I first heard about Film Crit Hulk about a year ago. I had written an article about why Tom Hooper should have been drawn and quartered for his butchering of Les Miserables, and one of the commenters, rather than say anything insightful, pointed me to a similar-ish article by Film Crit Hulk. Normally I hate that kind of thing, but I figured I would give it a shot, because I was angry at Tom Hooper and I wanted someone else to back me up.
So I read the article, and it was a whole lot smarter than what I said. Then again, his was focused on its technical failings whereas mine was more focused on its catastrophically poor attempts at adaptation.
But I digress.
When I heard that this Hulk fellow had written a book on screenwriting (appropriately titled SCREENWRITING 101), I was intrigued. I usually hate books like that, but it seemed like such an odd thing for a critic to do. So I gave it a shot.
And guess what?
It’s fucking amazing.
By: Film Crit Hulk
Release Date: December 10, 2013
Buy it: Amazon
SCREENWRITING 101 is technically a book about screenwriting, but it’s much more significant than that. Most of my friends want to make careers (or at least paying side-projects) out of writing fiction, and I have recommended SCREENWRITING 101 to every single one of them. By the time I had gotten to page 30, I had recommended it. By the time I hit page 90, I was sending them annoying texts about it. Now that it’s over, nothing has changed: everyone with the slightest interest in fiction should read this book.
And the reason I say that is because until the sixth and final section of the book, the majority of its lessons can be applied (with minimal tweaking) to novels, plays, or slash fiction. Whatever you want to write about, you can get something from this book. Hulk apologizes for this, or for the fact that so much of the early stuff is not specific to screenplays or screenwriting, but he shouldn’t; he should celebrate it. When he does an elaborate take down of the three-act structure or the generally conceived understand of the Hero’s Journey, that is important. That may be the most important thing that the book does, in a broader sense. Formatting skills can be learned with practice and proper use of software; lessons of language can be learned by practicing and reading good screenplays until the quality sticks. It will take a while, but it can happen.
But these structural concepts like beat sheets and saving the cat and blah blah blah will show up again and again in screenwriting books and classes and lessons. A whole lot of people will do what they can to convince you that structure is really as simple as A, B, C. Hero does this. Hero does that. Hero does the other thing. Roll credits. Million dollars. Boom.
Yes, that’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s much closer to the truth than it has any right to be. That’s boring, and it leads to the sort of sameness that is found in Hollywood today and the soul-crushing work of the studio interns who have to deal with all of the terrible same-y scripts that will never get made.
So pretend that we’re all doing this for the interns, not for ourselves or for money or for the betterment of cinema. It’s all about the interns.
I am working on a screenplay. I have been working on it since March, and it’s undergone some serious revisions in that time. It’s not feature-length, but it’s something I’m going to be producing myself in the first half of this new year, and I want it to be the best damn thing I’ve ever made. It will be the best thing I’ve ever made. And that starts from the fact that it’s the strongest screenplay I’ve written yet.
(I’ve been told by people who know a lot more about this than I do that I’m pretty good at writing screenplays.)
But as I read through SCREENWRITING 101, I kept thinking about things. I understood much of what he said on a fundamental level, but I had never really had the ability to. Even in screenwriting classes where I was taught some of these concepts (but not as many as I would have liked), it was never as clear as it is here, even obscured by walls of capitalized text.[On that note, SCREENWRITING 101 is available in both an all-caps version and a case-corrected one. I made it through about five pages of the all-caps version before I switched over (fortunately, they come together). The least interesting thing about Film Crit Hulk is his use of caps lock. It’s a gimmick that makes you take notice but becomes mind-numbing pretty quickly. Without a case-corrected option, I would have never gotten through the 180+ page book. It wouldn’t have mattered how packed with complete and total genius it was, because the headache it gave me would have killed my retention anyway. If (when) you read it, I suggest you do it the same way. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming]
And a lot of the things I thought about made me look back at my screenplay and slap my forehead in dismay. “Why did I do that?” “Why did I think that was a good idea?” “No, of course not.” “Hey! I totally did that. Good for me.” Lots and lots of things. Around the three-quarters mark, I had an aneurysm. And by aneurysm, I mean not an aneurysm. I was sitting on the Metro North train heading into New York City reading the book on my tablet. I read it, and then a lightbulb went off in my brain. Well, more of an entire stadium floodlight. I realized that my ending as written was about twenty seconds too short, and what should be in those twenty seconds would make it extremely more powerful, because it would properly connect the opening scene–
Oh. My. God.
I texted basically everyone I had ever heard of because I realized what the story had been missing this whole time. And when I looked at it, it was right there the whole time! The changes needed to implement this massive shift were/are miniscule, but they make the whole thing a lot more meaningful. They will add the empathy that was missing to everyone who wasn’t me.
And suddenly the world felt new again. I was Adam in the Garden of Eden, and instead of apples, the tree of wisdom was growing new copies of SCREENWRITING 101. And then when Eve appeared, I was all like, “Cool.” And then I looked up to the sky and said, “Thanks, Hulk.”
Hyperbole? Less than you’d think.
SCREENWRITING 101 is not a step-by-step guide to writing an amazing screenplay. It does not tell you how to structure a screenplay or what your narrative needs to be good. It’s like a well-organized toolbox designed by someone who is a lot smarter than you are. But even though he’s given you fifteen different wrenches, all of which have clear uses in theory, the thing you’re trying to build is this ethereal cinematic masterpiece that nobody can see, because it’s just a bunch of words. Yes, the best screenplay is better and more cinematic than many movies, but the majority of people who look to SCREENWRITING 101 aren’t writing the best screenplays. They’re writing anything from atrociously bad ones to great ones, but few will be better. (Edgar Wright wrote the intro; he’s an exception.)
But I truly believe that if someone reads this book and then pulls up Celtx and sits down to write the next Great American Movie, they will end up a hell of a lot closer to their goal than they would have without it.
The punchline, that it is just a series of recommendations and a toolkit rather than a set of perfect building blocks that will pump out great stories, is not the crushing realization that Hulk makes it out to be, at least not for people who really care about storytelling. Because little lightbulbs went off in my head a dozen times while reading, and I will be citing this book until I die. As someone with some experience doing this stuff (and who has also been a more-than-occasional film critic for two and a half years), it was generally more of a solidification of ideas I already had or an clarification of things I was pretty sure I understood. There weren’t a ton of wholly, completely new ideas, but that won’t be true for the majority of people who read it. And those few things that were wholly new? Blew my mind.
But that’s not the point. The thing that turned on that lightbulb for me wasn’t a completely new idea. It wasn’t even a completely new idea in the book (he had referenced it at least a couple of times before), but it was the context of what I had been reading, the movies I had been watching, the writing I had been doing, and everything else. It all just clicked and it all came together in such a way that.
And I don’t believe I would have come to it on my own, at least not before production got started on this script. It is going to be the best thing I’ve ever made, and SCREENWRITING 101 is one reason why.
To Hulk, who is not reading this review but whatever: Thank you. You gave me something amazing. In return, I’m going to tell everybody I ever meet to buy your book. Because it’s the best book on screenwriting ever written by anyone ever.
To you, the reader who made it to the end of this: Buy the book. It’s $5. I don’t care if you have to miss a meal or whatever to do that. It’s worth it. Not interested in writing? Doesn’t matter. If you’re reading this (and reading this far), you have some interest in cinema and presumably some interest in the writing process, and you will get something out of the book. Maybe you’ll read it and want to write screenplays. Maybe years down the line you and I will submit screenplays at the same time to the same depressed intern and he’ll like yours more than mine and throw mine in the trash, and then you’ll be a famous screenwriter when it could have been me and I’ll regret having told you to skip a meal in order to afford this book. That would suck for me, but you know what? It would be worth it.