Earlier today on Twitter I began soliciting screenwriting questions for THE BROKEN PROJECTOR’s new and blithely awesome Vomit Draft podcast companion (enjoy the utter subliminality of that shameless plug). And in doing so it occurred to me that, while I’ve been as clear as possible that I believe that There Are No Rules When It Comes To Screenwriting, I haven’t been entirely clear about the scope and parameters of what “there are no Rules when it comes to screenwriting” means.

Let’s back up for a second, define it a little better, and then examine why there are, indeed, some “Rules” that matter.

When we (professional/experienced screenwriters like myself and others who taught and/or agree with me) talk about there being No Rules in screenwriting, this is more of a philosophical statement that applies to how you should think about storytelling in the screenwriting medium. It’s a testament to the freedom you should feel to tell the tales you want to tell in exactly the way you want to tell them. To not feel as though you should have to compromise your art because of what you might believe The Rules are. It’s easy to track script sales and see three movies a weekend and read the screenplays that wind up on The Black List and talk yourself into the notion that there is a set of standards you should follow and a certain way you should compose your own work. And while that might be comforting in some ways, it’s also very dangerous in other ways. And at the end of the day, it’s total bullshit.

Wait! No, I’m doing it again. It’s not total bullshit. I mean, it is! Almost always. But in one way. And not in another way. For the most part.

Fuck me, this is complicated.

OK. Here’s exactly what I mean when I say the idea of The Rules is bullshit:

I mean that you do NOT have to write in cookie-cutter Three Act Structure – and, in fact, I mean that it almost never makes sense to do so. I mean that you DON’T have to have a certain thing happen on page three, on page ten, on page fifteen, on page thirty. I mean that you DON’T have to save the cat. I mean that yes, if you’re passionate about your Antebellum-period alien invasion Dogme 95 musical, then you should write the absolute shit out of it and foist it upon the world. I mean that you should write a zombie movie even if you think the Whole Zombie Thing is played out if you think your zombie movie kicks the ass of every zombie movie written or to be written. I mean that you shouldn’t write a superhero movie if you don’t want to write a superhero movie but you’re convinced that’s what studios want to write.

I mean that if you write what you love and care about and put your entire heart into it and make sure that it’s interesting and compelling and that it forces the reader to turn the page and keeps them entertained in one way or another to the very end, then it almost literally doesn’t matter how the hell you manage to do it. Just do it. Because that will be the best you can possibly write.

Notice that “almost” though? Well…here’s where we get into the idea that there ARE some Rules. And yes, those Rules are often a matter of degrees rather than anything that’s fixed and nailed down eternally, but they exist nonetheless. To illustrate, I’m going to answer two questions I got on Twitter today. They’re both good questions, and both worth asking. And there are a billion questions like them that exist under the same umbrella, and that means they’re covered by the same answer I’m going to give you today. Actually, we answered one of these questions for the upcoming Episode of THE BROKEN PROJECTOR. And I felt that answer both complete and not quite enough, hence this entire blog entry.

I’m a man of multitudinous wonder.

Question #1:


And the quick answer is:

First of all, I’m not convinced there’s a “trend” towards this. I think it’s a stylistic choice that a few writers are using, most to their own unintended detriment. Second of all…I wouldn’t eschew sluglines. I can’t speak intelligently about GREAT FALLS, but in the case of NIGHTCRAWLER it’s pretty simple: Dan Gilroy is one of the best screenwriters to ever walk by a computer, and he’s established and respected and at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (and I’m using the royal “You”, not singling out Clint here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.

Question #2:


And the quick answer is:

Not in any way I can think of. This might sound familiar, but Tarantino is an established, respected writer who’s at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (still on the royal usage here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.

Now: notice that “quick”, though? Now we’re back into the idea that there ARE some Rules. But these are different Rules than the ones to (almost never) consider when it comes to the focus and deployment of your story. For lack of a better term, we’re at this very moment going to split Screenwriting Rules, now and forever, into two different categories: Storytelling and Mechanical/Technical.

Storytelling Rules – forcing your story into a strict structure, writing for trends, Saving the Cat, etc. – are almost totally nonexistent and disappear completely the more varied those stories are in terms of tone, scope, genre and other considerations.

Mechanical/Technical Rules aren’t what I would call “rigid”, but should more often than not be followed because they give you the best chance of presenting your story in a way that is going to appeal to the people who are in a position to pay you money to acquire it.

With that in mind, an analogy I’ve just now become confident in:

Think of your script like a gift you’re going to give to someone on Xmas. You want the box and the wrapping to reflect something about your personality – you might use brightly colored wrapping paper, or maybe newspaper, or a small bow and a bit of ribbon, of a gigantic ribbon and no bow – but you want your intent to be obvious: this is a gift. And a box, wrapping paper and some kind of flourish represents that. It’s clear, it’s understandable, and it’s universal iconography. It makes it easy for the recipient to recognize it as exactly what it is.

The box, the wrapping and the flourish are your Mechanical/Technical Rules.

The gift inside the box? That’s your Storytelling Rules.

IT CAN BE LITERALLY ANYTHING YOU WANT TO GIVE THEM. It can be TOTAL CHAOS. You want to give them a new sweater? Awesome! It could be a wool sweater. It could be a sweater branded with the logo of their favorite sports team. It could be a cardigan or a mock turtleneck. Fuck, it could be a shitload of yarn and some needles and a book that’ll teach them how to knit their own goddamned sweater! THERE ARE SO MANY OPTIONS. Now, whether or not they actually *like* their present in the form you chose is not something that you have much control over. But if you really put a lot of thought into it and worked to find something you believed in and have presented it in a way that shows you really, really care, you’ve given yourself the best shot possible that they’re going to love it.

Of course, there are some decisions you could make that could change the outcome here.

Like, let’s say you didn’t give a shit about the gift and just threw some old beat-up, secondhand sweater from your closet into the box. Or maybe you picked out the most expensive sweater in the store, but you know deep down it’s not what you wanted to give them, and you know they’re going to hate it, and you kind of hate it yourself. Well, I’ve got news for you – no matter how expertly and beautifully you wrap up that box, the gift itself sucks, so you’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

On the other hand, maybe you got them the most perfect ass-kicking sweater ever. If that’s the case, you probably don’t want to wrap it in tin foil, dip it in kerosene and hold a lighter to it before you present it to them alongside a fire extinguisher. Sure, you’ve…you know, “done something different” and “made a statement”, but who the fuck wants to have to put out a blaze just to get to a sweater, no matter how awesome it is? Even if they manage to, they’re probably going to be pissed you made them do it, and even if they end up extracting the sweater, it’s probably charred and useless now.

(Listen, I’m sure you can poke all kinds of holes in this analogy, but just fuck off. See it for what it is and don’t complain. I didn’t charge you anything to read this. It was your choice.)

When I’m giving script advice, I’m almost always offering it to those of you who love screenwriting and want to at least take a shot at selling your first script. And that usually means selling a script to a studio or an independent producer or, at the very least, having something you can stake your burgeoning reputation on as a representation of your ability as a writer. And in the pursuit of that, my advice often comes down to this: without compromising your artistic principles – and hell, even sometimes DEFINITELY compromising your artistic principles – you have GOT to be willing to give yourself every chance to succeed, and far more often than not that means you have to PUT YOURSELF in the very best POSITION to succeed.

If that’s not why you’re interested in screenwriting or that’s not the road you want to go down with your work? I say this with no snark, no sarcasm, and zero ill will: no problem. Do whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, and vaya con dios.

For the rest of you: there are hundreds and thousands and (probably, I don’t have the exact numbers right here in front of me) millions of you try to accomplish the exact same thing you’re trying to accomplish right now. They all want to sell a script. The way to do that is ALWAYS by telling a great story full of great characters in an entertaining way that holds the reader’s attention.

What almost never works? Changing a screenplay, on a technical level, into something that the reader isn’t used to. It’s not going to make you stand out. It’s going to make you unreadable. Which is the one thing you can never, ever, ever, ever, ever be.

Sure, write novelistic scene descriptions that go deep into character psychology and that tells us things that go layer and layers beyond what we can see on the screen, and do it for PAGES. Totally fucking ignore sluglines. Write right to left instead of left to right. Give all your characters the same name and don’t even bother to explain it. Because maybe, tucked into the corner of a studio mailroom, there’s an intern who just absolutely loves that kind of thing, and his uncle just happens to be Brian Grazer, and Uncle Brian has told him, “Listen, I’m looking for these four off the wall formatting quirks in a script. They have NOTHING to do with the story, but I need them now, and I have a million dollars waiting for the first person who gets them on paper.”

But if you think that might be too narrow a mark to aim for? Everything else being equal, do whatever you can to make the basic technical elements of your script the same as every other script out there. That doesn’t mean you can’t tweak something here or there to give it a unique touch, but less is more. Less is WAY more. Follow the rules, because doing so will give you the best chance of keeping a reader focused on your plot and your characters as opposed to that weird fucking formatting thing you did on page 34.

And then, as you’re crafting your story, remember that there are no rules, so there’s no need to follow any. And that’ll keep your focus on what matters – your plot and your characters. As opposed to that weird formatting thing you did on page 34, which you really should fix when you’re finished, but don’t worry, it’s not a big deal right now.


Um…this was a dismal fucking year for me watching movies, so I’m going to tell you up front: don’t take this list very seriously. That’s not to say I’m making things up or I didn’t love any of the movies listed here – I did, to one degree or another – but it IS to say that the list should be considered…incomplete. Because I saw a dreadfully small number of films this year. How small? So small that I’m not going to tell you exactly how many. Probably the fewest I’ve seen in the nearly twelve years that I’ve been in Los Angeles, where you can see literally everything.

I. Am. Shame.

A potential byproduct of that is that I didn’t see a movie this year that I felt transcended filmmaking for me, that really knocked me on my ass in some way. Usually there’s a movie or two like that every year – HER, ABOUT TIME, DRIVE come to mind in recent years – but this year was devoid of anything like those for me. There was a LOT that I dug, but little felt important to me on a personal level. So the question becomes, then…what exists in the films I missed? HATEFUL EIGHT. ROOM. LOOK OF SILENCE. CAROL. ANOMALISA. A few others. My hope is that there’s something beyond special to discover from last year still waiting out there for me. That hope takes some of the sting out of my cinematic laziness.

Alright, enough of my whinging. For the sixteen of you about to read this, my usual disclaimer: this is really a list of favorites. There are terrific films from this year that won’t crack my Top Ten that were sensational in some ways (THE REVENANT), that didn’t land with me like they did with others (SPOTLIGHT), and even one that I loved to pieces but whose fans are so fucking annoying about that I’ve grown a slight distaste for it (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD). End of the day, this is all about what I enjoyed the most and what I think I’ll be rewatching more often than the rest of the field ten years from now.

Here we go:

BEST MOVIE MOMENT OF THE YEAR: BB-8’s lighter. Holy crap was that ever just a nanobit of pure comedic brilliance.


“Coach lands on the runway at the exact same time as first class.” – STEVE JOBS

(Let me honest: there are about a dozen lines from STEVE JOBS that could have made this list. I just happen to think this one is the wisest and most succinct.)

“It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter that he’s a different species or that he has a worrying marmalade habit. We love Paddington. And that makes him family. And families stick together.” – PADDINGTON

(Not only hilariously delivered by Hugh Bonneville, but a straight, honest summation about the spiritual definition and meaning of “family”.)

HONORABLE MENTION (in order of release):



10. BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir: Steven Spielberg, Writers: Matt Charman, The Coen Brothers)

One of my favorite scripts of the year, hands down. Took a story that probably played out in real life with extreme human ugliness but dared to hope, without ever picking ideological sides, that there’s still room on conflict-riddled Earth for humanity. Perhaps that’s Utopian and perhaps it leaves the film feeling less consequential than it should, but this felt like Spielberg leaning on old fashioned populist filmmaking again, and that’s almost never a bad thing (though I’m looking directly at you with violent scorn, WAR HORSE). Would make a great double-feature with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, I think.

9. PADDINGTON (Dir: Paul King, Writers: Hamish McColl, Paul King)

This is kind of a cheat, but as far as I’m aware, it didn’t screen in the US in 2014 and wasn’t officially released at all here until 2015, so I’m counting it as part of 2015. And I’m OK with bending the rules this year because it gives me an opportunity to implore you to see PADDINGTON now now now now now. It is slightly bonkers and plays through with a lovely gentleness and is somehow, also, still disturbingly funny. Nicole Kidman is so much fun as the villain and I’m convinced Hugh Bonneville is a comedic savant. Your kids will love this. But you might love it more.

8. SPY (Dir: Paul Feig, Writer: Paul Feig)

Man, did the trailers ever undersell this one. You owe it to yourself to ignore them and see it as soon as possible. Gleefully crass and not afraid to be absolutely stupid when the moment (and usually Jason Statham) calls for it. Just ahead of SISTERS and THE NIGHT BEFORE for the hardest/most consistent laughs of the year.

7. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Dir: Guy Ritchie, Writers: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson)

Everybody skipped this one. Again, the trailers…geh. Not a great selling point. And look, I’ll admit up front that I’m an easy mark for Guy Ritchie. Everything he does just works for me. End of story. This was no different. The action is terrific and it’s typically hilarious (some exceptional Britishy gags here) and I personally can’t get enough of the whole 60s Gentleman Spy thing. I also think Armie Hammer is fundamentally great and criminally underused. In this one he’s definitely the former and not remotely the latter and aggravatingly no one saw it. Well…rectify that as soon as you can.

6. INSIDE OUT (Dir: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Writers: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley)

Just thinking about Bing Bong in my brain movies makes my eyes rain. Parts of this movie CRIPPLED me with melancholy. There is so much good stuff in here, and it *might* have been my favorite movie of the year, but I fundamentally loathe the way one thematic element was treated – the Islands. I HATED HATED HATED HATED HATED the execution of the Islands, and I could not get past that facet of the film. But the rest of it is SO FUCKING GREAT that the aforementioned boned note is worth being frustrated about for the rest of my life. It should be law that kids in middle school watch this twice a year.

5. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (Dir: Matthew Vaughn, Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn)

This movie is a blast on all levels. Goes for it in a way few movies have the balls to, and it nails it at every turn. I know there are a lot of people that have expressed latent guilt for the Southern Baptist Church sequence. I feel no guilt. It was the greatest couple minutes of my worst case scenario onscreen wish fulfillment in years. I love this movie all the way through and with no conditions.

4. EX MACHINA (Dir: Alex Garland, Writer: Alex Garland)

The most inventive, focused and mood-driven film of the year. It’s a weird embracing of where we’re headed as a species – biomechanical metahumanity – and how that progress will absolutely swallow us whole if we’re not careful. This is an amazing depiction of how power that we think we understand can run wildly away from us because, as is so often the case, we can’t even begin to understand it. Alex Garland has always been a sensational writer, but as it turns out, he might be an even better director. And man, did he ever pick a hell of a way to announce it.

3. STEVE JOBS (Dir: Danny Boyle, Writer: Aaron Sorkin)

I honestly believe this is, by leaps and bounds, the most poorly understood movie of the year. Either that or some people who I really respect saw a completely different movie than I. At no point did I ever see Steve Jobs (in this movie – I’m divorcing it completely from “real life”) as a hero or someone to be worshiped. I saw a man who had an unparalleled genius that prevented him from treating people like real people. He instead treated them like lab rats and pack mules, and at no point is that theme clearer to me than in the final scene with his daughter. I think people unloaded personal baggage on this movie like no other movie in a while, and I think that’s kind of awesome, even if they hated it. Also: still an unabashed Sorkin fanboy. I make no apologies.

2. SICARIO (Dir: Denis Villeneuve, Writer: Taylor Sheridan)

If I was *forced* to choose a BEST Movie of 2015, this would probably be it. The script is tight and twisted and absolutely brutal, but at the end of the day it owes how good it is mostly to how very, very, very good Denis Villeneuve is. The guy creates texture and tension like almost no one else. This is a Roger Deakins movie that has none of his iconic fingerprints on it, and that is not only SAYING something, but it’s a massive compliment to both Deakins and Villenueve. Add the look and feel to the script’s story and the dreadful, ominous sense of torturous tension that permeates them from beginning to end, and you have a film that should be at the top of your watchlist if it’s not there already.

1. THE BIG SHORT (Dir: Adam McKay, Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay)

Not only my favorite movie of the year but, I’m convinced, the best writing of the year – yes, even above and beyond what Sorkin did. This film had a near-impossible task: take last decade’s near-apocalyptic financial crisis and explain it to the average moviegoer without clunky exposition and in a way they could understand without becoming a veritable coloring book. And MAN, did this script ever pull it off. I thought quite highly of Adam McKay as a comedy director before this movie, but THE BIG SHORT brought me to a whole other level of appreciation for him: he is an out-and-out filmmaker now. This is an ensemble cast that needed some very big, complicated performances wrung out of it, and at no point did McKay lose focus of or control over the material. Everyone involved puts in career-defining work, and Ryan Gosling’s tan deserves its own wing at the Smithsonian. Plain and simple: this movie got everything right, and I can’t wait to watch it over and over again in the coming years.


Hope you enjoyed! If you didn’t, well…I hope you weren’t bored. “Not bored” is good enough for me. That’s where I am right now.

As a last note, I want to give a special shout-out to BONE TOMAHAWK, which I was loving unabashedly until work pulled me away from my viewing. I wholly reserve the right to slide it into this Top Ten at a later date, as I was enjoying it enough to consider it for such until I was unfortunately whisked adrift.