Joel Barish runs the site SearchingForCharlieKaufman.wordpress.com, where he provides amazing analysis on professional screenplays. He also offers notes for a fee – they are a great deal, if anyone out there needs some help on a screenplays they are working on.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for taking the time to share your insight, Joel. To begin, how did you get into screenwriting and what has kept you going?
Joel Barish: About five years ago I happened to pick up a copy of Sling Blade in a used book store. I was hooked. The format made so much sense to me. Within the rules for screenwriting, I saw a perfect outlet for story. All the senses must be considered when writing a script. The story that results is visceral in a way other forms of writing are not. To me, scripts are like narrative poetry.
I am kept going by the search for a perfect script. Either in my own writing, or one I review.
JS: At what point did you go beyond simply writing, and get involved in blogs and other ways to improve your craft and help others?
JB: During the first two years of my [ongoing] apprenticeship, I contributed to six different peer review websites. I wrote over a hundred sets of notes during this time. I was getting five to ten requests for reads a week.
The intensity of the requests reached a point where I had to wonder if my abilities as a reviewer didn’t far exceed my abilities as a creative writer. Simultaneously, I realized how dissatisfied I was with all those peer review sites that were getting my participation. For the most part, they were joyless places to spend one’s time. Every script discussed was “not worth the read” for one reason or another. What is the point in continuing to visit a site if nothing anyone writes is ever worth your time?
In my opinion, a lot of the scripts I was reading from “amateurs” were better than the pro scripts I was getting from Carson over at Scriptshadow.
I decided the problem was no one wanted to risk saying an amateur script was exceptional because they were afraid of being wrong. My idea was to start a blog where the script would be reviewed based on its objective merits—not the author’s name and Hollywood pedigree.
Searching for Charlie Kaufman was born.
JS: For those of my readers that are not familiar with your site, searchingforcharliekaufman.wordpress.com, what is the site and what was your goal in establishing it?
JB: I want to do three things with my site:
- Bring objectivity to screenplay reviews.
- Uncover the techniques great writers use to produce great writing.
- Create an environment where writers can help other writers be successful.
Point one and point two I try to accomplish with the main page of the site. This is where all the script reviews and articles on screenwriting live. Point three has been my passion since I first became dissatisfied with all the negativity I found on Triggerstreet and the rest. Toward this end I have recently added a forums section to the blog where readers can upload scripts and trade reviews.
JS: In my early days of writing I came across your post on Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and I was hooked on your analysis. I was already hooked on the movie, of course, but now I understood why. How do you go about analyzing a screenplay? Do you have a system now that you have been doing it for so long?
JB: My system has evolved over the years and through the hundreds of reviews I’ve written. I’ve distilled the process to five questions which [I think] objectively measure the strengths of a script. These questions are:
- Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)
- Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
- Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)
- Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
- Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)
Subjectivity still enters into the analysis, especially in questions 2, 4, and 5, but the elements of a screenplay, in this model, fall into relief. You can’t use this template and end up giving useless criticism like, ‘the dialogue is wooden.’ Instead, you rate the amount of subtext, exposition, and individuation in the dialogue and give the author useful information about how to improve her script.
Question three does for structure what two does for dialogue. It breaks it into measurable parts so that an author can see where she lost you in her story. Instead of telling her she’s written an episodic narrative, you can tell her she hasn’t clarified her theme. [I’m convinced that a story with a muddy theme is, necessarily, episodic.]
I believe great screenplays score highly in all five of these questions. By using the same format over and over again, I am able to see similarities between the techniques great writers use to produce great writing. For instance, I’ve never reviewed a universally renowned script and found that it didn’t have a theme you could state in ten words or less. This led me to the conclusion that, if your goal is to write a universally renowned script, you have to start off being able to state your theme in ten words or less.
[Pinch Point is a term of my own coining which loosely translates to Snyder’s All is Lost moment.]
JS: Are there some favorites among the scripts you have read for your site? Has that changed over the years?
JB: Oh yes. I don’t even know if there is any point in ranking them numerically anymore. Here is a list of some of my favorite scripts:
- Eternal Sunshine
- Twelve Monkeys
- The Imitation Game
- Fight Club
- There Will Be Blood
- Eyes Wide Shut
- Blood Simple
- The Matrix
- No Country for Old Men
- Groundhog Day
- The Conversation
I just wrote that off the top of my head. You can see three [relatively] new scripts in there, so my list is always evolving.
I will say, however, that the script for Eternal Sunshine is the closest thing I’ve found to a perfect script. It is the reason I call my blog Searching for Charlie Kaufman. [I should also note that the script is far superior to the very good movie that was made from it. There are two subtle changes to the script that decreased its perfection when filmed.]
JS: Do a lot of the best screenplays share something in common?
JB: If I could have my reviewing self summarized to a single pithy statement, it would be the already mentioned observation about theme. I can always state the theme to a really good script in ten words or less within minutes of having read it. For instance my take on the theme of Eternal Sunshine:
You can’t erase true love.
JS: How does your system of analyzing screenplays change when you are giving notes on an amateur writer’s screenplay?
JB: I don’t change it.
I promise writers honest evaluations of the elements in their screenplays. I always tell them they can read a few of the entries filed under example coverage on my site if they are curious about what their review will look like.
I have given scores from 32 to 89 as a result of my private notes service, and have never had a single complaint. If I think a script has no subtext, I will rate that script accordingly.
I can tell you that every time I open a script, amateur or pro, I am hoping to find “Charlie Kaufman.” I will use whatever abilities I have as a reviewer to get an author as close to that standard as possible.
JS: Can you tell us more about your notes service? It looks like, according to your site, you are giving notes again? This is great news for everyone out there, as I can attest to the amazing quality of your notes.
JB: Thank you!
I charge 75 dollars for the service, and I can have the notes completed in a week or less. [If I were ever backlogged, I would put a note saying so on the ordering page.] I use the five questions listed above to give a script a score on a 100 point scale.
JS: You also had some very useful posts about subtext and other points to focus on as a screenwriter, and of course the topic of theme. Can you summarize your advice for the new writer on these topics?
JB: There are three tips I think are indispensable to every writer.
- Limit your exposition. It feels like you have to put details about the backstory of your characters and their actions into the dialogue to catch the reader up on the immediate story. In my experience, you don’t have to include this information. The reader will grasp the backstory from the immediate story.
- Realize that subtext is the only natural form of exposition. Instead of telling us a character’s backstory through dialogue-based exposition, have your characters talk to each other about things that are in the immediate story. But, mediate the intensity with which they talk to each other using YOUR knowledge of their backstory. This is the key to writing dialogue with subtext.
- Start with theme. I’ve already mentioned this several times, but the crucial ingredient in writing a cohesive, propulsive screenplay is finding a succinct theme. Simplistically, every story presents a problem that winds through a series of plot points to a resolution. When you start with theme, you guarantee that those plot points build on one another and surprise your reader.
JS: You had put together an awesome book on screenwriting. Is this still available? If so, where can our readers find it?
JB: You can access the book as a series of articles on my site. There are 25 articles altogether. It’s broken into three sections and covers most of the topics I’ve discussed above in much greater depth. I look forward to refining and adding to these ideas as I become a better critic.
JS: I hope it’s available to purchase someday, as I found it very useful and am sure others would as well. Aside from reading great scripts and websites such as yours that analyze scripts, what can an aspiring writer do to improve their craft? Do you recommend film school, conferences, books on craft, etc.?
JB: It depends on where you are in your apprenticeship. The books I would recommend for those just starting out are written by Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and Dave Trottier. These will give you a baseline understanding of what it means to write in our format. From there I would recommend Truby, Mckee, and maybe even Goldman. At least a glance through The Hero’s Journey also wouldn’t hurt.
Classes are great because they expose you to writers and filmmakers you might otherwise ignore.
Since my undergraduate degree is in philosophy, I can’t speak at length about the benefits of this route. I do think the biggest asset to the schools in LA, Austin, and New York, are the possible contacts you will make with other students.
No conference has attracted my attention long enough for me to attend one.
JS: Thank you again, Joel. Before we sign off, do you have one main piece of advice you can give to aspiring screenwriters? This can be a summary of points made above, or maybe something I forgot to ask about.
JB: What I would like to leave you with is an intuition about screenplays that I’ve not fully explored yet. [I sometimes think it will be the topic of my next book on the subject.]
I believe our medium is the perfect vehicle for examining the aesthetics of Story. Screenplays are complete in the same way a novel is complete, yet the heuristics employed by the format give them the weight [in time commitment] of a short story. Action unfolds in them in an active voice, present tense, way that mimics the visceral effects of poetry. Yet, the audience immediacy, and collective viewing they require, resembles the core components of a stage play.
In short, screenplays are THE SUMMATION of human activity with written words. I believe, in opposition to the “screenplay as blueprint” theorists, that screenplays are the highest form of writing man has yet invented.
Thank you for giving me the chance to share some of my thoughts!