Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Buffy" sequel without Whedon or Gellar?

Today's Hollywood Reporter has a story about the development of a new Buffy The Vampire Slayer feature film. It wouldn't be a sequel to the utterly terrible 1993 Kristy Swanson film, nor would it have any connection to the fantastic series that ran on UPN and the WB from 1997-2003... and here's the real rub, folks.

Buffy" creator Joss Whedon isn't involved and it's not set up at a studio, but Roy Lee and Doug Davison of Vertigo Entertainment are working with original movie director Fran Rubel Kuzui and her husband, Kaz Kuzui, on what is being labeled a remake or relaunch, but not a sequel or prequel.

While Whedon is the person most associated with "Buffy," Kuzui and her Kuzui Enterprises have held onto the rights since the beginning, when she discovered the "Buffy" script from then-unknown Whedon. She developed the script while her husband put together the financing to make the 1992 movie, which was released by Fox.

...The new "Buffy" film, however, would have no connection to the TV series, nor would it use popular supporting characters like Angel, Willow, Xander or Spike.

...The parties are meeting with writers and hearing takes, and later will look for a home for the project. The producers do not rule out Whedon's involvement but have not yet reached out to him.

Say what? They "don't rule out Whedon's involvement but have not yet reached out to him?" Geez, the guy is only the creator and the man who shepharded the series to the phenomenom it is today. This is the guy with legions of loyal and insanely devoted fans. Granted, they don't seem to be turning out for Dollhouse, but they can make quiet a rumbling in the blogosphere. (Exhibit A: the phemonom of Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog.)

My gut says that if they want any chance of pulling in the hard-core Slayer fans, they'll have to get Whedon's blessing somehow. I can also see fans being ticked that supporting this reboot might kill any chance of a Buffy feature film with the TV cast (though let's face it - that was a long shot.) As a fan, I think this sucks.

But the Kuzuis have every right to do this. They own the rights on the movie and they licensed the show to TV. As I understand it, Whedon had right of first refusal on any sequels and TV shows - which is how he ended up running the show in the first place. Apparently, the producers went to him, expecting he would pass on it. Clearly they're not obligated to go to him in a legal sense, and he wouldn't be the first creator pushed out of his franchise by producers.

I think not using the characters from TV might have less to do with respecting that continuity and more to do with how the rights to those particular characters are tied up. If the Kuzuis only own the movie they might not be able to acknowledge anything unique to the series. Or I suppose it's possible that they might own the movie characters outright, but that ownership of the TV elements is divided among different producers - which could force a sharing of the profits with those players if Xander, Willow, Giles, et al, were involved. It's hard to say for sure without seeing the actual deals.

I'm sure Whedon is entitled to a share of the profits, but I'm also sure that he'd much rather have full creative control. At the time he made that deal, though, he was a nobody and no one ever anticipated it would be the cult hit it became.

Let this be a lesson to future screenwriters - if you sign away your rights, this is the risk you take.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Script reading and American Idol

I haven't watched American Idol regularly at all during its previous seasons, but for various reasons I got pulled in this season with the hype over Adam Lambert, who certainly has to be one of the more talented contestants to grace the Idol stage. I'm also somewhat proud to say that I have enjoyed Kris Allen since his Top 36 performance of "Man in the Mirror." (And as long as I'm drifting off topic, let me say that Allison Iraheta was a star in the making from her performance of "Alone" that same night.)

Some of you are probably wondering, why are you discussing America Idol on a screenwriting blog? Is it because you're shamelessly trolling for hits by including the names "Kris Allen" and "Adam Lambert" in your blog posts?

Hell yes, but I swear there's a context for all of this.

As I watched this season, I realized that there are many, many days where I as a script reader feel like a judge on American Idol, particular when I'm in a position where my feedback is going straight to the writer and not a producer or an agent. It's one thing to tell a development executive that a script sucks and give them their reasons for passing on it - it's quite another to put those reasons down in black in while in a document that you know is going straight to the writer.

And at the end of the day, every script reader is either a Randy Jackson, a Paula Abdul or a Simon Cowell. (The fourth judge who shall not be named is generally irrelevant when she's not putting bikini-wearing contestants in their place, so I shall not acknowledge her.) Randy - a guy with knowledge but little deep insight, or the ability to dissect a performance without falling back on increasingly repetitive jargon; Paula - a woman with occasional insight buried under a vocabulary desperately striving for intelligence. She might nail the issue, or she might just confuse you with double-talk.

And then there's Simon - the "mean" one, the guy who seems to take pleasure in taking down weak singers. He's almost - dare I say it? - bitter that he has to endure these talentless wannabes who can't realize when they're out of their depth. Most hate him for that - but often he's the first to praise the few contestants with talent. Granted, personal taste can cloud it. (His hard-on for Danny Gokey this season was incomprehensible, and I felt he rarely gave Kris his due.) For the most part, he's spot-on and razor-sharp.

As a script reader, I hope that I'm most like Simon. I tend to blunt in my criticisms, and I don't often apologize for it. While it's always good to temper harsh notes with some praise, it's important to remember that you do the writer no favors if you don't tell him when something plain doesn't work. At times I've "gone easy" on a terrible script, pointing out critical flaws without using strong adjectives to express just how wretched the writing choices were. Guess what? Often the writers then resubmitted making only very basic changes, failing to fix the major issues.

Writers are lazy - if you don't tell them something sucks, they won't go out of their way to rewrite it.

The other issue is that I hope that by being so hard on the scripts that are bad, my praise will mean more. If my bosses know that I have no hesitation about opening up both barrels on a piece of shit script, then when I rave about a screenplay, they're more likely to take notice. (Granted, with some agency coverage it behooves the reader not to be *too* savage in his criticisms, but that's a whole 'nother column.) And writers who have sat through my nitpicking their logic, lambasting their character choices, and stopping just short of insulting their talent will know that when I say "This is strong writing" I mean it.

The other reason for being harsh is that often the worst writers are the ones most delusional about their talent. I've read those kinds of scripts hundreds of times - from writers who clone and cobble their scripts together from many other sources, yet somehow remain convinced of their own brilliance. They're the screenwriting equivalent of Bikini Girl or William Hung. These people are so convinced of their own talent that it takes harsh criticism to get through to them.

I don't have a problem offering encouragement - but giving someone false hope doesn't help them in the long run. Watch the audition weeks of American Idol and ask yourself how a person incapable of being on-key for two successive notes could ever think they stand a chance in a singing competition. In those cases, is Simon mean for telling the truth? Or is he actually doing those people a favor?

I don't think any script reader enjoys savaging a script or its writer. Don't get me wrong, the mean coverages can sometimes be fun to write, especially when the script proves to be offensive, but it takes an hour to read, an hour to synoposize and often an hour or more to write up a critique. With an investment of three hours per script, no reader looks at his stack thinking, "Boy I hope this sucks so I can tear it a new one."

Quite the opposite, most readers are desperate for that diamond in the rough - for that script that they can impress their bosses with by "discovering it." And there's no feeling like being able to tell a writer, "This is brilliant."

So the next time you get a harsh critique, give yourself a few minutes to get the reaction of "How dare that asshole!" out of your system. Then, take a deep breath, read it again and see how the reader is trying to help you.

And ask yourself, seriously and honestly "Do you have what it takes?"

Or are you up there tone-deafly crooning "I Have Nothing"?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Working in the public domain

A friend of mine - let's call him "Reign of F-ing Genius" - sent me an email weighing in on my post yesterday regarding using characters in the public domain:

Sadly, I am here to report that public domain is not nearly so clear cut when it comes to characters that have been adapted into film. The specific example I'm thinking of is the Invisible Man. H.G. Wells has been dead long enough that the character is technically in the public domain. Alan Moore put him to excellent use as a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, Universal still holds exclusive film rights for the property. So, when Fox adapted League into film, they legally could not use the same character from the book. So, in the film version, he's not THE Invisible Man, he's just AN invisible man. He's got a different name and the movie avoids specific references to his past. In this case, the change made as much difference to the final product as a leper catching a bad case of sniffles, but it goes to show that once a corporate entity has gotten its mitts on an existing character, the ownership issue becomes significantly more complicated.

Just something to keep in mind. I admit I'm not a lawyer, so do your homework when playing with characters of legally dubious status.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reader mail - animated sequel specs

Again I have to apologize for the scarcity of postings lately. Real life has been keeping me busy. How about some reader mail?

I got this email last week from a reader named Martin:

I just completed an animated screenplay based on a character from a Disney animated movie, [REDACTED]. I’m a father of three kids that loved the movie just like countless kids throughout the world that went to see the movie at the theatre and now continue to view it today in the privacy of their homes. My son, in particular, loved the character [REDACTED] and wished there were more stories related to that character. I agreed whole hardily and one day began to write down some thoughts that ultimately, years later, turned into a full blown script.

It started as just a hobby and although now completed, I just assume keep it on my hard drive and look to it as a completed personal masterpiece; quite an accomplishment. However, I have dreams of the story being developed into a film to see how the story jumps off the page and how it would look on the screen. I understand the truth behind animated films and the in house development of these films by Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. I was considering sending a few Query Letters out just to gauge interest, but after reading your brief article, “Writing Animated Specs”, perhaps I should just keep it to myself and enjoy it with my family. I just wanted to get your thoughts and see if you had any additional insight.

First, considering you wrote a sequel to an existing movie, I'll direct you to my thoughts on the practice in this post.

However, in the event that the character you're working with happens to be in the public domain, the problem might be less restrictive. No one owns those characters, so those "toys" are available. A really good example of this would be, Wicked, the book and Broadway production that focuses of the life of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. The novel The Wizard of Oz (but not the movie) is in the public domain, so anyone can do anything with those characters. In that case, using characters with an existing following and name recognition can be a benefit. Studios are cranking out remakes like nobody's business, and there's always room for a new take on an old story, especially if it's high concept. When you think about it, isn't it strange that no one asked, "What if Peter Pan grew up?" before Steven Spielberg explored that question in Hook?

However, if your fairy tale character isn't in the public domain, you're screwed. If you're writing this to be a sequel to an existing animated film, you're probably also screwed. The odds of a first time writer selling an animated script are extremely long. If you were a guy thinking about starting a script, I'd tell you to invest your time on something else.

But at this point, the script is written, so you might as well make some use of it, right?

My advice: rewrite the story so it doesn't necessarily have to be an animated film. Then, rewrite it so that there's some wiggle room for it to be taken as less of a direct sequel to the original film. In the same way that Hook isn't a direct follow-up on Disney's Peter Pan, your script need not be beholden to the original story. (Though in the case of this specific story and character, I have to admit I'm unsure if the lead of your script exists in the original tale and is in the public domain. Double-check this fact.)

Then, get to work on your second script. Have a strong treatment, and possibly a few other pitches. A realistic best case scenario is that people might like your animated spec, but feel like it's either not for them or that there's nothing that they can do with it. However, if the quality of your writing and your imagination impresses them, they might very well as, "What else you got?"

Make sure you have a good answer for them. My gut feeling is that you're not going to sell this first script, but it might be enough to open the door for another, more marketable spec.

Good luck.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Deleted Scenes

Supposedly, the most popular "special feature" on DVDs is the Deleted Scene section, which is kind of funny if you think about it. In screenwriting, every scene is supposed to drive the story forward, or have some significance to the main plot. If a scene can be easily removed without affecting anything, then the conventional wisdom is that it's a weak scene.

Or to put it another way, these scenes weren't good enough to make the cut the first time, so why is anyone interested in seeing the leftovers?

Admittedly, there are deleted scenes that are fascinating to watch, at least in terms of seeing why certain decisions were made. Sometimes scenes get cut only to keep the pace moving, or to bring down the running time. In other cases there might be external factors, such as test audiences saying they hated the original ending. However, if you listen to commentary on many of these sorts of scenes, a common theme often emerges - "We just didn't need this scene to tell the story."

This is why when I'm in the rewrite stage of my script - and especially when I need to bring the page count down - I scrutinize every scene. I take each scene on its own and ask myself what it's doing for the story. Is it advancing the plot? Are we learning new information? Does it reveal something interesting about the characters? The big question I ask myself is - do I think this moment is destined to be seen only in the bonus features section of the inevitable DVD release? For whatever reason, thinking of editing in those terms helps me the most.

(Sidebar: today's DVD consumers probably don't appreciate the access they have to those mythic scenes. I remember the days when viewers only learned about cut scenes from the occasional still photo, or from reading the novelization. If you were lucky, the network TV showings of a film would incorporate some of the cut scenes to pad out the running time. It took nearly 30 years for audiences to see the Brando scenes cut from Superman II, and about 10 years to see the original ending to Star Trek: Generations. That was enough time for them to take on a near mythic quality among hard-core fans.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Everyone starts somewhere

I came across this story this week and had to share. It sounds like an urban legend, but is the supposedly true story of how one peon made his way out of the mailroom to become an agent.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Lessons from bad movies - "The Spirit"

This weekend I Netflixed a film I knew better than to spend $12 on when it was in wide release - Frank Miller's The Spirit. I'd seen the presentation for this film at last year's Comic Con, where one previewed scene played so horribly to the audience that the producer was practically apologizing for it after running the clip. I knew I shouldn't spend theatre prices on this turkey, but it immediately earned a place in my Netflix queue.

Most of the major critics took their shots at this one back when it first came out, so I'm not going to waste time with a broad review. Also, I've never really followed the Will Eisner comic upon which this is based, so I can't speak too deeply to the film's fidelity to the source material. Still even with the limited exposure I've had to the comics, I can tell that visually, the film looks nothing like Eisner's vision. It looks more like... well... Sin City, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez.

In comparing the two, you can get a sense of where Miller went wrong here. For all of its demerits - and there are many - The Spirit is a very visually strong film. There are the usual Miller motifs, and he certainly knows how to compose a shot. (Not surprising since Miller's been working in the visual medium of comic books for about thirty years.) This is one of the best-looking bad movies I've seen. I know a lot of people derided the style as a Sin City rip-off, but Miller really is just ripping off himself - and a few Eisner visuals shown in the DVD supplements suggest that Eisner worked in a similar style on some of his later projects.

What's wrong in The Spirit? Just about everything else - starting with the script. I'll give a brief mea culpa here. Back in the summer of '04, a development exec I read for got a copy of the Sin City script and allowed me to read it. At the time I hadn't read the comics, but I was well aware of the creator's reputation. I peeled back the cover page, eager to see how the story had been adapted.

I got about ten pages in before I tossed the script aside and wrote it off as a dud. It felt like the vast majority of those ten pages were made up of over-written visual description and especially over-written voiceover narration. I figured there was no way it would work. About ten months later, when the film came out, I had a healthy serving of crow. The two directors made the narration work - incorporating it in a way that really complimented the noir style they were emulating.

Given that, I can understand why no one immediately cried foul when The Spirit proved to have an equally prolific inner monologue. The problem: his inner monologue isn't always inner. There are scenes that start with The Spirit's narration, only to then shift to him talking to himself out loud. This was one of the early slips that pulled me out of the film. Narration might be intrusive, but if you can get the audience to accept it as a part of the style, don't change horses in mid-stream. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why The Spirit voices some thoughts out loud and ruminates internally in others. Given a choice between the two, I'd argue it's less intrusive to go with voiceover. That way there isn't the strangeness of a character talking just so the audience can hear him.

The script also suffers from a plot so dull it's not even worth recounting. There's a fairly mundane set-up early on that ends up pitting two antagonists against each other, with The Spirit conflicted because one antagonist is his former love and the other has a hidden connection to his own immortality. This is one of those movies where the characters end up stopping frequently to explain the plot and motivations to each other - and here's where Miller exposes his limitations as a writer and director. Exposition scenes are overwritten, some set-ups are awkwardly paced only so the story can advance, and the blocking in these talky scenes is often reminiscent of a bad high school play.

Which brings us to the element that truly brings this film down - the acting. I'd argue that only two actors escape this debacle unscathed - Dan Lauria and Samuel L. Jackson. Lauria does the impossible - he somehow finds the exact right note between camp and serious in the cliched role of the hard-boiled police commissioner. It's over the top in all the right ways, even as virtually every other actor stumbles badly when Miller directs them to be broad. Jackson escapes only by virtue of being Jackson.

Again I draw a comparison to Sin City, where Miller and Rodriguez had the advantage of having strong actors like Mickey Rourke, Benicio del Toro, and Bruce Willis in their corner. However, for me, the real shock was how they got solid performances out of actors who generally aren't that good. Jessica Alba might be considered one of the sexiest women alive, but her acting has never been all that impressive - yet amazingly, she turned in a surprisingly vulnerable and likable performance. Brittany Murphy is one of the most annoying actresses alive, so bad that she'll make your eyes and ears bleed - and somehow she totally blended into Sin City's style. Even Rosario Dawson stood out, despite having given few notable performances prior to that. At least one of the directors knew how to get through to these often-uneven players... and from The Spirit, I think it's safe to say that was Rodriguez.

Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega and especially Stana Katic all give performances so bad that they would be career-ending if it wasn't for their sex appeal and the fact it's clear that all of this is Miller's fault. I don't know if there are enough adjectives to adequately convey just how terrible their acting is. The amazing thing is you can completely see what they're going for, even as it's obvious just how badly they missed the target.

Let this be a lesson to all writers - great actors can sometimes save even your weak material. The right material can even elevate your actors... but when an actor tanks a performance that's all the audience will see. Few people watch an awkward scene and think, "Wow that was well-written, the actor just blew it." More likely, they'll think "This movie sucks, this actor sucks," or "this script sucks." Like I said earlier, the script certainly didn't do the actors any favors here, but the dialogue was stylized enough that the right actors might have been able to minimize the damage - had they found the right note in their performances. That's the risk you take when you write highly-stylized dialogue.

Granted, the film suffers from further problems, where logic seems to take a total vacation. My favorite example of this comes with the Spirit is captured by the Octopus. Our hero wakes up in a room decorated with Nazi motifs, and his captors are soon revealed in Nazi uniforms - except for his torturer - a woman dressed as an Arabian belly dancer, though she turns out to be a French woman named "Plaster of Paris." Then, just as you're trying to make sense of this odd cultural melting pot, it dawns on you that this "French" woman is played by Spanish actress Paz Vega.

Blame the visuals all you want for that one, but every one of those odd choices was probably made at the script level - save for the casting of Paz Vega. And even if it wasn't, Miller wrote and directed the film, meaning that all of this HAD to be his vision. It plays like a weird exercise in multiculturalism.

I can't offer any one macro lesson from this turkey, but there are plenty of little lessons to be gleaned. Some problems might be visible at the script level, and others might not become evident until actors actually say their lines out loud.

To recap:
1) Don't switch between narration and having a character talk to himself. If you're gonna go for the narration cheat, embrace it whole-hog.

2) Don't overcomplicate the plot solely through dialogue.

3) Keep exposition efficient. In the cases where you can't, don't just have the characters pace back-and-forth. Give them something visually interesting to do.

4) With the right direction, even bad actors can find the proper tone for your stylized story. Make sure the script isn't so stylized that it strands them with one-note characters.

5) Make sure there's a logic to the set design and wardrobe you specify. If your villain wears a Nazi uniform for kicks, make sure we know what that's supposed to say about his character - especially when there's no consistency between that and the rest of his wardrobe.

I'll conclude with this - it feels like several decisions could have been made at the script stage that would have minimized the damage in the execution... but then we would have had merely a boring film instead of an awesomely bad one.