CHRISTOPHER RILEY is an American screenwriter whose first film, After The Truth, a multiple-award- winning courtroom thriller, sparked international controversy when it was released in Germany in 1999. Other credits include 25 To Life, a dramatic thriller written for Touchstone Pictures, The Other White House, a political thriller written for Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films, Aces, an action-adventure written for Paramount Pictures and Emmy-winning producer Robert Cort, and a screen adaptation of the book Actual Innocence for Mandalay Television Pictures and the Fox television network. A veteran of the Warner Bros. script department, Riley is the author of the screenwriting reference The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style, now in its third edition. From 2005 through 2008, he served as director of the acclaimed Act One Writing Program in Hollywood. He executive produced the groundbreaking 2010 web series Bump+, which Perez Hilton called “one hell of a social experiment,” and produced the 2013 feature film Red Line, an award-winning action thriller. He teaches screenwriting at John Paul the Great Catholic University. We spoke recently about story-masters.org, how format is changing within the industry, and his favorite cinematic moment that is so timely.
Dave Watson: Tell us about the new edition of The Hollywood Standard. What’s new?
Chris Riley: One of the things I wanted to do was provide guidance on how to format Zoom meetings which is starting to show up in scripts and look at how format is changing over time, so I sampled some of the best writing from screenwriters such as Guillermo Del Toro, the Coen brothers, Vince Gilligan from the TV world to see what they were doing in the format. I wanted to be a sort of tour guide and say, “Look at what they are creating on the page with words and simple elements of script format.” It’s less about changing the format than seeing what filmmakers are creating within the time-honored standards.
DW: Has it changed much in the last two or three years or since the onset of the pandemic?
CR: I think formatting hasn’t changed much’; it’s as old as cinema itself, but the imaginative nature of what people are creating within the confines of the standard.You get 127 Hours which has really complicated imagery. I excerpted that script to show how wildly kaleidoscopic writing can be on the page. People are hard at work, writing and creating stories.DW: I know reading is up since the pandemic, are submissions up?
CR: I see more sales of The Hollywood Standard; I think reading and writing are both up. I’m busier than ever writing scripts and books. I know some people have found it hard to find a moral center that will allow them to write. I find it’s hard to write against the background of anxiety. I know writers who if their lives are unsettled, they find it really hard to create.Early in the pandemic I did a webinar on script format, made it freely online and I was amazed, people came from all over the world.In terms of submissions to the studios and networks, they always seem high. In the last year their focus has been on development because production has been much more problematic.
DW: And continues to be problematic even with vaccines. You co-founded StoryMasters Film Academy to deliver filmmaking courses to high school students taught by pros, is that right?
CR: Yes, we wanted to make it possible for high school students across the country to access how to write films. We have a writing-for-film and directing-for-film courses. They’re taught at public schools, private schools and for those home-schooling. We’re trying to make a more engaging option and really make online learning dynamic and really walk students through the writing process or making a film. We just launched this and we’re looking to create a forum for people to express their stories in film.
DW:story-masters.org. It’s a little ironic because high school students used to be the prime audience for multiplex releases. Do students build on what’s popular or do stories come from them?
CR:They tend to copy what they’ve seen. I’ve seen many stories based on Twilight and The Hunger Games, but the best stories are from students who look to life rather than other movies, and they end up telling really compelling stories often about the kinds of things they are experiencing: questions of belonging, anxiety about the future, self worth, how to make loving relationships work. Writing a really great script is hard, so it’s hard for a seventeen year-old to do that, but when young filmmakers are able to enter into the industry, they realize they can speak to the audience because they are the audience.
DW: Do you find that they are too close? They grew up in very different worlds that you and I grew up in.
CR: Yes they’re growing up in a very different world and they’ve got a whole different set of influences, now often they’re not exposed to great films, but they are exposed to all kinds of YouTube content. I once asked one of my daughters about these shows and she said, “Aw dad these are all YouTube shows,” and I had an existential crisis. So I went back to my students and asked if they wanted to make YouTube content. They said, “No, we want to learn how to make movies, the bigger stories,” so there’s a hunger for that, but the kind of stories they craft on the page and screen are very influenced by what they’re watching on YouTube.
DW:Does that encourage a certain kind of filmmaking? Kobrakai is on YouTube and you and I remember the original Karate Kid. Do you find students feel they have to adhere to structure?
CR: I find that there are people without any kind of training are going out guerilla-style and making stuff, and I also find they’re not very satisfied with what they make. Then comes the curiosity about, “Well, how do I write, direct, how do I budget?” They don’t know the terminology but it’s well-crafted filmmaking, then it’s like generations of filmmakers before them.I learned by observing and part of the industry. For us as educators, we must pass on what’s come before them.
DW: So it ties back to them as creators. There’s also been a resurgence since the start of the pandemic in viewing older films. I just saw a wonderful film noir from 1940 with Peter Lorre, Stranger on the Third Floor. A friend just rewatched as The Sting from 1973. Are you noticing this as well?
CR: That’s a really interesting question. I just noticed some of those older films showing up on my streaming menu. I do love being able to introduce students toThe film Glory is a great film not a lot of people don’t know about. So is Awakenings. It’s always great to show them riches from the past, then students write stories that are very much in the moment. I saw one really great story rooted in the racial justice protests, and another script based on the start of the pandemic. I’m not sure what we’re going to watch related to the pandemic, but for students it’s their reality so they’ll write about.
DW: And Glory came out in 1989 which Denzel Washington won the Oscar for and Awakenings came out the following year, yet they are not that well known today. That’s a testament to their power when people rediscover them and react.Like film noir, the genre evolves, yet some films are etched in time. People are streaming a lot of content on all the platforms. Do you see a difference in streaming structure versus feature films? Releases are erratic and sporadic because of the pandemic? Are people asking questions about structure relative to this?
CR: Definitely. First of all there are different films that can succeed in a streaming environment.Films that aren’t as big and spectacular, like the studios forgot how to make, they have a home. With the structure of a series the makers have gotten pretty good at hooking you to the next episode. The structure is open-ended, serialized, the experience of watching them is much more like reading a novel. You need a character with a problem that can’t be resolved in ninety minutes. Rather than a hero struggling to reach a goal, it’s much more about character arcs, “I’m struggling with an addiction,” or “I’m struggling in a relationship I’m in and out of” and Vince Gilligan did that with Breaking Bad is a wonderful example of Walter White’s long lost moral decline while Stephanie Pinkman is really saved. So you get a structure that’s played out over scores of hours, and that’s really engaging. Audiences are really liking getting to know characters at that depth, I think.
DW: And Walter White’s struggle really reflects us with this drawn-out struggle since the onset of the pandemic.
CR: I think we don’t really identify with problems that are solved in ninety minutes anymore. I find the stakes have to be higher because we are all engaged in a life-and-death struggle. My wife who is my frequent writing partner says she wants to watch films and TV that are really engaging; she doesn’t want vacuous fluff. Even a comedy like The Office is about a community of people really connecting, and that’s what we’re missing so much these days are these communities that face challenge but by the end of the episode we’ve faced it and are ready to go the next episode.
DW: TV no longer seems to be the thirty-minute diversion. The episodes are only twenty-two minutes or so when you stream them, and it seems we need something meatier. I think you’re completely correct. What's next?
CR: Right now I’m writing another book, this one with my wife, The Defining Moment: How Writers and Actors Build Characters. We’re looking at this idea that each one of us are a product of a handful of moments. If you don’t know those moments about me, say, you don’t know me all that well. If we don’t know these moments, we can’t really comprehend our characters. So it’s a strategy for writers and actors Another six weeks left before I deliver that manuscript. I’m writing a couple of scripts for films, one that’s pretty autobiographical and one that’s more about this cultural moment we’re in. More and more I’m writing stories that matter to me, and more and more I’m writing stories that connect with me and what I really value.
DW: Absolutely. There’s an irony there: if you write about you, it’s likely to resonate with many other people as well. Finally, do you have a favorite cinematic moment?
CR: Boy there are so many, but what’s coming to my mind right now is the end of Love, Actually where they talk about love and people caring for each other and it’s so rare. They’re at an airport and someone says, “It’s not rare at all.” You see people getting off the plane and seeing people waiting for them. When you see scenes like that you say, “Wow, what a gift it is to be alive.” It is such a gift to be alive and we need to love each other and cherish each other. I love the way that moment in that movie makes me feel. I’m not even sure I like that movie, but it makes me feel so glad.
DW: It’s all the cinematic senses in a way. It’s photography, editing, music, and it’s the narrator that says, “Love actually is, all around.” It’s a very warming welcoming way into the movie from Richard Curtis’s film, and it really resonates today during the pandemic.Clip: Love Actually