Paul Chitlik is a screenwriter, producer and director who has written for all the major networks and studios in the United States. He has participated in projects like The New Twilight Zone, Perfect Strangers, Los Beltrán or Alien Abduction, among others. He has also taught screenwriting at different universities around the world, and has written the book Rewrite: A Step by Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in your Screenplay, published by Michael Weise Books. We have talked about it in this interview.
What is the premise of a film? Why is it important?
What I call the premise of the film is the basic idea the writer is trying to get across. Some people call it the theme or the central idea. I use the word premise because that’s what Lajos Egri uses in his seminal book “The Art of Dramatic Writing.” And example would be “True love conquers all, even death,” which would be the premise of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” Writers want to change the world. It’s one of the reasons we write. Putting our ideas into our movies gives us a way to help change people’s minds, so long as the film still entertains. We want to enlighten, spread ideas, make people think.
In your book you defend a three-act structure with seven points or parts for the ideal script. Could you explain these points?
Briefly, the seven points are a way to describe the structure of Hollywood films, not necessarily indie films or films from other cultures. Based on Aristotle’s description of three act plays, it simplifies story structure.
Point one, the ordinary life of the central character wherein we meet him or her, learn his flaw, see his situation, understand his need for change.
Point two, the inciting incident, where something happens to the character – he loses his job, his wife leaves him, aliens land – and he will have to respond to it eventually.
Point three, the end of act one where the character decides on a goal and a plan of action.
Point four, after pursuing his initial goal in the first part of act two, the protagonist is affected by something from the outside again that will cause him to re-evaluate his goal and himself, so that he now pursues a different, deeper goal (a need) and tries to change his flaw.
Point five, the low point, where it looks like the protagonist is never going to reach his goal.
Point six, the final challenge. After a “dark night of the soul” period, something happens to the protagonist that makes him want to go after his goal with renewed interest and strength, so he prepares himself to face the antagonist and defeats him.
Point seven is the return to the now changed forever normal life.
There are other things to keep in mind, but this is the basic, basic structure of a Hollywood movie.
Why do you think that this structure is so successful?
This structure, more or less, has worked in Western societies for 2,500 years. It was adopted early on by Hollywood filmmakers and has now become so familiar that audiences expect it and are disappointed when they don’t see it, even if they don’t recognize it consciously. It satisfies something in the human soul to see a person face barriers to a goal and eventually meet it. That’s why conflict is so important in screenplays. Without conflict, there is no story.
Even if this way of telling a story is very common, especially in Hollywood, there are fictions that do not respond to it. Some people could think that following these points means a lack of freedom for the writer.
It is not the only way to structure a story. As Joseph Campbell describes it in “A Hero with a Thousand Faces,” there is a mythic structure that works well in film, especially in quest movies. But this is the most successful form. Does it mean lack of freedom for a writer? No more than designing a car with four wheels, an engine, a steering wheel, a transmission, and brakes is for a car company – you can have a VW Beetle or a Maserati Quattroporte or a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari. They’re all very different. There is no limit to the imagination, there are only guidelines. If you go outside of those tested guidelines you may find something valuable – a three wheeled practical vehicle as is seen in many countries – or you may not. Ever ridden in a five wheeled car?
“Movies begin with character”. Why?
People go to movies to see people. We want to like or be fascinated by a character and follow his or her journey. It takes us out of our own lives on one hand, and puts us into another person’s life. On the other hand, we think of how what that person is going through is similar to something in our own lives. This gives us an emotional tie to the movie.
What makes a character interesting?
The flaw. If a character is perfect, he or she is not interesting. If a character has a “growth area,” like we all do, then he or she is real and real is interesting.
The antagonist is, in your opinion, the second most important person in a film. What movie character do you consider to be a good antagonist?
The character of Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” was a well rounded and complex character with a human side. So, too, coincidentally named, was Col. Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds.” Both were fascinating. Both were a little bit smarter and a little bit tougher than their protagonists, but we cheered when they were defeated in supreme efforts.
The title of your book is Rewrite. How important is the process of rewriting in your work?
No one writes a perfect first draft, not even (especially not) me. Rewriting is the process of truly finding the core of the story and the full depth of the characters.
What are the main difficulties that new scriptwriters have to face? What would be your advice for them?
New writers try to write for the market instead of what truly is important to them. They should write a story that they would want to see. They should not throw away a hundred years of film tradition by trying to find a new way of telling a story until they fully dominate that structure and character in a traditional script. Then they can experiment. New writers also frequently have discipline problems. They should set aside a set time of day, at least five days a week, to write in a place where they won’t be disturbed. Even if they only write a page a day, at the end of three months they will have a script. Finishing is important. Until you finish a script, you are not a writer.
Could you name a couple of exemplary scripts that could be an inspiration for writers?
I think “Shakespeare in Love” is a terrific screenplay. I loved “Moonlight Kingdom” even though it was wildly quirky. One of my favorites is “Ground Hog Day,” though it seems unorthodox in structure, it really follows the format. See “Argo.” See “Godfather, Part II,” for a good example of a protagonist who is unlikeable but fascinating.
Once the script is written, how is the process of making it into a film?
That depends on many things. It could go through a studio process, in which the director and development executives will guide you through rewrites (some of which you will object to), or you could go indie and make it yourself. For the first film, that’s what I would do after making sure the script was as good as I could make it. Read “Rewrite,” for how to do that.
(Published originally in Spanish in Revista de Letras)