Trashy Screenwriter Spotlight: John Waters

John Waters Screenwriter

Even if you love him, chances are you don't think of him as a screenwriter. It's more likely you think of him as a "filmmaker," or simply as John Waters--a personality too grand for a single job title.

In his book, Role Models, John Waters says he doesn't have hobbies. Hobbies? Please! He doesn't do something as a hobby; everything he does, he does all the way.

So the fact that John Waters happens to have written screenplays shouldn't be taken lightly. Despite his immaculate personality, his status as a culture icon, and his mustache, he is indeed a serious screenwriter.

Great screenwriters are very often great writers of prose, too. See: William Goldman. See also: Joan Didion. Same goes for John Waters, who has written a number of highly entertaining, witty, and even enlightening books. His prose is incredibly reader-friendly and personable, to the point where you even feel like you know the guy after just a few pages. Few writers can pull that off.

Our personal favorite: Carsick. But now, as for his screenplays...

The Pope of Trash as Screenwriter

John Waters Screenwriter Pink Flamingos

So begins the script for Pink Flamingos. And the weirdness doesn't let up. Just as with his books, his screenplays (even the weird ones) are surprisingly accessible and enjoyable to read.

It's not easy finding quality versions of his scripts online. If you find any, let us know! However, his works are available in paperback. You can pick up a used copy from Amazon for about $4. Not bad! We recommend these two:

We have Cry-Baby on our reading list. Looks like the best place to pick up a copy for this is eBay. Although it seems more appropriate to pick up a John Waters script in a dusty second-hand store. Anyone want to join us for a weekend John Waters screenplay scavenger hunt?

10 Screenplay Terms, Defined by Urban Dictionary

Action: Sexual activity. Hey, you get any action last night? 

Backstory: Euphemism for bootyGuy sees ass related fan service: "look at all that backstory."

Beat: A lame situation. Man, this party is beat! 

Dialogue: The conversations that you have with someone after you have known them FOREVER, and have absolutely NOTHING left to talk about. "Conversations" imply two way, thoughtful, communication. "Dialogue" could be spouted out by a parrot and be the same. 

flashbackWhen the person you've flashed has flashed you back, presumably in the same method in which you flashed him/her. I was just screwing around when I flashed her--but I never expected a flashback!

Hero: Someone who gets a lot of OTHER people killed. 

Montage: A video put on youtube showing off your "skills" on games. Usually people who make these vids just edit out all 300 other failed shots till they get the right one. Montagers also hate hitmarkers. Hate them.

Plot: What Twilight doesn’t have.

Scene: A culture made mostly of teenagers and is relatable to emo. It is a culture derived to reject the "norm."

Screen Play: Someone engaged in thumbing around the screen of their phone. Hillary laughed uproariously as she was lost in screen play.

Joan Didion - a Literary Celebrity as Screenwriter


Shout out to New Republic for their recent article, How Joan Didion Became the Ultimate Literary Celebrity. There was only one problem with the article: the word "screenwriting" only appeared once in passing. No overview of Didion's career as a writer is complete without paying proper respects to the five screenplays she co-wrote.

Joan Didion started writing screenplays relatively early in her career as a novelist. In 1971, she was 37 when her screenplay The Panic in Needle Park came out as an award-winning film starring young Al Pacino.

As with her other scripts, Needle Park was co-written by her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Together, Didion and Dunne fit within a rather high-brow class of screenwriters. While many of the screenwriter ilk came from a world of standup comedy or low-budget film production, Didion and Dunne come from a the world of academia and top-tier literature.

Acknowledging Didion's literary background isn't necessarily a complement--not in terms of screenwriting cred. Usually when a prestigious author delves into writing scripts, the outcome is less than amazing (sorry, Steinbeck; sorry Dave Eggers!).

Joan Didion hasn't exactly had the greatest success with her scripts, either. Her success as a screenwriter obviously hasn't compared to her accomplishments as a novelist and essayist. But Didion's scripts have contributed to some quality films. As with her novels, the films she's contributed to are richly human, culturally relevant, and "literary" in nature.

...If only we could read her actual scripts! We seem to have failed to find any of her scripts online. There are a few clues suggesting that some of her scripts have appeared in print at some time or another. But we haven't been able to locate print copies, either. If anyone out there knows where we can find a copy of a Joan Didion screenplay, let us know! Until then, we can still watch the films:


Should You Pay for a Script Consultant?

Should You Pay for a Script Consultant

The short answer is no, you shouldn't. Or, if you do, don't expect to get your money's worth.

This may sound overly skeptical, but it's unlikely that the advice you receive from a script consultant will be worth the price. If you want to improve your screenplay as best as possible, there are far cheaper alternatives.

Paying upwards of $300 for someone's advice is fundamentally a little desperate, even if you have the money. It's true that using a script consultant will be a good learning experience. A least, for example, you'll learn how easy it is to be ripped off bypeople claiming to help you write better.

Consider for a moment the ever-growing industry that hopes to profit off would-be screenwriters. Even the best intentioned script consultants secretly laugh all the way to the bank as they provide generally obvious advice to eager novices.

Before you fork over a bunch of money to a script consultant, werecommended that you first:

Fix Your Script Yourself

Be your own best editor by putting the time in. Write a number of scripts (say, at least five), and edit each one as if someone were paying you $300 to do it.

Anecdote: A friend of mine worked for several years at Apple's in-store help desk. Most of his customers were middle-aged women who were educated and intelligent, albeit not terribly tech-savvy. After determining the nature of the problem, my friend would ask, "What would you do to fix this?" They would respond "I don't know," but he would push them to do the thing they thought most logical.

Nine times out of ten, they would end up fixing the problem themselves when forced to take some action. This is to say, they knew the answer all along, they were just too hesitant to take the corrective action because they didn't consider themselves to be "experts."

Take this to heart when editing your screenplay. Sure, an expert could help you fix your third act issue, but I'd be willing to bet that you already know the answer yourself. After all, you've already trained for this moment by watching countless films and probably even by reading Robert McKee's Story or other screenwriting books.

Cheaper, Better Alternatives to Script Consultants

If you need outside advice from somewhat non-partial people:

1. Join a screenwriting Meetup group. If you live in a big city, you can probably find one. If you can't find a Meetup group in your area, start one. From my experience, random people at screenwriter Meetups are more than happy to tear a script to pieces, even more brutally and expertly than high-priced consultants.

2. Sign up for a screenplay workshop or a class at a local college. Screenplay workshops often cost a decent amount of money, but, unlike consultants, they're worth the cost. Rather than being handed down notes from a single person, you'll receive feedback and support from a number of peers and also an instructor of some kind. These exist even outside LA. For example, in San Francisco, a quality screenwriting workshop is hosted at The Grotto.

3. Find low-cost script analysis services. By searching around online, you'll find a number of alternatives to high-priced consultants. For example, by screenwriter Ashley Scott Meyers offers a script analysis service starting at only $67 bucks per script (or less, if you sign up for having three scripts analyzed).

If you still decide you'd like advice from a full-priced industry consultant, proceed with caution. Start out by listening the the consultant's podcast (see: Best Screenwriting Podcasts). If the consultant has written a book, check that out, too. If you decide you that don't share similar aesthetic values with the consultant, then you probably won't fully appreciate--or grow from--their advice.

Irrational Man: 3 Screenwriting Tips from Woody Allen’s Flop

Woody Allen’s Irrational Man hasn’t gone over terribly well. If the actors were to blame, that would be one thing. In this case, it seems to be the script.

Really godawful screenplays can be educational, but they’re especially enlightening when they’re written by Woody Allen. Here are three takeaways from Irrational Man:

1. Don't have the story narrated by a character who's supposed to be in danger. As noted by Mick LaSalle at SF Gate, the fact that Abe (Juaquine Phoenix) partly narrates the film ruins any suspense when the character faces possibly deadly scenarios.

This criticism isn't entirely valid. It’s like saying that novels written in the first person inherently can’t be suspenseful. Everyone knows the hero makes it out alive, for books and movies, whether or not the hero narrates.

But the criticism can be taken as a reinforcement of Robert McKee’s advice: don’t use a narrator unless absolutely necessary. And even in that case, only use one if it actually adds a new dynamic to the story (see, for example, the genius narration in The Big Lebowski).

2. If a character is supposed to be brilliant, make him brilliant. The long-winded exposition in Irrational Man promises that Abe is a brilliant philosophy professor. And yet, the character never proves himself. This isn’t simply a disappointing element of the film, it demonstrates a shortcoming in the script. Out of all the screenwriters out there, Woody Allen might actually have the ability to create a truly brilliant character. Did Abe disappoint as a character out of sheer laziness on Allen’s part?

3. Clichés are always a fatal flaw, even if you’re Woody Allen. Good luck counting all the clichés in Irrational Man—there are a lot of them. Here are a few: A burnt out philosophy professor (1) who is going through a midlife crises (2); a young, hot student who’s excellent at the piano (3, 4, 5); the professor falls in love with the young student (6) and learns/grows from her (7); seemingly intellectual exposition that really only amounts to banal existentialism (8), etc.

There’s a fine line between using archetypes as narrative device vs. using clichés as a result of a fundamental lack of imagination or originality. Sometimes even the most obvious clichés can work beautifully if they’re used ironically or as a parody. That’s not the case in Irrational Man.

One final takeaway, this one for Woody Allen: People are still weirded out about your taboo relationships with women. Maybe for your next movie, just stick to platonic love. That way, no one will have to think too hard about your inspiration for the story.

Read the screenplay!

Review of Judd Apatow's Book "Sick in the Head"

When was the last time you read a book clocking in at 512 pages? Isn't that a bit much to ask of us, Judd?

Maybe not! On the shelf, the book, is, yes, a monster. But once you get your eyes into the pages, you'll quickly find the monster is surprisingly reader-friendly, skimmer-friendly, and even casual-browser-friendly.

So, what is this thing? It's a collection of hilarious conversations with comedians. Maybe you'll recognize a few names: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Lena Dunham, Louis C.K, Mel Brooks...

And of course, there's the bonus of Judd Apatow himself, who offers an intimate glimpse into his life from page one. The much-loved comedy screenwriter (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express) is not only funny, but also not a little sick in the head. This fact, he explains, is one trait that all comedians seem to have in common.

Despite the seemingly ordered collection of interviews, Judd encourages readers to begin wherever, or to simply open the book at random and start there: the order doesn't really matter. This isn't exactly high art, he's the first to admit. In a recent NRP interview, he explained that it's more like something you may enjoy having by your side in the bathroom.

Official book review from Will Ferrell: “Anyone even remotely interested in comedy or humanity should own this book. It is hilarious and informative and it contains insightful interviews with the greatest comics, comedians, and comediennes of our time. My representatives assure me I will appear in a future edition.”

Judd Apatow is also the editor of the humor collection "I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All" (McSweeney's, 2010).

Finding Screenplays Online

how to find screenplay online

How do you find screenplays online? A quick Google search will usually pull up almost anything you’re looking for. You may have a hard time finding scripts for new movies or lesser-known movie scripts, but otherwise there's a good chance you'll find some version of the screenplay you're after.

Keep in mind that you won't always find the final shooting scripts. Usually it'll be pretty obvious what version you're looking at, since the first page will say "first draft," etc. If there are numbers along the side, then that's probably the shooting script.

Online Databases

There are quite a few online screenplay databases, although some aren't updated very often. is unique in that it organizes scripts by specific categories, rather than simply by alphabetical order. Here are three quality databases that are easy to browse:

Finding Unproduced Gems Online

If you have a favorite screenwriter, you can sometimes get lucky and find one of their unproduced screenplays online. These can be entertaining and also educational.

Even the best screenwriters sometimes write total flops, but if the script ended up on the Internet, there’s a good chance it probably has at least some merit.

For example, David Lynch's website has these two unproductive screenplays online: One Saliva Bubble and Ronnie Rocket. If you're a David Lynch fan, these are definitely worth checking out!

Essential Books on Screenwriting

If you're serious about writing screenplays, the best book for you is the one that gives you inspiration rather than fear or some other negative reaction. It’s possible you’ll pick up Story and think, “So much for screenwriting! I’m going back to writing free form poetry!”

It's good to find your own favorite screenwriting book, but it's probably a good idea to read or at least skim through them all. There are nuggets of wisdom each of these:

1. SCREENPLAY: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. This book isn't exactly cutting edge, but it's solid. You may not be enlightened by Syd Field's classic, but you won't be disappointed, either. If you've written screenplays for a while, you probably already own this.


2. STORY by Robert McKee. If you don't want to spend thousands of dollars attending the famous McKee conference, pick up his book. Although a little dry and perhaps unnecessarily detailed, it offers such a wealth of info that it's easily worth the price.


3. CREATING BLOCKBUSTERS! by Gene Del Vecchio. Although this isn't a standard classic for screenwriters, it offers a perspective that is rarely addressed. Namely: it helps you develop story ideas that are genuinely marketable -- and it does this without completely devaluing the fact that stories are important cultural artifacts (works of art).


4. THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING by Lajos Egri. While focusing on the construction of plays, this highly regarded book is valuable to all types of storytellers, including screenwriters. If you've ever taken any screenwriting classes workshops, you'll know that this is a favorite among teachers.


5. THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell. Want something a little more academic? This is it. This book has probably had more cultural impact than all the other screenwriting books put together. In fact, it's the basis for many of the others. It's a bit dense but highly recommended.


6. SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. If you've heard of only one screenwriting book, this is probably it. Some people swear by it; others hate it. I'd say it's a little overrated and the thrust of the book has been so widely disseminated that's it's almost unnecessary to read. Then again, there are those who swear by it...


7. WRITING MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT by Thomas Lennon & Robert Garrant. The title and cover image say a lot about this book: it's a bit over the top. It's also surprisingly well written and includes a bunch of common sense hints and tips that I haven't seen anywhere else. If you just slogged through Joseph Campbell's writing, this light-reading masterpiece may be just want you need to read next to cure your aching and overloaded head.

Best Screenwriting Podcasts

Listen to the best podcasts on screenwriting

Books on screenwriting can be amazingly useful, but they have an obvious disadvantage: you have to read them. Although reading is great, you can’t do it all the time. As it turns out, the worst times for reading are often the best times for listening to podcasts. For example: while driving! Or while watching the clock at your mind-numbing day job!

Listed in no particular order, here are some of the best podcasts for screenwriters, filmmakers, and storytellers:

On the Page Podcast with Pilar Alessandra: A seasoned script consultant and educator, Pilar Alessandra holds a wealth of knowledge about the craft of screenwriting. On her podcast, she interviews screenwriters, executives, and producers. Free on iTunes. Highly recommended!


Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin: One of the best-known podcasts on screenwriting, Scriptnotes features lively interviews that don’t shy away from telling “hard truths” that all up-and-coming screenwriters must face.


Selling Your Screenplay Podcast: Hosted by screenwriter and blogger Ashley Scott Meyers, this podcast focuses on providing insights on marketing scripts to producers. One of the most personable podcast hosts on the Internet, Ashley leads informative interviews of both established and steadily-climbing filmmakers and screenwriters.


Writers' Bloc with J.R. Havlan: An entertaining and smart podcast, Writers' Bloc features some of the most amusing side-banter while offering highly informative content. The focus is generally on comedy writing.


The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Charismatic journalist and cinephile Jeff Goldsmith hosts interviews with a wide range of professionals in the film industry.



Indie Film Academy Podcast: Just so you don’t forget that writing screenplays is really about making movies, check out the Indie Film Academy Podcast, which features content that covers all aspects of the filmmaking process.


The Only Award Show That Matters

Apacolypse Now Film

If you happened to be at the Academy Awards and didn’t just win an Oscar for best screenplay, just remember: neither did John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now. They lost it to Kramer vs. Kramer, which seems a little strange in hindsight.

My guess is that any artist would give up all awards and honors in exchange for making a cultural impact. This is probably especially true for writers. If you're a writer, by definition you have something to say. If you have something to say that's actually meaningful or relevant, then people will listen and will respond. That's how you make a cultural impact.

Screenwriters typically begin new projects by struggling to develop a "high concept." High concepts are the money-makers. If you have the right sort of high concept, you can even pick up awards along with your round box office figures. But how does the pursuit for the high concept square with the artist's goal of making a cultural impact?

Sometimes the best high concepts are completely void of meaning or relevance. If the writer isn't coming from a place of meaning or relevance, then he ultimately doesn't have anything to say, even if he has a high concept.

If you look back through all the past Oscar winners for best screenplay, some of the films have stood the test of time but most haven't. Ultimately, the only award show that matters is the future.

If you haven't already, watch MILIUS, the documentary about the life and films of John Milius. His credits include writing or contributing to Apocalypse Now, Dilinger, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Big Wednesday, and Jaws. MILIUS if filled with lots of great quotes and reasons to be inspired as a writer or filmmaker. And then watch Kramer vs. Kramer while you're at it. Why not...?

Why BIRDMAN Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay

Everyone loves superheros. That's why a superhero movie will never win an Oscar--it's too obvious. The genius of Birdman is that it incorporates a superhero theme into a complex world rich with intellectual pretension.

Anyone who takes art seriously adores intellectual pretension. This is the stuff that wins Oscars. The problem with it, however, is that it can fail as entertainment. So: add superheros.

Did Birdman win just because of the subject matter? This sounds ridiculous, but it might be a fair observation. Obviously it won the Oscar in part because it was well executed. But let's be honest: it's a given that the script was well executed. Look who wrote it: very highly skilled experts in the craft: Alejandro G. Iñárritu and company. But these people aren't any better, necessarily than, say, Wes Anderson...

If you are among the elite in terms of screenwriting skills, this should be your primary goal: to combine the pop with the intellectually satisfying. It creates something huge. In music, it's called an anthem, and it's what Bob Dylan created again and again with his hyper-poetic yet amazingly relatable songs: Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower, Blowing in the Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, etc., etc. If you can do this--if you can create anthem after anthem--then you become Bob Dylan...or Francis Ford Coppola...or Birdman: a living legend.