Thursday, April 17, 2014

Links: Oral history of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and Eric Heisserer's twitter talks

Today's a day of links:

First up, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is one of my favorite guilty pleasure films and I've long thought it's much better than it gets credit for.  (For one thing Timothy Olyphant's line reading of "How do I do it?... It's like a gift" has to be up their with one of my favorite deliveries in a film.)  I get why it didn't connect with audiences - the whole porn thing made a lot of people squemish.  (And if you think about it, the relative ages of everyone in the story means that Elisha Cuthbert's character either became a porn legend off of a VERY short career, or there's some Traci Lords-ish scandal in her past.

But if you can get past that, it's a pretty entertaining film.  That's why I was very entertained by this surprisingly comprehensive oral history of the film's making.

Also, I tweeted this out, but it occurs to me it might be a good idea to archive it on the blog. Screenwriter and director Eric Heisserer has begun to make a regular habit of tweeting out long twitter speeches of advice and insight into the writing biz.  A lot of them are in the vein of one of the most popular posts on this blog, "Screenwriter Eric Heisserer lifts the curtain on the studio film development process from a writer's perspective."

Well Tim Wainwright has taken all of Eric's twitter rants and compiled them here. You can also access them individually at the links below.

1. TV Pitches (4/8)
2. Loglines (3/28)
3. Feature Pitching (3/15)
4. Details and Continuity (3/12)
5. Screenwriting in general (3/11)
6. Challenging Yourself (3/7)
7. Screenwriting advice (Drafts, Parentheticals, Respect) (2/28)
8. Minimalism (2/18)
9. Real or fake script notes? (2/1)
10. Female Protagonists (9/5)
11. On Output (8/18)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Gary vs. The Hope Machine

Monday night, while many people were preparing to watch the blood moon, my friend John Gary took to Twitter with some advice to aspirings to be wary of what they read about the business and what their expectations are for breaking into the business.  The commerce of trading on the naive dreams of aspirings is what John calls "The Hope Machine."

I agree with a lot of what John wrote on twitter.  He's especially right when he cautions against buying into the bullshit hype that the trades often manufacture.  If a trade article tells you that a particular spec is the hottest script in town this week and multiple studios are after it, that could be true - but it's often complete and utter fiction.  The people who have access to the major tracking boards can sniff out this lie pretty quickly, so it's fascinating the charade still persists.

This is not an easy business to break into.  Even once you "break in," the job isn't done.  There are writers who've been repped for as many as five years who haven't made a sale yet.  I've talked to writers who've taken as many as EIGHT years from their first option to their first sale.

This is a marathon.  Not a sprint.  At least not for most people.  If you're go in knowing that, you might not get crushed.  John knows what he's talking about.  He's worked in this business a long time, first as a script reader and now as a writer.

After you read John's full essay below, go check out Amanda Pendolino's excellent post on the subject as well.

What follows is John's rant from the twitter pulpit:


Story time: 2012. A close friend closed a deal on a script. She and I kept in close touch throughout the highs and lows of negotiations. I knew *exactly* how much she was getting upon close of the deal, and it wasn't much. 10k for a 12 month option. There was a guaranteed rewrite step for nearly WGA minimum - about $35k - and she stood to make a lot more money if the movie ever got made.

But the trades? "Mid six against low seven sale in competitive bidding!" Complete and total bullshit.

And yet, even though I knew EXPLICITLY the terms of the deal... when I saw the articles in the trades, my heart leapt. WOW.

And that, my friends... is the Hope Machine.

I have been doing this for a long time. I have many many screenwriter friends. I worked for an agency for more than ten years.  I have witnessed the sausage being made, beaks and hooves and intestines and all - and yet - I still eat the Bratwurst.

Reporters want stories, interesting ones. Agents and managers want deals they broker to be seen in the best possible light.  Everyone knows exactly what's going on - the reporters, agents and studios know the truth is often not quite as great as what's written. 

But here's who *doesn't* know the truth, and hears about the big 'sales' and whose heart leaps: the amateur, the young pro, the struggler.  Of course you want it to be true. I knew EXACTLY what was going on, and yet I STILL GOT EXCITED when I read "competitive bidding!"

Hope Machine.

Studios are able to call each other to find out details of deals. Did you know that? Business affairs departments phone each other on the regular. "What was that deal?" they can ask. The other studio freely discloses. Some deals are classified as "no quote" by the agents/lawyers.  "No quote" happens when a piece of talent (in this case a writer, obvi) takes a low deal and requests the studio not disclose it.  "I'll work for you for peanuts, but you better not tell anyone about it."

Here's the rich irony - it takes about a minute of drunk thinking for a business affairs exec to figure out what the "no quote" numbers are.  Who doesn't get to find out how much that young (or old!) writer earned on that script? You. Me. The amateur, the young pro, the struggler. It is incumbent upon you to educate yourself about the business you are seeking to enter. The reporters and agents have their own agendas. They will not change. Do not expect them to. It's up to you to change.

So that's what's up with larger outlets - trade publications. What about smaller ones? Websites that specialize in spec info?  If you have to pay a fee to access a website's information, that website needs you to renew. They benefit from your desire for news.  So everything they report gets amped up, accentuated. Everything is a capital-s "Sale," even if it's an option or even just an attachment. 

Contests need you to enter in order to keep on. If a contest winner signs with a manager or a producer boards a script, they'll promote that. But you know by now that a producer attachment doesn't mean money changing hands. It doesn't mean that writer can write every day.  But it feels that way, doesn't it? It feels like forward progress.

At William Morris, we said this *all* the time. "Doesn't matter until money changes hands."

[Someone asks John: “So high six figure scripts are rarer than they seem?”  John replies, “The overall deal may be worth six figures, but the money in hand once the writer signs the contract is often far far lower - and would certainly be much lower if that writer is a first-timer.]

Not everyone who is part of the Hope Machine wants to be part of it. Many bloggers and podcasters and tweeters talk about screenwriting - and from their perspective, it sounds like a real, viable job that is achievable. It is achievable - like the NFL is achievable.

More people played in the NFL last year than WGA members were paid money to work in features.

Info on NFL vs. WGA. Last year NFL players: 1696. Last year feature writers with WGA contracts: 1537. (The WGA numbers will get adjusted up by as much as 6% come this July, which would take us all the way to 1621.)

Were there lots of non-WGA contracts? Sure. How much money were they for? Mostly less than you make a month. When you read "six-figure deal," that should mean that the entire contract is worth six figures - option, rewrite money, production bonuses. When you read "six-figure sale," that should mean that the copyright has changed hands permanently for a decent chunk of change.

But - BUT - often when someone says "sale" they really mean "deal which starts as an option." People say sale over option, but when you're starting out, options are 99% of what you'll get.

So what to do? You're a young writer. You wanna write movies. You own Fade In. Your blu-ray collection crowds your closets.  Keep writing things you love. Make art. Watch the world. Explore humanity, people, relationships. Write things that are true and real. Never expect to get paid for it. Never think about the big hope, the big sale, the big tomorrow. Focus on the today. Focus on your work.

Keep your day job. Make it a good day job you can work the rest of your life. Find joy in your family, your parents, your kids.  Move to LA if you're serious about working in Hollywood. Know that everyone else moved here to write or direct. Nearly all of them never do.

Get your scripts to people who matter - agents, managers. If you're lucky enough to sign with one, know that the hard work is ahead of you. Nothing is for sure. No one owes you anything. One deal does not mean you've made it. One project rarely leads to another.

The Hope Machine wants to devour you, to consume you, to make you believe that your happiness is just one script, one sale away. It isn't. Your happiness is right there on the page in front of you while you're writing it. Your satisfaction is typing FADE OUT.

The job, the profession comes for almost no one. It calls who it wants. You can do little to influence it. You can only take joy in what you write and know that your victory is there in those words and in your friends and family when you fade out.

So that's it. How do you defeat the Hope Machine? How do you keep it from eating you up? You write what you love and ignore the rest.

Fade out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An interview with Victoria Aveyard, writer of THE RED QUEEN and ETERNAL

I almost feel like this interview needs to come with one of those "results not typical" disclaimers. Everyone dreams of landing their first sale right out of college, but Victoria Aveyard is the extremely rare person who actually did it.  About a year after graduating from USC, her first manuscript (as in, first manuscript she ever completed) RED QUEEN was optioned by Universal Pictures. The novel is set for publication in 2015, the first in a trilogy.

Getting that second sale is almost as hard as the first one for a lot of writers, but less than two months ago, Aveyard crossed that goal off her to-do list with the sale of her spec script ETERNAL to Sony Pictures.  The only information released so far about the project is that it will involve a modern re-interpretation of Greek mythology.

Despite working on a number of projects, Victoria was generous enough to answer some questions about what has been a year that every aspiring writer would envy.

Aspiring writers often ask me what I think of getting a degree in screenwriting.  I usually tell them that the most important thing is that they keep writing and take advantage of a lot of free resources out there.  As a graduate of the USC Screenwriting program, I imagine you might have a different take.  What can you tell us about the program and how it specifically benefited you?


Keep writing and take advantage of your resources definitely still applies within SC, but the writing is more guided and the resources are arguably better/cost tuition. I'm a big cheerleader for SCA (School of Cinematic Arts) and the Writing Program especially. It turned me, a kid from the middle of nowhere, into an actual professional screenwriter, which is crazy. I think without the prospect of USC, I would've never been brave enough or equipped enough to make it in the industry. It was sort of like training wheels for a Hollywood career, if the wheels were made of gold and had a football team. I got a crash course in pretty much everything, from pitching to structure to film business, which gave me the tools to make my own career. And I cannot say enough about the professors. I seriously can't choose a favorite because I learned something incredibly valuable from every single one.
You don't come out knowing everything, but you definitely have a leg-up if you've done the work and used what SC gave you. Plus, SC isn't just a film school. You get the benefit of a huge university along with a specialized school. It's the best of both worlds. I think a lot of people think writing all day, every day, in every spare moment is the way to succeed. I don't agree. At least for me, that results in dead writing. I'm much better when I have time for real life. I definitely learned that balancing act at SC. 

One piece of advice I always give (that I got from SC) is read screenplays. And not just the Academy Award winners. Read everything. SCA has a script library I would frequent and if you get a chance, check out Home Alone. Worth every page. 

Since you ended up at USC, I assume you had an interest in film from the start. How far back does your interest in screenwriting go and when did you become interested in writing Young Adult fiction?  Are you a particular fan of that genre?

Movies are sort of a family thing and have always been. I probably went to the movies with my parents and my brother at least 15 times a year, every year since I was about 7 and my brother was old enough to sit still. It started when I accidentally saw Jurassic Park when I was 3 and that was it. I clapped when the Rex ate the lawyer and my parents were like "so she's going to be weird." Totally hooked on movies, especially Star Wars, Indiana Jones, basically the pantheon of Lucas and Spielberg. 

But actually making movies seemed impossible to a girl from a small town in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts. It wasn't until I watched George Lucas get the AFI Life Achievement that something clicked. There was a big segment about his time at USC and their film school, and I realized that was my in. Film school. I've always loved writing and movies, and finally put 2 and 2 together. I could write movies. Come senior year of high school, I applied to 7 colleges. Only the film schools accepted me, so my parents were sort of Shanghai'd into letting me go. They pushed for NYU, but USC was the first and only school I wanted to go to.

Novel-writing was always in the back of my head during this, but I never thought I could do it. First it was Lord of the Rings that really affected me (still affects me), and I tried my hand at epic fantasy too many times to count. Not the best attempt for a 16 year-old. Back then, I didn't quite realize YA was a whole genre unto itself, even though I was also reading a ton of YA books. I read the Twilight books in high school, and I will still go to bat for the first novel. There is definitely an art to its addiction (mirroring Bella's Edward addiction, blah blah blah), but the other three are more than a little off the rails. I was also very taken by Ella Enchanted. I guess my foray into YA came pretty naturally. Something in my head just clicked. "I'm 22. I'm a good writer. I want another YA to read - I'll just write it myself."

Best part, now I can buy books without feeling guilty! It's my job!

I know RED QUEEN was your first novel, but how much writing had you done before you began working on it?

I never finished a novel until after college, until I had a few screenplays done and realized I might actually be able to complete a book too. My parents' house is probably filled with scraps from all my abandoned novels (so is my computer). On the screenwriting side, I left SC with 5 features and 2 pilots under my belt, and the knowledge that I can actually accomplish something in the writing world. I was also sifting through the Amazon self-published pile for an internship, and realized that, at the very least, I could self-publish something better.

How did you get your screenwriting agent?

I actually don't have a screenwriting agent, but I got repped off of one of those awesome USC resources: at the end of senior year, all the Writing grads participate in First Pitch. Basically, speed dating, but you're pitching movies for 10 minutes to about 10 execs, agents, managers, etc. over the course of a night. It was probably the most nervous I've ever been and makes any meeting seem like cake in comparison. I actually didn't meet with Benderspink on the night of, but they emailed everyone they missed for portfolios. They liked a pilot I wrote and brought me in for a general. I pitched a few more tv and feature ideas, and then kind of said 'fuck it' to myself and told them I wanted to write an awesome YA novel. I didn't have much more than a kernel of an idea, but they wanted me to run with it. Now I'm managed by Benderspink and Suzie Townsend is my publishing agent.

Was RED QUEEN based at all on any screenplay ideas you were developing?  I understand it was your first novel, so what made you develop it as a book rather than a screenplay?

RED QUEEN was definitely a book from the very beginning. I pitched it as a book and always imagined it as a book, maybe with a movie one day. I do think that my screenwriting background made it a lot more accessible to the film industry, which is why it made a splash when it first made the rounds. It's very visual, quick, and has a structure people understand, which definitely helps a lot.
Because I'd written screenplays before, I knew their limitations. I knew, for a newbie, to create the world I wanted with the depth I wanted, I had to go the book route, and I'm very glad I did. I don't think RED QUEEN would've gone anywhere as a standalone script, simply because the novel allowed me to really sink into the world and characters. A script would've only scratched the surface back then.

Take us through the journey of RED QUEEN manuscript from the time you finished it to it being optioned by Universal.

After pitching and getting the thumbs up to work on the manuscript, I knew I had a choice. I could stay in LA and go the assistant route to support myself, or move home to Massachusetts and really power through the novel. I'd make a pretty terrible assistant - I'm forgetful, I have a temper, and I would definitely snap at someone and burn bridges - and knew the assistant life would be too much for me personally to handle. People who can do that and still write are pretty much gods in my eyes. 

So I moved back home, novel outline in hand, and finished the first draft in January 2013. That was a scary month. Benderspink passed my manuscript on to Pouya Shahbazian at New Leaf, who passed it to his co-worker Suzie. I first realized things might be good when Suzie followed me on Twitter and got my hopes up. And more than a year later, she has never let me down. After a revision, Suzie signed me to New Leaf. After another revision, we went on submission to publishers. We lost about 40k words off the manuscript at this point. Even with screenwriting training, I tend to write long. 
We were on submission for two weeks before we got an offer from HarperCollins, and two weeks after that, an option from Universal. Because I was still in Mass for all this, there were a lot of harried phone calls. I was driving kids home from school for cash at that point, and took a lot of phone calls with shushed kids in the back seat.

So timeline: book pitched in May 2012, officially started in June, sold to Harper in April 2013, Universal in May 2013. Kind of a wild ride.

One thing that I and a number of other screenwriting personality types have been pushing for is greater clarity in what the reported deals actually mean.  We're in a business where script options are reported as sales and that gives a very distorted picture of what a writer actually makes. 

For example, if RED QUEEN was a spec script and Universal had bought it for six figures, what that really means is that the writer usually pockets only 10% of that until the film goes into production.  So my question is, how does that work with book options?  Is it similar or does the writer of the underlying material see more payment up front? 

I definitely see what I define as a great deal of money up front for the Universal option, but it's against a lot more for a purchase. If we go through the full options (18 months, plus another 18 if Universal wants), I get a bit more than 10% of the total purchase. I don't have any experience with the screenwriting option side (ETERNAL was an outright sale), so I don't know how the book option money compares to screenplay option. I'm sort of waiting for the shoe to drop because everything and everyone has been great so far.

Are you writing the screenplay for RED QUEEN?  If so, have there been any interesting challenges in adapting your own work?  What are some things that work well in one medium that have to be altered for the other?  And is the screenplay for RQ impacting where you're taking the novel storyline in the remaining installments of the trilogy?

I'm actually not writing the RED QUEEN screenplay. Gennifer Hutchison, an amazing writer who will probably do it way more justice than me, is taking the book to screen. A few people think this might be a touchy subject because I'm a screenwriter too, but it's honestly not. Books and film are two very different mediums and I'm probably too close to RQ at this point to do what film requires. I couldn't cut characters or scenes, and we'd end up with a 200 page screenplay. Plus Genn's phenomenal. This wasn't a factor when writers were interviewed, but I'm personally very happy a female writer is taking the reins. I feel like a fan myself and can't wait to see what she does!

So about a year after the option, where does RED QUEEN stand as a Universal project?

Well, the manuscript that went out last April is definitely not the final product. There have been a few rewrites since then, and copy edits were finished only a few weeks ago. But now that the first book is pretty much locked in terms of content, the engine can start moving.

I'm sure there are plenty of envious aspiring writers wishing they could have your luck in selling your first manuscript. Most writers aren't that good on their first try, so I'm guessing your writing background gave you an edge.  So it's with that in mind that I ask: what was your first screenplay about and how likely are you to parade that around as a writing sample?

Oh man. Full disclosure, I still love that script. It will probably never see the light of day, but I love it. It's exactly my style and taste and tone, and maybe one day...then again maybe not. It's called RAW HIDE and it's a zombie western. Logline: In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane attempt to outrun an undead plague overtaking the Old West. My first time out of the barn and I got to have a zombie/cowboys/Native American battle in a white-out blizzard in downtown Deadwood. My class probably thought I was nuts.

Looking back, can you see a turning point in your growth as a writer? How many scripts did it take for you to figure this out?

I've sort of always been on the same trajectory in terms of style and genre (I like big worlds, big characters, and big explosions), and I think I had a lot of little turns instead of one big hard right. Revising my first screenplay, learning to FINISH, learning to pitch, all affected my writing immensely. At first I kind of resisted the sort of tenets of screenwriting, because I thought myself a sort of touchy-feely, make my own rules kind of writer, but through college I learned how to take what I was learning and absorb it to the point where I wasn't thinking about it anymore. The work still came out with my flow, but it was more refined, more structured. I still absolutely hate outlining but senior year I finally got good at it and it shows a LOT. I think I finally hit my stride with my second TV pilot, the one that got me in the door at Benderspink. That script was where I really showed my taste and my tone, but filtered into something accessible.

Let's talk about ETERNAL, which Sony acquired in February for an undisclosed amount.  Was this a project you developed after RED QUEEN or is it a script you'd been working on for a while?

ETERNAL came about after RED QUEEN, after a summer of back and forth with Benderspink trying to find a project idea we all loved. I remember sending a bunch of ideas, knowing ETERNAL was my favorite, and then they came back with "we love ETERNAL." It was really exciting to get back into screenplays, but also a bit rough. I remember I forgot sluglines for the first five pages. I was like a baby learning to walk again, but it went a lot faster this time.

Was this the first project you had developed with your reps?  Did your team play any role in guiding you through the process or deciding what to write?

Yep, this is our first project together. The team was great to narrow down my ideas, then get my outline in shape, and then the screenplay itself. I'm not really good on the phone, but somehow our phone meetings are working out much better than my usual phone panics do. Benderspink and Pouya from New Leaf were also awesome at getting me on the right generals, in the right places. I think I went on about twenty meetings last fall, and each one was pretty rocking. Really great way to ease me back into the film industry.

How many drafts of ETERNAL did you go through before your reps felt it was ready to send out?  What was that process like?

ETERNAL went through three revisions total, so technically three drafts? The last one was pretty minor. The entire thing took about 3 months once were out of the outlining stage, from September to December 2013. It was really great timing, since I was between edits on RED QUEEN, and just gearing up on the second book. I definitely needed to write a different story in between books, or else I'd be sick to death of the RQ world. 

Because ETERNAL concerns the Greek gods, kind of a big deal to my 10 year-old dorky self, it was a real passion project and I had a ton of fun working on it. Not to say it was easy, but it was always fun. Any time you can throw a minotaur into a ferris wheel, I suggest you do it. When everyone came back from Christmas break, the boys went to work getting ETERNAL out there, and did a tremendous job. I got the call that we sold as I was leaving to get my author photos done, so I had to focus on not smiling too much and looking like a lunatic.

So what's on your writing to-do list currently? And have you already started thinking about what your next project will be?

Currently, I'm all about book 2 in the RED QUEEN series, and trying to get that done for hopefully next month. I've got another industry idea on the back burner that I really, really love and hope to develop as soon as I can. And of course, I currently live my life for Game of Thrones and any news of George RR Martin's next release date.

If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself just before you started writing your first screenplay, what would be the most important things you'd want your past self to know?

Know your limits. Your instinct will be to throw yourself at everything, and that's just not right for you. Listen to all the advice, but follow only what applies to who you are and what path you want to take. Stick to your guns when you know you're right. Admit when you aren't (still working on that). Read A Song of Ice and Fire slowly. Invest in Apple. You made the right choice moving to California. Keep at it.
--------

You can find Victoria Aveyard on Twitter at @VictoriaAveyard.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

So I finally watched the original ROBOCOP...

It's a fascinating experience seeing a film after you've seen the remake it inspired. This totally reverses one's perspective on what was changed and what was retained between the two versions.  Instead of being annoyed with a remake for unnecessarily altering some plot points, one might look at the original and question, "Why didn't they explore this like the other film did?"

Some of you might remember that about two months ago, I took in a viewing of the RoboCop remake and noted I had never seen the original.  In the months leading up to release, most of the geek press reaction to the new film was a lot of bitching about how yet another timeless classic was being butchered needlessly by a greedy studio system.  This amused me slightly because I couldn't really recall many people putting RoboCop on that high a pedestal before the remake was announced.

I would have been seven when the original RoboCop came out, which means that for a lot of my peers, I'm pretty sure the film was something they discovered on video, or even more likely, as something on premium cable that their parents didn't know they were watching.  Maybe I'm selling the age 7-11 set short, but I'm guessing the satire eluded them at such an age.  Actually, remember the playground in those days, I'm sure of it. The initial affection for this film probably has a lot to do with its brutal violence.

I start there because that's what stands out to me the most about RoboCop - it's very bloody and brutal.  It's also brutal in a very 80s way, where's it's both slightly cartoonish and aggressively bloodier than current counterparts.  Compare this to an Expendables film, where more rounds are fired there, but the bullet impacts here definitely lead to more gruesome images. 

The scene where Murphy is shot to all hell by the gang is ugly and nasty in a way that we don't see in action movies anymore.  My gut reaction was complete repulsion, which only made me wonder why I rarely have that reaction to a number of Tarantino's more brutal moments.  I'll be honest - I don't really have a good explanation for that.

The film sets the tone right off the bat with the news reports and commercial interruptions that leave no doubt we're in a heightened reality.  A lot of this is funny (I particularly liked the Battleship-type boardgame that is basically built around the concept of mutually-assured destruction), but the satire bites differently some 25 years later.  The 80s were pretty much the era of corporate badguys and I get the sense that this film was taking that archetype and ratcheting up to what were then-outrageous levels.  That's got to be a major explanation for the non-plussed reaction many executives have to one of their own being accidentally shot to pieces by their drone cop.

Or to put it another way, RoboCop fans, I GET that it's satire, but out of context, it doesn't land for me the way it did back then.  I can appreciate that it contributes to the film's themes of how the corporation essentially de-humanizes people and profits from that and the chaos it creates.  But I don't see myself putting it on the same pedestal as other 80s classics like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and the Indiana Jones trilogy.

It's interesting how the remake is almost a completely different beast. They took the core idea of a cyborg cop and not only played it straight, but they used it to explore ideas that would not have fit well with the original tone.  A very critical change is in how de-humanizing Murphy's initial transformation is in the original.  The remake has Murphy critically injured following a bombing carried out by a drug lord he pissed off.  This makes him an idea test subject for a company looking to "put a man inside the machine" as a way of making their drone armies acceptable for use in America's worst neighborhoods. 

In the remake, when Murphy wakes up, much of his body has been taken away, but his mind and memories are intact.  The remake's most horrifying moment might be the sequence when Murphy sees how little there is left of his body.  As the film progresses, the scientist played by Gary Oldman is forced to turn off more and more of Murphy's humanity in order to make him an effective tool for the company.  I noted in my earlier review that the story is as much about Oldman's character losing his soul as he takes Murphy's away. 

In the original, RoboCop's mind and memories are deliberately stripped from him from the start.  He's basically treated as little more than salvaged spare parts put to use for the company's own ends.  We see through his own eyes as the executives and scientists treat him as a thing, a lab rat.  There's no acknowledgment that what was in there was once a person, no noble pretense that what they've done is any way giving a good man his life back.  An early scene has a weaselly executive ordering the scientists to cut off Murphy's remaining good arm so that it can be replaced with a more efficient mechanical one.  It's colder and harsher than even the more cynical moments in the remake when Keaton plots to capitalize on their hero cop.

Right there, we're telling two very different stories.  Because of that, the original film barely deals with Murphy's family.  They're hazy memories to him, long forgotten encounters that provide the breadcrumbs back to his real identity.  I have to admit, I kind of prefer the remake's take because of how it presents what could have been noble actions and gradually drains them of anything honorable.  The original shoves it in our face that executives lack empathy for their test subject.  The remake allows Oldman - and much of the audience - to first buy into the delusion that something good can come from this.  Oldman wants to help people - he knows his work can do that.  But to get the funding he needs, he has to be willing to sell out Murphy.

For me, Murphy's family is a dangling unresolved thread in the original.  I understand why it had to be handled that way for the story they were trying to tell, but I actually prefer the remake's take on that aspect of the story.  I think what people respond to in the original is that Murphy has everything taken away all at once in a way that seems irreversible, and that tiny spark of humanity still finds a way to the surface on its own.  The original presents a world where any kind of morality is basically a joke.  Regard for all human life is essentially nil.  Murphy recovering some semblance of his identity is basically a tiny burning ember in a whole lot of dark

Your mileage may vary, but I find the world of the remake a lot more terrifying because it feels more plausible in terms of how everyone behaves.  The original presents a world of terrible people.  The remake shows us how good people can be subverted in the name of a larger machine.

However, this doesn't change the fact that the remake has a weak third act, and one that feels even more deficient when stacked up against the original film.  The climax of the remake hinges on Michael Keaton's character suddenly losing all depth and, more importantly, making a stupid mistake that only exists to motivate RoboCop to shoot him.  Predictably, Murphy has to overcome his programming so that he can act against it and save his family.  That whole climax felt like a placeholder for a better idea.

The original has a much more clever climax where RoboCop bursts into a boardroom and exposes Dick Jones's (Ronny Cox) wrongdoing to the CEO.  Jones takes the CEO as a human shield, which complicates matters because RoboCop has been programmed to not take any action against a member of the company.  This complication is neatly solved not by RoboCop defying a core element of his program, but by the CEO firing Jones on the spot.  With that done, RoboCop is free to blow Jones away.

I'm not sure what it says that the remake basically has to rewrite the rules in order to get a happy ending while the original remains a slave to them and finds a way to resolve things.  I do know that for me, the original feels like less of a trite cheat.

There was really no other opportunity to bring this up, but I also enjoyed the parade of character actors in the original.  Aside from the aforementioned Ronny Cox, there's also Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrar, Ray Wise (!), and ER's Rocket Romano himself, Paul McCrane!  It was a fun movie in places and even if I don't quite understand the pedestal it was placed on, I wouldn't say it's a bad movie.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Black List announces a partnership with Fox Broadcasting to discover network television writers

The Black List has partnered with the Fox Broadcasting Company.  Press release below:

The Black List is pleased to announce our first partnership with a broadcast television network.

Today we begin work with the Fox Broadcasting Company to help discover television drama writers for current and future FOX productions.


"As we build a year-round slate of high-quality programming, we are constantly looking for fresh voices that break out of the pack," said Terence Carter, Executive Vice President, Drama Development & Programming. "Given the Black List's impressive track record in features, they are the perfect partner for us as we seek out new drama talent."


Beginning today, writers with pilots hosted on the Black List website who have not made more than $500K for script or teleplay work in aggregate over the last ten years may opt into consideration via the site. The deadline for opting in is May 1, 2014 at 11:59 PM PT.


Shortly thereafter, the Black List will select a short list of five writers based on the data gathered about each script during its time hosted on the website. Each finalist will then provide a professional resume and one page personal statement, which will be reviewed along with their selected original work by Fox executives.


To be considered, simply opt in during the script upload process or on your My Scripts page.

For additional information click here.

For additional submission requirements, click here.
 

For the submission agreement, click here.


This joins the Black List's previous partnerships with Walt Disney Studios, TBS and TNT, the Sundance Institute Workshop, the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship,  and the blind deal offered via Warner Bros, as the newest of the opportunities it's made available to users. 

My thoughts on "Why Producers Will Not Read Your Script"

Before I dive in with today's post, I want to mention I've got an article over at Film School Rejects talking about the possibility of a Black Widow movie.  There are some fans that took issue with the fact that she hasn't headlined her own film yet and cry "sexism" that her importance is "reduced" to that of being a supporting character in Captain America's film.  I discuss not only why I'd rather her be in The Winter Soldier than in her own solo film, and point out that if there were to be a Black Widow standalone, there's no better time to launch that movie than now.

Elsewhere on the internet, you've probably already seen this blog post entitled, "Why Producers Will Not Read Your Script."  It's a posting of an email exchange between a producer and a writer trying to get him to consider his script.  I've seen other sites cover this and focus on the fact that the writer responds terribly to the original Pass, but that overlooks that fact that his initial email is pretty terrible as well.

His introduction is at least twice as long as it needs to be and he one-page outlines for each of three projects he claims are "ready to go."  First thing, strike "ready to go" from your queries.  Every writer I've dealt with who's promised me multiple "ready to go" scripts (and they ALWAYS are fixated on pushing multiple scripts) has been a hack.  Pitch ONE project.  I don't care how many scripts you have. I care about your best script.  I want to know which one you think is right for me.

After that, the mystery writer totally refuses to take the polite pass for what it is and keeps antagonizing the producer.  On what planet is it a good idea to antagonize someone you're trying to get a favor from?!  Manners will get you a long way in personal interaction because if there's one thing that people in this business have a long memory for, it's pricks.

This is one of the writer's responses, with my editorializing in brackets:


I’ve got to say my first inclination was that you didn’t read it yourself, but passed it on to someone else to read on your behalf, because what you say in you’re email makes no sense? 

[First, it's "your," jackass.  Second, if this producer passed the script on to someone else to read, it's someone whose judgement he trusts.  Not only is that pretty common in this business, but calling him out like it's some sort of "gotcha!" is a real dick move.  But by all means, insult away. That's sure to get results.]

To say it doesn’t deliver as I promised, or that you found it pretty derivative and not fully convincing is completely unfounded and quite frankly, insulting?

[You oversold it and this guy was doing you a favor by being as blunt as he was.  To say it's unfounded is bullshit. You're never going to talk someone out of their opinion of a script.  Also, why does this sentence end with a question mark?]

It delivers high originality, powerfully and cinematically, it would make an absolutely fantastic and highly marketable film. 

[In your opinion.  This producer also has an opinion. And it's his right to have it because he's the guy who'd pay for this passion project of yours.]

If it is ‘pretty derivative’ as you say, please name the films, the content or subject matter that it is ripped off from? Or, even similar too? Name them and email them back to me? 

[Again, what are you trying to prove here?  One guy passed on your script. It's not his thing. You accept that and move on to the next guy.  What satisfaction do you get from this debate over whether or not your script is derivative.]

I’ll tell you the answer now. Nothing. Absolutely, nothing. It’s not an imitation of anything that’s ever been made. Why? Because it’s from my own mind, my own writing skills and none other. Unlike, a lot of the tosh regurgitated round and round by unskilled interns with a penchant for writing and real derivative writing at that. 

[And this is pretty much the point where - if I was in this producer's shoes - I'd be forwarding on this email to anyone I knew in development and warn them that answering any query from you is more trouble than it's worth.  Putting that aside, movie-making involves a lot of collaboration.  You're going to need to demonstrate you can take notes.  This paragraph alone shows me you are incapable of accepting even the slightest amount of criticism.  I would not want to work with someone who is this much of a pain to deal with.]

Sorry XXXXX, but if you accuse me of something like that, you really should back it up. Because you’re judgement is so out of whack, I don’t think you read it.

 [If this producer's judgement is "so out of whack" then you should not want to work with him at all. So count yourself lucky he revealed this to you.]

I want to unpack that last point a bit more.  It's amazing how there are some writers who beg and butter me up to get me to read their scripts, and then the instant I give them the slightest criticism, they come back with, "Your (sic) an idiot. You don't know nothing!"  Great. Then what do you care what an idiot thinks?  If I had given superficial praise, would that have made me a genius?

This lone psychopath is hardly alone.  Everyone in my line of work or in development in general has dealt with dozens of these guys.  The reason it's so hard for you to get any consideration is that we have gotten burned by so many of these guys that blind favors almost always prove to be more trouble than they're worth.

I've talked a lot in the past about queries.  If you're confused, dig into some of those old posts.  Here are some other old posts worth checking out:

Never include a PDF of your script with your initial query - this is basic stuff.

How NOT to make a good impression - an encounter I had not too dissimilar to the one addressed above.

Why he shouldn't HAVE to read your fucking screenplay - My thoughts on Josh Olson's "I will not read your fucking screenplay."  Read this so you can understand why asking someone to read your work is a pretty big imposition on them.

And finally, a pair of video posts that might help with your own queries.  This one focuses on the Worst Query Submission I ever received, while this one navigates the politics of asking for a read.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

It's going to be very interesting to revisit the current era of superhero films in about twenty years and dissect what they say about the culture and politics of the early 21st century.  While plenty of them are escapist in nature, there are some like the Nolan Batman trilogy that make some very pointed statements about our post-9/11 world.  When that thesis is eventually written, you can bet that Captain America: The Winter Soldier will certainly have a featured role.

It's interesting to see the progression we've taken in the more than a dozen years since September 11th.  We've gone from wondering if audiences will ever take city-wide destruction scenes as mere eye candy again, to seeing the 9/11 imagery become the standard look for third-act skyscraper destroying battles, to seamlessly incorporating the "security vs. liberty" issue into an escapist comic book blockbuster.  It's hard not to wonder if what feels dead-on relevant today will hopelessly date the film down the line.

The Winter Soldier is as much a sequel to The Avengers as it is the first Captain America.  Enough time has passed that Captain America is now regularly running missions for Nick Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. with Black Widow, but not enough time that he's fully assimilated into the 21st Century.  Cap's a soldier and a patriot. He does what he's told, but his 70 years-removed perspective means that he's got some misgivings about Fury's latest project.  The launch of three Hypercarriers (the floating aircraft carriers from Avengers) is imminent and Fury boasts how they'll be a major tool in becoming more pro-active in taking down threats to national security.  The good Captain snarks that they usually wait for people to actually commit a crime before taking them down, and is reminded that they deal with the world as it is, not what they wish it to be.

Fury expresses a lot of pride in his new toys, saying that at last his organization is in a position to do some good and "after New York" it was clear the old ways just weren't enough anymore.  He's referring to the alien assault on New York depicted in The Avengers, but it's really hard not to read that as a reference to 9/11.   In the Marvel Universe, the invasion was their equivalent of the attack on the World Trade Center and the measures Fury pushes for in response are fairly analogous to the Patriot Act and Bush Administration views on national security.

Here's my usual warning about spoilers.   I'm going to blow a lot of surprises in this review, so don't say you weren't warned.

Before long, Fury is killed while Cap and Black Widow have reason to believe that everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. is a possible traitor.  While on the run, they uncover a disturbing truth - since its founding post-WWII, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra, the fascist organization once headed by the Red Skull. 

With sleeper agents at the highest levels of the organization, they're at last poised to reveal themselves and seize control.  Fury's Hypercarriers will combine with a new A.I. to instantly identify and target individuals who will be a threat to Hydra's agenda.  How are they identifying their targets? Basically through all the surveillance means at their hands - phone records, credit card purchases, internet postings. 

They'll have the ability to carry out 200,000 simultaneous assassinations and seize control before anyone is able to formulate a response.  Even the President of the United States is on their hit list, and Cap and his allies have only mere hours to stop the Hypercarrier launch before Hydra's victory is assured.

This perhaps isn't quite as compelling and ballsy as it could be.  While the film raises the question of if it's worth sacrificing some individual liberties and privacy for extra security, any real debate is nullified by making all of this a Hydra plot.  It's compelling when we see Fury spouting platitudes that probably make Dick Cheney's pants feel a little tight, but the script doesn't allow us to see much merit in his approach.  It's not totally a strawman position, but it's close.

I couldn't help but think of The Dark Knight, which had the guts to put its hero in the driver's seat of a massive Big Brother operation and presented it in such a way that a number of right wing viewers came out of there feeling it supported their agenda.  By making the dichotomy into Team Captain America and Team Hydra, The Winter Soldier takes a far more black-and-white view of the situation.

The other issue I have with revealing all of this as a Hydra plot is that it's hard not to equate Hydra with the SS.  So to my mind, within the Marvel Universe, anyone who's actively and knowingly a member of Hydra had to make the mental leap of, "Yeah, maybe the Nazis DID have a few things worth co-opting."  Even among modern fascists, you won't find many intelligent people looking to Hitler as their patron saint.  So would all of these Hydra sleepers really associate themselves with the Red Skull?

To my mind, the more compelling way to develop this would have been to make our high-ranking Hydra officials genuine patriots who believed that what they were doing was right.  Fury's the only "good guy" shown supporting these plans.  Everyone else involved is just using the plan as a feint for world domination.  And Hydra's plan can ONLY be cartoonish super-villainy world domination.  You're not going to kill 200,000 people at once and hope it slides under the radar.  Hydra isn't out to gradually subvert the government and keep a large populace unaware.  This is going to be a bloody, violent coup.  Because of that, it feels like a failing of the film not to show us what Hydra's next move is five minutes after they eliminate every force for good.

Just think of how much more chilling it would have been if the plan was to eliminate all of those threats quietly and under the radar.  What if instead of "At last Hydra will rule the world!" the leader of this operation made a compelling argument that all this spilled blood would ensure no further wars,  no more terrorist attacks, no more assassinations.  It's probably not fair to penalize the film for NOT being more of a political thriller, but it is a little frustrating that it walks right up to some truly compelling questions and then makes the conflict too easy in the end.

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the film.  I enjoyed it a helluva lot.  It's not only the best Marvel movie other than The Avengers, but it's got some really great action scenes.  The third act lacks the thrill of The Avengers and I'm really starting to weary of the orgy of CG battles that has become the standard for superhero films.  We're at the point where Avengers 2 is going to have to bring something new to the table because three superhero films a year is starting to make the once-impressive into the mundane.

I haven't talked much about the eponymous Winter Soldier.  In a way he feels forced into a plot that doesn't totally require him.  His connection to Cap is the source of a lot of angst for our hero, but that particular plot is left unresolved by the end of the film. By now, Marvel and the audience both have the assurance that there will be future chapters, so the dangling thread doesn't feel like the cheat it once might have.  I do expect that that will be one aspect of the film that will seem less compelling on repeat viewings, though.

The real delight of the film is the interplay between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson.  I've seen the cries of "Why can't Black Widow have her own movie instead of being a sidekick here?"  Trust me when I say that Black Widow is more of a co-lead than a sidekick.  She's such a good foil for Cap that I vastly prefer the notion of her being in this film than I do sending her out on a solo mission.  There's fantastic chemistry between the two, which allows both actors to shine in their scenes together.  The movie might as well be called CAPTAIN AMERICA & BLACK WIDOW and it would be a horrendous mistake to break up this partnership in future films.

The film also finds room for new addition Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. I was worried that we might be in for another Iron Man 2, where the new additions only cluttered up the film in the name of Marvel synergy, but the character is used well here and is another one I wouldn't mind seeing return in a later film.

Samuel L. Jackson is finally given more to do than just being the glue that ties most of the Marvel movies together.  Fury's a character who's probably more effective the more mysterious he remains, but I like that this movie peels back some of his mystique just a little bit.  And who would have thought we'd ever see Robert Redford pop up in a Marvel movie?

Overall, I came out of the film largely satisfied and impressed that it used S.H.I.E.L.D. in a more compelling way in two hours than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has pulled off over most of the season.  The ending of this film is going to force some major changes on that series, as the world it inhabits is pretty much upended.  I have the hope that whatever the TV show becomes now is what it was always meant to be and the meandering quality of the first season has been due to them being forced to mark time until the movie facilitated a relaunch.

But more than that, this film made me really anticipate the Avengers sequel being released next summer and the Captain America movie that will follow in 2015.  Most of the Phase One Marvel films varied wildly in quality, but if they can maintain this level, Phase Two will be a helluva ride indeed.