Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: March 2015

Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories: What to Keep and What to Cut (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories:

What to Keep and What to Cut

by Susan Kouguell


Many successful novels, memoirs, and short stories have been adapted for the screen and made into equally popular and often award-winning movies, including the most recent American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Wild.

Over the years, I have been assigned, as a writer-for-hire, to adapt several novels into feature-length screenplays. It can be a daunting task particularly when the novel is long – very long — like 500 pages or more! This page-length challenge presents the inevitable next step and question:

adaptationWhat to keep and what to cut?

As opposed to a novel, screenwriters just don’t have the page length to explore characters’ extensive backgrounds, elaborate settings — nor do they have the luxury to include a cast of thousands (or hundreds – or less) all of whom have a penchant for endless verbosity. There just isn’t the time in a two-hour film and it’s up to you, the screenwriter, to make the right choices. So, it’s time to let go.

    1. What is the novel about? Write down the answer to this question and use this as your guidepost to determine the major storyline of your plot.
    2. Determine who your protagonist is, and his or her wants, needs and goals and determine who the antagonist is, and why he or she is in opposition to the protagonist.
    3. For your subplot ask yourself: How does the protagonist with the help of alliances (friends, family, and so on) achieve goals despite the antagonist’s opposition?
    4. Write an outline or beat sheet that follows the key plot points and your protagonist’s journey.
    5. Decide whose voice the plot will follow. Since most novels are written in the first person voice avoid using voice-overs unless absolutely necessary.
    6. Avoid flashbacks. In screenplays they are often overused, unnecessary, slow down the pacing, and can take the reader out of the story. If you choose this device, then consider incorporating this device as an interesting structural choice.
    7. Show don’t tell. Critical plot information and back story should be revealed in dialogue or through visual storytelling. Convey characters’ feelings and conflicts through dialogue and actions. Remember — the viewing audience will not know what the character is thinking, as opposed to a novel where there are pages upon pages to describe the internal worlds of each character.
    8. Cut all extraneous subplots, characters’ inner thoughts, and lengthy set descriptions. Then cut some more. And then cut even more.
    9. Consider cutting down the number of characters in your novel by first briefly describing the purpose they are serving. This will enable you to decide if each character is necessary to include in the script and if several characters can be compiled into one character.
    10. Make every word of your screenplay count; this applies to both dialogue and action paragraphs.

    Your mantra: Film is a visual medium. Unlike a novel, you don’t have the luxury to get inside your characters’ minds with pages and pages of internal thoughts. Your characters’ motivations, agendas, goals, and so on, must be revealed in dialogue and through visually storytelling.



Character Relationships – The Finishers

Character Relationships:

Families Who Get Along and Those Who Don’t

By Susan Kouguell

Conveying your characters’ dynamics and their layered and complex relationships is an essential element when writing a savvy screenplay. Characters with specific opinions, attitudes and points of view, and what they need and want from their relationships, will give your screenplay the necessary depth to grab the attention of film industry folks.

Characters’ wants, needs and goals can motivate them to seek help from one character for advice and assistance, or slyly befriend another character to achieve a goal. Relationships can be judgmental or nonjudgmental, one character can hold the other accountable for his or her actions, or assist the other through a challenging time.

The opening night film of the recent 2015 ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival The Finishers (directed by Nils Tavernier, screenplay by Nils Tavernier, Laurent Bertoni and Pierre Leyssieux), is a drama, centering on a father and son relationship. The film was inspired by the true story of Team Hoyt — Dick Hoyt and his son Rick Hoyt (with cerebral palsy), the Massachusetts father and son duo, who competed in dozens of races from 1977-2014.

At 17 years old, Julien has a great sense of humor, bags of charm, and cerebral palsy. In a bid to bond with his father, Julien challenges him to participate with him in the Ironman race in Nice, France, a triathlon in which his father has previously competed. Doing the race alone is an incredible challenge, but completing it together with Julien would be nearly impossible. Still, his father agrees and the two set out to train for and compete in one of the most intense races on earth. Beyond the sporting exploit, this is the story of one family’s exemplary journey, and a moving portrait of the love between a father and his son.

While a story about the triumph of this father and son team, the plot of The Finishersalso reveals the challenges of Julien’s mother, Claire, who has been Julien’s primary caregiver due to husband Paul’s emotional and (work-related) physical absence. An interesting triangulated relationship emerges when Julien, who is about to turn 18, finds himself in the middle of this shifting mother/son/father and father/son/mother relationship.


Ageism, Disappearance, and Blurred Lines in Clouds of Sils Maria (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Ageism, Disappearance, and Blurred Lines in Clouds of Sils Maria

by Susan Kouguell

I’m sick of hanging from wires
in front of green screens.

The lines between reality and fiction are blurred and layered in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, a character study about ageism and mortality.

clouds-of-sils-maria.png (1001×583)

At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself. (Synopsis courtesy of Cannes Film Festival)

Now in her 40s, Maria Enders, who has been asked to play the part of Helena on the London stage, finds herself conflicted; she is both terrified and intrigued by the role because it will force her to confront ageism and mortality — the latter underscored by the fact that the actor who originally played Helena died in a car accident.

Maria Enders is very much aware that if she chooses to play the Helena role she might just be tempting fate, as well as her own downfall.

Here we are presented with the question that propels the narrative forward: Despite the various obstacles thrown in her path throughout the film, will Maria Enders play the Helena role on the London stage?

Once Maria accepts the Helena role, she continues to be conflicted by her choice. The narrative stakes rise as Maria prepares the role of Helena with her assistant, Val, who is running lines of the vital young upstart in the play. Their lines literally become blurred: Are they acting lines from the play or is this real life? Taking this idea one step further, life imitates art and art imitates life, when a satirical nod is made to the “real life” dramas (marital infidelities, intrusive paparazzi, and more) these real-life actresses have faced.

Thematically, this film draws some inevitable comparisons to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve; the psychological and emotional toll and consequences of aging on a successful actress are examined. In All About Eve antagonist Eve Harrington insinuates and schemes her way into the life of Broadway star, Margo Channing (the protagonist) and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal — to become a bigger star than Margo. Introducing herself to Margo as her biggest fan, Eve’s manipulation of Margo’s vanity is calculated; she is duplicitous and has an agenda, and plays on Margo’s fear of getting old. Margo Channing’s biggest vulnerability is age; an aging actress with a younger lover. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Joann Ellis is coy and savvy, and she flatters Maria Enders not so unlike the unscrupulous Eve Harrington. Both Margo Channing and Maria Enders briefly fall into their opponents’ traps, and each discovers that the next generation of stars is ready and armed to take their places. Time marches on with or without them.

Margo expresses her doubts about her age to playwright Lloyd, regarding playing the lead character of Cora, a young ‘twenty-ish’ woman, in his new play:

Lloyd, I am not twenty-ish. I am not thirty-ish.
Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty.
Four oh – That slipped out. I hadn’t quite made
up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as
if I’ve taken all my clothes off.

The characters of Maria Enders and Margo Channing are two actresses who will not quietly fade away into actor oblivion. Yet ironically in Act 3, there is one character in Clouds of Sils Maria who does fade away and disappears, never to be seen, heard, or referred to again – – perhaps reinforcing another them of this film — loss. As one character in Clouds of Sils Maria states: “The text is like an object. It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.”

– See more at:

Clouds Sils Maria

Gimmicks, Ground Rules, and Gender in ’52 Tuesdays’ (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Gimmicks, Ground Rules, and Gender in ’52 Tuesdays’

By Susan Kouguell

When James’s lover asks James: “Do you wish you were born a man?” James replies: “I wouldn’t have Billie.” And then soon James adds: “Yes.”

52 Tuesdays

The Australian independent feature 52 Tuesdays captures a year in the life of 16-year-old Billie, whose reluctant path to independence is accelerated when her mother reveals plans for gender transition.

Sophie Hyde, winner of the Best Director, World Cinema Dramatic for 52 Tuesdays at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and her co-writer Matthew Cormack, set out with specific ground rules to develop this film. They created the structured rules first and then decided on the story and characters.

In a Skype interview, Sophie Hyde explained: “We started with the idea of two people meeting every Tuesday for a year. The ideas came from that.”

The rules: They would shoot every Tuesday until midnight for 52 consecutive weeks. An entire nonprofessional cast, the actors were given the script one week at a time, and only the scenes they appeared in.

Interspersed with the narrative are two-second long news clips of various world events from protest demonstrations to Julian Assange. Sophie Hyde explains the decision to incorporate the clips, which separate the various Tuesdays that are labeled by dates: “With all the emotional change that occurs in the characters’ lives, and all the things that happen, it reminds us that the world still goes on. It is about the promise of change.”

There are the inevitable comparisons between 52 Tuesdays and writer/director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was shot one week every year for twelve years. Both films not only share themes of transformations, coming-of-age and parent/child relationships, but each used a gimmick — in the case of these two films, the decision to set rules for shooting to convey the narratives. The Boyhood structure revisits the characters yearly for twelve years, the 52 Tuesdays structure revisits the characters weekly for one year.

Whether viewers and critics feel this specific gimmick works in either or both of these films continues to be up for debate. The question screenwriters must ask themselves when considering using this type or other types of gimmicks is this: Is it necessary to use the gimmick to tell the story you want to tell? Would it work without it?

The initial gimmick of Hyde and Cormack’s idea takes it a step further and relates it directly to the plot, applying it to boundaries set by James as to the days and times (Tuesdays after school) Billie and James can meet and for how long.  Billie reluctantly agrees to these terms, and moves in with her father.

Billie and James embark on their respective personal journeys, recording their experiences of change in video journals. These videos may at first seem like another gimmick, but they effectively add another layer of conflict while advancing the narrative.

Film executives want to discover original plot ideas and distinct visions; they don’t want to read gimmicks that don’t serve the plot. Screenwriters should not rely on gimmicks — there must be compelling characters and a solid plot otherwise industry folks will stamp REJECT on the screenplay.

To learn more about the film here.



Buzzard: Potrykus interview at Locarno

Opening today in New York City: Buzzard

Here’s my interview with Joel Potrykus, Writer, Director, Editor and co-star of “Buzzard” from the 2014 Locarno Film Festival for IndieWIRE/SydneysBuzz. (Originally posted in August 2014.)

Returning to the Locarno International Film Festival after winning for Best New Director in 2012 for his feature “Ape,” Joel Potrykus and his Sob Noisse collaborators are receiving quite the buzz in the American independent film scene. I met with Joel Potrykus during the Festival to talk about his films and “Buzzard.”

Joel Potrykus, Writer, Director, Editor and co-star of “Buzzard”, and Producer Ashley Young

Joel Potrykus and Producer Ashley Young