Friday, February 27, 2015

Farewell, Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy is dead at the age of 83.

I have been a Star Trek fan since about the age of 10, when my occasionally viewing of TNG led me to discover the original Star Trek series and the films. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Kirk. I'm pretty sure I've spoken somewhere in this space about how so much of his attitude was incorporated into my still developing philosophy, the least of which not being "I don't believe in a no-win scenario."

But make no mistake, there's a lot of Spock in me too. When it becomes necessary for me to consciously detach my emotions from a decision and look at it from cold hard logic, I know I'm am summoning that inner Vulcan, much as I have for many years. And yet, I find that Spock aspect to be remarkably little comfort as I pen this tribute.

We don't have many living icons, and after yesterday, there's one fewer in the world. Star Trek is on the verge of celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Nimoy is the only cast member who was there from the very start, all the way to the failed pilot that starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Over the three seasons of the original series, Nimoy made several contributions to his character, including the Vulcan salute and the Vulcan neck pinch. When you've read as many Trek memoirs and behind the scenes books as I have, you emerge with a strong picture of which actors were deeply invested in the integrity of their character, which ones were concerned with screentime, and which ones were there just for a paycheck. Nimoy consistently was driven by the integrity of the story and of his character.

Though - like many actors in his position - it seems there was a time when he wanted to leave Spock in the past, but the time of the films he'd come to embrace Trek fandom and I've never heard any story of him being less than gracious to the fans. After that, he never seemed to take for granted the opportunities that Star Trek had brought him. He was also a philanthropist, and among the efforts he donated to were the restoration of Los Angeles's Griffith Observatory. There's even a lecture hall and theatre named in his honor there.

When invited to return to later incarnations of the series, his concern was less the size of the part and more the value of the character to the story. I'm grateful he lived long enough to participate in the J.J. Abrams reboot, which saw Spock's actions prove essential to creating the "new" timeline the films follow.

I'd always hoped that he and William Shatner would share the screen one last time as Kirk and Spock. There were rumors that the new Trek film could produce such a scene, bringing them face to face with their successors in the role.

The reparte between Shatner and Nimoy is always a highlight of any behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek, and earlier today, as I looked for something to brighten my spirits, I lamented I did not have either of the Shatner-penned memoirs Star Trek Memories or Get a Life! on hand. Both feature numerous accounts of Bill pranking Leonard, like the class clown tweaking the stern headmaster. Fortunately, in looking on YouTube, I found a delightful retelling of the incident, from an old convention appearance.

There's some wonderful footage on the bluray for the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed STAR TREK film, which featured Nimoy returning to the role for the first time since 1991. In it, the often-stoic Nimoy becomes moved when he speaks of how Abrams and his collaborators approached him, hoping to lure him back to play Spock one more time. He had assumed Star Trek had long left him behind and this appeal - one that made Spock essential to the story - touched him greatly.

Later, we see Nimoy on set, filming a scene meant to take place in an assembly hall at Starfleet Academy. The hundred or so costumed extras in the seats relax between set-ups, likely already becoming bored after hours on set watching Kirk be awarded command of the Enterprise. And then J.J. Abrams, standing in the mezzanine above, gets on the "god-mic" and announces "Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock, is here." The extras rise like attendees at the opening of a rock concert and applaud long and loud as Mr. Nimoy flashes the Vulcan hand symbol and gives an inappropriate-for-a-Vulcan beaming grin.

It already was emotional seeing a man in his twilight years being shown respect from those who grew up watching him. After today, it will be especially sad to watch that footage. But also happy, for we can see tangible proof that he knew how beloved he was. He was appreciated while we still had him, and that should make us happy.

We should learn from Spock's logical mind, but also aspire to be like Leonard Nimoy: gracious in our success, paying forward our good fortunes, and cherishing our short time on this planet to make an impact as far as our reach extends. He lived a good life, and he knew it was a good life. Even as we grieve, we should celebrate that.

It is, as Spock would say, only logical. As Dr. McCoy once said, "He's not really dead as long as we remember him."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marvel's Agent Carter outdoes AGENTS OF SHIELD at almost every turn

ABC has been experimenting with ways to keep the time slots of some of its biggest shows "warm" while those shows take necessary breaks during the season. This season it commissioned short runs of two series that briefly replaced returning shows. Once Upon a Time was briefly replaced by the musical fantasy show Galavant, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a ridiculously, unnecessarily long title I will not be typing in full again) found its Tuesday berth occupied by Agent Carter for seven weeks.

I'll cut to the chase. If ABC wants to serve up 22 eps of Agent Carter next season and order only 8 episodes of SHIELD to act as a temporary relief pitcher, I'd have zero complaints with that. Seriously ABC, can we keep her? From where I sit, Agent Carter is the superior Marvel spinoff by far. With only five episodes having aired so far, the series has found its voice with incredible ease. There's barely been any shakedown period for the show and the writing staff (led by creators Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas) seems to have understood the kind of show they wanted to make from Day One.

Strangely, despite the fact it's set nearly over 60 years from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (save for its "parent," Captain America: The First Avenger), it feels much more like a part of that universe than SHIELD does. Part of this might be that Captain America did just that good a job of world-building. The 40s-era setting also makes the show visually distinctive on network TV. You won't find another series set in this era, and the production design and costuming teams deserve huge kudos for their part in making the show look gorgeous. There's a color and style that really makes the images pop, and helps match Captain America's aesthetic to boot.

(And let's also throw some love to the VFX team. The show's VFX Supervisor Sheena Duggal said last week on Twitter that, "We have over 1000 VFX across 8 EP's. That's crazy for network TVs limited budget." That it looks so good is a testament to their professionalism.)

SHIELD doesn't have that sort of visual continuity with the films. Nothing we've seen on the series really feels like an outgrowth of the SHIELD environs glimpsed in The Avengers, for one. Thus, we've gone from the really intricately-designed Helicarrier of the films to the cramped and relatively unadorned jet that our heroes use. Even when the show has utilized guest stars from the other movies, those characters have felt out of place, and it's difficult to associate them with their feature counterparts.

And then there's Agent Carter's best asset - Haley Atwell as the eponymous character. Peggy Carter doesn't take any shit, particularly since she was so vital to the war effort only to find herself treated as a mere secretary around her government office post-war. I think in a lesser actresses hands, Peggy's clashes against her sexist co-workers could come across as petulant. There's a fair amount of charm there, but even more significant is the confidence behind every action and statement.

A good example is a recent episode when she pushes to be sent on a mission to Russia. Her boss isn't keen on the idea, claiming the heat he'll get if "a woman" is killed is not something he wants to deal with. (There's also more than a subtle implication that he doesn't consider this spy craft to be "woman's work" at all, despite the fact Peggy is the one who earned this lead by cracking a Russian code where their male code-breakers have failed.) So Peggy trumps him, asking if his concerns would be allayed if the Howling Commandos were recruited to join them on the mission. He agrees, clearly not believing there's a snowball's chance in hell that the Commandos would do so. Peggy might as well be asking for McArthur himself to be part of this campaign. Peggy steps out of the room while the two male agents discuss business and re-enters not three minutes later saying she's already made the call and the Howling Commandos are in.

Bad. Ass. Honestly, that's almost a Tony Stark move there.

Notably, when Peggy is reunited with the Howling Commandos (whom she fought alongside during the war) they give her partner, Agent Thompson, some grief about not putting as much trust and respect in Peggy as these war buddies clearly do. It's a recurring theme in Agent Carter that Peggy is ridiculously undervalued despite being the most capable person in her office. There are usually several instances a show where we're reminded of the sexism of the time. I won't say it's not laid on a little thick at times. The show's treatment of this isn't subtle, but perhaps it's not inappropriate to the time. I've chosen to rationalize it as Carter's insistence on kicking in those doors has had the reaction of the men doubling down to compensate for her strength.

Since Peggy is seemingly so talented at every thing the show has thrown at her, there's obviously the risk that she could become a "Mary Sue." It's a fate that befell SHIELD's Skye last season, and one they only recently seem to have figured out how to dial back. The reason why Peggy's savant skills in everything from code-breaking to fighting in a skirt don't become ridiculous is that no matter what she does, no one EVER seems to give her credit for it. Even when her co-workers are aware of her feats, it doesn't earn her any respect or have them falling at her feet. It's a neat trick that keeps her as an underdog, despite being the best agent on her team by far.

If there's a weakness from this, it's that the net effect is that Peggy's co-workers still aren't terribly developed as characters. Gradually they're gaining distinction from each other, but week-to-week I sometimes have trouble even remembering their names. At the moment, they're mostly defined by their work relationships with Peggy, but since this is not an ensemble, it's not a fatal error. It's also an issue that's likely to be mitigated as her relationships with each of the men gains some depth. We're clearly on a path where she's going to win the respect of a few of these guys in different degrees, and that'll allow the writers to transform the knee-jerk sexism into something more.

This season has also benefited from having a very focused story through just eight episodes. It's a lot easier to tell one story in that time, using Carter as the main protagonist. If this arc was stretched out across 22 episodes, it would probably be more necessary to develop the supporting characters more. It takes a lot to fill up 22 hours of TV. SHIELD spent much of last season delaying progress in a number of its arcs, perhaps most frustratingly demonstrated when it came to addressing how Agent Coulson (killed in The Avengers) was alive and well there.

I felt the show made a misstep in dangling that mystery in front of the audience, but not giving Coulson or any of the characters much awareness of the mystery for nearly 10 episodes. Every few episodes we'd get a reminder that something wasn't right with Coulson, but no forward momentum. There was nothing driving that plot to a resolution for a while. Accurately or not, it felt like the writers were kicking that reveal down the road until after they could come up with an answer.

SHIELD's also stuck in a weird place where it appears the movies won't acknowledge Coulson's resurrection for fear of confusing the film-only audience. Thus, the writers are stuck adjusting to any large-universe changes from the films, but have to craft excuses that will keep the film characters from learning of Coulson's continued existence. That disconnect only furthers the estrangement between SHIELD and the movies. I like Clark Gregg as an actor, but I kind of wish SHIELD was built around a more dynamic character, and one who didn't bring so much awkward baggage with him. Coulson might have fared better as a supporting "Chief O'Brien" type character rather than the anchor of the ensemble.

In the match-up between Carter and Coulson, there's really no contest as to who's the most compelling lead. Agent Carter makes the very smart decision to give Peggy a private life, a "secret identity" if you will. The occasional scenes at the boarding house she shares with several other women adds some necessary tension. Not only are these people who don't know Peggy's more qualified than most male spies, but these are people who don't know she works for the government at all. Just as Alias was more interesting when there were people who didn't know Sydney was a spy, forcing her to maintain a double life, Agent Carter wrings a lot of life and humor out of Peggy's current residence. A series of mission after mission can run the risk of getting old fast, and it's nice that this aspect lets the writers do some world-building. I wish SHIELD offered similar opportunities for Coulson to let his own hair down.

I hesitate even offering this much criticism of SHIELD because I've never seen a fan base so defensive about criticism of their show. I've literally had people use the defense "It gets really good after 17 episodes!" While it's true that the show reached a turning point when it dealt with fallout from The Winter Soldier, it never reached the heights of Agent Carter. I stuck with it through the first season to give it a chance, and honestly, the only thing that lured me back for season two was the presence of Reed Diamond as the main antagonist. I'll concede the show's gotten better since its launch, but I think this is where I get off the ride.

One area where Agent Carter isn't coming out ahead of SHIELD is in the ratings. Carter has a season average of 1.59 in the coveted 18-49 ratings demographic, while SHIELD has a 1.7.  As I understand it, renewal isn't a certainty for Agent Carter, so if this sounds at all like the kind of show you'd like, I beg you to support it. There are only three episodes left, counting tonight's.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Five early '90s movies that would make great TV shows

This was a depressing TV development season for new ideas. Over 30 scripts that were bought were based on movies, all part of the latest trend of hedging bets by banking on a familiar title to grab the attention of an audience. If you're interested in a complete accounting of all of these projects that were purchased last fall, check out this Slashfilm ranking of the 31 properties that were being rebooted in one form or another:

A number of these just sound dubious on their face. The fact that the 1990 film Problem Child apparently has more value 25 years after its debut than a fresh idea would is just a kick in the balls to creative television. Look, I SAW Problem Child in theatres - TWICE. I was also ten, and let me tell you, you age out of that humor fast. (This is backed up by the grosses for the sequel, which only made half as much just a year later.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer will always be the rebuttal to a concern that a weak film can't make a good TV show... but is anyone really dying to see the further adventures of Junior?

Even in 1991, would this have been a good idea for a series? Hell, Uncle Buck (another property ordered to pilot) wasn't even a good idea for a series IN 1990!

I don't think all of these ideas are terrible (The Truman Show could be pretty interesting, and as a fan of Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce, I'm pulling for their Big limited series.) Still, looking at that slate, my heart goes out to the original ideas that were passed over in favor of Bachelor Party. It's really weird when a network is trying to adapt a show based on a film old enough to be in the desired ratings demographic.

Lest you think I'm picking on the film's age, after giving the matter some thought, I came up with five early nineties movies that might actually make for good TV series. So if you're looking to get a jump on the next development season, start tracking down who controls the rights to these:

Dave (1993) - A normal guy becomes the President. Yeah, you could go the single camera route with this, sort of a The West Wing meets Scrubs, but the real money probably comes from doing this as a three-camera sitcom. Cast it with Matthew Perry, Tim Meadows or Bill Hader. (My first pick would have been Stephen Colbert, but he's not going to be available.)

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) - The only thing with more comic potential than sending a normal guy into the White House is sending a con-man there. I've always thought this Eddie Murphy movie was under-rated and had a lot of great bits buried in an admittedly-predictable plot and character arc. I don't think Congress has ever had a lower approval rating than in recent years, so why not embrace that with a sitcom that hangs a lantern on all the scum nursing at the government teat? So who can replace Eddie? I keep coming back to Neil Patrick Harris, who can play sleazy with just the right amount of class you'd want from a con-man. Or to go in a totally different direction - J. B. Smoove.

Sister Act (1992) - There's a ready-made story engine here - a lounge singer hides in witness protection as a nun, doing good deeds while trying to stay under the radar. It's case-of-the-week storytelling with a backgrounded mytharc. You could go the sitcom route with this, but maybe the more interesting way is to make it a Ryan Murphy-esque dramady. You can't do Sister Act without the singing nuns (which is one reason why Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit is a terrible film), and with them interpreting classic hits anew each week, you've got a ready-made iTunes cross-promotion. All of this adds up to it being a good fit for Fox. My picks for Sister Mary Clarence? You need someone who can sing, so if you're drafting from GLEE: Naya Rivera. I also really like the idea of Jane Krakowski, but I feel like there's a really good option I'm not thinking of.

Guarding Tess (1994) - A Secret Service agent has to guard a widowed First Lady who's beloved by the country but a total pain in the ass. It's another one that could completely adapt to the three-camera format. It's fairly easy to confine most of the action to the First Lady's estate, and when you're making a film where the lead was played by Nicholas Cage, using a format that encourages "bigger" acting isn't bad. I'm seeing Carrie Fisher as the First Lady, with Jason Segel as the beleaguered Secret Service Agent.

King Ralph (1991) - A boorish American turns out to be the last heir to the British Royal family. Culture-clash makes for a great engine for comedy. I say get John Goodman to reprise his role, perhaps with Ioan Gruffudd as the British Prime Minister who regularly butts heads with him. not for network TV, but would fit great on Amazon.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

This blog turns six! - There's still much more work to do

Today this blog is six years old. Honestly, I'm kind of surprised it's lasted this long and that so many of you fine people still drop by to read every new post. It's funny to think that when I started it, I wondered if I'd have enough material to keep me going six months.

Some of you have possibly noticed that the blog output has slowed a bit. That's largely due to the fact that I've exhausted a lot of the common topics and questions I could cover related to screenwriting. I've been able to compensate for that over the last few months as it's Oscar Movie season and I've had a full buffet of great movies to discuss.

The other big sea change is that it's become more and more common for people to use Twitter as an output for their musings and advice. I still like the idea of a permanent archive on the blog, partly because it allows new readers to discover those nuggets long after the fact. Even so, I know I've had plenty of times where I've tossed off a good rant on twitter and found that got it enough out of my system that I didn't feel the need to come back here and flesh it out. I'm trying to be better about that.

Ah, Twitter. I really can't believe that I still have yet to plateau in terms of followers. As I write this I have over 27,700 followers and the last time I checked, only a few percent of those were deemed "fake." It's flattering to see evidence that people are still discovering me and interested in what I have to say.

I bring this up because even more than through this blog, I've made a lot of great friends and contacts through Twitter over the last six years. It's absolutely been one of the best things I could have done for my career. I've made some good friends, including fellow aspiring writers, actors, and working writers - including a showrunner or two. I definitely recommend trying to build your own social network. It takes time but if you use Twitter right, you might find a few doors opening up for you.

As it's Awards Season, it feels appropriate to conclude this look back with a few thank yous.  There's not enough space here to acknowledge everyone whom I've met and become friends with due to this blog, but there are a few in particular I want to call out.

I did my best to put this list in random order, but I have to start with Scott Myers. About five months into the life of this blog, Scott was the one who really put me on the map when he featured me and gave me a very generous plug on the only must-read screenwriting blog, Go Into The Story. For almost five years, my relationship with Scott was completely through emails and tweets. I met him just over a year ago and it was a genuine delight to find he was everything you'd expect. Scott is the screenwriting professor I wish I'd had in college, running the sort of blog I could only dream of reading when I was taking my first steps into screenwriting. As I implore you often, please visit Go Into The Story regularly.

Hollywood has a reputation for having a lot of assholes. Some of that is earned, but my first-hand experience has been that there are a significant number of sincerely giving people. Over the years, a very high percentage of the working writers I have met have been some of the kindest, most helpful people out there. There's this myth that working writers are out to screw over aspirings. I've never seen any evidence of this, and the people I'm about to name-check are the furthest from that:

Eric Heisserer was one of the first working writers whom I got to know through Twitter, following his reaction to a tweet about the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot. He later consented to an interview about the film and also authored a guest post about the life of a script in the studio development process. Even today, that post stands as my third-most-popular post of all time. On a one-on-one level, Eric has also been giving enough of his time to read some of my work and offer help where he could. He didn't do it so I'd blog about it, he's just that kind of person. Publicly he's very giving in offering the occasional screenwriting knowledge drops on Twitter, and I encourage you to follow him for his regular insights.

If you just know John Gary from Twitter, you probably have this image of him as the cranky pessimist who's the first one to say why the latest screenwriting development is a half-empty glass. But you'll have to look hard to find a more passionate advocate for writers, and someone more determined to make sure that naive aspirings aren't taken advantage of by charlatans and scams. He also regularly takes on what he calls The Hope Machine - the parent of the pie-in-the-sky fantasies that writers have about how easy it'll be to gain fame and forture from their writing. John doesn't tell you want you want to hear - he says what you NEED to hear. Like me he's seen the business from the inside as both a reader and a writer, and you would ignore the wisdom from that experience at your peril.

Along the same lines, I consider Geoff LaTulippe a must-follow. You can never accuse Geoff of not speaking his mind and while his blunt and aggressive nature sometimes gets him into trouble, he's very open to answering questions from aspiring writers on Twitter, on his podcast Broken Projector and on his personal website. If memory serves, Geoff might have been the first pro writer to reach out to me with an offer to read my script, and I know that's a courtesy he's extended to a few, perhaps many, others.

Justin Marks is a working writer who I first came to know via Twitter. We seem to approach things from a similar point of view and it's rare that there's a significant gulf in our opinions. (Justin once quipped that "we could pilot a Jaeger together.") I finally met him last year and it was a relief to learn that our rapport extended to our face-to-face interaction. Justin's got two big projects in the future: The Jon Favreau-directed Jungle Book movie coming in 2016 and the sequel to Top Gun, still unscheduled as far as I know. He's another one whose tweets can be a good insight into the business, so give him a follow.

F. Scott Frazier was one of the first writers to reach out to me to meet in person, and I'm glad I dropped the mask to do so. Scott tends to do his good deeds without advertising them, but I know he's gone out of his way to be a mentor to some writers. Like many others I know, he definitely believes in paying it forward, and frankly, he's prolific enough that it would be understandable if he didn't want to take the time to do so. I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my interview with him.

When people come to me asking for a coverage referral, I point them at Amanda Pendolino and ONLY Amanda Pendolino. Like me, Amanda's gotten a number of years as a script reader under her belt while trying to build her own career. She gives really sharp notes, and in a manner that always feels constructive. I recently gave her a script that I'm pretty sure wasn't her cup of tea, but she made a passionate, persuasive case for her opinions without making me feel like I'd been eviscerated. That's rare. On top of that, she's a great writer who deserves to be on staff somewhere. I know if I was a showrunner, she'd be one of my early draft picks.

Speaking of showrunners, Jeff Lieber is another favorite twitter-buddy. Currently one of the showrunners on NCIS: New Orleans, Jeff is one of the creators of Lost, as well as the creator of Miami Medical and was a showrunner on Necessary Roughness. He's used those assignments and others as fodder for his Showrunner Rules, which he regularly doles out on Twitter. You can find the whole archive here and his feed is always a valuable read.

The people I've named already are all great writers, but one writer whose work just knocked me on my ass was Brian Scully. I gave a spotlight post to his brilliant script MERCIFUL last year and soon after that, Brian landed management with Verve. I'm currently in the weeds on a very dark script of my own and I can honestly say that MERCIFUL has been like that rabbit they use to get the greyhounds to do laps around the track. I've read plenty of scripts that have inspired me and taught me, but MERCIFUL is one that really pushed me to be better and to not be scared to take chances.

Through my association with Go Into The Story, I also came to know Nate Winslow. Scott Myers calls him "future super producer Nate Winslow" and not without good reason. Nate is a savvy guy who's worked on a number of film projects, most recently at Defender Entertainment. If someone's smart, they'll snap him up to be their Creative Executive because he's got a great eye for projects. There are some people who you can just tell when you meet them that they have what it takes to make their own good fortune. With Nate, I know it's only a matter of time before he puts together a project and becomes one of those guys everyone is trying to get their scripts to. He's another one who keeps me motivated, if only so I don't feel like I'm standing still next to him.

And last, but certainly far from least, I consider myself fortunate to have gotten to know Black List founder Franklin Leonard. I take a very dim view of most services that ask screenwriters to pay for them. I don't typically trust coverage companies because you can't really trust who's reading those scripts, and it's rare to find such a company where the person in charge has a significant amount of credibility to put on the line. When Franklin told me he was expanding the Black List's mission to including hosting and review services for aspiring writers, I was skeptical. After he laid it out for me, I became a believer.  A few half-wits have accused my endorsement of the site of being the back-scratch that was redeemed by payola. I can assure you I have no official affiliation with the site, nor have I ever taken any sort of money, bribery or whatever you want to call it. I endorse the Black List because I believe in it and in what Franklin Leonard is trying to do.

I've been fortunate to meet many successful people. I've worked for a number of industry pros who were very good at their jobs and have been able to produce films for most of their adult lives. I want to tell you what sets Franklin Leonard apart from them. Those men and women are very adept players within the existing system. Franklin Leonard is a guy with the will and the forethought to change the system. The Black List is constantly evolving and expanding, carving out partnerships with management companies, studios and producers. More than that, Franklin is possibly one of the most above-board and intelligent people I've met out here. There's nothing phony about him, and if we had more Franklin Leonards, that wouldn't be a terrible thing for our industry.

Franklin is smart enough he could probably be very successful just playing the game as it is. Instead he's forging his own path. I'm glad that writers - both aspiring and professional - have such a driven advocate. I know he's going to continue to push to make the Black List better. I once said to him that he must be proud of everything The Black List has become and his reply was, "There's still much more work to do."

Those who succeed are often those who are rarely satisfied.

These people I have named all have a few things in common. In one way or another they have all provided support and inspiration, and I've been lucky to get to know them. And there are still plenty more whom I don't have the space to name here. I also would never have met ANY of them, had I not started this blog six years ago and stuck with it even when I was getting only 50 hits a day the first few months. I would be a poorer individual for not knowing them.

If you have good fortune, pay it forward. When you deal with others, know there's little to be gained from being a dick. When you reach a goal, start formulating the next one, pushing yourself even harder than you did before. Most of all, don't let yourself become too satisfied with whatever you accomplish.

Thank you all for six great years. There's still much more work to do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Your character contrasts should come from character, not clothes.

One of my favorite podcasts, How Did This Get Made, did an episode this week on TANGO & CASH. Some of you might remember this as the underwhelming 1989 teaming of Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. I was a little too young to discover this teaming of the titans when it first came out, so as a Lois & Clark viewer who discovered this movie in the mid-90s, I knew this as the movie where Teri Hatcher plays a stripper with a rather odd stage outfit.

This movie is VERY 80s. In fact, we've probably reached the point where its overwhelming 80s-action-ness makes this a campy delight. The idea is that Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are mismatched cops who have to clear their names after being framed by a crime lord. Tango and Cash are L.A. supercops, with Tango being a rich detective who always wears crisp Armani suits, while Cash looks more like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. This is fitting because Lethal Weapon is one of the earliest examples of the "cop movie where polar opposite partners have to overcome their differences to work together." It was such a staple of the period that I remember Roger Ebert once joking that every police department must have some computer that automatically pairs detectives with their temperamental opposites.

HDTGM points out something very important about TANGO & CASH though - the extent of the conflicting characterization only goes as far as the wardrobe. Temperamentally, there's not a lot to distinguish the characters. They're two guys who don't like each other and have to put that aside, but that's not the same thing as having opposing personalities that clash on a fundamental level. So I'll use that to offer this tip - when writing, make sure that you're not using clothing, physical appearance or backstory as the sole ways of differentiating your characters. There has to be more depth to your characters than just their look. If their histories are different, that should inform their characters in a way that brings those conflicting agendas into the drama.

Basically this is another way of reiterating the old rule of "cover up the character names and see if you can still tell the difference between the characters."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hear me talk Michael Bay on the Draft Zero podcast!

Stu Willis and Chas Fisher recently invited me onto their podcast Draft Zero to talk about about the work of Michael Bay:

Together, Stu, Chas and Bitter come through with their long-threatened episode to see what – if anything – screenwriters can learn from analysing the work of one of the most successful filmmakers all time, Michael Bay. We look at THE ROCK, THE ISLAND, and PAIN & GAIN, and cover writing great villains, controlling the flow of information to the audience (via car chases, of course) and creating visual decisions on the page. 

Go to the episode's page here.
Download the episode in mp3 form here.

As you probably guessed, this ties into my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, still available on Amazon for only $4.99!

His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER makes its most compelling statement an afterthought

When I first finished watching AMERICAN SNIPER, I'd probably have given it two stars out of four. There were a couple isolated good scenes, but it felt episodic and often dull. Worse, I really hated the ending. Like, HATED.  I wasn't sure I wanted to write a review where I focused 90% of it on a footnote at the end. If you want a review of this film in total, check out Drew McWeeny's take, which more or less aligns with mine.

As it happens, AMERICAN SNIPER is from a particular brand of film that makes you angrier every time you consider it. It's like an onion, the more you peel it back, the more it stinks. Because the problem with the ending is really a gangrene that infects this entire putrid piece of superficial filmmaking. There is a truly fascinating movie that could be mined from Chris Kyle's story and it's utterly ignored here.

I don't know how you make this film and NOT make PTSD a major, integral component.

Chris Kyle was "America's deadliest sniper," with more confirmed kills than any other marksman in U.S. history. He served four tours in the Iraq War. What that means is his time was up, but he kept going back for more - despite having a wife and two children back home who needed him. Kyle's wife in particular is perplexed by his need to keep going back there. For me, that makes her the most sympathetic character in the film. It's a lot easier to understand her fear of losing her husband than the compulsions that keep sending him into harm's way.

In one of the film's first scenes, we see a tense moment (depicted in the trailers) where Kyle has his scope trained on a kid who might be carrying a grenade. His other lookout can't confirm and so it's entirely his call to take the killshot. If he shoots and he's wrong, his ass will be fried. If he lets the kid go and he DOES have a grenade, a dozen or more soldiers could be killed.

That's a day at the office for him. And that's the movie I wish I saw more of. It's easy to imagine that self-preservation instincts will kick in and make it okay, but Kyle's not in the heat of battle. He's watching from a safe perch - he'll be fine either way, but his job demands he not only shoot a kid, but be damn sure it needed to be done. And he has seconds to make that call.

Live through four tours of that and you're going to be dealing with some serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's estimated that it affects about 11-20% of all combat vets from the Iraq War. We see a few symptoms of this in Kyle, though it's not called out as such until the last ten minutes of the film. There's one point where he returns to the States and doesn't go home or tell his wife. Instead he goes to a bar and she's hurt and confused when she learns he's back in America.

Chris Kyle was a guy who needed help. And this movie could have been a great way to explain PTSD to a wide audience that doesn't understand it. This film made over a $100M this past weekend alone. Think of all the minds that could have been woken up.

In real life, Chris Kyle seems to have been a seriously troubled guy. The movie doesn't deal with some of his more outrageous claims (such as that he went to New Orleans during Katrina and picked off looters with a sniper rifle from the top of the Superdome.) I can understand why the incidents considered unlikely to have happened were not adapted. And yet, doesn't the sheer fact that Kyle made such overblown proclamations point to the fact that the guy was dealing with some pretty major stuff? The movie pulls back Kyle's trauma to the point of defanging the tragedy of what war did to him.

In the final years of his life, Kyle worked with other soldiers suffering from PTSD. We get a taste of this in the film, but not nearly enough to make this land. And then comes the unforgiveable footnote. Kyle's fate - like Turing's in THE IMITATION GAME - is delivered via on-screen captions.  Except here, the fact and circumstances of his death are far more relevant to the film than in IMITATION GAME.

Because Chris Kyle was killed by another vet he was trying to help. A vet suffering from PTSD.

I don't think it does Kyle's memory much good to pretend that his four tours in the Iraq War didn't do incredible damage to the man. I don't think it honors the men who went over there and are still dealing with that to sweep the full scope of their trauma under the rug. This movie could have been a wake-up call to a nation - a call to arms for us to not abandon our soldiers and their medical needs once they've served their time.

It should be impossible to dislodge the contributing factors to Kyle's murder from the rest of his life. You cannot talk about Chris Kyle without talking about his final fate, because it paints an incomplete and erroneous picture of every thing that led up to it.

Throw out the politics of the film, throw out the repugnance of the fact that Eastwood overuses the device of Kyle weighing a killshot against a kid (it happens twice - SERIOUSLY), and ignore some of the uncomfortable racism. Give a pass on on those things that bother a lot of viewers and you're STILL left with a movie that misses the forest for the trees.

The PTSD story is right there and this movie is too dumb to see it. It's like doing the Magic Johnson story WOLF OF WALL STREET-style, showing him sleeping with hundreds of women and then tossing up a caption at the end saying "Oh, btw, Magic got AIDS."

Hell, it's like doing WOLF OF WALL STREET and ending after he's smuggled his cash into the Swiss Account, only to reveal via captions that he eventually got nailed by the FBI and turned informant.

I usually try to stick to the "critique the movie you're presented with, not the one you wish was made" style of criticism. In this case, the movie walks right up to pieces that would make it a much better film and just stands there. It's filmmaking malpractice to leave such rich dramatic material on the table. That the rest of the movie isn't all that good is pretty much a side note.

I did not enjoy AMERICAN SNIPER. I do not recommend AMERICAN SNIPER. That is not a judgement on Chris Kyle as a person or on veterans in general. I've seen a lot of idiots respond to criticism of this film by shouting something like "Chris Kyle was a great American! See this to support our boys! If you don't like it, you're a libtard Commie pinko!" A movie about a great man isn't necessarily great.

You want to support our boys? You want to honor Chris Kyle? Give to the Wounded Warrior Project or to Disabled American Veterans.

12 Organizations working to raise PTSD awareness.