Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A message for you from yourself.

A message for you from yourself.

You need to give yourself a pat on the back. Really, what you've done is pretty incredible. I am talking to you. You, that special person who, despite everything, is still working hard to achieve your dream.

Despite having to pick the kids up from school, you are still writing. Despite being flat broke, you're still taking acting lessons. Despite the daily grind of your horrible, monotonous job, you're still directing short movies in the middle of the night. Despite everyone around you believing you are NOT a writer and NOT a director and NOT an actor, you're still going strong. You are still creating things.
Give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself some ice cream. Treat yourself to a hooker. Seriously, you're amazing. How can that be? How can it be that after hundreds of people saying "but you're not really doing much with your little films" and despite people who are really important to you saying "It's cute that you're trying to write," despite all those things that would make any sane person scream and want to hide away forever-- you are still here. You are still going on film directing courses, you're still listening to podcasts, and reading film blogs, and trying to turn that idea in your head into something on a page or a screen. You are still doing that.

Have you ever stopped to appreciate that? Let me tell you now, you're winning here. Despite the world doing that thing it does, where it builds these big walls and says "I think you'll find life is lived in this way..." you've managed to climb the wall again and again. Despite the horrible job, the negative people who pop up every time you leave the house, despite it all - you are HERE, RIGHT NOW, agreeing with what I am saying. You have worked your socks off, and you are still doing it.

This might be your 14th short film, it might be your 26th screenplay, it might be your 363rd audition. They may have proved that you are a failure. And they are right. Right up until the time you become a success. You're pretty amazing. You inspire me. You're still going.

You are Steve Martin, eight years into being a stand up comedian, wondering where his audience is. You are Tom Hanks, carrying people's bags into hotels. You are Jack Lemmon, sleeping in abandoned buildings, wondering exactly when it is you're going to get an acting job.

You're amazing.

Keep up the great work.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Quentin Tarantino on Charlie Rose

Quentin Tarantino on the Charlie Rose Show charlierose.http.internapcdn.net

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Truly Free Film: Required Reading: Recent Posts (Myself & Others)

Required Reading: Recent Posts (Myself & Others)

1. Toronto Wrap: Indie Bloodbath – by Anne Thompson
2. 18 Actions Towards A Sustainable Truly Free Film Community – by Ted Hope
3. Exploring New Routes to the Indies – by A.O. Scott & Manohla Dargis
4. Declaration of Independence: The Ten Principles of Hybrid Distribution – by Peter Broderick
5. Movies, Now More Than Ever – by Eugene Hernandez
6. Toronto Festival Challenges Indie Film to Evolve – by Anne Thompson
8. How To Survive Indie Producer Hell - By Ted Hope

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Hey Screenwriters, Enough With The Backstory-Rationing Already! | Film | A.V. Club

There’s something about watching five or six movies a day for a solid week that makes a body contemplate how movies are constructed—and what makes them “good.” Back in 2006, at the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, I wrote a blog post about what I like to see when I plop myself down at the cinema. That list hasn’t changed much over the past three years, though there’s something I’d now add to a list of what I don’t want to see, and it’s this: Please, no more movies that are so preoccupied with how to convey the characters’ backstories that they forget to tell the story-story.

I started to sense the pervasiveness of this scourge at my first Sundance film festival, in 2008. There I saw one indie dramedy after another about characters who’d been deeply bruised by… what? The movies refused to say right away. The characters’ friends would all make oblique references to the death of a family member, or some past sexual and/or physical abuse, or a drug problem, or an arrest, but no one would just outright say what the problem was—presumably because that would make the screenwriters’ film studies professors angry.

The logic behind backstory-rationing is twofold. First off, the art of cinematic storytelling is supposed to be about showing, not telling. It’s supposed to be a crutch to use narration, or on-screen titles, or to have a character say, “Hi, I’m Blah Blahson and I spent 10 years in jail after I accidentally poisoned my baby.” I get that; I respect that. But the extremes to which screenwriters go in order to avoid filling us in can border on the ridiculous. More often than not, it’s obvious that information is being withheld only because the writers attended some screenwriting workshop or Sundance lab where they were told that characters need strong motivations for their actions, and that hemming and hawing about those characters’ motivations is what makes a “good” screenplay.

The end result? Grinding movies like the TIFF offering Solitary Man, written and directed by veteran screenwriting duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, etc.). I liked Solitary Man on balance—largely because of Michael Douglas’ roguish lead performance—but more than half of the movie is spent parceling out the details of what happens to the hero between the first scene and the “six years later” second scene. And it’s not as though Douglas’ character has some big crazy secret that needs to be withheld. All the necessary info could be delivered to the audience in a one-minute post-opening-credits monologue, with little impact on the integrity of the film’s structure. But then that would be “bad” screenwriting.

The second reason why screenwriters keep secrets is because it’s a handy way to hook viewers, and give us a reason to keep watching. And I have to admit, that can be an effective technique. Back at that ’08 Sundance, I sat through all of the godawful quirkfest Good Dick because I had to find out why the romantic leads were behaving so bizarrely. (Answer: The usual “broken childhood” bullshit.) If filmmakers rouse our curiosity, they can get away with a lot of self-indulgent moves that ordinarily would test an audience’s patience, just because we’ll feel like we wasted our time if we don’t find out the whole story.

This approach can be needlessly frustrating too. At this year’s Toronto fest I saw a Swedish film called The Ape that opens with a man covered in blood, then proceeds to show how he tries to make it through an ordinary day. Why all the blood? We don’t find out right away. Instead, we watch him fumble around, obviously distressed. But not knowing his secret doesn’t really add much value to the first half of the movie, beyond making us wonder how long we’re going to have to wait for answers. And in some ways, it’s a dramatic mistake that writer-director Jesper Ganslandt doesn’t tell us right away why the hero’s in trouble. It ultimately makes no difference to the story when we find out, and being kept in the dark prevents us—or prevented me, anyway—from seeing much irony or tension in all the scenes of a guy aimlessly driving around.

Understand that I’m not opposed to plot twists, or flashback structures, or even backstory in and of itself. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of my favorite movies at this year’s TIFF contained very little in the way of heavy backstory-lifting. In the Korean murder-mystery Mother, there’s one piece of information about the herbalist heroine and her mildly retarded son that we don’t get until about halfway through the film, but it’s information that emerges naturally and makes sense to hold back, because while it has no bearing on what we see in the first hour, it makes a huge difference in the second. Also, writer-directed Bong Joon-ho doesn’t tease us with it. He doesn’t have some neighbor refer to an “incident” and then leave us wondering what it is for half the movie. Bong tells us when we need to know, and only when we need to know. And then he gets on with the story. Similarly, in Jacques Audriard’s A Prophet, we meet a new prisoner on the day he’s sent to jail, and we find out more or less all we need to know about him—and everyone he meets along the way—within minutes. Any revelations to come have more to do with inner character—what people are capable of, how trustworthy they may be, etc.—than with anything they did or didn’t do prior to the opening credits.

While promoting Inglourious Basterds last month, Quentin Tarantino gave a fairly revealing interview to Charlie Rose in which he talked about running Reservoir Dogs through the Sundance Lab process, and how he was told that it was a vital part of filmmaking to map out the subtext for a script. So he dutifully took one of the movie’s scenes apart, figuring out all the characters’ motivations and objectives and the themes the scene was exploring. And when it was all over, he said, “Huh. That was interesting. Now I never want to do that again.” Tarantino told Rose that he has as little interest in subtext as he has in moral judgments or social messages. His characters just do what they do, and he lets them do it, without expressly saying whether he thinks what they’re doing is right or wrong, or whether it has any deeper meaning. After the movie’s in the can, he’s happy to sit around and talk themes and interpretations, but while he’s making the movie, he doesn’t want to know.

I mention this only because Tarantino has such an unusual approach to backstory. He claims to toss out whole sections of his scripts that fill in the personal details of his characters. He likes stories that jump back and forth in time, and if he needs to tell us a character’s history, he’s not averse to stopping the movie cold so he can do it. Heck, for Kill Bill, Tarantino waited until the second “volume” before he got around to establishing exactly why his heroine was so pissed off. But in keeping with that Rose interview, what Tarantino does with his playful structures and spontaneous monologues has less to do with plumbing psychological depths than it does with telling a story in a clever and entertaining way. If he’s planting seeds in our heads regarding character motivation, it’s not some emotional vaguery like, “That guy can’t say he’s sorry because his pride was wounded when he failed to make the high school football team,” it’s something oddly and amusingly specific like, “Bruce Willis has to get that watch back because Christopher Walken carried it in his ass for two years.” And again, he gives us that info exactly when we need to know it.

Increasingly I find that my favorite kinds of movies follow the principals that British director Michael Powell described as “the composed film.” Powell edited the climax of The Red Shoes so that it mirrored the rhythm of the music, and his films often have the quality of music, eliciting an emotional response through camera movement, performance, sound and cutting, all tangential to the story. Not all my favorite filmmakers fit this mold. I love the Coen brothers, and their films are often more intellectual exercises than emotional ones. Wes Anderson splits the difference, combining obsessively thought-out images and dialogue with moments that aim for a more gut-level emotional engagement. But by and large, I respond most strongly to directors like Powell, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, P.T. Anderson, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and Jafar Panahi, who tend to feel their way through individual scenes in their movies, intuiting what looks and sounds right, and not always worrying whether a scene’s running on too long or whether it fits neatly into the movie as a whole. Their movies sometimes come out uneven, but the parts that work have a transcendent quality—like a favorite song.

The problem is that these kinds of movies can be hard to defend as a critic, because my reaction often boils down to something felt. If you don’t get a giddy thrill watching Brian De Palma spend 15 minutes on a pursuit sequence that doesn’t pay off, there’s not much I can say to convince you that it’s awesome, any more than I can convince you of the greatness of a song that makes me cry but leaves you rolling your eyes—or a joke that makes me laugh but that you think is lame. I can talk themes and technique, but ultimately I have to shrug my shoulders and say, “I like this because it’s the kind of thing I like.” Generally speaking, I favor forward momentum, and I like being dropped into scenes that develop their own rhythm, and aren’t necessarily about moving the audience through the script outline, one checkpoint at a time.

And in the end, that may be what turns me off most about backstory-rationing: the sense that I’m being “handled” in some way by the filmmakers. It’s not enough that that they have to hold something back; they have to tell me that they’re holding it back, as though if they didn’t I’d jump out of my seat and wander off like an inattentive toddler. And invariably, what they’re not telling me isn’t even that interesting. So a guy’s wife committed suicide, or his brother murdered a priest, or he’s a recovering alcoholic who used to be a millionaire. That’s all fine. But why do you need to spend 100 minutes telling me what already happened? Tell me what comes next.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Cover My Script

Shaun of the Dead: How do you Pegg it, when you Wright?


As part of a new collaborative series of articles with Xandy Sussan of Covermyscript.com and Merrel Davis of MerrelDavis.com, we will deconstruct and evaluate modern and classic films from the screenwriting, directing and story perspectives. Our first movie is Shaun of the Dead. Articles will be cross-posted on both sites.

Shaun of the Dead: How do you Pegg it, when you Wright?

The zombie movie is as pervasive in our cinematic culture as popcorn at the concession stand, but what Shaun of the Dead brings us is a new take on a staid and challenging genre by seamlessly incorporating fresh comedic and romantic details into the traditional George A. Romero style zombie film. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg figured out how to take a genre and twist it around, all the while, never sacrificing the key elements that make it what it is: a true zombie flick.


How do you tell a standard story in a way that is so fresh, so new, that while the pacing and character arcs are familiar, the offering is unique and special? How do you avoid being cliché, when there are only so many stories to tell and so many ways in which to tell them? The answer: Change the details. Could it really be that simple? Indeed, the Devil is in the details and the details are what makes a standard, typical, pat plot, fresh and inventive. That is exactly what Wright and Pegg did with Shaun of the Dead.

Shaun of the Dead changed the details in several key ways. In most zombie films, we open with a mysterious outbreak of a virus or some government experiment gone awry. The citizens get infected and then finally, a reluctant hero emerges, with a sawed-off shot gun to save the day… of the dead. But he winds up tragically only saving himself. Wright and Pegg take those elements and redefined them when they created Shaun.


Xandy Sussan: Shaun, as a character, is archetypal, relatable, and understandable. He has a girlfriend he loves but he can’t get his act together. He works a dead end job, because he can’t get his act together. He has a Hamlet-esque relationship with his sainted mother, and childishly hates his step-father, because he can’t get his act together. Shaun is your basic everyman. The twist? Shaun is, while healthy, a zombie merely plodding through his own life. It takes the confrontation with the real zombies to knock him out of his stupor , to seize life, and to regain his love.


Both as a character and a visual metaphor, Shaun is what makes this movie such a gem and it is the literalness of the metaphor that makes it so clever. While the concept of the man sleep-walking through life is a well established premise, showing a man literally walking through life like a zombie, until such time as he has to fight actual zombies is a fresh and inventive take on that basic idea. The script wove pedestrian character dilemmas in to the fabric of the story so seamlessly. It used action counterpoint so masterfully, to articulate the problems that it felt there were two films (a romantic comedy and a zombie flick) running side by side, in harmonious, parallel perfection.

Merrel Davis: It is Shaun’s day-to-day minutiae, which establishes his character as someone we know, but that is only half of the character equation. Every Lone Ranger needs his Tonto, and for Shaun, it is the daft and selfish, best friend Ed. Ed appears only as comic relief in the first act, a bumbling fool who is so self-involved that while everyone is running from zombies, it is he who pauses for a silly photo-op or takes a call from a mate looking to score some weed. Others, including Shaun, feel that it is exactly this behavior that is holding Shaun back. Ed’s actions, serve to highlight the duality of Shaun: the man-child and the emerging hero. It is these two discordant characteristics, which illuminate Shaun’s inability to marry his old life with his new.


When Shaun finally decides that he must grow up, that he must be responsible for more than just himself, it is Ed’s ridiculous and selfish behavior that forces Shaun into a moment of clarity and responsibility. At the height of being surrounded by hundreds of zombies in front of the locked pub, “The Winchester,” Shaun can no longer ignore what he hates about his friend, what he hates about himself.

Like a good “Tonto” always did, when backed in a corner, Ed displays a triumphant act of heroism and sacrifice. When the zombies are closing in on the cellar and it seems as though all is lost, Ed redeems himself and shows Shaun that while you can still be a child at heart, you can also be a man.

Visual Style

Turning an eye to the visual look of Shaun of the Dead, we discover frenetic and fast paced cuts ala Requiem for a Dream for the most mundane of tasks such as brushing teeth. It is this visual reinvention of pedestrian activities which creates a feverish yet controlled environment that enhances the pacing of the plot. It is this filmmaking style, married with intuitive use of tracking shots and visual call backs that makes this movie.


MD: The first scene is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and editing that immediately pulls the audience in, while exposing several layers of backstory through a series of cut-aways and reveals. The scene begins tight on Shaun. It appears as if he is alone at the bar. Then, as we pull back, Liz is revealed. It now seems as though they are alone having a relationship chat. But then, we go wide again to reveal Ed, as he plays a fruit machine, mere steps away from the quarreling lovers. Then we ratchet back in tight to Shaun and Liz, until the line “It’s not like I don’t like David and Di” where we reveal yet again, there are more players in the room. We cut to a medium wide of David and Dianne as they sit right next to Liz; a hilarious reveal.

This style of editing and shot construction opens up the scene to five players, in a clever way that later echoes the interpersonal relationships and struggles the characters must confront. It also allows for us to go back in tight between two characters and then go wide again, without feeling too jostled.


XS: I love the entire “You’ve got red on you” sequence and multiple call backs. From the moment it begins, we find a foreboding, yet hilarious rake joke foreshadowing what’s to come. A simple pen stain on a white shirt really means so much more. It establishes character: a schnook of a man whose pen breaks open, ruining his work shirt. We suddenly know all we need to about that guy, and it’s all conveyed through one tiny detail: a small red stain on a white work shirt.

The red ink establishing the bloodshed to come is both a simple and elegant. It is a perfect visual clue to let us know what is just around the corner. When both Ed and Shaun’s Mother subsequently deliver the line “You’ve got red on you,” the meaning and intention is overtly clear. It is a quite clever touch, really.


The story is as basic as they come. Boy gets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back by slaying zombies. What Wright and Pegg did was take a standard by-the-numbers plot and make it dazzling, simply by adjusting the details and changing up the visual way in which they were presented. They did so without sacrificing originality and staying true to their genre.

XS: The story, on the whole, is satisfying on a number of levels. There’s the romance between Shaun and Liz: their easily relatable problems, their commonplace if not charming arguments, their friends who can’t help but interfere with their own agendas. It’s your standard three act romantic comedy but it delivers with clever, fresh dialogue and a breezy pace.


MD: Then there is the zombie element, the action, and the adventure. All of which takes us down a path of thrilling edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

As the zombies spill to the streets there are moments that evoke Resident Evil 2, a survival horror video game. These are moments of intense desperation and fear, not only just of the known (zombies) but the overarching fear of the unknown (government conspiracy?)

Shaun embarks on a treasure hunt of sorts, he must go from location to location, saving person by person, until he leads them to relative safety. And, as though the filmmakers knew the audience was getting a little antsy for some gunplay, they deliver in the form of a pump-action shot gun!

XS: And of course there is the comedy to give us a much needed respite from all of the harrowing gore. There’s always room for a joke and Wright and Penn know the proper moment to deliver one, especially in the most dire of circumstances. Whether is be an off-color fart joke (“Shaun, I’m sorry. No, I’m really sorry”) or the more subtle joke (“No, what does ‘exacerbate’ mean?”) there is always an instance, which enhances the story or gives us a momentary break from the non-stop action.

MD: I especially liked the choreographed attack of the elderly zombie backed by the soundtrack of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. It was new, different and gave the audience a catchy tune to bounce around to, while violence was erupting all around us.

A zombie flick is several things: it is a visual story, it is an emotional, and oft times painful journey, it is a bloody catharsis, which by the end, leads us to be reborn, satisfied movie goers. Shaun of the Dead is a perfect example of a film whose details made all the difference between lazing down the path of least resistance and charging down the avenue of newly conceived, exciting peril.

It is with Shaun of the Dead that we rediscover our love of romance, adventure and are thrilled by an equal amount of gory, yet hilarious, zombie slaying. The audience leaves with two lessons: Pay attention to your life, because it’s over before you know it. And that any story is new again when you simply change the details. The details are what will make your script and subsequent film stand out from the lackluster trite projects that consistently glut the marketplace. Shaun of the Dead should inspire you, as it did us, to employ standard structure and stay true to our chosen genre, but be intrepid when crafting original and creative, stand-out details.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Okay, time to check this out.  P is going to post to everything to all the accts I specified including this pic

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Stopping Behavior – Scanning Persistance

Stopping Behavior – Scanning Persistance: "


Otherwise known as taking your reader and or audience OUT OF THE STORY. You don’t want to do that. This seems to be a little known and common phenomenon discussed in articles, books, and workshops but make no mistake…

It’s no less important.

Plus, it happens to all of us — no matter the level. I’ve actually read about stopping behavior that occurs in journalism but it’s really not that much different in screenwriting i.e., anything written that STOPS, PAUSES, or CAUSES your reader to jump out of your story — even if only for a moment.

Now there’s no way to know for sure what will take the person reading your script out of your story… There’s a lot of little things… TINY things that we do not all share.

I consider these more OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS because you simply cannot know what’s going to make a particular person stop reading your screenplay.

Having said that, there are definitely BIG THINGS to avoid…

  • Camera directions

  • Reader asides

  • Formatting errors

  • Typos

  • Lengthy paragraphs

  • Small amounts of whitespace

  • Unbelievable character action

  • Unbelievable character dialogue

  • Too much character dialogue

  • Incorrect use of the elipsis

  • Screenplay too long

  • Screenplay too short

  • Cliché characters

  • Characters that sound the same

  • Characters explaining

  • Characters without agendas

  • Characters without descriptions

  • Characters with too much description

  • Characters without introductions

  • On the nose dialogue

  • Derivation

  • Not resolving the central question of the story

  • Boring story

  • Telling us what song to use in a particular scene

  • Too much passive voice

  • Wrong font

  • No ending

I could go on with this but you get the idea… This is just what’s IN your pages… LOL. What about your package? True, a lot of screenplays get sent via email although I personally would never do that… But it does happen every day… However, I’m talking about hard copy screenplays that get sent through the mail or some delivery service.

Had I not seen scripts with these kinds of problems, I might not have believed it but WOW… It happens and you’d be surprised how much it happens:

  • Scripts arriving in 3 ring binders

  • Scripts arriving in comb binding

  • Scripts printed on both sides of the paper

  • Scripts arriving with color covers

  • Scripts arriving with artwork on the cover

  • Scripts arriving with artwork on the title page

  • Scripts arriving with no brads

  • Scripts arriving with 3 brads

  • Scripts arriving with brads that cut your fingers

  • Scripts arriving with brads that are too short

  • Scripts arriving with brads that are too long

  • Scripts arriving with a page that lists the cast of characters

  • Scripts arriving in with each page in clear plastic sheet containers

Again, I could go on with this but this isn’t really a list of screenwriting mistakes… What I’m talking about are things that are going to stop your reader DEAD in their tracks… Everything I’ve listed above is THE EASY STUFF. The kind of stuff that you definitely should know about before you send your script out to market. These are the GIVENS i.e., it’s a GIVEN that you shouldn’t send a script out with any of these problems.

Yet… It gets done all the time.

One of my own problems is telegraphing… I tend to set up a character way too much before they speak… Especially in my first drafts. But I do it that way because just as I don’t want a reader to stop reading my script, I don’t want to stop MY WRITING FLOW. I am a huge believer is keeping the writing flowing as much, as hard, and as long as you can and if that means writing every little thing down — SO BE IT.

Because cutting… At least to me, is a piece of cake. So when I go back through that draft, I can easily cut all the telegraphing that I’ve done and in fact, it sticks out at me like a sore thumb but it was NECESSARY for me to get that draft out as I tend to think in complete thoughts i.e., I SEE THE MOVIE and I COPY IT DOWN.

But telegraphing can easily take a reader OUT OF YOUR STORY so unless there’s a very good reason to telegraph, it’s definitely one of those things you want to cut. Another thing is every little movement a character might make in a scene. Another one of my own problems to be sure… I write it like I see it which means I am directing the character’s every move on the page. But again, unless those specific movements are important and integral to the scene, just say something like:

Jack exits the truck.

Instead of:

Jack pushes his sun visor up and out of the way, turns off the radio, opens the driver’s side door and jumps out of his truck.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stuff like that… Unless we really need to know all those things before Jack exits his truck, cut ‘em.

But even that isn’t what this post is really about…

What I’m talking about here is QUANTITY. How many times are YOU willing to RISK taking your reader out of your story?

One? Two? Three? Four? MORE? LOL.

I know producers and readers that might be willing to be taken out of the story once or twice… And the good news is that these are problems that they simply cannot ignore thus, out of the story they go. Meaning, that they tend to overlook a lot of the little crap. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they won’t do this too many times before tossing the script.

I can’t give you a list of everything that might take a reader out of your story or stop them dead in their tracks… It’s too large and definitely too subjective but IT EXISTS. That means you definitely want a few people to read your script before sending it out… I even give my scripts to people that know NOTHING about screenwriting just to see what might take them out of the story… I even ask them if they’d be willing to give me some notes if something really sticks out at them.

A sixteen year old kid just read my latest script as I was very interested in his take… And yeah, he told me about all the problems he had with it… LOL. “Hey, what does EXT. mean? Every time I read it, I wonder what it means!”

Whew… Those kinds of problems I like.


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Stopping Behavior – Scanning Persistance