We just heard the terrible news that American writer, teacher and guru Blake Snyder died yesterday. He was 53 and suffered a cardiac arrest. Blake’s best selling writers book, ‘Save The Cat’, was an instant classic, and his enthusiasm for great stories well told resonated through those pages, and bounced off the walls whenever you met him. Somehow, he always made the long haul and pain of writing a script an exhilarating experience.
Astonishingly, Blake is the very first interview in the new ‘Guerilla Film Makers Pocket book’ (which we are writing now), and we interviewed him only days ago. As far as we know, this was the last interview that he gave – and it was characteristically upbeat, fun and in your face.
We have decided to share this interview now, before the book is published.
His passing is a reminder to us all that we need to seize each and every day and make then most of what we have. A very, very sad day today and for all students of film, we have lost one of our Jedi masters.
Here is the interview which we did with Blake in LA…
Blake – In any filmmaking endeavor no matter the budget, concept is king. Time and again it’s been proven that no amount of money thrown against a project with a vague or uninspiring concept will succeed. If we look at The Island as an example, it had Michael Bay, Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor. It had $150 million in budget and another $50 in advertising. And it made just $32 million domestically because the audience didn’t know what it was. Answering the basic question, “What is it?”, takes no money at all and doing so is the first step to success.
Q – What advice would you give on choosing a concept and moving forward with it?
Blake – I’m a great believer in pitching. Go to Starbucks, pitch to civilians and see if their eyes light up. If the person you’re pitching starts pitching back with ideas to improve it, then you know you are on to something. Further, I think all ideas need to have irony in them. Those are the ones that stand out. And your idea needs to be primal. The ones that work on a caveman level work the best.
Q – How would you go about creating a good structure and plot?
Blake – In my book Save the Cat, I have the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, which contains the 15 beats that are in every story. It’s a process of transformation – the hero starts out one way and ends another. If you put your hero through the obstacle course of those 15 beats, he will transform. A new device that I have created to help fulfill the transformation is called the Five Point Finale. This covers the five main points of Act 3 that all heroes go through in order to achieve a resolution. One thing to keep in mind is that these things work because they hit us on a gut level, so if you are shying away from structure because it’s formulaic or hampers your creativity, you are misleading yourself.
Q – What do you suggest as ways to help write great characters?
Blake – The most important thing about any character is that they are pushed all the way back. When we first meet them their world has to be pocked with problems, which are usually 1000 different things masquerading as fear. The story will be about how they get rid of those fears and problems. This will lead to conflict, which will lead to drama, which will get our attention. I think a trap that most filmmakers fall into is that they say, “Transforming isn’t the way I envisioned it.” But that is exactly what the audience wants to see.
Q – What is theme to you and what are some helpful ways of finding it?
Blake – Theme is the lesson learned by the hero. In my beat sheet I have a theme statement, which is a moment on page 5 where someone turns to the lead character and says something like, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” At that moment the hero doesn’t understand what that means – that is the theme. In the Pixar film Cars, on page 5 someone turns to Lightning McQueen and says “Racing ain’t a one man deal, Lightning.” That’s the theme there. He’s selfish to begin the story and he’s selfless by the end. That is the lesson he learned. Many times you want to anchor theme to plot where in the course of the story there will be a debate whether the theme is true or not. All good movies are an up and down ripple of looking at every side of the theme. Theme is tied to and explored in the B story, which is usually the characters the hero meets in Act 2 in his new world. It can be the love story or the mentor relationship. These are the people who are teaching the spiritual lessons to the lead character.
Q – What are your opinions on finding your voice and writing good dialogue?
Blake – Finding your voice is a key element of a screenwriter or filmmaker’s career. To me it is what do you do better than anyone else. What can hurt a screenplay is on the nose dialogue or a scene or story premise that seems cliché. Just like your idea has to have irony, your characters need to be ironic and when they speak they must do so with irony. We want to be surprised by everything that happens.
Q – Are there any creative traps that writers can fall into and how do you get out of them?
Blake – Not knowing whom your audience is. If your story is only interesting to you and a handful of people then you have a problem. The best way to avoid this, and most screenwriting issues for that matter, is go through all the steps I outline in Save the Cat. Get the idea, create a logline, pitch it, test it, break it out into the 15 beats, make sure the hero transforms, make sure the idea is big and grand enough, are there enough problems, make sure there is a spiritual reason for taking this journey, make sure there is a moral – if you can deliver those things, that’s what makes a difference.
Q – Are there any mistakes that you see which drive you crazy?
Blake – I have a rule in my classes – no voiceover, no flashbacks, no dream sequences. I think those are crutches for a lot of beginners. Not that they don’t belong in scripts, but if you can do without them it is a better exercise of your skills. Also not listening to criticism drives me crazy. Whether it’s a friend, a civilian or someone in your writing group giving you a critique you need to listen to them. Feedback is a big part of filmmaking and if someone early on can give you a clue that something is amiss, you should pay attention. Now it’s possible the feedback is wrong, but you should listen to it. And many times it’s the message beneath what they are saying that is the true issue.
Q – Do you have any advice for new screenwriter/filmmakers?
Blake – This is the Golden Age for low budget filmmaking. You can start with a Youtube short and become a star and thereby break into the Hollywood sy
stem. You can make a short film, get into Sundance and then have a career making movies. There has never been a more democratic time. Even if you want to keep your movies small and idiosyncratic, you can market them that way and make a living doing it. Everyone is always looking for talent.
You will be missed Blake.
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author
I was just sent this email from Bryan Romaine, a past Guerilla Film Makers Masterclass delegate… about an email he sent to Blake…
I read Blake Snyder’s "Save the Cat" book in January. He put an email address in it and invited anybody to send in high concept loglines for family films. I spent 2 days thinking and pitched him by email. He responded within minutes praising me and my idea.
I had that email on my wall for 3 months. Every day I’d look at it and think – “Yes!” whilst clenching my fist, then get my laptop out and start writing.
Over the last 6 months we touched base on the project a maybe 4 or 5 times.
I didn't know him very well, but every time he emailed me I would think firstly: wow, what a nice man this is (whereas people read my emails and see the stress, you read his and just see a good, kind, nice man), and I'd think "I wish I was like that", and secondly I'd think wow – I have scripts on peoples desks in the UK and had no comeback for 6 months, and yet this guy comes back to me in 2 minutes – with something inspiring and uplifting, and hopeful. And that again made me take my pen out and write.
It's only natural that making it as a writer is a lengthy process given the number of scripts and writers their are out there. And that without an agent getting input from the big players isn't easy. You're often kept at arms length. Communication with Blake was the complete opposite.
Thank you Blake, for your support. You will be missed.