the characteristics of defining moments is that we don't make them happen. They sort of happened to us. Bruce Wayne's, the death of his parents happened to him. But, and so the like a moment that awakens, deep longing in us, is not something that we can order up. But I, as an example of a moment where a longing was awakened, I think of my wife, Kathy's story of as a child. She had a dad who was not warm, who she cannot recall him ever saying the words, I'd love you. And I don't know that she knew what she was missing. Because, you know, life is normal to you as a kid, whatever it is. And then she was at a wedding sitting between her uncle and her aunt. And her uncle was the handsome uncle, the cool uncle. And he looked at that Kathy, he looked at his own wife. And he said, I'm sitting between the two most beautiful women in the world. Kathy had never been spoken to that way. And as soon as she heard those words, something woke up in her that said, Oh, that's the kind of man I want to spend my life with. Now, this is a little bit of a self serving story. Since I'm the husband,

Alex Ferrari 42:55
I was about to say, How did you how did you how did you end up in this story, Chris?

Chris Riley 42:58
So we'll leave it to her to say whether that longing was satisfied. But that was something that stayed with her. Forever. Sure, it wasn't there, the moment before. And then it was there the moment after, not because she chose for it to be because that experience, awakened that longing at her now she can write characters who have a moment like that drawing on her own experience. And it will be credible, because it draws on that authentic emotional experience of her life.

Alex Ferrari 43:40
It's so funny, because I look back when I was 18. And I was like, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And one day, I literally sit that sat down in my bedroom. I looked around, I had 3000 VHS tapes that I had collected, I worked in a video store. So I collected about 3000 in my collection at the time, I looked around and I said, I like movies. I guess I'm going to be a director. And that was it. And that was the moment. And this was also in a time that it wasn't cool to be directors. There wasn't YouTube, there wasn't a lot of information about writing or direct. I don't think so. I think Syd field might have just come out. Like there wasn't a lot of information within

Chris Riley 44:17
The first one though. And it was it was tough to learn anything, right?

Alex Ferrari 44:20
There was just it was not so it wasn't like in the zeitgeist of like, filmmaking, that's a that's a career option. You know, my parents were like, what do you what? Like so, but that was the moment I never forgot that moment. I was like, I guess I'm gonna be a director. And that was, I was before that moment. And after that moment, and that was it.

Chris Riley 44:41
Right. And it's, and it's lasting. I mean, it's we're here we are sitting about

Alex Ferrari 44:45
For better or worse, better or worse, or for better or worse. It's because it has been and it's, you know, I've documented well, and I think every filmmaker and screenwriter goes through this. It's not an easy path. It is not an easy path to go down. How to be an artist in general, it's not an easy path. But that is speaking of defining moments. That was the moment that I decided. And then there was other defining moments that you decide, do I want to keep going or not? How do I keep going or not? And that's also very difficult to, to understand. And like, again, we'll go back to Shawshank How does and it uh, Frank keep going 20 years of, or 30 25 years, whatever it was, he was in there. Going through that day in and day out and read just that little, that little montage, so beautiful one red light. Some days were good. Some days were bad. You know, some days he fought off the sisters. And one, some days he fought off the sisters and lost. And he goes, I would have feared that he wouldn't have made it if things kept going that way. But one day this happened. And then this character gets introduced, and his whole life changes inside the prison because now now he can go off and he needs someone needs to cook the books. He's good at that his life change that from that moment on. But those are those things.

Chris Riley 46:08
Yeah, I'm life, I'm that quality of life, that there are these seismic moments of of shifting, right. And then there are long periods of silence. And that life consists of both things. The moment the volcano erupts, or the default ruptures, and we have an earthquake, those are the exciting moments. They're terrifying, dangerous, but exciting. It's much harder on film to render the long expanses of just keep at it, just keep scraping away with that rock hammer, dig in that tunnel. And yet life, you know, to be fair, consists of more of those moments. But those are not generally the ones we tell. I talked to students about that. So you can look at my CV or my list of credits. And it looks like I've had this, you know, great, exciting life. But I have to tell you, you know, look at the dates, there are gaps. Five years here. I talk about my Time Warner Brothers in the script department, and I was able to write the Hollywood standard based on all that I learned there. But there were long days of me, you know, just reading script after script. That's, that's finding finding typos or sitting alone in the middle of the night. We've got 300 copies of script revisions for the Dukes of Hazzard and someone has to paperclip them. And that doesn't end up in the credits list. But most of life is that in between stuff. And so yeah, I admire Shawshank Redemption, for finding a way to give a nod to that because that's where like most people listening to us right now are in those in between moments. If they're in the middle of a defining moment. They don't have time to talk listen to

Alex Ferrari 48:21
Maybe this podcast is a defining moment. For them.

Chris Riley 48:25
It can be I think it can be.

Alex Ferrari 48:27
It can be like wait a minute, I listen. I've listened to podcasts before and I'm like, I've never thought of story that way before. You know, I remember talking to John Truby. And I was like, oh my god, he just something clicked after I talked to him. I was like, I never thought of story that way the plot the way he he explained it. I was like, oh, and other people will read other books and other people will watch a movie and go, Oh, I get I get something now. So there are moments that could be this could be a defining moment. I'm not putting any pressure on this episode, Chris.

Chris Riley 48:55
But I think it can be and, and and if you know if today is one of those in between days, then we have to take that lesson from Band of Brothers and keep moving forward.

Alex Ferrari 49:10
Yeah, it's like Rocky Balboa says How Hard Can you get hit and keep moving forward? And that's what in many ways, what life is all about. It's about being able to take the hits, and keep moving forward. And it's such a great talk. He doesn't end the movie Rocky Balboa, he does this like three minute monologue. And it's all about life and how hard life hits you and it brings you to your knees. And what are you going to do? Are you going to get up and keep going? Are you just gonna lie there and in your, in your story, all that mundane work that you did in the story department sometimes sometimes I'm sure it was a lot of fun. But all those in between moments. That is what prepared you to write the Hollywood standard. Without that stuff. You couldn't have moved in the direction that you are right now.

Chris Riley 49:52
That's That's exactly right. And all of those scripts I read are what taught me how to You write scripts. So I couldn't have gotten to where I am now, without that, and you know, writing a book, there's a lot of sittin alone. I wonder what the next word is? And oh my gosh, there are a lot of words on the page of a book compared to a script page. That's mostly air.

Alex Ferrari 50:24
Yeah, I remember it's like, how many were 50,000 55,000 words? I gotta do. Okay. A lot of words. All right. But we're trying to do 500 to 1000 a day. Let's just start cranking it out and just start, keep going, keep moving, keep moving and keep moving and keep moving. Take a bite of the elephant a day.

Chris Riley 50:40
Yeah, exactly. There's, I don't know where this phrase came from. I heard it from my wife. And the phrase is embrace radical, incremental ism. You're just going to take one bite of the elephant a day, you can eat a whole elephant that way if you keep it up over time, so I've learned, even working a full time job at Warner Brothers. If I, if I wrote every day in whatever minutes, I could scrape together, I could write a movie every year. And over time, that added up to my career breakthrough. And the script that was the one that we sold first. But we were, you know, overnight successes after 14 years of taking a bite of the elephant. And that's, that's the difference between the people who get there. And the people who don't is the people who get there just kept going.

Alex Ferrari 51:43
Well, and I think you can attest to this, in this business. It's not the most talented that wins. It's the one who doesn't stop. Because there's a lot of people who are not as talented, who are working in the business right now making big movies, who aren't the best writers in the world. But they're the ones that just kept showing up. And they just kept pounding it and kept pounding, kept pounding, grinding it out, where someone who was very talented, just maybe didn't have it in them to keep going. It was too hard for them. But they were more technically more talented. And I've seen it, I've seen it.

Chris Riley 52:19
Yeah, no, I see that as well. Though, the one who quits cannot when they definitely take themselves out of the running is only the ones who keep going, who are in the place where they can develop their skills. So level, they need to be there, and they've done the work. And they you can't sell a script that you didn't finish. And and in almost any case that I'm aware of you can't sell a script, you didn't finish a bunch of drafts. And you know, if you're a director, it's so many things that you have to figure out and get to go right to to finish any film to finish a good film. Oh, my gosh, it is a miracle. And then that there are great films is that shouldn't be possible. And yet we know there are great films.

Alex Ferrari 53:18
Yeah. And I just want to put a myth to rest. The rocky story of the script being written in five days or something like that. You've heard that story, obviously, right?

Chris Riley 53:27
I've heard other stories along those lines, but usually involve like the back of a cocktail napkin,

Alex Ferrari 53:34
Where he wrote that he apparently wrote the script according to sly, he's like I wrote, I wrote rocking five days. That was draft one. But he did get the first draft out because it was so he just he just didn't stop. And it wasn't like three hours here, two hours there. He sat down for 12 or 15 hours a day and just beat it out. And then beat the hell out of the drafts again and again and again and again afterwards. So there is no, there's no genius. There's no one who just there's no Mozart's of screenwriting, there's a couple who feel like it like Tarantino and Sorkin and Kaufman. But all of them work at all of our people.

Chris Riley 54:17
People work really hard. And I I think any good movie or television episode consists of hundreds of really good ideas. And it takes time to have those good ideas to collect them to squeeze out all the hot air all the stuff that's not brilliant. And so you end up like reading a great script, seeing a great film and going oh my gosh, that person's a genius. No, they just work harder than you. And they just kept at it until they had enough good ideas to fill the thing up.

Alex Ferrari 54:52
Well, I mean, if you look at Tarantino who everyone's like, everyone tries to emulate his writing. No one can ever emulate his writing because he had what 20 years of reading, every novel watching every movie doing, the amount of work that he put in, to be able to have the the bass and the ability to retain all that information in his head and retrieve it at will, is a talent that doesn't exist. He's a he's an anomaly he is. He's a genius in that sense. But even that I know people who work with him, and he is fairly brilliant, but he does work. Like he doesn't just Inglorious Basterds wasn't written in one pass, like he could go back, you know, Eric Roth and write Forrest Gump and one pass, he goes back and beat it up again and beat it up again and beat it up again. But someone like Tarantino like that you all those years you're reading at Warner Brothers. It's him working at a video store him reading every novel. Without all that information. He can't she can't be who he is. You can't write Pulp Fiction.

Chris Riley 55:59
That's yeah, no, that's exactly right. I, I was at the Disney Concert Hall recently to hear Itzhak Perlman play his violin. And for him, it looks like it's effortless. And in that moment, I think it's sort of is effortless. But that's because it's built on decades of practice, work, mastery. And then yes, you get to go and you get to play. And you you're able to do it, but only because you've done all of that work, to reach mastery, where you can sort of dance on top of all of the skill and the discipline.

Alex Ferrari 56:48
I listen, I feel very comfortable having a podcast now after doing 700 plus 800 podcasts at this point in my career. And I can I have no no issue in first first year, a lot different conversation much more nervous much. But you start building skill sets on how to talk to people how to feel them out, all the all this stuff, just, it just comes in, but it's just grinding it out. It's just grinding it out to the point where now they're like, oh, I can jump on with it. I'm not intimidated by anybody. When I interviewed and trust me, I've interviewed a couple intimidating. But you feel very comfortable in the space, you're in like, no one's going to come to you. You're not going to feel uncomfortable about format. There's nothing really that can be thrown at you about format that's going to shake you generally speaking.

Chris Riley 57:38
Yeah, yeah, that's right. I'm very comfortable. I'd stand up in front of any audience and and feel formatting questions because I spent 14 years fielding formatting questions. And so I have learned how to answer those.

Alex Ferrari 57:54
Now, in the book, also you talk about Dr. Showers, eight character traits. Can you talk about those?

Chris Riley 58:01
Yeah. So Sidney showers is a Minnesota based pediatrician who came to LA to learn TV writing, and is really a very good writer. And she talked to me about these eight character traits that she just kind of collected this list, they come from different places. And some of them overlap. You know what other people talk about. But I think it's a really useful grid to use to think about a character just to get prompt yourself to have more good ideas. So she thinks about what is the character's drive. And that's not that's different from their goal. Their drive is just what keeps them going. Whether or not there's a story happening. So for Michael Corleone she thinks his drive is to please his father, whether or not anything else, whether or not his father is still alive, he's still driven to please his father. And then the characters goal character, you know, has to be going after something. She thinks about a character's genius, which is really interesting to think that every character is really strong in some area. So Forrest Gump genius, obviously is not high IQ. But he tells us what it is. He says, I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is. So Forrest Gump genius is love, the way he loves Jenny, his purity of heart. That's a great thing to think about. And then what is the character's most closely guarded or embarrassing secret? That assumes that we all have one and I'm going to think that's probably a safe bet. You know, what do we most not want people to know what question do I most hope you don't ask me. What What will reveal me as a fraud and So that sometimes will certainly motivate a villain to protect a secret might motivate a protagonist to protect a secret. And then there's what's the character's flaw? What is their weakness? So the flaw might have the more of a sort of a moral failing, there's selfish, they're arrogant, whatever their weakness is the Achilles heel. It's not a moral failure. But it's, you know, it's their kryptonite. What is that? What's their redeeming quality? Why do we forgive those other things the way we do our friends? Yeah, he's a bit of a jerk. But he was there for me when I was in the hospital. And so that redeeming trait is is also useful to know and I don't know if I've hit all eight of them, but it's just an example of a way that we can give ourselves prompts when we think about a character to give ourselves the opportunity to discover more.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:02
So Hannibal Lecter, what, there's something so beautiful about his character, because we'd like him, but he's a cannibal and a murderer. Some others that yeah, there's that. But yet, there's something redeeming about him. What is redeeming deeming about Hannibal Lecter? Why do we? Why do we cheer that he's going to eat somebody at the end of the movie? Yeah. It's insane. But you're sitting there going? Yes. That's

Chris Riley 1:01:36
He's charming.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:38
There's that's a superpower he does.

Chris Riley 1:01:42
He's really smart. Yeah. Right. So his genius is his genius that. And so we admire someone he's working his plan. You know, Clarice is using him. He's using her. And that's brilliant. And so we will be attracted to somebody who is very smart, and who has a plan. Now, you know, why do we want him to eat someone at the end, I think that has more to do with will root for someone if they're up against someone who's even worse. Even more horrible. And that's just sort of the the sense of justice. There is a little bit of justice. Yeah, I will root for any football team. That is, you know, going up against Tom Brady, because for me, Tom Brady is the ultimate supervillain. Sure.

Alex Ferrari 1:02:37
And the Yankees were that for the Yankees were that?

Chris Riley 1:02:40
Exactly. And you know, and I have to, I have to admire the guy. He is a great, great athlete. But, you know, for me hearing that he's coming back. It's like, well, of course, it's the zombie movie where he's just you can't kill the guy. And I said,

Alex Ferrari 1:02:56
Listen, as as a guy who's just a couple years older than him. I'm rooting for him. And I did not like the Patriots. I'm a dolphin fan. I'm a very depressed dolphin fan, for many, many years. And when he said when I heard he was coming back, I'm like, you know, what, just makes me feel good. That dude in this age is out there doing it at that level. And that's just my connection to that story.

Chris Riley 1:03:15
Well, and that's another huge key to understanding why we connect with characters we we relate to them, we identify with them. And now there's a bit of an underdog quality to he's he's fighting the clock, he's he's fighting age.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:32
He's, he's not, he's not Superman. He's an aged Superman, who is now fighting against youth against other other football players who are in better shape, I guess. But he's at such a level of mastery, that he can pull off what he's doing that nobody had ever pulled off and has ever pulled off in the history of the sport. So even though I wasn't a Tom Brady fan growing up, as he's now passed over that level, and you're right, he's now an underdog. I'm like, can he take a team back to the Super Bowl? At his age? Can he fight that 22 year old kid from Kansas City? Like, who's arguably one of the best quarterbacks playing in the game today? So it's, it's fascinating, but you're absolutely right, I think. And I guess the older guys are looking at it a very different perspective than the younger guys are. Because they don't understand what he's going through. They're like, ah, get him off the field. He's old. And we're like, Nah, man, look what he's doing. He's giving us all hope that they're still caught for the rest of us.

Chris Riley 1:04:36
Yeah. Right. And so because we identify with him, then we were able to project ourselves into him as a character. And yeah, and then we, for me, like, I know people are gonna hear me say this, and I am so I shudder to say it, but I think I might route for a little bit of, of Tom Brady's success too, for that reason, in a way I never would have in the past.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:00
And same and same here. I mean, he's caused me more heartache over the years with my dolphins. Anybody else as and you were speaking about, we are attracted to you genius. I mean, I think one of the reasons genius or superpowers of one's word, and it doesn't have to be fifth like real, real superpowers, like superhero superpowers like Superman and things like that. But someone like Maverick from Top Gun, who's the new Top Gun movies coming up? Who's I'm really interested to see what they do with that character. Because in the first Top Gun, his superpower is his abilities. But he's arrogant. And there's all these flaws and weaknesses that he has to deal with. He has a fight the defining moment of his father's history, that baggage of him carrying his body. But but we're, we're attracted to greatness. We're attracted to highly skilled characters. So Rain Man, you know, Dustin Hoffman, who is you know, artistic is artistic. Right? Yeah. It's artistic, artistic. We, and he has no other superpower, other than what he's able to do. He completely deficient in every other way, socially, that he can be. But yet we are attracted to him because of what he's able to do with his mind. That no, that seems on, it seems super power like, and we're so attracted to that. And it was just like that, that movie. If you people who are younger, have not seen rain, man, please go watch it. It's it's an It's a masterpiece.

Chris Riley 1:06:32
It's fantastic. And it's a script that we had in the the came through the script processing department of Warner Brothers as they were working draft after draft after draft to crack the ending. So that's an example of a movie that was written over a long period of time. And then paradoxically, why we're attracted to people's genius, we're also attracted to their vulnerability. And going back to Tom Brady, he's now vulnerable, he never was before. And now because of his age, he's vulnerable, and that for the first time, to me, it makes him seem approachable and relatable to me. And so then that, that sort of combination of his genius and his humanity is vulnerability makes him interesting. And maybe James Bond is another example, you read my read more interesting to me when he's vulnerable than when you know, bullets bounce off of him, then how can I worry about him? Or relating?

Alex Ferrari 1:07:40
Well, this is one of the reasons why it's so difficult to write for Superman and make a good Superman movie because he's a god, he's walking around as a god and, and that's issues with all the DC characters. They're all very godlike, you know, and where Marvel characters are much more, much more vulnerable. There's not really many Marvel characters who are Superman indestructible at all levels. They all have powers, but they all have weaknesses, you know, Peter Parker, super strong, but he can get shot. He and he also has acne. And he's a teenage boy dealing with teenage boys stuff.

Chris Riley 1:08:19
So make him relatable to teenage boys.

Alex Ferrari 1:08:22
Right. And that was the genius of Stan Lee that he was able to do with all of his the characters he created. He made it. Even Thor, who was a god are literally a god is very vulnerable, extremely vulnerable. And in a way that Superman has difficulty being. I think it was one I think one of the writers of Superman said, you know, we knew we had a problem when we had him blow out of star. Because at that point, you just like, it's not interesting seeing someone win all the time. You need to have some sort of adversity to make it interesting.

Chris Riley 1:08:59
Yeah, you want a fair fight you you don't want to know how it's going to turn out.

Alex Ferrari 1:09:04
Exactly, exactly. Now, Chris, where can people pick up your new book, The defining moment?

Chris Riley 1:09:10
Well, they can find it on Amazon, they can find it at the publishers website, mwp.com. Or they can go to thisdefiningmoment.com, which is the books website.

Alex Ferrari 1:09:25
Chris it's been a pleasure talking to always have a great time talking to you. This is more interesting than formatting. I'll give you that, as far as a conversation is concerned, but I appreciate you putting this book out and hopefully this episode will be the defining moment in some screenwriter filmmaker slots. So let's help him pray.

Chris Riley 1:09:41
I would really hope that that's true. Thanks for a great conversation Alex.


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BPS 095: The Hollywood Screenplay Formatting Standard with Chris Riley

Have you ever wondered how to format your screenplay so Hollywood would take you seriously as a screenwriter before they even read your script? Today’s guest Christopher Riley can definitely help you with this.

Christopher Riley is an American screenwriter whose first film, After The Truth, a multiple-award-winning courtroom thriller, sparked international controversy when it was released in Germany in 1999. Other credits include 25 To Life, a dramatic thriller written for Touchstone Pictures, The Other White House, a political thriller written for Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films, Aces, an action-adventure written for Paramount Pictures and Emmy-winning producer Robert Cort, and a screen adaptation of the book Actual Innocence for Mandalay Television Pictures and the Fox television network.

A veteran of the Warner Bros. script department, Riley is the author of the screenwriting reference The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style, now in its second edition with a foreword by Antwone Fisher.

The Hollywood Standard describes in clear, vivid prose and hundreds of examples how to format every element of a screenplay or television script. A reference for everyone who writes for the screen, from the novice to the veteran, this is the dictionary of script format, with instructions for formatting everything from the simplest master scene heading to the most complex and challenging musical underwater dream sequence.

This new edition includes a quick start guide, plus new chapters on avoiding a dozen deadly formatting mistakes, clarifying the difference between a spec script and production script, and mastering the vital art of proofreading. For the first time, readers will find instructions for formatting instant messages, text messages, email exchanges, and caller ID.

BTW, if you want to go a bit deeper in not only formatting feature screenplays but also one-hour dramas, 30 minutes Multicam sitcoms, and documentaries take a look at IFH Academy’s Foundations of Screenwriting: Formatting

Enjoy my conversation with Christopher Riley.

Right-click here to download the MP3

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Alex Ferrari 0:46
I'd like to welcome the show Chris Riley. How you doing, Chris?

Chris Riley 3:25
I'm doing well. It's good to be with you, Alex.

Alex Ferrari 3:27
Oh, thank you so much for being on the show. I know we are we are hunkered down here in LA. With trying to survive apocalypse that is around us at all times. It's insane, isn't it?

Chris Riley 3:41
I've lost track of which month we're in? I think we're about in month seven. But I don't know.

Alex Ferrari 3:46
I don't even know. It's just like we were saying off air. It's it's amazing how the universe continues to make the plot more complex than it already is the 2020 plot. It just keeps getting crazier and crazier and crazier.

Chris Riley 4:02
Yeah. They say if anything can go wrong, it must go wrong in a movie. And things that we couldn't even imagine going wrong are are going wrong. It does impress me when life has that ability to just keep twisting the plot upping the stakes, so we're all living. We love to watch movies where the stakes are high, and we don't like to live in it. But that's what this year has been.

Alex Ferrari 4:35
And would you agree that if 2020 was a screenplay, it would never get produced? Because it's too fairly on the nose.

Chris Riley 4:41
Yeah, and it's you know, it's this mishmash of genres. It's a disaster movie, political thriller, it's all

Alex Ferrari 4:50
Its outbreak meets a political meets all the President's Men meets. It's, it's amazing. It's insane.

Chris Riley 4:58
My wife and I were watching contagion the other night.

Alex Ferrari 5:01
Why would you do why would you do that?

Chris Riley 5:04
It was I couldn't tell if I was watching the news or a movie, it is canny how close they were the one thing they got wrong and contagion was all the healthcare workers had ppe. What what they couldn't imagine when they were imagining the worst disaster was that we wouldn't have protective gear or frontline workers. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 5:33
Again, the note back from the reader would say, Yeah, you've got to get what is this? What is this that the PP they don't have? PB that's unrealistic. That would never happen in life.

Chris Riley 5:44
Yeah, I've realized that. You know, I began to talk about this time as post apocalyptic. And then I realized, no, we're trying to get to post apocalyptic. This is just straight up apocalyptic.

Alex Ferrari 5:59
On a we're not we're not in Mad Max, we are in the, in the beginning, the prefix, the prefix of Mad Max, the part that we never see that gets mad max to where Mad Max?

Chris Riley 6:11
Yeah, this is why the world is as it is, in Mad Max, we get to live that part of it.

Alex Ferrari 6:17
Isn't that fun? Oh, joy. But we're here not to talk about the insane world that we live in. Currently, we're here to talk about the very important work of formatting screen. Because only screenwriters and filmmakers are so insane, as we all are, that I speak to them on a daily basis. And like, I know the world is crumbling around us. But how do I get my screenplay read? How can I get the budget? To my film to be how can I shoot my film in this? Like, that's the insanity of an artist. An artist is like this, I'm sure the whole world's burning, but I need to figure out how I can create my art. So this is why we're here, Chris, to help them on this journey.

Chris Riley 7:01
Are your shot headings are formatted properly?

Alex Ferrari 7:07
Obviously. So before we get started, how did you get into the business in the first place?

Chris Riley 7:12
I came to LA with my wife to be a screenwriter, both my wife and I wanted to be screenwriters, and I found myself standing outside the Burbank lot of Warner Brothers, wondering how in the world do you get into this place? And after about, I don't want to leave out the year that preceded getting through the wall because often we tell our stories, and it just sounds like oh, that's fantastic. It just all these great things fell in order. No, it's it's normal, that there are these huge gaps between the wonderful things that we put on our list of credits or resumes. So after a year of not being able to find any work in the industry at all, a friend of mine, called me from Warner Brothers and said, hey, we've had a script, proofreader go out on medical leave. I know you're a writer, I imagine you would be able to do this. Do you want to, you know, do you want to interview for this job. I had actually left town because I had run out of money, borrowed gas money to leave town go back home to Kansas City. And then I get this call. Warner Brothers interviewed me over the phone, I came back out to LA and started this 30 day temporary assignment proofreading scripts for Warner Brothers, which led to 14 years in the script department. They're rising up through the ranks until I managed that department. But inadvertently by formatting 1000s and 1000s of scripts. For every studio in town features and television I learned a whole lot more about script format than I meant to. And so that was that's what brought me to the place where I wrote the Hollywood standard, which is my reference for screenwriters on format. At the end of that 14 years, I left the studio because I, my wife and I had sold our first screenplay, got an assignment with touchstone to write another feature. And so that began our professional writing career. But I spent 14 years doing that apprenticeship at Warner Brothers really learning from other writers whose work I read, and so enjoyed and benefited from.

Alex Ferrari 9:43
So you must have, you must have come across a couple of doozies in your day reading those scripts, things that you're like, How did this get on to my desk?

Chris Riley 9:54
They're both the good and the bad. The good and bad. I mean, there there were things That many, many things that are awful and had no made it. It wasn't like I was a reader for you know, an agent or for studio things coming in over the transom. I was reading things that were in development and in pre production or production, and still just a lot of things that weren't wonderful. But then I did see Lethal Weapon when it first came in. You know, and it just exploded our minds to have a screenwriter talking directly to us as the reader I read early drafts of Forrest Gump and Rain Man, I read the pilot for er, when it had a typo on the cover. It said e W. And we read the script and we thought, Ooh, yeah, that work.

Alex Ferrari 10:56
It's called genius. That's genius. Now we were talking OFF AIR about specifically about Shane Black and his his the way he writes description is so amazing that the economy of words he uses and I think all great screenwriters have to have that skill of economy of words of using, as you put it, the right words in the right order, which is basically the definition of a good writer as a general state.

Chris Riley 11:28
Yeah. I think that it can appear effortless. So you read a shame plaque script, and you think he, this stuff just spilled out of him. And maybe he is such a genius that it just builds effortlessly from him. But I suspect that he's just a really hard working writer, and that many of his sentences have many more words. And then he ruthlessly cuts and searches for just the right word to replace the two or three words. And so he does what all of us do. The best writers, I think, still write mediocre stuff. They just don't show it to us. They they keep at their keyboard, polishing, looking for the right word, the right image, what is what is the telling detail about this character that I can tell you one thing about this character, and you will know who that character is, rather than four different things? What's the one detail about this location that defines it? I don't think that the great writers just have it easier than the rest of us. I just think they work harder. I had a student one time who was one of my first students to really break through and have a career and and she made a point where she would come into the classroom and talk to my students, she would bring her computer and hold it up and say, you know, kids, look at the keyboard, all the letters are worn off the keys. Maybe I'm lucky. But the harder I work somebody said the luckier I get. She's she made her own breaks, the quality of her writing was high because she just didn't let low quality work go out the door.

Alex Ferrari 13:26
Yeah, we all we all got to get that sludge out. Like when you turn the faucet on the sludge starts coming out first and then eventually that comes in the water gets a little brown water then it's a little clearer until it's finally crystal clear. Fiji water artists in Fiji water that comes out. But you've got to get through that that crap. And then with with writers, it's about going back and it's good writing is rewriting essentially,

Chris Riley 13:51
it really is and that that's a little depressing At first, I always got so frustrated with myself when I would get notes on my writing because I thought I had done it wrong. If I had done it correctly, then the first draft would have been solid. Yeah, I'd be be just keeping and saying it's perfect. Don't change a word. But that's not how screenwriting works. And my years at Warner Brothers taught me that our bread and butter was the second and the 12th and the 51st draft that would come through our doors. If we only had to do one draft, I could have laid off, you know, 90% of my staff. But scripts develop. They're too complex. And so they develop draft after draft. We have to do that hard work otherwise, we are hobbyist. We are not pros. Correct. The Pro accepts that. There are going to be notes and I can make it better.

Alex Ferrari 14:55
And really quickly just on a side note when you read lethal weapon, how many versions that mean? drafts of lethal weapon were there. And I'm sure Shane did Shane, because he was a fairly young writer at that point that was like his breakout, if I'm not mistaken,

Chris Riley 15:08
I think, I think that came right out of USC. And I don't recall the number of drafts, but there certainly were a bunch. Now Shane was on the page with that, all the time that I'll write from the beginning. And, and that's the thing about a, a writer with a voice. their voice is there on the page. Figuring out how to structure act to or something, you know, sometimes, there are a lot of drafts to figure that out. Rain Man did many drafts of the third act that could not figure out how to end that movie. And it took them years. Before they nailed it. You watch the movie, and it looks again, effortless, and inevitable. It had to be this way. Forrest Gump also came through our hands. And that was at multiple studios, many different drafts. It's radically different from the book, the innocence of the character of Forrest Gump, we know in the movie, very different from the forrest gump character in the book, and I think much better for it. So scripts actually can get much better as they go through these drafts. I know we like to trash talk, the executives who give us the notes, or the producers who give us the notes. I have to just acknowledge, honestly, I am a better writer, when I'm working with a good producer. I get good notes. I get. I have I love being in story meetings with smart story people. And it makes me better.

Alex Ferrari 16:49
Where do you think this myth came from? Where the writer sits down to screenwriters, where it sits down for three days, writes the screenplay, and that wins the Oscar like, at what point? Did that? I mean, I know the Stallone rocky myth back in the 70s. When he supposedly wrote I think he wrote rocky in five days. But then I actually saw an interview with him. And he's like, yeah, I wrote the first draft in five days. It took me months to tighten that up. But I wrote, yeah, I wrote the first draft in five days, but they leave that part out. So where did you all your travels? Is there a thing that goes, Oh, that's where this kind of started?

Chris Riley 17:27
I mean, I, I think it's the it's what we do. We're I mean, we're Hollywood. We we tell a good story. And it's a better story. I wrote it on the back of an envelope. And so we hear the story of, you know, Sofia Coppola writing Lost in Translation on a napkin or something. And I, maybe some ideas got written down that way. But then it's, you know, you wouldn't go in a skyscraper that somebody said, Oh, yeah, we threw that up overnight. No, I'm not.

Alex Ferrari 18:02
Isn't that great analogy. I'm gonna steal that one. I love that analogy. It's so true. Because that's what filmmakers do all the time. They'll just like, oh, let's just write something on this. Let's see what happens.

Chris Riley 18:12
Yeah, I really wish for the sake of all the people who are struggling and aspiring that we would be more honest with them. So I can, you know, I can show you my resume, I can show you my credits. And it just looks like I've had all these wonderful things in my life. But if I really told you the story is like, Oh, yeah, that's the gap where I pitched non stop for two years and didn't get a single job. I would, you know, what you see on there the results of the three pitches in a row I did, where three studios in a row hired me, right, but those gaps, you know, and where I'm looking in the one ATS going I don't think I know how to work in a machine shop, or drive a truck. And that's, those are the jobs that were advertised. All I know is how to how to make scripts. That's all I've done all my career. But even at Warner Brothers, which sounds fantastic, you know, I had a decal that let me drive onto the line every day anytime I wanted. There were times I was sitting in the middle of the night by myself in a room in the corner of the lot looking out toward Forest Lawn Cemetery, paper clipping 300, Copics, 300 copies of revision pages for the Dukes of Hazzard. And

Alex Ferrari 19:36
is that the screenplay? Sir? I'm assuming the screenplay.

Chris Riley 19:39
That was the the to

Alex Ferrari 19:41
the to the TV series. A series sir. You You You look much younger than someone who worked on the script, sir. So whatever you're doing, keep doing it.

Chris Riley 19:53
Thank you. Thank you. It was the later seasons when they had destroyed every version of the General Lee and they had to use metal pitchers because they couldn't find any more of the cars to

Alex Ferrari 20:03
get with those jumps. Yeah, with those jumps, they had cheeses and they changed the Duke boys. But we that's a whole other conversation. All right, so actually, let's let's actually talk a little bit about formatting since we've just basically been talking about, you know, the business. What are a few deadly formatting mistakes that screenwriter should avoid?

Chris Riley 20:24
So the first is to ignore format, and think that you can just kind of freelance it. I'm a creative person, I can do it however I want. You are writing for a very specific audience. And actually, you're writing for a number of audiences. So yes, the general audience you're writing for. But way before that you're writing for readers who read screenplays all day long. And for buyers who know what professionally formatted screenplays look like. So ignoring format, you do so at your own peril, it would be like going to the most important job interview of your life in your pajamas. That's not a good strategy. I would say the second thing to get more specific is just using the wrong font. So use courier font, wellpoint we know if you cheat. So if you think, you know, a script should be about 108 110 pages. If you've got 135 page script, the answer is not to go with 10 point font. The answer is to cut that thing down to an appropriate size. readers will recognize when you cheat the margins when you cheat the font size. So those kinds of things matter. Getting fancy with pictures, and anything that where you think you're going to jazz up the script, don't do it where we just want to read the words on the page. Don't put all of your effort into the script cover. I remember as an executive producer of a TV series who spent more time apparently on the script cover than what went between the covers. And that didn't end well. We are used to just reading the words on the page. Create the movie for us on the page so that we can read it and have the experience of seeing the movie or seeing the television pilot so that five years later, we can't even remember whether we read the script, or watch the show because you've created the experience of seeing the movie on the page which shouldn't be possible,

Alex Ferrari 22:47
but it is. So I'm gonna I'm gonna play I'm gonna play a young screenwriter who's hearing this for the first time and they and they're gonna say that I know they're saying this right now someone listening is saying this. But Chris Quentin Tarantino, Han writes the cover of all of his screenplays to make them very distinctive and he signs his his covers. Why can't I do that?

Chris Riley 23:09
Quentin Tarantino's autograph is worth more.

Alex Ferrari 23:14
And he's Quinn, Tarantino. He could do what Aaron Sorkin Quentin Tarantino, Shane Black if they want to handwrite the title on their screenplay. It's okay because they are who they are,

Chris Riley 23:25
that they can and they are masters. And so we know that when we crack that script and start reading, we are going to be swept away. I I feature the first page of one of Tarantino's scripts in the third edition of my book, which is coming out in May of 2021. He does not follow all of the guidance in my book. But it doesn't matter because he is such a master storyteller. He is sweeping us up in his characters in the emotion and in the drama of what's happening in those characters. And no one is going to mistake a Tarantino page page one of Django Unchained for the work of an amateur, you start reading those words, you know you're in the hands of a master.

Alex Ferrari 24:18
So formatting doesn't matter as much, because I've said that a lot of times as well. And I've seen that where there's typos. And Shane Black scripts. There's typos in in Sorkin scripts, I mean, blatant typos, and there might be even formatting issues. But they have earned the right to let that go. Right. Am I right? As opposed to somebody who

Chris Riley 24:40
I think that's right. I think it's like you and I wouldn't show up for the most important meeting of our lives in our PJs. I think Trentino can get away with that. That doesn't mean that that's a good model for us to follow. I think we have to earn the right to be that person. Now. Hopefully. We continue to be professionals. And even though there are typos on page one of Django Unchained, there is everything there that Tarantino's crew needs, right to shoot that film. There's everything the studio needs, the budget and schedule. So he is not being unprofessional in the way that he does his work. He is a really serious professional and he labored over that page. He doesn't care what Chris Riley says about what you capitalize and what you don't capitalize, and neither do his readers. But for the rest of us, there's no reason to take that chance. We want to create a professional impression we want to be taken seriously. I tell writers, I think you deserve to be taken seriously. So don't undercut yourself by not providing that professional polish that format provides.

Alex Ferrari 26:02
Now can you tell me the difference between spec scripts versus production drafts of a script, because a lot of screenwriters don't really understand the difference.

Chris Riley 26:13
The the one defining difference is production scripts have seen numbers on them. And spec scripts don't. But otherwise, we are when I was reading something at Warner Brothers, these were spec scripts, the early ones spec scripts that came through the door the studio had bought, and then they would progress toward production. We weren't adding more shot headings or more camera direction. And speaking of deadly mistakes, putting a bunch of camera direction in a script. Because you really secretly want to direct this movie. That's also a deadly mistake. Get all of that stuff out of the way. Don't put any camera direction in unless you have a really compelling storytelling reason to do. So sometimes, sometimes we do. But the format is really the same. Whether it's a spec script or a production draft, the changes are our story changes, character changes. And then eventually, when we start to prep a script before you can budget before you can schedule, the scenes need to be numbered production coordinator or a script supervisor will do that. Or my department did that writers don't number scenes. And when you put scene numbers on a script, it signals that you aren't familiar with that process. Apart from that there's not really this moment where lots of news shot headings or slug lines are added or a bunch of new camera direction is added. And even you know you can read Writer Director scripts like the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan. They keep all that stuff out of their scripts too. And you would expect that as well. A director is entitled to put all their thoughts about angles into the script, but they don't because they understand as professional screenwriters, they want to create a really readable document, we are trying to create a dream state for our reader, just like the movie creates a dream state for the viewer. And so as much technical language as we can streamline out of that script as possible. That's, I think, a winning strategy.

Alex Ferrari 28:55
So would you because it would you say that the story that you're writing is for the audience, but the script is for all of those gatekeepers that are going to get you to the place where this thing is actually produced, and then gets it out to the world for an audience to watch.

Chris Riley 29:13
I'm never thought of it in those terms. But I think that's really well said yes. So the audience is not going to see the script unless they're,

Alex Ferrari 29:20
you know, buying, buying sick buying the Star Wars script at Barnes and Noble or Amazon got it.

Chris Riley 29:26
So yeah, so the story is, is for the audience, the script. I while I do I do argue that a script is a lot of people say a script a blueprint for a movie. It's like a technical document. I think it is a piece of literature in its own right. I love reading a great script. But it is for a limited audience. It is for those gatekeepers and it's for your colleagues who are going to be working with You to put this movie on the screen and so you want to be clear for them. For the sake of your colleagues, clarity is the watchword for the sake of the gatekeepers. Entertainment is, is the thing, you have to draw them in on page one. These are people who back when people read physical scripts, we would send the creative executives home every Friday afternoon with a big box full of scripts that they that was called the weekend read. That was their homework for the weekend, Monday, they would come in talk about all of the drafts that needed notes as well as scripts they were considering buying. These people are tired and busy and reading fast. And so you've got to grab them on page one, you want to be clear because you don't want them paging backwards. The last thing you want anyone doing when they're reading a screenplay is going in reverse. screenplays are all about forward motion. And so that's why clarity, economy, professional format all are working for you to suck the reader in and hold on to them all the way to the end, hard thing to do. And there are few who do it really, really well. But when they do, it's like seeing a miracle on the page.

Alex Ferrari 31:30
Now, what are five shot headings, that should be in a script, five different kind of hedge shot headings and what a shot heading is as a general standard for people who don't know what it is.

Chris Riley 31:40
Okay. So, a shot heading tells us where we are. So movies are stories. The author Claudia Johnson has said movies are stories told in scenes or the screen. And so scenes are these distinct pieces of storytelling that happened somewhere some time. And so the shot heading tells us where and when we are so right now I'm interior Chris Riley's house day. And so that would be we would call a master shot heading off. And that's all we need. And then we just describe what happens and we have the dialogue. Each character says this in this order. That theme and format doesn't have to be any more complicated than that. But once in a while, we then want some intermediate shot headings. Sometimes I write action sequences. So we are I wrote a film for Paramount called aces, which was about these biplanes in the 1920s. And they were in a hurry. So they flew into a thunder head, which is really a terrible idea to fly an airplane into a thunderstorm because there are winds that will rip your plane apart. So there's maybe a seven page action sequence, exterior stormy sky, night. But then as I'm moving around from this plane to that plane, I've got a shot heading. Maybe with Ben. So one of my main characters is named Ben. And I want to focus your attention on him. And so I have these intermediate shot headings. And then I might go, I might now call out an extreme close up. So let's say that wild Ben is trying to make his way through this thunderstorm and lightning striking his plane he's also running out of gas. So I might want to focus your attention as you would on screen with an extreme close up on the fuel gauge. The needle hits empty, I might say extreme close up fuel gauge. And then indirection under that I would say the needle hits empty. I might leave out and I would advise mostly leaving out the extreme close up language and I can just use as a shot heading fuel gauge. What you see in your mind is an extreme close up of the fuel gauge so I don't need the technical language. There are other times I'm going to need a flashback and so I'm going to indicate that in the shot heading the first word will be flashback interior Chris Riley's house that we might have a dream sequence that's indicated. Another really important one is a POV shot which POV stands for point of view. So if I say Alex is POV, his computer screen that means we're looking through your eyes at the computer screen. Now, the correct way to format that is to say Alex's POV, some people will say POV Alex. Now I'm confused because I don't know if that's your POV. Or if that's somebody else's point of view of you know, we don't want to leave the team confused about that, nor do we want to leave our reader confused about it. So Alex's POV is unambiguous. And that's the best way to, to set that up. So I would say those are, maybe that was five of the really shot heading types that a writer would use. So when you're in an action sequence, so before, when I was writing my scripts back in the day, I would write, if I was an action sequence, I would write, interior warehouse,

Alex Ferrari 35:46
corner of the room, this corner of the area, let's say by the boiler, then cut to I would write cut two, but then the next sequence would be interior warehouse, other side of the, you know, by the stairs, and then I would constantly go back and forth, and I would write the full heading every time where because I was inexperienced, and I didn't know any better, but you're saying like you once you establish that we look guys, we're all in the warehouse. Now. It's like, at the boiler room, Ben, at the boat, you know, at the, at the stairs, this, you know, if you want to come back and forth, because when you're shooting some of these actors, let's say let's take the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. That's pretty chaotic. We're all on the beach. Essentially, the whole thing takes on the beach, maybe underwater, sometimes maybe in the boat for a minute or two on the beach itself by by a barrier. But we're all on the beach. So I doubt that the same kind of writing script says exterior. Where's the beach? Oh, God, the name of the peach

Chris Riley 36:49
earlier? Oh, thank you.

Alex Ferrari 36:51
Yeah. Oh, Mojave tech. Exactly. Omaha Beach exterior, boom. It's not there all the time. We like we established already there. And then they're just jumping back and forth to different areas of the beach. Is that? Is that fair?

Chris Riley 37:03
Right. Yeah. Yeah. If it's clear in context, we know Yeah, we've got, I don't know, 25 pages. I know, we know where we are, there's no reason for us to be confused about that. So we don't need to repeat those words that streamlines the read. It may be. And this is where your weigh in one value against another. So a production person may have to like page back a little bit to to confirm. Yep, still on Omaha Beach. They've got their job. Because I wrote a script that grabbed the reader. So I'm going to, I'm going to lean a little bit toward making it streamlined for the reader and not bogged down with a lot of technical language, the, you know, location manager is going to maybe do a little extra paging to confirm, oh, yeah, we're still in Chris Riley's house, even though it the shot heading just said, bathroom. They've got their job, I'm happy if they're a little frustrated with me, if the movies

Alex Ferrari 38:14
getting made. And then also, though, in a production draft, I found that when I'm working with first 80s, that they will go back and write, interior, you know, warehouse interior warehouse, because just for a breakdown, it becomes a lot easier for them. So it becomes more of a technical document, like you said, as opposed to an enjoyable piece of literature. It's like, No, we need to make sure that scene five is in inside the warehouse. It's just a different area of the warehouse, but we want to make sure that we're still in the warehouse, is that what you found?

Chris Riley 38:45
So in, I find that for, you know, script, supervisors, abs, everybody is writing tons of notes on their scripts, whatever is relevant to to their job. We don't always go back into the script and add that for everybody. You know, and it could be that budgeting and scheduling software, you know, prefers that because it can pick out then the interiors and the exteriors, the days and the night automatically for you. But often, an ad will just go in and hand annotate their own own script. And then you get all of that stuff in, in the shooting schedule, broken out with maybe detailed, it's been added. I don't know we see that being added to this.

Alex Ferrari 39:40
The script that everybody is seeing God, it's so good. That could just be the personal script of the first ad and maybe the director just so we know what's going on. clearbrook based on the software. One thing that I an old school first ad once told me when you're writing, especially if if you're writing a Marvel movie, this is not uncommon. First of all, you're one of 30 screenwriters or 50 screenwriters in the world who are doing that, but if you're writing a big budget, it's not as big of a deal. But when you're writing when you're writing budgets that are not specifically big studio tentpoles you know, anytime you see every time a first day, DCs exterior night, the budget just went up. Exterior exterior night is not just if you could, or the exterior night dusk or dawn, those are the those are just like, brutal for production because of the costs involved with it. So he always told me if you can write it just morning, night, you know, like bit Night, night, morning, midday, something else? can it take place interior at night, that would be helpful, because lighting outside is a lot more expensive.

Chris Riley 40:53
For writers often can spend their whole careers not being on a movie set and not actually knowing a lot of these production considerations. But yes, whatever you write, somebody has to do. So all those nighttime scenes mean people are working through the night. If it's expensive, it's tough on people. And so yes, an interior night is, is attractive, because you can shoot that anytime we don't know whether it's day or night outside when you're shooting that. Crowd scenes, children, animals, boats, on the water, all things drive up budget, and I became very aware of that. When I was producing and rewriting a very low budget $200,000 feature, then you're counting your actors, you know, how many people can we afford? Because we're paying for the hotel room, and we're paying, you know, we're paying to travel them, all of that stuff becomes, you know, those are hard costs, you have to pay, you can't defer that stuff.

Alex Ferrari 42:04
Alright, so do you think as a young screenwriter, so a screenwriter who's just starting out to keep that kind of stuff in mind, if that is the target audience that they're going after? If you're writing a tentpole 100 million dollar plus movie, this doesn't, you know, doesn't make sense. But does it give your script a better chance with the gatekeepers to go, Oh, we can shoot this, like this is ready to go as is because they kept their costs in mind when writing it not to stifle creativity, but yet to be conscious of the production needs. Because I don't know if you agree with me or not, productions are getting cheaper and cheaper, the budgets have to be are coming down and down television, and streaming pilots, those budgets are coming down. And these 100 million plus dollar projects are becoming rare and rare, where now they're betting two to $300 million. And now without the theatrical component that we currently have in our world, I don't even know how much longer that's gonna work out with that. That's a whole nother conversation. But anyway, what do you think?

Chris Riley 43:05
Yeah, I think you do have to always bear in mind, who is my audience? Who is my buyer. And so if I'm writing, you know, if I'm sending biplanes into a thunderstorm, I know I'm writing for Paramount, and I know this is a at least an $80 million budgeted film, make it more spectacular, right. But I also know, you know, if I'm working with an indie director, and writing something that we're intending to produce together, then I'm going to write for that budget, and even conceive of the story for that budget. The lower the budget, or the lower the budget could be potentially, because, you know, a list stars can drive up the budget on you know, people are talking to each other. But the production demands, the lower those are, the more people can say yes, to make this movie at 100 or $200 million. There's five people in the world who can say yes, as if we get down to a million dollars. There are a whole lot of people who can say yes. And so you know, different stories have different demands. And you know, as you were talking about the demands of shooting at night, I was just thinking, Oh, yeah, that thing I'm writing right now, the entire third act happens at night in the rain, the rain, but it has two doors, he demands it. But there's a trade off there. That's going it's going to cost and I, Cathy and I, early in our career, had a project that we wrote a treatment for. It was all about 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire and our managers in a agents were really excited about it, I thought it could sell. And it went to an A list action director, who ultimately said, You know, I just don't want to spend all that time surrounded by fire. And so there are practical demands that the storytelling takes makes on filmmakers, and they may not want to be in the snow for six months, or surrounded by flames for months or at night in the rain. And those are things to consider. Yeah, because

Alex Ferrari 45:33
I know a lot of actors who, you know, that got scripts sent to them. They're like, you know, where's the shooting? Oh, it's in it has to shoot in Alaska. Yeah, I don't want to spend four months in Alaska. But if you write a script in Hawaii, chances go.

Chris Riley 45:50
Yeah, exactly. We said something in the hills above Malibu? Because then it's like a five minute drive for all the actors who live in Malibu.

Alex Ferrari 46:01
Right? Exactly, exactly. Um, now, what are a few things that you should absolutely not put into a shot heading.

Chris Riley 46:15
Sound Effects should not go in the shot heading, they should be pulled down into direction any action should not go into a shot heading. action should be in direction or you know, we also call that action. So none of that should be there shouldn't be any transitions, no dissolves or cuts, cut tattoos. There are kind of five things that that do belong there, the interior or exterior location, the type of shot, the subject of the shot, and the time of day. Now, that's five things that would make for that big interior warehouse shot heading that you described. We don't have to repeat that every time a shot hitting can contain all five of those things shouldn't contain anything else. But it doesn't have to it can be as simple as Alex, right? So that if the shot is have you, it's a sufficient sub shot heading to say, Alex, the shot of me can just say, Chris, if we've already established the location and the time of day,

Alex Ferrari 47:27
right? So if we're going to write the scene that we're having right now, where you and I are talking over over a video conference, and we're like, we wouldn't say interior, Alex's office, Skype, then the next words that you have his interior office, Chris, Skype, and we don't get a back and forth. We're like this is and we just did basically we just put up at the top Skype, interior offices Skype conversation, how do you write this? How do you write the this this setting?

Chris Riley 48:00
Alright, so a couple of ways. Yes, you're, you're onto it. So we want to establish your location, right? Near Alex's office day. And then we could say slash interior Chris's zoom studio. Day. And we all have multiple zoom studios throughout our homes are all the different people who need them. Yes. And and then you can just indirection after that say intercut. And so you only need to call out the locations one time, we could also start, let's say we start with you, you introduced the show. So we're into your Alex's office day, Alex sits before a microphone wears headphones, speaks with a molded fluent voice. And so then we have a dialogue. And then we say intercut with interior Chris Riley's video conferencing studio day. After that, we just have the dialogue. And we may, you know, have, you know, Chris reaches for clear beverage could be water, we'll never know. You know, and then it's back to just the dialogue,

Alex Ferrari 49:17
basically. Okay, good. Because that's, like, this is a perfect example. Like, how would you create this without it being so like, back and forth? Because what that brings me to my next question, though, like, a lot of the a lot of these formatting books that been around since the 80s, and 90s, and early 2000s did not take into account a lot of the things that are now being incorporated inside of scripts, like text messaging, instant messaging, how do you handle formatting texts, which are now becoming more and more not like a description? Like, she looks down at the phone and sees a text? No, there's like text on the screen going back and forth. So how do you format that?

Chris Riley 49:56
So the I mean, this simple rule is that you just describe what we see. So when you see any kind of visual effect, and I would put text on the screen in that category, you know, if, if my typewriter levitates, at some point I would just described, you know, his old Underwood levitates. And, you know, circles his head, and nothing special needs to be done other than the description of that. And so I would handle that sort of text messaging the same way, I would just describe it, text messages appear around her as she dresses for the day,

Alex Ferrari 50:43
and then the text messages would add that dialogue.

Chris Riley 50:46
Yeah, I would, I would either put those in dialogue margins with quotation marks around them, or indirection with quotation marks around them, I think it's always useful. If we're going to see text on screen to see quotation marks around it, you could put it in all capital letters, if that makes it pop a little bit for the reader. I have to keep doing new editions of my book, The Hollywood standard, because these new things keep happening. So in the second edition, we added text messages, things like that. Now we've had to add, well, how do you handle like a zoom meeting where you've got, which we've just talked about video boxes on the screen, and you know, and you're sitting in your laundry room, and you know, the load is out of balance, and so the shoes are thumping, and you know, and the kids are bothering you, all of this stuff is happening, we've got the movie screen, but we've got our computer screens or our phone screens. So I've had to apply the principle principles of be clear, be economical, and invent ways to handle those things. And so, in the third edition, there will be a section on how do you handle video conference calls? Because there's no there's just no chance that we're not going to see those showing up? Oh, they're now a permanent, I think permanent part of our lives. Yeah, without question. And on a side note,

Alex Ferrari 52:18
so when I write my computer levitates all the time. So I'm not sure if yours does. But that's generally means that I'm doing good writing. That's just the way I see it.

Chris Riley 52:28
That is a very, very positive sign. I wish this thing would levitate it. I suppose they considered it a portable, but you got to be strong to carry it. You got to be really strong to hype on it.

Alex Ferrari 52:42
Right? Like you have to work out your fingers you like pop it like you got to really, really want those words.

Chris Riley 52:49
You do and you have to be confident because to change that was so much work. You had to retype the whole page. And if you cut something that changed the page length the rest of the script you're going to you're going to retype your whole script. So we would the early days of my time at Warner Brothers we'll call them the Dukes of Hazzard days. cut and paste really meant scissors and scotch tape

Alex Ferrari 53:17
and a photocopy and a photocopy. Yeah,

Chris Riley 53:19
you get strips of paper stapled onto a page and and then we would retype all of that because we had one computer system on the lot and then proofread and print hundreds of copies for everybody.

Alex Ferrari 53:34
I kind of remember those days. I mean, even when I was even when as a PA working on a fox show on the universal lot in Orlando. I worked in the office and I saw snip snip snip paste paste base on the pink and the red and the yellow and

Chris Riley 53:54
yeah, yeah, the here I'll show off the the color sequence of pages when scripts go through different drafts and it's so burned into my mind. Okay, like blue pink, yellow, green, gold buff salmon, cherry and tan. And then you start over unless you are in Great Britain and then you also have gray and ivory.

Alex Ferrari 54:18
I'm not sure to be impressed or terrified by that.

Chris Riley 54:22
That's what you call at this point in my life that is useless.

Alex Ferrari 54:26
Useless absolutely useless.I'm so when you How do you handle dialogue when there is like five people arguing or five people talking all at the same time, which is something that happens in movies constantly. Like, I can imagine writing the script for mash where everybody was talking over each other. How do you even work? How do you approach that as a screenwriter,

Chris Riley 54:52
there are two different strategies. So one is to just line them all up side by side in columns and you can fit at Mac's about five characters talking at the same time and columns. That way, you get really narrow columns. If you've only got two characters, now you've got half the page to share. And that can work. The problem for me with that is, I can't read five different people talking at the same time, I have to read them in sequence. And so it doesn't really approximate the experience of hearing five people talking at once. And it's a, it's just an awkward reading experience, which, of course, I'm trying to get away from awkward reading experiences for all the reasons we've talked about. So often, what I will do is, I will still stack them, like normal dialogue. But I'll break off one speech with a dash as somebody else introduct interrupts. And I really am giving, I might say, in direction, talking over her, and so you read it, and you get the sensation of talking over each other. But I'm not asking you to figure out which order to read into the speeches and I. So I think that that makes for, in most cases, a better experience for the reader. But at the end, when the production happens, it's going to the actors are going to do what the actors are going to do on set and the director is going to direct them the way they're going to direct. So it's not going to be exactly how you read. So you're basically creating theater on the page for the reader specifically, and it's not. It's going to change. Well, that's

Alex Ferrari 56:35
a general statement. It's going to change with the set. Oh, gosh, it's

Chris Riley 56:39
going to change location for the movie twister. And Steve Zaillian had had his eyes on that script, it was Steven Spielberg gone, you know,

Alex Ferrari 56:53
did he produce that one, he produced that one, didn't he?

Chris Riley 56:55
He produced that one. It was a Michael crighton script along with his, his wife, I believe. And I was on location. This was while I was still with the script department at Warner Brothers because they went into production without having finished the script. Sort of the time of year dictated if you're going to shoot a tornado movie, in a cornfield, this has got to look like spring, we got to go now. So they said, Would you come and be here with our writer, and type the script as he writes it? And that sounded like an adventure to me. So I did that. I had a trailer with the actors. And so I would sit outside my trailer and just talk to the actors throughout the day, and some of the actors came back. And these were not the the lead actors. These were the supporting actors. The team of tornado chasers, you

Alex Ferrari 57:47
know, Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt

Chris Riley 57:48
with accident, Helen Hunt. And they came back one day from sets so excited. They said, Oh, my gosh, it was so great. We went out there and yonder bond, the director just said, Why don't you guys just ad lib? And I thought, all right, Michael crighton Steve's alien, Steven Spielberg, and you're out there. ad libbing ad libbing my writers heart just sort of broke a little bit. But that's a that's an education. No, yeah. You're creating theater on the page, so that the rest of the team is in a position to go and create the movie, and you want to get them close enough to that movie, so that when they're ad libbing it's consistent with those characters you've created, and it's supporting the story that everyone together is trying to tell. Fair enough.

Alex Ferrari 58:46
Now, one thing that I always had an issue with when writing was the continued that the continued at the top and the bottom, I've read scripts that have it on every single page, because arguably, you're continuing the story. So can you kind of clarify when to use it and when it's appropriate to use it?

Chris Riley 59:10
Yeah, so actually, that gets added to the script that should get added to the script, when the scene numbers are added and not before. And so when a numbered scene is continuing on the next page, scene, 21 reaches the bottom of the page, scene 21 continues on the next page, if that's where you want a continued at the bottom of that first page, and that a 21 continued at the top of the next page. And then if 21 keeps going, then at the bottom of that page, another continued in parentheses all caps, the top of the next page 21 continued. Now that's continued no parentheses with a colon. That's why I wrote the Hollywood standards. You could look at it And see how it works. And then it's continued. And then the number two. So we know this is the second page of scene 21. Continuing. If a scene ends at the bottom of a page, then there should be no continued. Yes, the movie is continuing. But that scene is not continuing. That's what the continued is meant to indicate.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:21
Again, so wrapping wrapping this whole up, I think we can safely say that the job of the screenwriter in the formatting process and in the writing process of a screenplay, their main, their main purpose, or their main job, besides telling a great story, is to clarify what is going on on the screen. So you can take away any confusion from the reader, that at no point should the reader go back a page or two, because they're lost, then you have failed in the formatting and in the storytelling, because you're not clearly telling them where you're going. As opposed to a novelist who doesn't have to deal with any of this. They just write because I know when I write books, it's so much more freeing than writing a screenplay. screenplay is the combination of a great Craftsman and a great artist mixing together to come up with this product. Whereas a novelist is just a great artist that has craft, but much more free.

Chris Riley 1:01:27
I think I think that's exactly right. It is that marriage between the poet and the engineer? Yeah. And it's why it's really hard to find a person who is both a poet and an engineer, but you are, you're designing a potentially a $200 million machine. Blake Snyder called movies intricate in motion machines. And that's so there's design that goes into that, that craftsmanship. But there's also the the poet, the artist, the mad scientist. And we need both of those sides, I have written most of the things I have written with a writing partner, most frequently my wife, because you need that wide swath of skills. But yeah, you want, you want to be clear. And you want to be a poet at the same time. And that's where the great writers really do it. And that's why reading a screenplay can be such a joy. Now,

Alex Ferrari 1:02:33
there's one thing in the third edition of your book that is exciting that I know you want to talk about, and I want to hear how you did it is how you are you actually taking improv, or improv? Is it improvisations from the Masters, like Tarantino and Nolan, and showing you how they formatted the screen from from a scene, let's say in Pulp Fiction? Can you talk a little bit about that? Yes.

Chris Riley 1:02:57
So this started with a lot of readers asking me, how is format changing as time passes? You know, are all of these old rules still, we still have to follow them? And I thought the best way to answer that question was to just go to the masters and see what are they doing? How do they work with this form on the page to write their movies. So for example, that opening scene in the shape of water. It is it's a piece of dream. And, and yet I am in the in this new chapter, and in the third edition, I show you that page. And I say Look how using shot headings, and paragraphs of direction and dialogue, just those simple elements. This dream is pinned to the page with nothing but words. And yes, sometimes Tarantino misspells his words, and he doesn't follow every capitalization guideline that Hollywood standard provides. But he is still working within industry, standard script format, ish to to create a Tarantino film on a piece of paper, using nothing but words. And so for me, it was such a delight to scour all of these screenplays and find these gems, these beautiful examples of these masterpieces of writing for the screen and then put them in the book and be able to put them in front of the reader and say, Oh my gosh, look at this. Do you see where she does? This? Do you see where Vince Gilligan does that thing in that pilot episode of Breaking Bad? Can you believe that? That he just did that with words on the Page. I hope it's an inspiration. I hope it's also instructive to writers and helps them understand how they can take the scenes that they imagine and do them justice on the page so that the reader really has the experience that the writer wishes to give them.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:24
Now when you are going back and studying, you know, cat and they're basically careers of screenwriters like Tina Nolan, how did Nolan How did let's say Tarantino structure, Reservoir Dogs or Natural Born Killers or True Romance, which are one of his earlier scripts that got sold versus Django Unchained and once upon a time in Hollywood, like how different in the formatting did was he is braised and let's say specifically turned to was he as brazen with Reservoir Dogs as he is with Django Unchained on like, screw formatting? I am terrington. He was just a dude trying to make it at that time.

Chris Riley 1:06:03
Yeah, I think, you know, I, I, I can't answer that question precisely because I didn't go back and look at all of those scripts, but my sense is, he probably has, has not evolved too much in his formatting. And, and he has compensated for that with other qualities.

Alex Ferrari 1:06:29
Right, it'd be bad and a lot of times people look, I love when screenwriters or filmmakers point at these masters, and use them as an example like, well, they did it. I'm like, Yeah, but they are one in a generation. Like there won't be another Tarantino ever. There won't be another Nolan. There won't be another Coppola. These people are at the height. their masters, they are literally masters. And to use them as an example of what you should be doing in the sense of like, what you could get away with, in let's say, simple. The thing is formatting. you're setting yourself up for disaster.

Chris Riley 1:07:07
Yeah, with any, you know, with any discipline, right, we hope to get to mastery. But we start with the basics. We start with the rudiments. I remember being at the Hollywood Bowl. Steve Martin was there with his steep Canyon Rangers are the bands, the banjo guys. And there is there's a guy who plays the fiddle, and is literally like dancing on top of the, you know the form, he has so mastered the fundamentals, right, that is now free of them. And he, it is such a delight to watch somebody do that. But they don't start there. They start with the fundamentals, you know, he can play his scales. And he may be playing notes that aren't on the scales. But he can only do it because he has played his scales. A friend of mine had a sister who was a an opera singer. People thought she sang like an angel, how wonderful. They didn't know that she was in the basement, eight hours a day singing scales so that she was able to go soar like a bird when she performed. So yes, format is a part of us doing our scales. My friend, Dean Vitaly, the TV Writer Producer has set a script without a format, like hearing a singer who's out of tune. Those of us read a lot of scripts have a fairly finely tuned ear. And it's not only unpleasant, we just sort of turn that off. We're not likely to read all the way to the end of a script, which is a shame because could be a wonderful script.

Alex Ferrari 1:08:59
And would you would you use the analogy that writers need to just like an athlete needs to work out those muscles doing the basics before they can do the extraordinary meaning in order for the these some of these Olympic athletes I saw doing like the gymnastics, my God the things that what's her name does I mean that she's constantly like all other gymnastics, gymnast are going, how did she do that? She worked on the basics so much that now she's capable of doing things that nobody else is doing. Because she has so mastered those basics and those muscles are so strong that are capable of doing that. I would I would assume I would associate that with writing where the more you write, you write 20 scripts, and you you're going to be a much stronger writer than on script one.

Chris Riley 1:09:49
Yes, no, that's absolutely true. It's it is a rarest thing for somebody to to achieve the highest That they're capable of on their first try. They write. I mean, I think there are these exceptional stories where something like that has happened. But that is not. Nobody should count on that. Yeah, count on it being your 20th script, I think john wells described, you know, you need like 12 to 18 inches of paper, script pages that you've written. And that's not. Now I may write 12 inches of paper to end up with a screenplay. It's the finished screenplays that need to stack us up to stack up. And we which means don't be precious with the words, there are more where those came from. I used to really get anxious about my ideas and hold on to them so tightly if there was a note, because I feared I would not be able to replace that idea with another good one. And so you sort of dole these ideas out, ration them. Do away with that. There are more good ideas where those came from. You keep living life, I many times I feel like I've poured out all of my soul onto the page. There's no other story for me to tell. And then it turns out sure there is.

Alex Ferrari 1:11:14
So it's an endless Well,

Chris Riley 1:11:17
it isn't endless well, but it does flow more freely. When you let it flow, get the sludge out, let the words flow, let them be bad, cross them out, replace them. But when you sit frozen before your screen, there's nothing. You can't rewrite, you can't improve it. That perfectionism is the obstacle that I see for so many writers. I was on jury duty writing what turned out what became the first produced film that I had. And I, I was sitting in there like the jury room waiting to be called. And there was a businessman sitting across from me, he looked at me because I had that little piece of paper and I'm scrolling in the corner and he goes, What are you doing? paper is your cheapest resource. And that was great writing advice. I started just like writing all over the front and backs of pages. When I'm writing dialogue. Now, I just fill pages. And then I go back and circle the one sentence, that's really good. And that becomes the seed of a seed. But you have to unfetter yourself and just start writing words that will move you forward.

Alex Ferrari 1:12:35
I'm in the middle of writing my my next book, and I'm telling you it like it took me a minute to just get that engine, the sludge had to come out a bit and then and now I'm starting to feel the flow like okay, now I can now I'm just like, like it's just flowing very, very easily. But it takes a minute to get that. That that thing to come out of you. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It really is.

Chris Riley 1:13:01
Yeah. And if you work I another trick is work on it every day. Because then you're excited to get back to the project. Because you had to stop, you got interrupted and you had that other thing that you wanted to get down. And that gets you started. It gets you through that. There's always a barrier at the beginning of every writing session for me. And yet, if I'm doing it every day, I'm going to sleep thinking about it, I then wake up with a solution or an idea. And so there's that effortless than start sometimes because it's like, oh, I had to write that idea down. And now I have another idea. And now I'm going yeah, if you start from a dead stop, it's like starting a freight train. takes a lot of energy to get that thing moving. So even if it's 30 minutes a day, an hour a day, you will make progress. You can write a feature in a year by putting in an hour a day. I wrote I used to ride the train to Warner Brothers who ride the shuttle from the studio to the Burbank Metrolink station. I that first screenplay that Kathy and I sold much of that was written while I was on jury duty sitting on a Metrolink train sitting at a train station, the train one time pulled into the station while I was writing pulled out of the station. And I was so absorbed in the writing I never even I don't know, was four feet away from me.

Alex Ferrari 1:14:37
And I don't know about the about you but now that the engines off and that train is going in the right in this writing process that I'm going through my impatience to get the damn baby birth. Like I want it out of me. I just want that first draft done because the rewriting process for me is a lot more honestly it's more fun because then I know I'm closer to the end and it's a lot easier to cook one Then once the food is on the table, it's just getting that food on the table. The raw materials out again, I just want like, I can't type fast enough. And it's that's my frustration right now.

Chris Riley 1:15:10
Yeah, if we were sculptors, we would have rock, right. But yeah, as writers, we have to make the rock before we can sculpt it and ready. Making the rock, that raw material you talk about that's, that's hard work. And it's scary work because it's coming. It's like it's coming out of nothing. And that, I don't know if I can do it. Once I've got that first draft, at least I know. I got from here to there. Now I can go back and and tweak and cheat and then throw another piece of slab of rock on and chisel that piece off. But there's something there to work with is the creative. That's very I've never thought about that way. But writers we we actually are creating our raw material to actually go back and chisel away and add and tweak. But the adding and tweaking and chisel is a lot easier than going out to the to the mountain side. Cutting off a big slab carrying it back with you is the equivalent of what we do as writers. It is and that phase of the work makes my brain especially tired.

Alex Ferrari 1:16:15
I'm exhausted just thinking about it. Well, Chris, thank you so much for being on the show. I'm gonna ask you a few questions. I asked all of my guests. And by the way, there is so much more to formatting in your book. Like there's just so much more information about it. But I think we covered a lot of, you know, great little tidbits to get people started on the process. But if you definitely want to know more about formatting his book is the the authority on formatting without question. Now what are three screenplays every screenwriter should read?

Chris Riley 1:16:51
Ah, well, I think Chinatown because it has the reputation as being maybe the greatest screenplay ever. I don't want to I guess I'll stay in that Classic Mode. The Godfather is wondering one

Alex Ferrari 1:17:09
or two sir one or two.

Chris Riley 1:17:11
I'm partial to one.

Alex Ferrari 1:17:13
Okay. Okay.

Chris Riley 1:17:16
I think my wife may prefer to. And then Boy, you know, Shane, black blacks. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is wonderful. The brothers bloom is wonderful. Room is wonderful. Not the room. But that room. Room is wonderful. I'm I'm a melancholy drama kind of sucker. I like things that make me cry. So you know, something from from that area. One of my favorite films is in America. Yeah, I remember that. I was so disappointed by the screenplay. It's almost unreadable. It's so dense with with words. So I don't recommend that script. I absolutely recommend that movie.

Alex Ferrari 1:18:10
Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Chris Riley 1:18:15
Oh, be honest. Be honest about the characters. I think I spent a lot of time hiding. I think I was taught very, very early. Nobody will love you if they know the truth about you.

Alex Ferrari 1:18:30
Yes. Yes.

Chris Riley 1:18:34
That's not helpful for storytelling. And so I would get notes from producers like your, your characters seem really well adjusted. It's like they've already been through therapy. Can we like dirty them up a little bit? And I had to, I had to recognize that Oh, yeah. People are going to relate to the characters more, if they are flawed, if they're broken, if they're hurting, just like the rest of us. And when I used to speak or teach, my wife would say, you know, all the stories you tell are like the heroic stories about you. Why don't you tell the stories where you like messed up. People will like you better if they if you don't pretend like you're perfect. took me a long time to risk that because I had this lied, built into my operating system. But if people don't think I'm perfect, they won't want to have anything to do to me. And it was actually a guy I was seeing for counseling. He said, Chris, if they're your friends, they already know. And I thought, Oh, of course. And that was incredibly freeing, but it allows me to bring more of my own struggle to my stories and and so you get characters who are relatable, and it allows me to bring more of myself. To the people,

Alex Ferrari 1:20:01
I love. And would you agree that authenticity, and truth is what is needed, and what makes you stand out that is your secret sauce that nobody else actually has in your writing. And that's where a lot of writers hide from. They don't want to open themselves up. They don't want to put that on the page because it exposes them. But when you are able to release that, that's the stuff that makes you who you are, and makes you stand out, right?

Chris Riley 1:20:29
It absolutely does. And I've, since I've started,

Alex Ferrari 1:20:35
You can't stop now.

Chris Riley 1:20:37
I, you know, I've sat with a director, who said, Well, what do you think the theme of this is? And my first reaction is, well, I'm not telling you the theme, because I'm afraid, you'll think it's corny or your take it out. But I told him the theme, and he said, Yeah, I think that's what it is to and I think that's really beautiful. That's what I want to do. Wow, then I wasn't hiding the cards from him. We really were collaborators. I was with a producer who, you know, we were talking about, what do we think the theme of this TV series is. And he said, let me play you this song from this Broadway musical that I just really love. And it really moves me. And we sat listening to this, and he was almost in tears. And I thought, Oh, if I can understand what that's revealing about my producer, and put that into the script. Now, we were really together, His heart is in this, my heart is in this and we found a way to to find common ground. So I pay attention to those things, I hope, when my collaborators share with me, and then I'm trying to take more risks in revealing who I really am. And I do think that that's what the audience wants. It's what drew me to movies in the first place I was seeing behind the facade of characters and recognizing, oh, you look like you have it together, but you are hurting as much as I am. You are just as has fumbling and trying to do the best you can, as I am. That is just so relieving to know I'm not the only one and I really want to offer that in my work to my readers and to film audiences. And where can people find out more about you and the work that you're doing? I let's see I don't have a huge social media presence. I'm so I don't have a website to send send you to

Alex Ferrari 1:22:42
So then just on Amazon by the Hollywood standard.

Chris Riley 1:22:46
Yeah, by the Hollywood standard. There's a little blurb in the back about what I do. I I teach screenwriting I, I write screenwriting books, and I write movies and tv

Alex Ferrari 1:23:00
I'll put I'll put your IMDb link and a link to the book in the show notes, Chris. So thank you. Thank you so much for being on the show. It has been a pleasure having you and and thank you for dropping these amazing knowledge bombs on the tribe today. So thanks again, my friend.

Chris Riley 1:23:15
Hey, it's been a delight. Thanks, Alex.

Alex Ferrari 1:23:19
I want to thank Chris so much for coming on the show and sharing his formatting knowledge with the tribe today. Thank you so much, Chris. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including links to his book, The Hollywood standard, please head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/095. And if you want to go into a deeper dive into formatting, you should check out ifH Academy's foundations of screenwriting formatting course. And you can check that out at IFHacademy.com. And currently is on Black Friday sale for just 27 bucks. So head over to if h academy.com. Thank you so much for listening, guys. Happy turkey day, have a great and safe holiday. As always keep on writing no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.


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