Aesop’s Fables: A Treasure Trove of Screenplay Starters

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_n“So, what’s your play about,” I asked. Five minutes and 500 words later, I still didn’t know. If Aesop had been a moviemaker, he would have had no difficulty answering such a question.

A shepherd once found a young Wolf which had been abandoned by its mother. The Shepherd took the Wolf home awolf and shepherdnd cared for it. After a while he began to teach the Wolf to steal lambs from the neighboring flocks. The Wolf proved to be such a good pupil that one day he stole a sheep from the Shepherd’s own flock. The Shepherd reproached him bitterly. But the Wolf said, “Was it not you who taught me to steal?” If you teach evil, you must expect evil.

Aesop’s Fables ,or the Aesopica, is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and aesops_fables_bookstory-teller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. Of diverse origins, the stories associated with Aesop’s name have descended to modern times through a number of sources. They continue to be reinterpreted in different tongues and cultural settings using a variety of popular and artistic mediums.

I keep a book of the Fables on my desk, both for entertainment and inspiration. Half the battle for finding the idea for a screenplay is nailing down a well articulated premise with a promising theme — which, without exception, I find concise examples of on each page of the Aesopica. Now here’s another version of The Shepherd and the Wolf.

A Wolf had been prowling around a flock of Sheep for a long time, and the Shepherd watched very anxiously to prevent him from carrying off a Lamb. But the Wolf did not try to do any harm. Instead he seemed to be helping the Shepherd take care of the Sheep. At last the Shepherd got so used to seeing the Wolf about that he forgot how wicked he could be.

One day he even went so far as to leave his flock in the Wolf’s care while he went on an errand. But when he came back and saw how many of the flock had been killed and carried off, he knew how foolish to trust a Wolf.

Or, as we shall see, a Fox.

Each one of Aesop’s fables has a lesson, or moral,  to teach – just like a parable or allegory. A moral is added at the bottom of each of Aesop’s fables. Many of the morals, sayings and proverbs featured in Aesop’s fables are well-known today. Some of the most famous morals are as follows:

“Appearances often are deceiving.” – The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
“Familiarity breeds contempt.” – The Fox and the Lion
“Slow and steady wins the race.” – The Hare and the Tortoise
“One person’s meat is another’s poison.” – The Ass and the Grasshopper
“Things are not always what they seem.” – Bee-Keeper and the Bees
“Never trust a flatterer.”- Fox and the Crow
“Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” – The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
“Little friends may become great friends.” – Lion and the Mouse

So, back to the Shepherd and the Wolf. Two movies come to mind:

One is about two crooked Wall Street commodities brokers who teach a street beggar/con artist, Billy Ray Valentine, their trade as part of a social experiment. In the end they are brought down when Valentine turns their devious practices against them. (Trading Places, 1983)

And of course the classic matchup for The Wolf and the Shepherd finds blindly ambitious Bud Fox using tricks of the trade learned from his mentor, Gordon Gekko, against him. (Wall Street, 1987)

If you teach evil, you must expect evil.

Now here’s an exercise of your own. How many movie plots fit the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” template.

Wolf in Sheep's ClothingA certain Wolf could not get enough to eat because of the watchfulness of the Shepherds. But one night he found a sheep skin that had been cast aside and forgotten. The next day, dressed in the skin, the Wolf strolled into the pasture with the Sheep. Soon a little Lamb was following him about and was quickly led away to slaughter.

That evening the Wolf entered the fold with the flock. But it happened that the Shepherd took a fancy for mutton broth that very evening, and, picking up a knife, went to the fold. There the first he laid hands on and killed was the Wolf.

The evil doer often comes to harm through his own deceit.

Amazing, isn’t it, how often we find in the movies a villain hung on the gallows he prepares for another? Not just in the movies, but in everyday life as well. Right?

The great thing about using the Fables as kickstarters is that you have the theme expressed for you at the conclusion of the story.

It can also be seen that in each of the fables, the main characters are driven by desire. The bad guy is defeated by a flaw, and the good guy is victorious through a virtue in spite of his flaw, or weakness (the Tortoise and the Hare comes to mind). The various character flaws drive the Fables.

Here’s one of my favorites, The cock and the Jewel:

A Cock, scratching for food for himself and his hens, found a precious stone; on which he said: “If thy owner had found thee, and not I, he would have taken thee up, and have set thee in thy first estate; but I have found thee for Cock and the Jewelno purpose. I would rather have one barleycorn than all the jewels in the world.”

Be content with your life.

How many rags to riches stories in literature and movies find the protagonist rising out of a meager existence to a life of 220px-Great_expectationswealth and fame, only to discover they were happier with the simple things they left behind? I am reminded of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and Pip’s epic rise and fall through which he discovers the value of the barleycorn over the jewels, so to speak. David Lean’s 1946 adaptation remains unrivaled.

One great writer stated the theme this way: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… ” (Hebrews 13:5). Good advice for us all. This little cubicle I write in isn’t so bad. There are, apparently, a lot of unhappy people in the plush environs of Hollywood Hills who long for the simpler life of bygone days.

Joy in the Morning: How Writers and Moviemakers Overcome Failure

JoyThe first time Steven Spielberg applied at USC he was rejected. An admissions officer ruled that his ‘C’ average was too low for admittance into the School of Cinematic Arts. That happens. But it didn’t stop there. He tried again and was rejected. Even after the third and final attempt his effort fell short. And so California State at Long Beach has the distinct honor of counting Spielberg among its alumni. In 1975 his movie “Jaws” grossed $60 million the first month of its release. Not bad for a ‘C’ student. Oh, and by the way, on May 6, 1994, Steven Spielberg received an honorary doctorate. You guessed it. The honor was bestowed by the University of Southern California.

Being rejected by USC wasn’t a major failure. It simply gave Spielberg more time to become a filmmaker — probably a much better filmmaker than he would have been wearing the shackles of academia. But the point I want to illustrate is that the movie business is fraught with failure. I know more out-of-work actors, screenwriters, crew persons, directors, designers, and such, than I know who are working.

Several actors I know are receiving food stamps and drawing unemployment benefits. Others are working in fast foods establishments, retail stores, and coffee shops. Yet they refuse to give up. When asked about their line of work, they inevitably reply, “I’m an actor” (or whatever their aspiration might be). I have a writer friend who has never seen a script make it beyond the submission stage, but he keeps business cards in his wallet that introduce him as a screenwriter.

Every year some 43 thousand ‘spec’ scripts are registered with the WGA. Of these about 150 are sold to production companies. Out of the 150 around 7 or 8 make it to the screen. So what keeps them coming? The lure of becoming a millionaire? According to a CNN report the California lottery has produced more millionaires in the past 10 years than has screenwriting.

In general, the odds are stacked against anyone hoping to break into the movie business. But one thing is certain. No screenplay will every become a movie that has not been completed, rewritten over and over and tirelessly shopped around to potential buyers. There is, and always will be, a market for good screenplays and jobs for good actors, work for talented crew members, openings for studio staff and jobs down the line for directors who relentless pursues her craft.

Now back to my friends who are literally starving artists. The one common thread that runs through each and every one of them is simply a love for the movie business. Some of my acquaintances are living in poverty. But get them together and talk about making movies and they will light up like children in a toy store. Most of them will work for practically nothing just for the experience. Unfortunately low-budget moviemakers like myself must rely on their willingness to do so in order to get our movies made. I always promise, however, that I will do everything in my power to showcase their work and assure them that proper credits will be given in all the right places.

Additionally, as long as the Lord blesses me with a little income, no out-of-work aspiring actor, writer, or other moviemaking hopeful, will pay for a meal when we meet to talk about the trade. You’d be surprised how one struggling for the opportunity to fulfill their dreams needs and appreciates a good meal. The pic to the left captures a few loyal and dedicated rising filmmakers who sacrificed much in joining me for a recent production. I assured them that as my company succeeds, they will succeed with me. Their sacrifices will not be forgotten.

The other day I told a man, who I hope to make the subject of a docudrama, that I have had far more failures than successes. I wanted to be honest with him up front so as not to promise anything I can’t deliver. He didn’t bat an eye. At our end of the spectrum everyone has had more failures than successes. We’ve grown to expect that. I’ve learned to respect those that are honest enough not to disown their misfires. But here’s the deal:

Forget those 10 steps to cinematic success books. You know what they are. You’re writing your own “How to” book. Every day you’re living out a future page of your best seller. Every day is a new day in your pilgrimage toward the show biz promised land. If one can avoid dragging the baggage of yesterday into this present day, the odds for succeeding are greatly enhanced. Stop sleeping with your setback. She’s a malevolent mistress. Get up in the morning and pursue your craft as a screenwriter, actor, cinematographer, director, producer, editor, or whatever. You may put bread on the table stocking merchandise at Wal-Mart, but you are a writer or filmmaker, not a stocker.

Writers have the advantage of needing nothing more than pencil and pad, or if you’re above the poverty line, maybe a typewriter or computer. One can write at anytime and anyplace. Let me inject that most serious writers don’t sit in Starbucks sipping cappuccino while tapping away at the Macbook and making regular contributions about their status to Facebook. Real aspiring, hungry writers have probably sold their Macbook and bought a cheap off-brand laptop with just enough memory to run a freebie scriptwriting app.

For actors and other movie tradespersons the day may consist of job hunting, online searches, networking and, above all, study and practice. I know one young actor who practices his craft while waiting tables at a local seafood restaurant. He daily transforms an otherwise mundane workplace into a sound stage. Working with local theater groups, enrolling in relevant classes at community colleges, reading, and watching (and analyzing) movies all serve to push one in the right direction. Ten dollars a month for a Netflix subscription is money well spent.

The point I’m making is that one’s life is greatly enhanced when you arise in the morning as a writer, or actor, or animator, rather than a failure. The Grand Architect built night and day into the system so as to give his creatures the opportunity to begin again each morning.

The most successful writer in the history of the Cosmos said it this way:

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, KJV)

The Last Pedestrian Update and Teaser

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nWhat does the little notebook say about things I learned during the filming of The Last Pedestrian? For sure, I find plenty of oft-repeated themes in my little black “Notes to the Director” book. Every shoot is a learning session. The stuff that you learn is stuff they forgot to tell you in film school. So one goes about writing one’s own textbook that’s made up as you go along. I urge the young students that help us on location to do the same. “Agree with your instructors,” I tell them, but pull out your notepad as you walk out the door and mutter to yourself, “Yeah, but it works this way.”

The first attention getter scrawled on the page is: THINK! My biggest failure time after time is not following the storyboard shot list exactly as planned. I always get swept up into the moment and leave the list in my back pocket. This is why, without fail, I need to begin using an AD. Especially as we dive into an upcoming feature-length film entitled, “Some Glad Morning.”

The other thread that weaves its way through my book is a reminder to keep the camera running. I’ve got to take “Cut” out of my vocabulary. At least I’ve started counting slowly to 10 before pulling the plug. I mean, we’re not using expensive film here. A hundred hours of digital footage costs no more than one hour with respect to the recording media. It never fails, though, I miss some of the best shots by yelling “cut” too soon.

Here’s a little teaser I put together from the ‘first look’ raw footage. I can’t say enough about the whole-hearted cooperation we received from the town of Douglas, GA while filming “The Last Pedestrian” there.

On Location with “The Last Pedestrian”

Here are some on location pics taken during the filming of “The Last Pedestrian” in Douglas, GA.

Setting Up

NightScene

Presentation

WALB

DSC_0554

Hospital

Animal Truck

DPSRep

Council

Rollem

Doug

Williams

toy-story-figure-riding-stuffed-animal

Ped1

Harry

Crew

Butch&Harry

Williams & Crew

Intersteller

Production of short film sets up in downtown Douglas

Production of short film sets up in downtown Douglas.