Welcome to week five of AFF at Home! For those of you just joining us – AFF at Home is Austin Film Festival’s way of promoting a sense of community, engagement, and creativity even in a time of distance and restrictions. Each week we’ll guide you through content and stories in hopes to inspire and motivate you to take your next creative step.
This week we’re focusing on writing action and description. We’ll explore how to write effective action that elevates your story, the importance of tension and pacing, and writing description that jumps off the page. Check out this week’s five actions. We encourage you to go at your own pace and keep us updated on Twitter using #AFFatHome.
– Colin Hyer, Creative Director
We want to hear from you!
Viewer Testimonial: “As the social distancing started, I realized that the quarantine would be a perfect opportunity to focus on writing, and I could think of it more like a ‘writer’s retreat.’ AFF at Home helps provide that community feeling and helps me keep myself accountable.”
Let us know what you think! What do you like? What additional resources can we provide to support you on your writing journey?
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Action & Description
Action drives your story forward but as the most visual component of your script it can be a daunting task to put into words. This panel from 2019’s Austin Film Festival features screenwriters Oren Uziel (writer Shimmer Lake, 22 Jump Street), Alex Tse (writer Wu Tang: An American Saga, Watchmen, Superfly), and Emily Carmichael (writer Jurassic World 3) for a conversation on writing action and description and how to write scenes that translate seamlessly from script to screen.
- Writing Action/Suspense (2005) featuring Shane Black (Last Action Hero), Howard Gordon (24), Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), Barry Josephson (Josephson Entertainment)
- On Writing: Action/Adventure (2004) featuring John August (Big Fish), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), Michael Brandt (Chicago Fire), Barry Josephson (Josephson Entertainment)
- The Craft Room Continues with….Craft Session #5 – Description Writing Pt. 1 (1999) featuring Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs)
- The Craft Room Continues with….Craft Session #5- Description Writing Pt. 2 (1999) featuring Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs)
CONNECT WITH US
How will you apply this advice on writing action to your work this week? Tell us on Twitter using #AFFatHome or in the forum below.
Q&A with Jeb Stuart
How do you write effective action that elevates your story? Ask the celebrated screenwriter behind action classics, Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive)! Submit your questions here or on Twitter using #AFFatHome by Thursday 4/23 by 11:59pm and we’ll publish his selected responses here on Monday 4/27.
MORE ABOUT JEB STUART
Jeb Stuart has been a motion picture and television screenwriter, director and producer for over 30 years, and is widely considered one of the great action screenwriters in film history. His first movie, Die Hard was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and voted the Best Action Film of All Time by Entertainment Weekly (2007). In a 2012 New York Times Magazine article, Adam Sternbergh wrote: “as a genre, the American action film…produced one bone fide masterpiece, Die Hard.” In 1993, Stuart’s suspense thriller, The Fugitive, was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
During his career he has worked on over 50 feature and television projects, which have collectively grossed over $2.5 billion dollars worldwide.
Presently, he is the creator and showrunner of two Netflix Original series, The Liberator, a World War Two drama slated for release in the fall of 2020, and Vikings: Valhalla which is currently in pre-production in Ireland.
Stuart is a WGA Best Screenplay Nominee as well as a two-time Edgar Allen Poe Nominee for best movie screenplay. He has received recognition for his writing from the American Film Institute and is a recipient of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship, administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which he has been a member for over 25 years.
Stuart received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.A. in Communications from Stanford University. He is a former member of the graduate faculty at Northwestern University, where he taught in the Writing for Stage and Screen Program.
Was your question answered? Check out the full Q&A with Jeb Stuart.
Check out more of our Q&A’s from previous weeks:
- Q&A with Wendy Calhoun (writer/producer Nashville, Justified, Empire) from Week 1 of AFF at Home: Sparking Your Story
- Q&A with Brian Helgeland (writer/director A Knights Tale, L.A. Confidential) from Week 2 of AFF at Home: Character
- Q&A with Amy Talkington (writer/director Little Fires Everywhere) from Week 3 of of AFF at Home: Dialogue
- Virtual Q&A with Chris Sparling (writer Buried) from Week 4 of AFF at Home: Setting
Student Screenwriting Corner
When writing their first script, students often struggle with the inherent difference between writing a short story and a short screenplay. Unlike a narrative, everything that happens in a screenplay must have a visual representation. When writing your script’s action and description, imagine your movie playing on the screen and write exactly what you would see. Remember to always use the present tense!
A great way to practice writing action and description is to take a passage and turn it into a script! Check out the attached handout “Creating a Visual Story” from our Digital Storytelling Lesson 7: Writing Action. Then, watch Lucas Martell’s Pigeon Impossible for a great example of an action-packed short!
ON STORY SHORTS: PIGEON IMPOSSIBLE
“The constant refrain around AFF is the mirror-shattering trumpeting of writing and storytelling. Through AFF at Home we intend to showcase every extension of what Austin Film Festival aims to champion in its community, including our vaunted film competition alumni. We are delighted to represent the legacy of our alumni base through the WATCH section of the AFF at Home campaign; by curating incredible titles that are now available to stream in your living room, shower, wherever. Come join us in celebrating some festival competition favorites, and marquee film titles from our Writers Conference heavyweights.”
-Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
AFF FEATURE Now Streaming Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Love of the action film has been something I’ve held onto with death grip intensity since my dad introduced me to Will Smith & Martin Lawrence taking on Miami’s more nefarious characters in the original Bad Boys. Die Hard, The Fugitive, Romeo Must Die, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (I get it, we all have feelings about the third one, but let it go); let’s just say I’m an action junkie through and through. Engaging, heart-racing moments of excitement, and edge of your seat entertainment are all tenants that uphold this storytelling device and expounded genre of film. We didn’t have to dig too deep to find something rather explosive and exciting from our film alumni for this week’s AFF at Home dive into Action & Description. There was a film in particular that’s come through the pipeline which was audacious, and rambunctious enough to stick with me long after the credits rolled. AFF 24 selection KAFOU was a fervent reminder not only of the immediacy and importance of action, but also how that directly impacts the audience’s perception of our characters and the worldview they inhabit. Fever pitch chase scenes involving conflicted parties through the streets of Haiti, and entanglements with corrupt officers and city officials all support this idea. In something that can only be described as a tightly structured roller coaster ride, coming in just short of an hour, KAFOU utilizes action in enthralling ways with a consistent eye towards the most compelling narrative outcome. Friends and AFF alum Jasmuel Andri, Bruno Mourral, and Gilbert Mirambeau Jr., are the writing team behind this measured tale. We’re delighted to welcome them back to share some insights on their process of weaving action into the narrative, and how they pulled off such an achievement.
– Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
WRITERS JASMUEL ANDRI, BRUNO MOURRAL, GILBERT MIRAMBEAU DISCUSS KAFOU
While we’re here to glean some insight about action & description with regards to KAFOU, I’m curious how you all are coping with the global pandemic and still being engaging storytellers?
We were in the middle of shooting our next film “Malatchong” when COVID19 hit, forcing us to stop. Despite being stuck at home we took advantage of the confinement to continue working (remotely) to develop two project ideas that had been in the pipeline: a biopic series and a feature-length dramatic comedy. Unlike other screenwriters, we are 3 writers and work as a team, which helps to keep us motivated. Furthermore, we have given ourselves a work schedule to make our meetings formal and more efficient.
This week’s AFF at Home topic is action & description. To dive right in, what decisions went into crafting the opening scene from both a script development and production standpoint?
The first scene was conceived to primarily develop our characters. It allowed us to deepen the audience’s insight on their origins, relationships and objectives while also commenting on our country’s colour and class relationships. We chose a scene that mostly evolves through dialogue, giving time for the characters to express themselves. The evolution is slow for an opening scene, but it’s a risk we wanted to take and we own. Also, with everything happening in one location with 3 characters, production wise we managed with little means to set up the dark and tense atmosphere of the film.
While the film just stands under an hour long, it’s stuffed with many impactful decisions which develop into intense actions for our protagonists. What prompted those plot points to stand out for you all?
The development of the two protagonists in a short time frame, less than 12 hours, greatly influenced the construction of our plot. We had to understand who these two characters were very quickly and the dramatic incidents were a way for us to not only test them and accelerate their evolution, but above all to force them to reveal the different aspects of their respective personalities. It’s a kind of high-speed training day. The actions are well illustrated, because we are in the intimacy of these men, because without wanting to, we end up caring about their fates, and getting attached to them.
Everything in the film is so specific to its existence and purpose to the narrative, what were some core actions that you all felt defined the heart and soul of KAFOU?
Since the intro scene and throughout the whole film, the characters are faced with making a vital choice, they are always at a crossroads (hence the title – “Kafou” – meaning “crossroads” in Haitian Creole), on the edge of a cliff. It’s not about making the right choice, the blue or the red pill; it’s a matter of life or death.
Talk a bit about the scene where our protagonists come face to face with a certain entity at the tracks early in the film. Why did that feel so important to include and necessary to our protagonist’s journey?
This scene contains the inciting incident, this entity is literally their first obstacle and contrary to a classic narrative structure, it arrives a little late. This is a screenwriting choice to allow more time to introduce our characters. This scene defines the very nature of the film and especially its title. Indeed, this scene occurs at a crossroads, where our protagonists are faced with a choice. The definition of a crossroads is: the place where several roads meet. This place and this obstacle gives us the scenaristic possibility to put our protagonists before the decisive choice. Symbolically choosing one’s path. And according to their choice, their life will take one direction or another.
How did the plot progression and action evolve from the first draft to final script we saw encompass the produced final cut?
The trigger and the general plot were there from the first version and have hardly evolved. It’s more the characters that were developed more in depth; their goals becoming clearer. We also reinforced the conflicts so that the characters encounter more obstacles along the way. Thanks to a script consultant, an outside eye helped us eliminate anything that seemed unnecessary. In the end, the script was written in 4 months, which is quite fast compared to other projects we’ve written.
Was the structure of the film always meant to be so action driven?
Yes. The entire plot structure was decided beforehand. Kind of like a fatality to reinforce the idea of social determinism. However, these characters, two young men from an underprivileged background, made major choices even before the main action began. The idea is of course to constrain them as much as possible, leaving a fine margin for taking control of their respective destinies, as is often the case in reality. The two protagonists confined in a vehicle move forward together, towards an already predetermined point. The margin is indeed thin, but it is still there. When an obstacle emerges, the rest of the actions they undergo is only a consequence of their previous choices.
Last week we covered setting as part of AFF at Home, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on that with you all. The setting and place here defines so much of our character background, motivations, decisions, etc. Tell us a bit about the film’s setting and its importance to you for the narrative and scale of the project?
According to Haitian Voodoo, in addition to being a place where roads intersect, a crossroads is also where the world we know meets the invisible world. In Haiti, the crossroads is the place where believers of voodoo often leave an offering or a sacrifice for the Spirits (Lwa). It is very rare that a Haitian would cross a crossroads where an offering has been placed in the middle. Zoe’s character is imbued with the beliefs and superstitions of our country. This scene, on the other hand, also represents the spiritual and psychological sides of our protagonists. This explains the dilemma Zoe finds himself in when he comes face to face with a certain entity.
Speaking of scale, can you touch specifically on the final scene of the film which descends into absolute chaos for our protagonists and the journey they’ve embarked on? What were the conversations surrounding THAT action sequence and character moments?
Even before the film was written, we already knew that the film was going to end with a descent into chaos. The original project was a short film before becoming a 50 min film, so it was written and developed to end with a dreadful twist. Then the development of the final scene was quite easy since it is based on a true story. We took a story that really happened at the filming location and we staged it by re-enacting it with our characters.
Given the tight runtime on the film, I feel like there’s so much more you all may have captured. Were there any actions or moments that were left in the editing room that you all find yourselves looking back wishing it worked out? In other words, a darling you may have regretted killing off too soon?
Some scenes were shortened by cutting out gags that slowed the pace. These conversations or situations made us laugh a lot when we were writing the screenplay but during the editing process they were contrary to the heavy atmosphere that we were trying to establish throughout the film. The shooting script was 49 pages long so it was very close to our final cut. At the end of the editing, for marketing reasons, we considered going back to shooting to make a 1h30 feature film. But after much thought, we couldn’t find what we could add to extend the story. In the end, Kafou is an off-format, hybrid film combining several genres from beginning to end. This is a film in its own genre breaking all the conventional rules of Hollywood.
Set in Haiti, Doc, a calculated man desperate to save his sick mother, gets a job from an organized crime boss. Teaming up with Zoe, a man he barely knows, he’s put in charge of driving a car through the city under the cover of night to a drop off point. Here’s the catch: there’s something in the trunk, but they’re not allowed to open it. In the gritty streets of Port-Au-Prince, riddled with stray dogs and dirty cops, the two men frantically attempt to get the car to its destination in the face of unforeseen obstacles.
AFF Short Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Judas Collar (2018 Jury Award-winning Narrative Short)
What if you remove the dialogue? How is your story conveyed? AFF alum Alison James made the creative decision to shift her story to the perspective of a camel, relying solely on the action. In our alumni blog, Alison discusses how this shift further empowered her writing and filmmaking.
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On Story Movie Night Pick:
Screening with a postshow On Story conversation
A Quiet Place (2018)
How do you write action into a script? Look to a film with minimal dialogue. This week host a double-feature of A Quiet Place paired with our ON STORY episode with writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. In our interview you’ll learn how Scott and Bryan came up with the idea for a ‘modern day silent film’ and what tools they used to write a compelling visual story.
On Story: "A Quiet Place" writers on idea for film
Description of character, expressions, setting, and action usually make up at least three-fourths of the overall text in a script. Because of this, it’s often the primary aspect that can sustain or lose a reader’s interest. Too much description and it can feel like reading prose, too little and it might be difficult to understand what’s happening. Because scripts are blueprints for visual mediums, it’s critical that descriptions of anything visual is efficient and effective. This weekend, take three of the most action and description-heavy scenes from your script and see how strong the language is at sparking the right images you want to portray.
When focusing on these scenes, keep these questions in mind:
- Is there more information than needed? Is there not enough?
- How quickly can you visualize what’s happening?
- Are there more effective adjectives that can be used to tighten up sentences?
- If you’re looking at a scene with a lot of movement, do you lose track of who’s doing what? If so, try to identify the purpose of the overall scene in order to distill down the scene’s focus.
- What’s the energy of a scene supposed to feel like? Fast-paced, slow, meditative? Whatever the pacing, make sure your description reflects this. For example, if a lot of action is happening at once and fast, chop up your descriptive lines to reinforce this pace.
It can take a lot of refinement to get your description where it needs to be but stick with it because it’s one of the most important aspects of a script. If a producer is having trouble picturing what is happening, they’ll lose interest. After seeing how this exercise goes with three scenes see if there are others that might benefit from this practice.
– Sage Kosiorek, Script Competitions Director
Finished with your script?
Submit it for our competition!
AND – ACTION!
Writing action can be difficult. This week, you’ve learned from experts on how to use this visual component and put it into words. Die Hard writer, Jeb Stuart, shared some of his filmmaking secrets. Our movie night picks have illustrated how action (and even lack of dialogue) can move a story along. And our writing assignment has helped you pinpoint how to rev up the action & description throughout your screenplay.
So now we want to know – what’s your favorite action movie? How has it inspired your writing? Let us know using #AFFatHome or in the forum below.