Monday, November 14, 2016

Be the lightning bolt - Some thoughts on the last week

I haven't posted much lately. A lot of that has been work commitments, but for the past week, my silence has been because I've been trying to process the aftermath of this election. My candidate lost, which is something I've lived through before. People I know voted for the other guy, which is ALSO something I've lived through before. This time is different.

I don't want to re-litigate Trump vs. Hillary because I've got a lot to say about this aftermath, but I think we were handed about as clear a contrast as possible. Hillary was a flawed, albeit extremely qualified candidate with a long record of public service working towards the betterment of people. Was she unblemished? No, but I feel like we have to get over the "purity myth" of politicians. You go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. In Trump, we had a man with no history of public service, a lot of very questionable ties to Russia. His entry to the campaign came with a lot of ugly racist statements about Mexicans and illegal immigrants. And then, after a detour to attack captured POWs, he called for a total Muslim ban. At that point, even Paul Ryan rebuked him.

I'll admit that even at that point, as shocking as his comments were, I felt secure that they were disqualifying to such a degree that we'd never have to worry about this man facing a general election. But he kept going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. In any logical world, it was inevitable that the preponderance of these gaffes would catch up to him. But they didn't.

There's a metaphor I've been using a lot this year: "Luke Skywalker under the stairs." It's referencing a moment in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Luke, after having been goaded into a fight with Darth Vader, has retreated into a hiding spot. He's determined not to fight, but Vader keeps taunting until he finds the one nerve to hit. At that point, Luke leaps out from under the throne room stairs, lightsaber blazing and unleashes hell upon Vader. Lightsaber strike after lightsaber strike. By the end of it, Vader's on his back, disarmed and beaten.

That's how I felt as we got within 12 months of the election. I know I have friends back home who had... shall we say... strong opinions about Obama. I'd hoped that eight years of vast improvement and prosperity would turn them around, but primary season made it clear they somehow perceived Obama as the worst thing to happen to the Presidency. I behaved during the first few Trump months, figuring that some of them were just sharing Trump stuff to gawk at the car crash.

And then I hit my red line. It was the infamous "Sheriff's Star" dog whistle that was a clear anti-Semitic meme. I was proud of the bravery shown by a New York Observer columnist named Dana Schwartz, who wrote an open letter to Trump's son-in-law and campaign manager Jared Kushner, expressing her concerns that this was being seen as support for the anti-Semetic alt-right. Kushner also happens to be Schwartz's BOSS. Which... look, I like to think I have balls, but to openly suggest to your boss that he's encouraging Neo-Nazis takes BALLS. It's worth noting that Schwartz had already taken days of really ugly abuse from alt-right trolls when she did this, so she knew when she wrote this, it was only gonna draw more.

But it was the right thing to do. She appealed to him to have Trump denounce it. For his part, Kushner gave a response that started with "My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite" and basically proceeded from there. It didn't really address the core issue - that Trump's campaign seemed to be courting the anti-Semite vote - and it was in line with the rest of the campaign rhetoric, wherein his surrogates tried to convince us that it was not a Star of David in the meme, but rather a sheriff's star.


I'm of Jewish descent, but not EXACTLY Jewish. I never attended Hebrew School, never had a bar mitzvah and my mother's not Jewish, so in the strictest sense, I am not. However, half of my family is and my wife and her family are. I've read that children of mixed-religion families are more likely to consider themselves Jewish because of the cultural history attached, and that's generally where I fall.

We all grew up with the Holocaust as part of our past. I don't discount that non-Jews are equally capable of understanding that horror, but when you're growing up, that history is one thing that reminds you that no matter how much you look white, there is a LARGE segment of the population that is capable of seeing you as The Other.

I never faced anti-Semitism growing up in the suburbs of the midwest. I don't even think I knew the word "kike" until high school and THAT only came from controversy over lyrics in a Michael Jackson song. You can't even blame this on me going to a lily-white school. My high school had a higher percentage of black students than white and even there, I never felt anything you'd perceive as racial tensions. The most racist remarks you'd encounter might be something like someone observing all the black kids walk around with their pants sagging.

Bottom line: I grew up in a world where it felt like we were all educated enough that the Holocaust could never happen again and that my generation was bridging all the racial divides we'd read so much about in our history books. It's not that racism was gone, but it felt like strides forward were being made. The few bad apples were the minority and people were basically good at their hearts.

The Holocaust seemed like the red line we could all agree would never be crossed. It's why Holocaust deniers are so vile. The people responding to Ms. Schwartz weren't denying the Holocaust, but they were celebrating it. There was a lot of "We're warming the ovens up for you, kike" and when I checked the mentions of several other Jewish journalists, it was clear this was NOT an isolated block of support for Trump. It was also equally clear they had interpreted the meme the way Schwartz had.

Kushner didn't address any of the rising anti-Semitism the campaign was contributing to. There was no apology to the Jewish people for causing any pain. There was just denial, "Oh it doesn't mean that. Oh, you're being hyper-sensitive."

Their earlier attempts to incite hate against Mexicans and Muslims had been undisguised. Even if they had offered an apology, it would ring hollow. This was unique. This was an anti-Jew dog whistle. If it was unintentional, the easiest solution would be to offer apology. The denial, "Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite," infuriated me because that's not really the issue. He doesn't have to BE an anti-Semite for his actions to empower anti-Semites. All this did was provide cover for people whose own bigotry drew them to Trump, but didn't want to admit it.

I'm sure that my friends who voted Trump convinced themselves, "Well, I'm not an anti-Semite, racist or homophobe," and are offended at the suggestion that supporting Trump makes them one. Empowering homophobia IS an act of homophobia. Empowering anti-Semitism is an act of anti-Semitism. And as I said, this was not a difficult dilemma. The Trump Campaign was made up of values that every decent person should be able to reject without much introspection.

My generation grew up without really being tested with regard to bigotry, at least not in the way our parents were. Our failing might be the belief that our work stops with "I am not a bigot." We confer our own moral purity and because we're not faced with daily opportunities to affirm it outwardly, we believe that's enough. It breeds complacency and we start to think that "it can't happen here."

I've seen more anti-Semitism in the last year than in the 35 years I lived before it. It was drawn to the Trump agenda like moths to a flame and with Steve Bannon of Breitbart News acting as campaign manager, it's clear the alt-right had a mouthpiece. They saw it and anyone paying attention would have seen what a Trump victory would embolden.

THIS was my Luke Skywalker under the stairs moment. You were either with the crowd that thinks Hitler didn't go far enough, or you're with her. I'd say "it's that simple" but it's even simpler than it would have been with almost any other candidate. Trump had no coherent policy, nothing that should pose a moral dilemma in terms of rejecting the rest of his slate. For the sake of argument, if he had an economic plan that made sense, would boost the economy, help the middle class and reduce the deficit, I could see someone being mildly torn - at least up until the anti-gay stuff and the sexual assault confession and allegations.

There was no such policy, though. Where there were shreds of a policy, experts almost unanimously agreed they'd bring ruin to foreign relations, the economy and the environment. I'm saying this so it's clear - his agenda had plenty of reasons to reject it even if you discount every racial and sexual issue he barreled into. We're not dealing with a case of "Damn, he has great ideas, but he believes some horrible things."

Easy to reject, right?

And yet I saw the Hillary bashing memes still surfacing via the Facebook pages of old high school friends. Some were subtle about their Trump support, others flagrantly "liked" his page and passed forward his words from time to time. I admit, I deliberately provoked a few of them, drawing a firm line about a month out saying that I could not be friends with anyone who supported this man.

That was part threat, part truth. I was cutting off less as a matter of principle and more because seeing that kind of moral failure in a person forever changed how I felt about them. I have old friendships that are forever tainted by the knowledge that these people were so easily capable of performing mental judo to excuse someone who saw me as less of a person, who were indifferent to the numerous ways my gay friends would be caused pain under this agenda, who were not disturbed by disrespect shown to veterans, to Mexicans, to women.

These people, these Trump voters, sat in the same history classes as me. I watched their faces go pale alongside mine as Holocaust survivors would tell stories that MUST not be lost to time. When we learned about the Asian internment camps of WWII, I remember how hyperaware we were of our Japanese classmates, and how WRONG what was done to them seemed. But now, when you replace "Asian" with "Muslim," that same repulsion didn't exist.

It's easy to hate some faceless bigots in a small town in Podunk Red State. To see your old friends fail the "What would I have done in Nazi Germany" test is... it's soul-crushing.

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." Do you recognize that quote? It's from Anne Frank's diary, written while she was hiding in an attic from the Nazis who would eventually kill her. I want to agree with her, but the hardest lesson of this past week might be that... I don't.

I figured Trump's victory would empower some ugliness. I didn't expect to actually WAKE UP to reports of violence and harassment. It took less than a day for people of color to start being harassed by groups of white men. The less fortunate ones were physically assaulted, while some were merely intimidated and told to "get out of the country." The KKK was openly celebrating in North Carolina.

When you see that happen so quickly, you realize it's not as simple as just blaming Trump. These people were already here. They were hiding, walking among us, like some sort of xenophobic sleeper agents. And a lot of them are YOUNG. My generation was supposed to be the enlightened ones. We were supposed to be learning from the past. Sure, there were some bad apples. You can't help that, but as a collective, we were post-racial, right?

Observing a switch flip THAT quickly is like watching reality break before your eyes. Evil rose because we all convinced ourselves it was impossible something that ugly could happen without us knowing about it. If we were less certain of the virtue of our fellow man, maybe we'd have seen it before it boiled over. There's not inherent good in this world. We have to make it.

It's hard not to feel broken after these election results. The Republicans targeted minority voters in several key states and worked to depress turnout (and again, made no effort to disguise what they were doing). The FBI Director released a letter designed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign soon before the election, a letter that turned out to contain no new information. The media couldn't be bothered to talk about ANYTHING but Hillary's emails. Yet, despite all of that sandbagging, Hillary Clinton still not only got more votes than Trump, but one of the highest popular vote counts of this century.

And she still lost. We played their rigged game, we got the votes and she STILL lost to a guy who offered nothing and rode in on a bandwagon of hate and misogyny. Even just as an abstract concept, that feels hopeless. When you have friends who you know will suffer a lot of pain because of this, it's... look, I'm out of synonyms, it's bad.

I don't have the rousing "let's go fight" speech that undoubtedly would come out of the mouth of Captain Picard, or Kirk, or Buffy, or Superman or... you get the picture. I've spent a week trying to conjure the words, but they all sound hollow in the face of this past year. What I can offer you is this...

There's a movie I watched a lot as a kid called Short Circuit. It's about a military robot who's struck by lighting and develops a cuddly personality. His fellow robots remain instruments of destruction, but "Number 5" becomes a decent person. Right now, that's my metaphor for humanity. We're not basically good, but some people get struck by lighting and evolve beyond expectations.

Be that lightning bolt. Make it possible for someone to evolve. 

I think again of Luke Skywalker in a fighting frenzy until he has the Dark Lord of the Sith at his mercy. In that moment, he's beaten him, but that's not what saves the soul of the man who once was Anakin Skywalker. That table is turned when an unbowed Luke faces the Emperor head-on and becomes the target of all his evil power. It's that act of bravery that provokes Vader to finally turn on his dark master. He throws off years of lies and hurls him to his death.

Should the next few years become a fight for the very soul of our nation, don't be afraid to take the impact of that dark lightning. Take that stand and maybe, just maybe, those who have been blinded by the dark can save themselves and us all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

SUPERGIRL premiere reaches new heights with Superman

I've been away for a while working on other projects, but I couldn't let the opportunity go by to comment on the SUPERGIRL season premiere.

Back when SUPERGIRL was announced, I wondered how they'd handle the Superman issue. It's tricky doing a show about an offshoot character when the main franchise character is controlled by the movie division. I thought a cool way to get around this would be to start the show after some version of "The Death of Superman." It explains why Superman is off-screen and would have given Kara an interesting arc about her struggle to fill the shoes of a beloved hero. Then, at some point many seasons down the line, Superman could have always been resurrected and spun off into his own show.

Instead, the creators opted to just keep Superman an off-screen presence. While I know some people complained about the Super-cousins conversing only in IMs, I think that was the smart play. It implies communications between them, even while it kept Clark off-screen. Not bringing in Superman until Supergirl had time to establish herself and stand on her own legs.

Introducing Superman to this universe was bound to be a challenge. Even though Supergirl is the junior partner, it's still her show. She can't play second fiddle, but at the same time... it's SUPERMAN. He's supposed to be the greatest and purest hero. If Kara showed him up at every turn, it undermines Superman's reputation and the way he's been built up on the show. The challenge: how do you make Superman everything he's been hyped up to be and not turn Kara into a supporting character on her own show?

That's a tough needle to thread and they pulled it off. The first smart move was to put them up against a challenge that needed both of them to fight. Of course, the Venture crisis is the latest in a long line of aerial disasters throughout the Superman mythos. (Hey, when your main character flies, you want to structure an action sequence that takes advantage of that.) It gives Clark and Kara an easy win and a good opportunity for teamwork.

A lot of shows decide that when a new character comes in, they should have a strong conflict with one of the main characters. Sometimes it works, but just as often it can prompt a reaction of, "Who's this asshole who got here five minutes ago and is giving shit to the characters I love?" ER did this constantly, and in most cases, all it did was make the new guys harder to like. I'm glad the show fought the urge to play up the tension between Superman and Supergirl.

Melissa Benoist again proved she's the show's MVP when she was completely endearing as Supergirl gushed over how awesome it was to finally do a rescue with Superman. After so many years of grim heroes taking their job seriously, it's refreshing to have a hero who does good and is all "That was SO cool!" On top of that, she was so happy that Superman saw how competent she was, like a proud child showing off for her parents. It takes some skill to have a character as strong as her somehow be the everyman audience surrogate, but that moment underlined why the show works -despite her powers, Supergirl still feels very much like one of us.

Of course, Benoist also benefited from a strong scene partner in Tyler Hoechlin. In all my fancasting for the part, I don't think he ever would have been on my radar. Part of this is because within the show, Superman would probably have to be in his mid-thirties and Hoechlin is barely older than Benoist. (The premiere lampshaded this with a fun throwaway.) It would have been great if the stars aligned to give one-time Superman Brandon Routh a shot at the part, but I get that once he entered the Berlanti-verse as Ray Palmer, he was never gonna be Clark Kent again.

Hoechlin might be our best small-screen Superman yet. His introductory scene showed he had a good grip on a Clark that was earnest and nerdy without being an over-the-top geek and he radiated the same calm and confidence as Superman that Christopher Reeve did. Reeve is always going to be the gold standard, and right now I'm putting Hoechlin in the same class as Routh and Cavill, who are just below Reeve.

Hoechlin's other big moment to shine was against Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant. Despite a pretty significant age difference in real life, the two played off each other so well that Cat's crush felt kind of sweet and not at all like a "cougar" joke that other shows would have gone for. Flockhart has consistently been one of the stronger cast members and it's gonna hurt to lose her as a regular. Hopefully she'll make frequent visits because she and Benoist bring out the best in each other, and Cat's the sort of defined and dominating female character that we have too little of on TV these days.

The later part of the show also found the balance between the two Super-cousins. Two action scenes required them to split up, but in both instances, the writers were careful to let Kara "kill the bull." She's the one who saves Lena Luthor's helicopter and she's also the one to reinforce the building's collapsed foundation. Each time, Superman was given a challenge worthy of his powers while the big emotional wins were delegated to Kara. Superman wasn't undermined to build up Kara and the integrity of both characters was respected. It seems effortless on-screen, but I'll bet many hours, if not days of discussion went into servicing both heroes properly. It's nice work all around.

Shorter takes:

- I hope we eventually get to meet this universe's Lois Lane. For the Berlanti connection, I'd love to see former EVERWOOD co-star Emily VanCamp land the part, though I'm sure her Marvel contract prevents that. But after some thought, I think I landed on an even better possibility: Autumn Reeser.

- I was surprised they broke up James and Kara that fast, but I'm okay with them putting the breaks on things. James reads as so much older than her that it makes for an odd pairing. They're like a big brother/younger sister type of dynamic more than anything else. He and Lucy didn't seem like a great couple but they at least felt more on each other's level. A Kara/James match-up might work better in later years after she's matured a bit.

- Wynn working at the DEO is an abrupt move for the character and feels more like an effort to get Jeremy Jordan closer to the main action of the plots.  Back when SMALLVILLE decided that "the Lana problem" could be solved by tying her into the mythos more closely, we got that dreadful witch plot. Hopefully this works out better.

- With Wynn no longer at CatCo and Cat herself on the way out, does James have anyone to interact with at work? I guess he and Kara will be partnered there, but pulling Wynn out of that world takes away a pretty important scene partner for Olsen.

- I'm sure that eventually Lena Luthor is gonna end up on the dark side, but rather that try to outguess her agenda or when she'll show her hand, I think I'll just sit back and enjoy the ride.

- In a sad coincidence, the debut of a new Superman came on the 12th anniversary of Christopher Reeve's passing. I wrote a tribute to Reeve six years ago on this date.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In the wake of DON'T BREATHE's success, what can we learn about writing horror films?

Horror is a genre that, as a whole, doesn't get a lot of respect. That seems a little unfair when you consider that the misses in that genre probably aren't significantly greater than the misses in any genre. Maybe the disdain has to do with the fact that slasher films have frequently been less highbrow and less polished efforts, while the respectable successes always get gerrymandered into more highbrow categories. Thus, we get the notion that PSYCHO isn't a horror film, it's a "Hitchcockian thriller." SILENCE OF THE LAMBS isn't a horror film, it's a "psychological thriller."

The success of DON'T BREATHE this past weekend should be a reminder of all the virtues of this much maligned genre. Here, in the waning dog days of summer, a new film opened up with $26.1 million. According to Box Office Mojo, that's up 43.5% from the same weekend last year. That fact alone would probably be reason to celebrate, but it gets even better. It was made for less than $10 million, which means it has a FAR shorter road to travel before its in the black and starts making money. And guess what? All of this was achieved with any big name stars.

That's the thing about horror - it's perhaps the one genre left where it's understood the concept is king. The box office proves that audiences don't need that extra nudge to go see something that looks interesting to them. I've always felt that same philosophy was transferable to other genres, but there remains this conviction that a project needs "marketable" names to earn a green light. (And if any of you have ever dealt with foreign financing, you understand how insane it can often be to try to put together a cast that the money men deem worth their investment.)

When I was still working as a reader, horror was probably one of the more frequent genres I read. Sadly, it was probably also the genre where I detected the most laziness on the part of the writers. Too many were seemingly satisfied with being generic. Perhaps it's that old snobbery at work again, it's "just" horror, so why work to make it good, right? Since DON'T BREATHE is likely to provoke another wave of horror writers, I want to pontificate about what I think makes a great horror film.

I took a look at many of the horror releases of the past several years and when you see the profit margin on the low-budget entries, it might inspire you to see how strong your affinity is for that genre. Blumhouse's success with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has been talked to death at this point. Of the six films in the series, five of them were made for less than $5 million, and until the penultimate release, THE MARKED ONES, worldwide gross was always well over $100 million. Then again, the final film cost $10 million to make and it only made $18 domestically. ($59 million was taken in overseas.)

When you look at the PA numbers, you can see the first dip happened with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, which is probably not coincidentally the first film in the series where the story really seemed to be treading water. The lack of payoff likely discouraged attendance at the next entry, and by the time the final film rolled around most viewers who had cared were long gone.

Blumhouse's other franchise THE PURGE seems to be holding strong. The first film grossed $64.5 million domestically and each sequel's domestic take has risen. The films keep getting gradually more expensive, but both sequels have taken in over $100 million worldwide. I didn't like the original film at all, but something about this hook really seems to appeal to people.

The INSIDIOUS films are also a huge success with regard to the budget to box office ratio. The first one cost $1.5 million and earned $97 million, and it's the lowest grossing of the three.

Lesson: in a franchise, keep finding new angles within the framework of the concept. Making a horror film cheap isn't enough; having an inventive story and scares matters.

So what kind of horror story do you want to tell? My own interests lean more towards the Hitchcockian end of the spectrum. I like character-driven horror stories. For me, it's always more unsettling when the evil is relatable to something in the real world. This is part of the reason that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was so effective - getting lost in the woods felt like something any of us could have done and the lack of any on-screen visual effects meant that viewers weren't immediately triggered to feel, "Okay, that's clearly fake so I'm now very aware I'm watching a construct.

Great horror stories start with primal emotions and fears. LIGHTS OUT had a supernatural killer, but the film cleverly reveals that her power is that she is strong in darkness and is invisible in the light. She might not be able to hurt you in the light, but you can't stay out of the dark forever. And when that moment comes, she's ready to kill you. It's a smart primal fear to build off of because studies show that fear of darkness is an evolutionary trait, not a learned one. On a visceral, gut level, the average person is likely incapable of NOT being triggered by this film.

A NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET uses a variation of this, giving the killer power in his victim's nightmares. Everyone has nightmares and surely there are few people who haven't woken from a terrifying dream at some point. Those emotions are what makes Freddy Krueger such an effective bad guy. It also makes for a strong thematic through-line to hang a feature on. This will have to be a story about the heroine confronting her worst fears and surviving.

You can't neglect theme in horror films. Like the primal fears, these will be the elements that resonate with your audience on more than just a superficial way. LIGHTS OUT plays as an allegory for depression, and perhaps specifically trying to deal with a loved one who suffers from it. Any idiot can write a monster leaping out of the darkness and get a momentary scare from the audience. The REAL scare you want is the kind that lingers for days, that becomes a dull buzz in the viewers head even long after the end credits have rolled. You'll find these factors present in both supernatural and non-supernatural films, so no matter the horror subgenre you're working in, you want to be thinking about these questions.

Lesson: Theme matters, so have one. (And it should probably be in your mind as you're breaking the story, not tacked on after everything else is figured out.)

Let's take a look at some recent horror films that were either standalones, or the first in their series:

Supernatural horror
Insidious - $97M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Sinister - $77M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Lights Out - $126M worldwide on a $4.9 million budget.
Ouija - $103.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
Unfriended - $64M worldwide on a $1 million budget.

For me, Unfriended is the one of the bunch I wish I wrote because it had the most inventive high concept premise (the entire film is told via laptop screen, through Skype calls and chatrooms.) It's a much smaller story than the others, but it understands how to use its limitations to reveal things about the characters. That said, Sinister's pitch-dark ending is the rare horror finale that really, deeply chilled me. It absolutely earns that visceral punch from everything building up to it.

Non-Supernatural Horror
The Purge - $89M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
The Gift - $58.9M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
The Visit - $98.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.

THE PURGE goes for a less repeatable concept and casts itself in the near future, where the laws have established The Purge, a yearly free-for-all where all laws are suspended and anything goes, including murder. I didn't particularly like this film, nor did I find the premise credible at all. However, that same hook is what drew people into the theaters, wondering, "How will they pull this off?"

Lesson: Sometimes audiences will go for something wildly original even if it's implausible.

THE VISIT, however, is far better at drawing on real-world fears. There are themes of aging and dementia, even invoking our pity for the elder folks and seemingly kindly grandparents, who seem to be succumbing to senility. Seeing that visited upon adults can be very hard on children, though by this point, it's likely a part of most childhoods. There's a twist near the end that's inventive, but might be too clever for its own good. It's something of a knife to the gut, but it's also the point where the film trades any poignant identification for visceral thrills. To be honest, sometimes that can work. It's like when Spielberg was told that blowing up the shark in JAWS was a ludicrous twist. His reply was some version of: "If I've got them in my hand for two hours, they'll believe anything I show them in the last five minutes."

Lesson: Take an experience that one might find unsettling or uncomfortable and amp it up to its possible worst case scenario. The old folks' deterioration lingers far more than the twist the film pulls in its third act.

It's THE GIFT that casts its spell by being grounded from minute one. Simon and his wife Robyn meet Gorod, an old classmate of Simon's who is instantly a little TOO friendly. Simon remembers him as "Gordo the Weirdo," an awkward kid in high school. It's archetypical enough that every viewer will either identify with Gordo, or think of their own "weirdo" they knew in high school. Simon doesn't like Gordo's efforts at becoming a friend, but Simon's wife is more receptive. It's a neat writing trick that makes Robyn empathetic, gets the audience feeling a little bad for Gordo, and makes us wonder if Simon's just being protective, a jerk, or if he's right to be wary of Gordo.

Every twist in this movie comes from pure character, even as it escalates into a stalker thriller. Having written a stalker thriller, I learned that a key rule is to keep the stalker relate-able. In the case of my script, several people said they found themselves on the stalker's side and were hoping he could just explain himself in the end and make everything okay. I like a movie where it's possible to empathize with the bad guy because it usually means the writer has done a good job of making that person a fleshed-out character.

Lesson: Character is king. A good tip is to plot only the character stuff first on its own and see if it holds together without the scares goosing the excitement every 15 minutes.

With supernatural films, when you're using paranormal creatures to personify abstract ideas or fears, you can sometimes get away with a lighter touch on the character work. If your story takes place in the real world, everything MUST have depth to it. That's what makes Hannibal Lector so scary and fascinating at the same time. It's what draws us into Clarice Starling's crusade to capture Buffalo Bill and be taken seriously as a woman in a man's world. Those are Academy Award-winning roles because so much effort was made to make them more than just "the cop" and "the psychopath." If you're writing a movie like this, your standards must be higher

One of my favorite horror films of all time, SCREAM, would not work if there wasn't recognizable human emotion driving the killers' plan. You can argue that their motivations are taken to a severe extreme - people have killed for revenge and notoriety before, but few have probably gone after as many bystanders just to serve the narrative they plan on selling to the cops. Also, the film plays fair with all of its cheats. Every misdirection is clearly motivated and directed so that it makes sense in hindsight.

SCREAM's other strength is that its heroine is at least as interesting as her adversary. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET got this right in the first installment, then forgot it for several subsequent entries. Write the kind of role that could stay interesting across several films. The horror films that get a bad rap tend to have weak, barely developed characters.

Lesson: from a character standpoint, there's really no great distinction between writing a horror film and writing any other genre. Characters shouldn't be two-dimension just because they're eventually canon fodder for the slasher or supernatural threat.

This year has seen a lot of strong horror and thrillers, some low-budget, some not. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, THE SHALLOWS, and THE INVITATION are three that spring to mind with one thing in common - they're all limited locations. Two of them are confined not just in setting, but in time span too. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the exception, spreading its story out over several months, but that also uses the claustrophobia well, like a pressure cooker for inter-character tension. The situations are more extreme, but the intensity can work as a trigger for the viewers own emotions.

Also, I'm a sucker for these sorts of locked-room or limited location thrillers. If you can come up with an original hook to confine a story to a few sets, you might find yourself with some buzz around your story.

Lesson: containing your locations doesn't just have to be a limitation of budget, but can be an asset in forcing tension to a heightened and extreme level. This can be useful with a more heightened premise that doesn't immediately conform to some of the relatability issues I discussed above.

This obviously isn't everything you need to know about writing horror, but give it some thought when working on your next horror script. Do it right and you'll have created the sort of film that critics will keep finding reasons to label as "elevated genre" or "thriller" or whatever "respectable" term they're using for horror that week.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

Longtime readers of this blog know of my deep affection for LAW & ORDER. It was one of three shows (the other two being ER and HOMICIDE) that acted as my gateway drugs into modern television drama in the mid-90s. For my money there has never been a better procedural drama than the original L&O. The caliber of writing was not just the best of its era, but it stands above many shows even in this later period of "peak TV." 26 years after its debut, the writing of the early seasons still holds up, save for a few instances where everyone has rather quaint views about the internet and cell phones. I'm trying to imagine TV drama from the 1970s holding up as well during the time frame when I discovered L&O.

I came into L&O casually in the fifth season and then fell hard for the show in season six after it did a then-unusual crossover with HOMICIDE. Pretty much concurrent with this, I was channel-surfing and stumbled upon L&O reruns on A&E. Except... there was something weird. There was no Jerry Orbach, no Sam Waterston. They were replaced by Michael Moriarty (whom I vaguely recalled having seen stories about a couple years earlier, when he quit the show after attacking the Attorney General in the press) and Paul Sorvino. So how did I know that this was Law & Order?

Because Adam Schiff was there.

Even with so much around him that was different, Steven Hill still held court with the same wry wisdom and "Make a deal" drive I was so familiar with from his scenes overseeing Sam Waterston. He was a comfortable presence, a constant amid the regularly changing casts. For a long time he was an answer to the trivia question, "Who was the longest-serving cast member of Law & Order?" Sometimes it was inaccurately claimed he was the only one left from the very beginning, though actually joined in the first episode after the original pilot. Still, he outlasted everyone else from the first season by the time he departed the show after season 10.

Steven Hill died this week at the age of 94. Just looking at that number makes me feel like we should be celebrating his longevity rather than dwelling on mourning his loss. It's never quite that easy, though, is it? The man's resume is quite remarkable. It makes it all the more ironic that to the best of my memory, the only project I saw him in outside L&O was The Firm. This is not a career-encompassing obituary. For that, I'll direct you to Variety's excellent memorial.

In the Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion written by Kevin Courrier & Susan Greer, Hill's co-star Jill Hennessy recalls an exchange with Robert Duvall. "On the set of The Paper, Robert Duvall said to me, 'So I hear you work with Steven Hill on that Law & Order. He's the best working actor today, bar none.'" In another anecdote, showrunner Rene Balcer fondly stated, "I love writing for Steven Hill more than anyone else. He's one of the few actors who will call and tell the writers to give him fewer lines. And then when you give him the lines, he'll say give him fewer words. Then you give him the words and he'll say 'Give me fewer syllables.'" He didn't need long speeches to make an impact.

Hill never thought the show would be a huge hit. "I felt, especially in the beginning, the format was so predictable," the Companion quotes him as saying. "I wondered how long people were going to be able to take this. I was never a detective story buff; I could really care less. I didn't have the patience for the whodunit puzzle but the audience never tires of it."

Schiff would usually pop up for three or four scenes in most episodes, often to get cranky about the state of the case on McCoy or Stone's desk and to advise them to "make a deal!" A lesser actor might have played Schiff like the demanding boss from hell. Instead, Hill was a presence that was at once fatherly, Yoda-like and disciplinarian.

Though he had been on the show for four years before Waterston arrived, the two actors quickly fell into a dynamic reminiscent of a father and son. With Jack's complicated history with his father, it was easy to see how he'd look up to Schiff, even while his rebellous nature often put him at odds with that same affection he sought. Jack McCoy needed Adam Schiff. The younger man's righteous crusades were as noble as often as they needed to be reigned in. In Schiff existed the one person who could yank McCoy's leash when needed and still have his back.

Law & Order always worked best when Jack was the crusader for justice who wielded the law like a sword in pursuit of what was right. But a character like that can only exist so long as he has someone above him bound by the rules of the real world, someone who can throw cold water on Jack's windmill tilting. Neither Dianne Wiest nor Fred Thompson's characters were up to that task after Hill left. Wiest was a wishy-washy presence at best. Thompson's character's more conservative nature led to some interesting clashes with Jack, but you never felt like McCoy respected him in the same way he did Schiff. If Jack pulled an end run that Schiff disapproved of, even if he got away with it in the courtroom, you knew there'd be consequences for the two men's friendship. Thompson's Arthur Branch felt like the sort of arrogant boss one would enjoy disobeying.

(This is also why I feel like Abbie Carmichael was a lesser assistant for Jack. On paper it seems interesting to give him a partner who's even more of a loose cannon than he is. The problem is that it weakens Jack to not be cowboy in the room, and it forces him to play Schiff's role, thereby rendering much of the Schiff/McCoy dynamic moot. It worked better when years later, karma got its revenge on McCoy by putting him in Schiff's office where he didn't have the luxury of bending the rules so far. And naturally, he was given an Executive Assistant DA who bent the rules even more aggressively than Jack himself did.)

People who accuse Law & Order of being nothing more than a plot-driven procedural have overlooked how much the character relationships are woven into the fabric of the cases. It's also escaped them just how important the actors and their characters are to the stories. Steven Hill was irreplaceable as Schiff. His dry comments often either helped cut to the core of a point for the audience, while bringing a bit of humor to the moment. I recall one moment when Claire Kincaid expressed frustration with a miscarriage of justice, only to be reminded by Schiff, "We don't make the system, we just try to survive in it." Hill gave those words the weight of a lifetime of experience. You could easily understand that he meant "we can argue about how the world SHOULD be for hours, but at the end of it, we'll still be back here with the same problem. Find a solution that works."

In another episode, former ADA Jamie Ross returned as a defense attorney and twice out-maneuvered her former bosses. Upon hearing that Ross's strategy had caught even McCoy with his pants down, Schiff remarked, "I knew there was a reason I hired that young lady." He even has the opportunity to rub it in later when another of Jack's strategies blows up in his face.

Steven Hill always played Schiff like he was the smartest guy in the room even as he was resigned to the reality he'd be ignored until proven right. And maybe three or four times a year, the writers would give Hill a story where Schiff had even more to work with. The seventh season finale "Terminal" involves a case where the governor wants the DA to seek the death penalty, but Schiff feels it's not warranted. Concurrent with this, Schiff's wife has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized on a ventilator. The governor removes Schiff under the pretense that the family crisis has impaired the DA's judgement. McCoy follows Schiff out the door and the two of them take the governor to court. There's a nice moment where the courtroom histrionics of McCoy and his adversary are trumped when the soft-spoken Schiff stands up and sums it up in a brief speech that ends, "The governor thinks he's above the law. He's not." Few actors have the presence that could make such a simple statement carry real import.

And then there's the moment at the end of that episode. After signing the DNR for his wife, Schiff stands by his wife's bedside as her ventilator is turned off. The entire action of the scene is played on his face. We hear the machines, the breathing and the heart monitor. We hear the ventilator deactivated, the heartbeat briefly continuing... and then clear beeps of distress preceding a flatline. Hill lets out a whimper - not an agonized cry but a brief whimper that one might mistake for "No..."

Even typing this now, I can hear that moan in my head and it's agonizing. His wife dies right before his eyes, and rather than going for overwrought tears, Hill chooses to play Schiff's pain in a more subtle way. It's all in his eyes and he looks so... lost. It's one of the most affecting depictions of death I can recall seeing on TV, and it's all evoked with such minimalist directing and acting. Hill made you feel Schiff's loss by allowing the audience to project their emotions onto him.

I could quote Schiff all day. My favorite Schiff one-liner might be from "Double Down," where he notes a defendant "confessed to a murder to avoid being prosecuted for a murder. I'm putting this one in my memoirs."

Someone pointed me to a collection of his best one-liners, and I'd like to end this on my favorite McCoy/Schiff exchange from "Showtime."

Schiff: "Started with a murder, ends with an execution. You got what you wanted. Take the rest of the week off."
McCoy: "It's Friday, Adam."
Schiff: "So it is. See you on Monday."

Farewell, Steven Hill.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Reader question: Microbudget films as exposure for writing

Rita writes:

Big fan of the blog. You've no doubt covered this before but is there any article i can reference that manages the expectations of someone who wants to make a microbudget film to get exposure for their writing?

My friend's boyfriend seems to be talking her into spending almost 50k she inherited on a film he would direct based on a play she wrote that is not filmic at all. It's a series of vignettes that sort of tie together at the end and she (and he) seem only vaguely to know what they're doing.

Is there even a market for this kind of stuff? I've seen some pretty lame films of this sort made as vanity projects but it seems to me that making a trailer or short first might make more sense?

This guy has never directed a feature before and there are no named actors in it but I guess since brothers McMullen people have succeeded this way. 50k though? She could produce three plays for that that people might actually SEE. 

A lot to unpack here, based on a lot of x-factors. $50k in some ways is both ridiculously small for a feature budget and also a helluva lot of money for one individual to put into a film on their own. My first piece of advice would be for your friend to not invest more money than they can afford to lose. If $50k represents the entirety of her nest egg, I'd proceed with caution.

Not having read the script, I can only go by your description of it. My gut reaction was that it didn't sound marketable at all, and then I realize you might as well have been describing the V/H/S series of films. My friends Radio Silence did a segment in the first of those and on the strength of that were hired to direct a film called Devil's Due. Another friend of the blog, Gregg Bishop, shot a segment for the third VHS and was then hired to direct the feature version of Siren, a short from the first V/H/S. Gregg, by the way, made his first feature for $15k.

So yes, the right concept with the right execution and the right marketing can open doors.


It has to be the right concept. The Blair Witch Project was a microbudget work of genius. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first found-footage film ever, but it definitely created an explosion in that genre of film. My concern is that you don't think the idea is filmic and that you don't think the director knows what he's doing. You need a strong hand at the helm for ANY film but it's especially important in a microbudget where corners may have to be cut and the director needs to know his vision inside and out.

My thought would be that if they really are a series of vignettes, is there any reason they can't just shoot ONE of them first as its own short film? At that point, she'll have seen him in action, she'll have seen how well his vision translates to storytelling, and it might give her a better idea of if she should invest in the rest of it.

But concept is king. This can't just be some run of the mill quiet drama. It's gotta be something like BURIED, which takes place entirely in a coffin, or THE UNINVITED, which takes place largely in one location and uses that claustrophobia to the film's advantage, or PRIMER, which is approaches time travel in a completely unique and complex way.

Also, while the writer probably will get some heat for a microbudget breakout success, it's important to note that the director will get a lot MORE heat for these projects. (Though often in these sorts of films, the director IS one of the writers, so from a certain point of view you COULD say the writers get some notice for these kinds of films. So from where I sit, your friend's boyfriend stands to gain a LOT from this arrangement - he gets a film paid for and he gets the lion's share of the heat if it breaks out. She's footing the bill and has to answer to him.

From where I sit, your friend holds all the cards and she's assuming almost all the risk. I'd just make sure she's thought all this through.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reader question: How does one join the union as a script reader?

Shayna writes:

I was hoping I could pick your brain about the story analyst world... 

I'm currently a freelance reader, whose potentially looking to one day not be a freelance reader. I've done the agency thing, I've done the publishing thing and I'm really hoping to steer clear of the assistant world going forward. The few freelance jobs I've had have basically come to me and I've been exhausting my search for additional jobs, but as you know they're nearly impossible to come by. 

If I were looking to get further into this, would it benefit me to join a union? And on a separate note, is there anywhere else to look for these jobs, besides

She's talking about the Story Analyst's Union, which is part of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. There are benefits to Union Membership, particularly with regard to pay. A few years ago it was something like $27/hour. That sounds good, but you have to realize that before the Guild can accept any new members, they have to check their roster and make sure that not a single active member is available.

As you might expect, that usually means that it's a hard union to break into. Very early in my career, I asked the SVP of Development at my company about how one goes about getting in, and he laid out that above scenario, while noting it was virtually impossible to break in. I'd think it's even MORE difficult now as reader jobs have disappeared, leading the union members to cling even tighter to their claim.

All of this goes back to my earlier advice - you don't want to be chasing jobs as a script reader. Find a different area of the business that excites you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Aaron Sorkin MasterClass in Screenwriting is as awesome as you expect it to be

As longtime readers of the blog know, I'm very careful when it comes to endorsing products and services. So long as there are plenty of free and cheap screenwriting resources out there, I'm always wary of sending business to services and charlatans who charge hundreds of dollars for their expertise.

When I do endorse a product, I always make sure it's one that I've used myself. I've thrown my weight behind the Black List and I've paid to post four scripts up there. Last year, I was invited to check out the MasterClass video series with Dustin Hoffman and recently I was granted access to an even more relevant MasterClass - with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin probably needs no introduction, but manners demands that I do so anyway. His first film was an adaptation of his own play, A Few Good Men. Subsequent films include Malice, The American President, Moneyball and The Social Network, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He's enjoyed similar success in television, having created Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom.

A Few Good Men is one of my favorite films and one of those that if I come across it while flipping channels, I have to watch the rest of it. The Social Network deservedly won the Oscar because it manages to tell a very complex story with complete clarity. The script deals in multiple timeframes, including two separate depositions as framing sequences and the audience is never once lost or disoriented. When this class was announced, I saw one snarky person retweeted into my feed who sneered, "I don't think there's anything at all about screenwriting I'm interested in learning from Aaron Sorkin."

Look, I'll admit I wasn't the biggest fan of Studio 60, but it's petty bullshit to use a writer's weakest moments as the disqualfier for anything they have to say about the craft, you need a serious attitude adjustment. When someone like Sorkin offers the chance to pick their brain, you shut up and listen.

The Master Class is a series of 35 videos that total nearly eight hours of viewing. That's $90 for eight hours of viewing. That's a cost of less than $12 an hour. Think of it like this - would you pay $25 to see Aaron Sorkin give a two-hour talk about screenwriting at the WGA Theater. I bet many of you would, and on a per-minute basis, that would cost you more.

Sorkin has broken the class into a suggested viewing schedule that paces the videos out over six weeks. I wasn't able to take that leisurely tour, but it makes sense to me and if you look at it that way, you're paying only $15/week.

There are several components to the class, delivered in Lesson Videos, which take the form of direct lectures and workshop sessions. In the workshop, Aaron works with about a half-dozen students. In some segments he reads a scene from their script and offers critiques. What's refreshing is he's a very encouraging teacher, always finding something positive to say and offering criticism in a way that's instructive without being rude. He's also upfront when he's out of his own depth. (He tells one student who's skilled at action writing that he doesn't know any advice to give because action writing is his own weakness. He jokes that if he had written that scene it would have just been two people talking.)

There's also a multi-video series where the same students become Sorkin's writers room and as an exercise, they begin to break what would be the first episode of the fifth season of The West Wing. (In other words, they try to figure out how Sorkin would have continued the show, had he not left at the end of the fourth season.) I've been able to see three different showrunners in action in their writing rooms, and I can tell you that Aaron leads the discussion very differently than most. (However, there's also a power disparity. In other rooms, you'll find co-EPs and midlevel writers who bring a lot of experience to the table. Aaron is essentially working with staff writers, so the dynamic is different.) I say this because it's not a perfectly accurate representation of a writers room, but it's still a very instructive series on a lot of levels.

The real gold is in Sorkin's direct lectures. If you are interested in screenwriting and either didn't attend college or your college didn't have a Screenwriting course, these lecture videos are an excellent way to begin thinking about the basics in a way that's digestible and encourages you to apply these lessons to deconstructing films you've seen.

One of Sorkin's fundementals is the idea of the "Intention and Obstacle." The Intention is what the main character wants, what's their goal, what's their drive? If the movie is about a cross-country drive to San Francisco, why is it important that they are going now? What are they going towards, and just as importantly, why do they need to be there at a certain time? Sorkin points out that it's a better movie if they NEED to be there by, say, Thursday for a job interview. That's better than if there's no tension at all for when they arrive. The obstacle, of course, is what is getting in the way of their intention, and Sorkin goes through a couple examples.

In other videos, Sorkin shows a scene from his work and deconstructs various aspects of the writing. He puts us in his head as he crafted the scene, showing why specific choices and lines of dialogue were chosen to carefully reveal something about the characters, or to push the drama forward.

I especially appreciated a video where Sorkin described himself as a "rules guy." He believes there are absolutely rules of drama, principles that all great works conform to. However, he wisely reminds the audience not to be led astray by "fake rules." The real rules come from Aristotle's Poetics. The fake rules would be guru-speak like "Never use voiceover."

Each lesson is accompanied by a PDF that recaps the basic point of the lesson and offers further assignments and resources. These assignments might be something like "Pick a movie to watch tonight. Critically look at why the movie works or doesn’t work. If you find yourself using snarky terms, remember, that doesn’t help you diagnose the script. Keep a journal and write down what works about your five favorite and what doesn’t work about your five least favorite movies. Share your findings with your MasterClass classmates and see if they agree or disagree."

I wasn't able to participate in any of the community discussions due to time constraints, but I'm sure they'd be a useful resource. Similarly, I wasn't able to make use of the Office Hours feature, where students can submit video and text questions for Aaron to answer. Even before factoring in that added value I feel like the class is well worth it.

I give the Aaron Sorkin MasterClass my enthusiastic endorsement. Particularly if you are new to screenwriting and really have a desire to understand the fundamentals, this class is a fantastic resource. In the grand scheme of things, $90 is a bargain for all of this. Christmas and Hanukkah aren't that far off, so if you can't commit that cash yourself, put it on your wishlist. You can find this and every other MasterClass at