Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When I looked foolish by making a case for SOUTHLAND TALES

As I hinted yesterday, here's the story of how I looked like a fool when I told my bosses I really, really liked the script SOUTHLAND TALES.

There was some incredibly clever writing in that script, as well as a truly unique premise. But it wasn't realized exceptionally well. Isolated pockets of it worked so well that as a reader you really wanted the whole thing to come together and be more than the sum of its parts.  I got this just before a weekend and it was such a priority that I was going to be reading it alongside the VP of Development, the SVP of Development, the assistant to the President of Development and the President of Development himself.

After my first read, I could never have explained half of what went on in that script.  It was just all over the place and full of complex, scientific concepts and technobabble about the nature of time and reality. There were enough ideas in there for three completely different films. But the one-third of it that I really understood, I really liked.

I read it a second time, and understood it only marginally better.

I read the script FOUR times over the weekend, taking notes each time until I felt I had puzzled out most of the narrative. Then read it a FIFTH time as I wrote up the synopsis and tried to bring some order to a very chaotic script. I gave it a consider, citing its imagination, even as I knew it only worked about 50% and that was with immense effort on the part of the audience. To bulletproof myself, I mentioned the commercial viablity of all of the talent attached.

Monday morning, I was the only one in the office who didn't come in with a "What the fuck was that?!" reaction. Suffice to say, I stuck my neck way out on that one and it was a risk that didn't pay off. Worse, my efforts at explaining what went on in the film sounded less like someone bringing clarity to a confusing, dense story and more like someone grasping at straws. I probably sounded like some film school graduate opining that The Fox & The Hound was really an allegory for the Cold War.  I was in way over my head, and more importantly, I was never going to change the votes of that tribunal so I never should have been that diligent with my coverage if I knew I was going out on a limb for this project.

The big punchline was that about two years after that, DOMINO came out and proved to be one of the worst films of the decade. Tony Scott over-directed it to all hell with a style that was completely wrong for the film. And then after that SOUTHLAND TALES bombed big too.

I did eventually see SOUTHLAND TALES and it reminded me of the gulf that can exists between how a script reads and how it is eventually translated to the screen. That's probably the most polite way that I can explain that I imagined a completely different tone than what director Richard Kelly eventually delivered. The film feels far more solemn and self-important than it seemed to be on the page.

In particular, every bit of humor around the character played by Sarah Michelle Geller falls flat in the feature. There were exchanges that I took to be witty and satirical on the page that show no evidence of either in the finished film. If it was just a case of Gellar's delivery being off, I'd blame her performance, but what she delivers is so in line with the overall tone of the film that there's no conclusion to draw other than the fact she gave exactly what the director wanted.

Ultimately, I have to admit my bosses were right. The film didn't do well with critics or audiences, it was certainly over-complicated, and you probably could never have visualized the film the way Kelly did if you were just going off of the script.

SOUTHLAND TALES taught me a lot about the difference between seeing potential in a project and merely wanting a project to be good because of its association with something else you loved. It was a painful lesson, but one I'm glad I learned. I was being paid for my honest opinion, and I needed to learn to be brutally honest with myself when developing those opinions.

Monday, September 15, 2014

When a script takes a decade to get made, maybe it doesn't want to be born

I don't often have time to listen to podcasts, in part because I already have so many on my playlist that I keep falling behind on ones that everyone constantly recommends.  Because of this, I'd avoided getting hooked on How Did This Get Made? until I saw a recent live show at the Largo and could resist the siren call no longer. Each episode is about an hour long and covers a different notoriously bad movie.  The intent seems to be that the movies aren't just merely terrible, but entertainingly terrible. I can attest that some of my favorite episodes are the ones dissecting Superman III and Jaws: The Revenge.

I began by looking up the episodes for films that I had seen and once I tore through those, found that hosts Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael were funny enough that it was entertaining hearing them flip out over movies I hadn't seen.

As it happened, one of my early picks in this category was the episode revolving around the Robin Williams/Barry Levinson collaboration Toys. My only recollection of this film was that it came out around the same time as Aladdin, that the commercials mostly consisted of Robin Williams riffing in an empty field, and that it was considered an incredibly awful film. As both Williams and Levinson were coming off a hot streak of films at the time, this was not dissimilar to if Christopher Nolan and Jennifer Lawrence teamed up for a film that made Pluto Nash look good.

Drew McWeeny of HitFix was the episode's guest and brought up a fact that I'd heard, but completely forgotten - that for years, Toys was considered one of the greatest unmade scripts in Hollywood. Levinson spent almost a decade and a half trying to get it made.  Only coming off of a four-year streak that included Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, and Bugsy did he have enough clout to make this dream project.

And it bombed. Horribly.

It's unfortunately not uncommon for directors to totally blow all the capital they built on previous works by ramming through a long-gestating passion project: Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea immediately sprang to mind as such a film and I bet a number of you can fill up the comment sections with more examples.

And that's not even getting into the films made when a director is too big to be told no, such as M. Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water.

This might give a creative mind something to consider - if it's been almost impossible to get a particular script going even after you've "made it" and you have to be virtually untouchable to force it into production, maybe there's a reason for that.  At the very least, consider that this "trunk script" might not represent your work at its best.

There's a very recent example of this: Matthew Weiner's Are You Here.   As this Entertainment Weekly article explains, this was a passion project of Weiner's for over a decade. He wrote it between his first two seasons of The Sopranos. (He started on that show in 2004, so presumably this script's first draft was written in 2004 or 2005.) The article says "it took him eight years to get the script to Owen Wilson, two breaks from Mad Men to shoot it, and two more seasons to finish and edit the film."  The math on all of that seems dubious as it pushes the timeline past the present, but let's just say it took a decade or so to go from script to finished film, which became his feature directorial debut.

Let's also stipulate that Matthew Weiner is not a bad writer.  Mad Men is critically acclaimed and is pretty clearly his voice and his vision. He's not a hack, but he's not infallible either.  And within all of this, let's not overlook the most important detail - the Matthew Weiner who wrote this script a decade ago is not the same Matthew Weiner working on each episode of Mad Men

Yes, in a literal sense, it is the same guy. But I've always believed that writers grow and develop with each subsequent work. If you're doing it right, you should be getting better, particularly in the earlier stages of your career. By 2005, I think I was on my fourth screenplay and I thought I was getting pretty decent. Today, I would never show ANY of those scripts as a sample of my writing talent. As valuable as they were to my growth as a writer, I'm far better subsequent to writing those.

I actually read Are You Here a number of years ago and I immediately identified it as a "trunk script." (The term is used to refer to a script that a writer hauls out from the bottom of their stack, as if it had been locked away in a trunk.) This script came after a stretch of really sub-par scripts for work. It had been such a bleak week that when I saw the name "Matthew Weiner" on the title page, I was elated that at least one assignment that week wouldn't crush my soul.

I have not seen the finished film, so I can't render a verdict about it. However, having read the script, I can tell you have zero interest in seeing the film and there's not been a single review that changed my mind about this.  I had to sit on this opinion for a few years, as I didn't think it was fair to bash the script before the movie came out.  I was very aware that when that day came, it would be an excellent object lesson for a lot of writers, though.

It ended up being one of the most boring reads I'd had in a while.  I've read worse, I've read a LOT worse, so I'm not trying to claim that it was one of the worst scripts in existence. However, if it wasn't for the extremely acclaimed name attached to it, this thing would land in the PASS pile so fast it would break the sound barrier. I actually contacted my employer to confirm this was indeed the work of THE Matthew Weiner and not a similarly-named scribe because it contained so many hallmarks of an unseasoned writer.

For starters, the script was 138 pages long. That's a red flag with ANY script unless you're talking about some sort of epic.  This was not an epic. It was a story about a man whose father dies and leaves him an inheritance in the form of millions of dollars worth of Amish land in Pennsylvania. His sister is challenging the will and while he deals with that, he also struggles with his feelings for his young step-mother.  So in terms of concept, this isn't necessarily the sort of high-concept tale that makes for a immediately compelling read.

Even as a character-based story, it floundered. Part of what made the script laborious was that there was little sense of pace. I recall the reading of the father's will came at nearly 45 pages into the script and the script didn't make the road getting there interesting. A lot of the same points about the characters were hit again and again.  Without a strong concept and plot forcing things to advance scene-by-scene, the script was left to lean on the characters. I've seen this work before in other scripts, certainly in scripts that I praised even though they ultimately went nowhere at the companies where I was working. This script just didn't have momentum. It felt like a first draft, and a first draft from someone who was still learning how to make character drama engaging in a screenplay.

It got made eventually, probably because Matthew Weiner was just too big a name for someone to NOT take a chance on his passion project. I'm sure that the thinking was "Well, this is the guy who did Mad Men and no one got that until it came out either. I'm sure he'll make something great here too!"  Sometimes you take a gamble on something like that and it turns out to be Star Wars or The Matrix. And then sometimes you end up with a film that scored a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes and apparently had a box office so unremarkable that Box Office Mojo doesn't even have figures for it.

I have been blinded by that sort of thinking in the past too, so I can't really fault it. Early in my career, I read Richard Kelly's excellent spec script DOMINO. I championed it to my bosses, to no avail. (Their pass was more business-related than having anything to do with the quality or the commercial prospects of the material, I should note.) Having already been convinced that Richard Kelly was a genius writer operating on another level (though oddly, I wasn't blown away by DONNIE DARKO,) I was ecstatic when his next screenplay hit my desk.

That script was SOUTHLAND TALES.

I was convinced I'd told this story on the blog before, but I can't find it in the archives. As this is already a long post, I'm going to shunt that tale into it's own post for tomorrow.

I still stand by my praise of DOMINO's script, but I'm all too aware that I raved about SOUTHLAND TALES because I was a DOMINO disciple and I wanted SOUTHLAND TALES to be just as exemplary.

I'm sure that's how these passion projects eventually find their producers, someone wants them to be as good as everything else that creator has done.  The producers are staking their career on that writer's rep. For you, the writer, when your entire filmography is essentially collateral, you need to make sure that property is worth it.

And from what I see, that is the failing often. Writers and directors fly too close to the sun on their passion projects without running them through the checks and balances their early work faced. Perhaps their brilliance came out of compromise, or at least having to justify and fight for their vision.  Mostly, it needs to recognize that early works are often better left in the past.

If even Matthew Weiner can make the mistake of spending years on a "trunk script," what makes you the unsold writer so confident of everything in your catalog?  I hear so often from writers who say they have a dozen scripts "ready to go right now" and those are the writers whom I will never, ever read from because they have zero awareness of their own abilities.  If you've really taken an honest shot with 12 scripts of brilliance, SOMETHING would have happened for you by now. At a minimum, you'd be repped.

I've written about 10 spec screenplays and of those ten, I'd maybe use five as writing samples. MAYBE. There are two that I'd really lead with. and the other three are back-ups that are at least solid enough that a buyer might feel there's something the could work with.  I've got a similar ratio in my pilot scripts. 

More importantly, if I'm lucky enough to get a particular film made, I already feel like I'd be more inclined to develop something new as the follow-up rather than reach back four or five years to a script I've grown beyond.  I don't know if there are many old ideas that are so original or meaningful that they're worth blowing all your clout on, but I'm aware that opinion is informed by seeing so many of these projects crash and burn.

If you aren't your own worst critic, you'll learn that there are plenty of people who'll line up for that particular gig once you pass on it. Just ask Matthew Weiner.  But let's be honest, the guy is still going to be untouchable in TV.  Are You Here won't hurt that in the slightest. He probably is going to find it harder to direct his next feature, though. I can't help but wonder what might have resulted if his directing debut had been a script he wrote

The big takeaway - if Matthew Weiner can still make the mistake of sending out a old script that should have been cast aside or rebuilt entirely, what makes you think that everything in your portfolio deserves to be made?  Always move forward and don't cling to that early effort as the one that must be made.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nathan Fillion is part of a great cast for The Black List's next live reading!

I did not get to attend the previous Black List Live event, which was a live reading of Stephany Folsom's script 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon. This absence was partly due to it being held during Father's Day weekend while my parents were in town, but if I'm being totally candid, even without that commitment, there is no easier way to ensure I won't attend an event than setting it downtown. You pretty much need a jury summons to force my present in that hellhole of one-way streets and impossible parking.

So if you're like me, the relocation of the next Black List Live Reading to The Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood certainly makes the event a lot more appealing.  As does the announced cast headlined by Firefly's Captain Tightpants himself, Nathan Fillion.

Crap, I kinda buried the lead there. Guys, Nathan Fillion is part of this live reading! No disrespect to the rest of the fine cast, but Fillion's charm alone would be enough to get my ass in the seat for this reading of Victoria Strouse’s 2008 Black List script THE SEEKERS OF PERPETUAL LOVE (formerly known as THE APOSTLES OF INFINITE LOVE), a comedy about 3 siblings that hit the road with a New Age ‘deprogrammer’ to save their youngest sister from a doomsday cult.

And the rest of the cast will hold their own too. Featuring...

Adam Pally (Happy Endings, The Mindy Project)
Jean Smart (Designing Women, 24, Harry's Law)
Justin Bartha (The Hangover, The New Normal)
Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men, Heavenly Creatures)

Dean Cameron (Summer School)

And still at least one cast member yet to be announced who I've been assured is also a name that will have some fans buzzing.

The show is next Saturday, September 20th at 8pm. The theatre's address is 1615 Vine Street at Hollywood Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90028.

General Admission is $35 and you can get your tickets here. That's about on par with most shows at the Largo (a favorite destination for other Nathan Fillion fanatics, I believe.)

Hope a lot of you can attend!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Want to be a writer? Learn to hit deadlines and learn to be collaborative

Hopefully today will mark the start of a more active stretch on this blog. I've spent the better part of the last two months occupied with side projects, but as work on those is drawing to a close, I should be able to devote more attention to this blog.

Back in July, I attended San Diego Comic-Con and was lucky enough to attend a panel with a murderer's row of TV writers.  Speakers included Ashley Edward Miller (who was kind enough to praise my puppet videos when I introduced myself to him,) Jose Molina, Sarah Watson, Christine Boyan, and a number of other writers whom I regret I cannot recall at this moment. As these gatherings often do, the subject turned to the topic of breaking into TV writing and working on staff. Unsurprisingly, many people had varying stories, though just about all of them agreed it wasn't easy.

One point stressed again and again was the need to be the kind of person whom other people want to spend 12 hours a day with. You're spending five days a week in a writers' room with maybe a dozen other people. No matter how good a writer you are, if you make that an unpleasant experience, you won't last long. For a number of showrunners, a key question they ask themselves when considering a new hire is "Can I stand being with this person constantly?"

Ashley Edward Miller had some of the best advice though. He related the story of how one of his earliest assignments with his partner Zack Stentz was on the syndicated sci-fi series Andromeda, run at the time by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The two "broke" the story over several days with Wolfe and the writing staff. (For those not in the know, "breaking a story" is the process by which a script is worked out beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene, usually on white dry erase boards in the writers' room.)

It's important to know that these two were freelancers and not part of the writing staff. This script was essentially a "job interview," or at the very least, that's how they were choosing to look at it. Every night, after spending the day gradually shape the outline in the writers' room, Miller and Stentz would go home and write the scenes that had been worked out. This meant that 13 hours after the story was completely broken, Miller and Stentz turned in a completed first draft.

Time is money in television and where you lose the most time is waiting for new scripts. A show may start the season with plenty of lead time, but it's an inevitability that come November, that lead time is gone and scripts are being turned in uncomfortably close to production time.  This means less time for production to prep, less time for rewriting that can sharpen the script, less time for casting to get the actors you need, less time for wardrobe to clothe those actors, less time for the script coming up next in the rotation.... you get the picture.

It's my understanding that on most shows, a writer gets a week, perhaps two, to turn in a first draft. By being diligent, Miller and Stentz just gave the show at least seven extra days. In production terms, that's huge. If you're able to save time, you will rise through the ranks. (Obviously, this also assumes that your work is of a certain standard. Turn in a shitty script and the time spent trying to make it production-ready will murder any days you save them.)

Miller and Stentz were quickly welcomed onto staff and went on to write for the shows Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe, and have written the screenplays for Thor, X-Men: First Class and are currently working on the Power Rangers reboot. When guys who've been that successful tell you what they did to get started, you should listen.

TV writing is probably not a career for you if you are the kind of person who was writing all your college final papers the night before they were due. You have to be a writing machine, so as you work on your own scripts, set strict deadlines for yourself and hold yourself accountable. Be brilliant, but also try to be early.

This doesn't stop when you become the executive producer. You might be the top dog on the show, but you're still accountable to your studio and network, and believe me, they are far more comfortable working with someone who is hitting their deadlines, making their days on set and staying within budget.

A friend of mine worked on a perpetual "bubble show" a few years ago. This was one of those series whose fate always seemed like it could go either way come renewal time. Ratings were decent, but not huge, buzz was light, quality ranged from decent to mediocre. It was not the sort of show that people were breathlessly recapping the next day, talking about on Twitter, or writing about in publications. If it died, you probably wouldn't be shocked and if it came back long enough, you'd like wonder, "Whoa, that show's still on?"

The show went on for several seasons longer than common sense would seem to have dictated and do you know what a huge factor in that was? The showrunner's collaborative nature with his network and studio. He'd come in the first week of the season with a roadmap for the first 13 episodes, including the main characters' storylines and the new characters they intended to introduce. "Here it is," he'd say. "This is the season, I'm open to your feedback."

And he was. Better still, because he was a good manager of his writing staff and his production team, that show was a well-oiled machine. Scripts were delivered on time, his directors made their days, and he spent his budget wisely.  The show rarely, if ever, had overages, and he knew how to rob Peter to pay Paul if there was something on the show he felt was worth the extra expense.

The number one rule of film or TV is "do not cost them extra money or time." If you can pull that off, a network or studio will generally be far more inclined to loosen the leash creatively.  And when you do have creative differences, pick your battles. You cannot fight a network on every point.  More significantly, if tensions get to the point where such discussions more frequently resemble a battle as opposed to a creative discussion between two parties who both want the show to succeed, you've already kind of lost.

They have the money so they get to set the rules. The smart showrunner accepts this as a reality and by being a team player who's not causing trouble for them elsewhere, can make disputes into a negotiation rather than a standoff.

Network executives are covering several shows, all of which become the standard by which they are judged. When cuts are being made at the end of the season and your show ends up on the bubble with another show, it might well be the show that was the bigger nuisance that gets the axe. Someone has to go - so it might as well be the show whose creative "genius" prompts the thought "Life's too short to spend it fighting this guy."

Or to put it more succinctly, don't be that guy who ends up making everyone else's jobs harder. I promise you it'll hurt you in the long run.

If you cannot collaborate with others, if you consider yourself socially awkward and fear having to speak up in meetings with executives, if you cannot tolerate working within limitations or being beholden to creative input from others, then a career in television is not for you.

And let's be honest, if you want to work in film, those traits are equally essential. If you want to write without limitation and socialization, become a novelist.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Last day to contribute to Emily Blake's short film Kickstarter!

Fellow screenwriting blogger Emily Blake is in the final two days of her Kickstarter for her short film "Tenspotting,"  which she describes as "A heart-warming romantic comedy that's a love letter to fandom and con culture - and, of course, to Doctor Who."

Meet Angel (Chloe Dykstra), a cosplayer who met her perfect "Ten" at last year's convention. He was everything she looked for in a guy, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Doctor Who and an impeccable Tenth Doctor cosplay. The only trouble is that she never got his name or number. And there are hundreds of other cosplayers who look just like him!

At this year's convention, Angel's friend Tamara (Tiffany Smith) is on a mission to help Angel hunt down her perfect Ten in a sea of Doctors. Will she be able to find him again? Or will she find another connection in an unexpected place?

Tenspotting was conceived by a group of writers having drinks and shooting the breeze one evening at the 2013 Comic-Con International in San Diego. The idea was simple: what if you met your soul mate at a convention, but couldn't find them among similar cosplayers? Screenwriters Emily Blake and Michael Patrick Sullivan wrote a script, Respect Films signed on to produce, and a short film was born!

You can also find Emily's own post about why she wants to make this film on her blog here.

The campaign had set a goal of $8,500, which they met Sunday night and are in the process of exceeding. With that sucess, you might wonder why I'm pushing you to give more. First, they've added a stretch goal of shooting a post-credits scene if they get to $9,500.  The real reason is that a failing of Kickstarter is that you can never be sure that the money pledged will equal the money actually collected.  This article does a better job of explaining this sort of occurrence:

Stacy Davidson was seeking $56,000 for a video game project, and he hit his goal. But when Kickstarter ran the investors' credit cards, a few of the pledges turned out to be bogus, including one whopping $10,000 one. Kickstarter funds projects based on pledges, not actual cash collected, so that left Davidson with a significant shortfall to cover. But since completed Kickstarter campaigns can’t be reopened or added to, Davidson ended up asking for private donations to help fill in the gap. 

Lesson learned: Don’t rest on your laurels just because you’ve hit your goal. Keep promoting your project until the time is up, no matter how far over goal you are. 

Emily's been a good friend to the screenwriting community for a while now through her blog and her latest venture, the Chicks Who Script podcast with Maggie Levin and Lauren Schacher is off to a great start. If you've ever been looking for a way to show your thanks for all she's done, this is your chance. If it helps, think of it as a tip jar.

Click here to give to the Tenspotting campaign.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Interview with me on Creative Screenwriting

Sorry I've been absent lately, guys. I've been working on a short film as well as a side project while also working on a new spec, so posts have been in short supply lately. I'll try to resume a more normal schedule after Labor Day.

Until then, enjoy this interview with me that Creative Screenwriting just ran. It's newly published, but I actually was interviewed about a year ago, which is why I make reference to "over a dozen people" who have been signed via The Black List site when the number is much higher by now.

Click on through for the interview and have a good holiday weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Film School Rejects article: 5 Modern Gems Released During the Dumping Ground That is the Last Half of August

It’s that time of year. School is mere weeks away from starting up again, the biggest blockbusters have had their bows, and the studio releases are transitioning to the distribution equivalent of tossing an old couch on the curb to make room for the new one. May, June and July (and let’s be honest, now April) bring the big crowd pleasers. The last two weeks of summer herald the arrival of the “Everything Must Go” Sales before fall sends us into Oscar bait prestige pictures.

 Don’t believe me? The slate for the next two weeks includes Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, a sequel that’s arriving at least five years too late; Are You Here, the directorial debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that garnered early reviews in the exact opposite tone of his acclaimed show; Jessabelle, a release from the Blumhouse factory that’s not getting a plum horror spot, so you know it’s good; and The November Man, an entry in the very neglected genre of CIA agents dragged back into the game because “this time it’s personal!”

It’s generally an accepted fact that if a movie is set for the dog days of August, the studio has less confidence in it than Taylor Swift’s latest beau does of being the one guy she dates who doesn’t end up inspiring a song.

 But every now and then, conventions are made to be broken.

Read the rest of my article over at Film School Rejects to find out which five films I consider to be the modern classics released during this dumping period.