Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Orson Welles

I've been waiting a while for the right time to post these infamous viral clips. This is Orson Welles' classic outtakes from a Paul Masson wine commercial.

And this is the audio recording from a voiceover session for a frozen peas commercial. This is the infamous bootleg that inspired voice actor Maurice LaMarche's impression that was feature on The Critic and later became the basis for Brain on Pinky and the Brain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

BEST WORST MOVIE to get theatrical release!

Awesome! BEST WORST MOVIE, the documentary I raved about after I saw it at AFI Fest last fall, is getting a theatrical release. I just got this from producer-director Michael Paul Stephenson's email update. Below his email, you'll find the official press release:

Area23a to Release Award-Winning Doc About The Worst Movie Ever Made

After four grueling years of green blood, sweat and troll tears, I can finally announce that our film BEST WORST MOVIE will be released in theaters this spring.

You'll find the official press release after the jump, but I wanted to drop you a quick note to thank you for joining our email family and for being apart of this adventure over the past few years.

I’m as tied to Best Worst Movie as any one person can be to a film. ‘Troll 2’ has been a defining factor in my life since I was 10 years old, and Best Worst Movie seems like a culmination of this era. To see it on a big screen, to watch the outpouring of love from the fans after a screening, and to see the enthusiastic and thoughtful support is at once relieving, rewarding, incredibly surreal and meaningful.

If you had the chance to see BEST WORST MOVIE on the festival circuit and liked it, or if you'd like to see BEST WORST MOVIE in your city... we need your help spreading the word about the theatrical release. SHOUT IT OUT! Request it in your city, ask your theater to book it, write about it, sing it, dance it, tweet it, eat it, just don't... piss on it!

We have plenty of cool surprises in store. And if you haven't already, please take a lightning-quick second to say hello:

1. Drop by our Facebook family,
2. TEXT "TROLL2" to 83043 (Yes, it's free).
3. Follow me on Twitter.


Michael Paul Stephenson
Producer & Director - BEST WORST MOVIE


Press contact:

Liz Berger
(212) 277-7558


New York, NY (February 24, 2010) – Area23A, the event-based film distribution company formed in January by industry veteran Richard Abramowitz and Kirt Eftekhar, founder of Ocule Films, announced today that it will theatrically release the award-winning “Best Worst Movie” which has been an official selection in over thirty film festivals. The documentary had its world premiere at South by Southwest and has received several awards including the Top Ten Audience Favorite at Hot Docs 2009. Area23a will open the film in Austin, Los Angeles, New York and other markets to follow this Spring.

In “Best Worst Movie” Michael Paul Stephenson makes his directorial debut by exploring one of the worst and most critically panned movies ever made, Troll 2, which he starred in twenty years ago as a child.

In 1989, Italian director, Claudio Fragrasso cast small-town dentist Dr. George Hardy and a group of unwitting Utah actors in the ultra-low budget horror film, Troll 2. Soon after its disastrous release, Dr. Hardy retired from his short-lived acting career and returned to dentistry in his hometown of Alabama, unaware of the legions of fans that would one day recognize him as a cult movie luminary.

“Best Worst Movie” reveals the improbable heartfelt story of an Alabama dentist-turned-cult-movie icon and an Italian filmmaker as they come to terms with their internationally revered cinematic failure.

Stephenson and his wife, Lindsay Stephenson produced "Best Worst Movie" under their production company, Magic Stone Productions. Brad Klopman also serves as a producer.

Of the acquisition, Stephenson says “Our movie – that we have devoted the last four years to – can not be in better hands than with Area23a. They have demonstrated their ability to skillfully handle specialized films in a crowded market place. The recent success of “Anvil!” is only the most recent example of Richard’s expertise in theatrical film distribution.”

Abramowitz adds “We are very excited to bring ‘Best Worst Movie’ to theaters across the country. The movie has been generating both incredible word-of-mouth and critical acclaim through the festival circuit. Audiences are appreciating the film’s humor and are also moved by its homage to bad movies and, at least in this case, the good people who make them.” Said Eftekhar, "Keep your eyes open: we're bringing a "Best Worst Movie/Troll 2" party to your town soon..."

Area23a is currently distributing the acclaimed “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” “The Mighty Uke,” “American Harmony,” and “They Came to Play.” Later this year it will release Sandy Cioffi's “Sweet Crude."

The Bitter Script Reader Fan page on Facebook

Well, I finally gave in to the last social network (that I know of) and joined Facebook. It took way more time than should have been necessary, but I finally figured out how to sync Tweet-Deck with the page. (I guess the problem had something to do with creating a fan page before I'd created an actual profile?)

Anyway, as arrogant as it is to be counting "Fans" it's even more pathetic to look at that counter and see ZERO fans, so please feel free to join the page, start discussions and whatnot. Otherwise I'll be forced to create a bunch of fake IDs to boost my fan count and I can't see that ending well.

The Bitter Script Reader Fan Page or just search Facebook for "Bitter Script Reader."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tuesday Talkback (on Wednesday): Screenwriter scams

We had a good Talkback post last week as you guys weighed in on the merits of InkTip, so I figured that it might be good to put that knowledge to use again this week.

I hope I'm not opening up a huge can of worms here, but I'm putting out an open call for anyone to post on any screenwriting-related scams they've come across. I'm thinking of something along the lines of submitting your script to an agency only to have them tell you that you must pay $50 for another (secretly affiliated) company to do coverage on the script.

Awareness is the enemy of these scams so let's educate each other.

However, it's not a scam if you paid for coverage and got back notes that you didn't like or agree with. That's something between you and the coverage service. But feel free to post any contests or services that are clearly illegitimate.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interview with Joe Ollinger - winner of the "I WILL Read Your F***ing Screenplay" Contest

It's a blog crossover today! A few weeks back I invited everyone to submit their worst screenplay for a contest that involved me critiquing their script as part of an upcoming column. After several great pitches, I picked Joe Ollinger as the winner. Today you can find the resulting article, 140, as a guest-blogger post on The Story Spot. Go check out my live-Tweet review of Joe's script "Blooming Season" there today, but first, read this interview with Joe.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small swamp town in Florida and moved to Los Angeles to go to USC in 2002. I graduated in 2006 with a B.F.A. in Writing for Screen and Television and a B.A. in Psychology. After that I worked for the University and also worked from home as a reader for a production company. I'm still working as a reader, but I quit my other job and I'm now attending Southwestern Law School. I hope to one day either coach the Miami Dolphins or eat a 100-ounce steak.

What led you to write BLOOMING SEASON? Any inspirations in particular?

At the time I was really into those 1970's sci-fi movies like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. I've been an avid sci-fi fan my whole life, and it was the genre I felt the most comfortable with at the time.

You called BLOOMING SEASON the second-worst thing you've written. There's no delicate way to ask this... How much worse was #1?

I wrote an untitled schlocky action script about involving a bounty hunter and a snuff porn cult. It was fun and quick to write, but after I finished the first draft I looked at it and basically said, "Yep, that's not worth rewriting." Actually, in truth, that screenplay is executed significantly better than Blooming Season, but the premise isn't really specific enough or interesting enough to spend time making it better. It was good practice, though, and every page of bad or mediocre writing gets you closer to being a good writer.

At the time you wrote BLOOMING SEASON, were you convinced all you needed to do was get it to an agent and you'd be the next hot thing? How long was it before you looked at objectively?

I was convinced I had written a good screenplay, I'll say that. I had no idea how the business worked at the time. I was a freshman in college, so I basically put the thing aside to focus on writing new material for a while. I never did a big rewrite on it for a couple of reasons: (1) when 28 Days Later Came Out, I thought there was too much similarity between the "rage" virus in that movie and the insanity plague in mine; and (2) after learning more about the industry and doing some research on script sale statistics, I realized that it's basically impossible to break in as a screenwriter with sci-fi material. Sci-fi movies aren't that common, and sci-fi specs don't sell very often. So I basically let the script die and chalked it up as a loss. Fortunately I also love writing comedy, so I started doing more of that, and less sci-fi.

Did you, like me with my first spec, waste some potentially good contacts by giving them BLOOMING SEASON when you might have been better served by waiting until you had a really strong spec?

I did waste at least one potential contact, but in retrospect I didn't make the mistake a lot of writers make by alienating a bunch of people they don't even really know yet, harassing them to read a passion project. I was probably fortunate that, for whatever reason, I didn't feel the urgency a lot of people feel to get material "out there."

You're making a really good point, though -- I would recommend that writers finish at least three feature scripts and go through at least a couple of rewrites on each, before they show anything to anyone. Unless it's just for notes or something, obviously.

What did you learn from the experience of writing BLOOMING SEASON?

I would say the chief thing I took away from it was a lesson in confidence. I learned that I could write a screenplay in a couple of months. I hear too many writers say they've "been working on a screenplay for the last couple years," and that type of thing. I think that's ridiculous. If you want to be an actual writer, and not just another guy with "a" screenplay, you need to complete projects. Massaging your passion project for two years isn't going to help you. If you get too close to a story, it's almost definitely not as great as you think it is, and odds are it never will be.

Other than that, I would again say that every page you write gets you closer to where you want to be. So by that math, Blooming Season got me about a hundred pages closer.

What do you credit for your growth as a writer over all?

That's a tough question. I can't give a complete answer, but the obvious factors are (1) the great education in storytelling I got at USC Film and (2) reading lots and lots of material.

I think a lot of aspiring writers overlook the necessity of studying storytelling analytically. If you don't put a lot of thought and examination into what works and what doesn't, you're writing blindly. If I had just gone ahead and written another script after Blooming Season, without putting some study into structure and dialogue and character development and premise, I doubt I would have shown any improvement.

You say you're a script reader. Would you mind telling me for whom? (If not, that's cool.) How does reading a lot of scripts translate to being better at writing scripts?

I won't say for whom, but I'll say that I work for a director/writer/producer with more than one Oscar. The company is relatively small, but it's had a pretty busy, relatively high-profile slate since I started working for it in 2006.

Reading scripts might be the best way of improving one's writing. Actually, let me qualify that: reading scripts and analyzing them might be the best way. If you just read screenplays and don't put thought into what works and what doesn't, it's probably not going to do much for you.

At this point I've probably written around 2,000 pages of coverage in my life. I've seen terrible screenplays, bad screenplays, good screenplays, and even great screenplays (though thankfully I've never had a job where I had to read a lot of un-repped amateur stuff, so I can't claim to have really seen the worst of the worst).

You don't need to read nearly that much to reap the benefits. It doesn't take long before you start thinking of your own material in the same way you evaluate the material of others. If you know your stuff, you can spot mistakes quickly and easily.

And finally, plug away. Tell me all about the specs you're trying to get people to look at now. List as many as you like.

I don't know if I've been "trying to get people to look at" stuff. As you know, the spec market isn't a friendly place right now; statistically, fewer screenplays are selling than ever before. So I've been working in other genres for the past couple years. But here are some loglines of projects I'd still like to get out there, in the odd event that anyone would ever care to read stuff by the winner of a "Worst Script" contest...

Moose Chunks and Me -- a teen/sports/romantic comedy
In order to impress the girl of his dreams, a high school nerd must befriend his chief competition: a popular though moronic meathead named Moose Chunks.
I co-wrote this one with a guy named Frank Howell. It finished in the semi-finals of the Bluecat Competition, for whatever that's worth.

Wanderlost -- an adventure/comedy
An aimless young man from a family of great explorers finally gets his chance at greatness when he inherits his grandfather's memoirs. With the help of his quirky family and his foreign sidekick, he embarks on a bizarre journey across the world in a race against a jetsetting playboy for the last undiscovered treasure.

Tool: The Movie -- a college/"bro-mance" comedy
Two frat boys, a nerd and a player, join the staff of a feminist retreat in order to pursue their dream girls. To succeed, the nerd will have to learn how to be a tool, and the player will have to learn how not to.

The Crush -- a comedic superhero series
The adventures of The Crush, a young superhero with the ability to smash things with his mind, and a frustrating inability to use this power around women he feels attracted to. Faced with the every day struggles of a college freshman, The Crush must also deal with various strange and powerful villains, including his arch-nemesis, an alluring former-stripper-turned-billionairess.
I've been working with an awesome animator named Arvin Bautista ( on this project, developing it both as a comic book and an animated TV series.

... and a couple of novels...

The Apex Predator -- a thriller with some sci-fi elements
A detective must kill alternate versions of himself in several parallel realities, in order to return to his own universe and save the woman he loves from being murdered by her fiance.

Loopback -- don't know what genre I'd stick this under
A former NASA engineer teams up with a clairvoyant twelve year-old kid to exploit the Las Vegas casinos. Set against the backdrop of the late 1960's, the story deals with the possibility that the Apollo 11 moon landing may have been faked.
I also have a screenplay of this story, but I think the book is better.

I lied. One more thing - if people want to read BLOOMING SEASON (or contact you about any of your other specs), may they reach you at your e-mail address?

They can contact me at

Monday, February 22, 2010

Movies by hacks about people who get hacked (up)

I've read more than a few slasher flicks lately and most of them have unfortunately been crap. I enjoy a good horror film as much as the next guy, but the problem with a lot of horror specs is that they get so formulaic when they involve a slasher killer. Here are a few of the more common tropes that pop up in the first acts of the weaker, more generic specs.

A disposable kill to start the film - Usually the writers in question are sharp enough to know that a good horror film has to start with a bang. The problem is that this early kill - which serves the purpose of establishing for the audience that there's a madman on the loose - rarely exhibits much imagination on the part of the writer. Most of the time it involves a cannon fodder character wandering around in the film's main setting. (For example: If we're dealing with one of those films where the killer stalks a bunch of campers in the woods, then the first scene has our walking target walking through the woods before getting killed.)

The most common mistake made in amateur scripts is that usually this victim has little to no connection to any of the other characters, and in bad scripts, this death isn't integral to the plot at all. It's just there to tell the audience "Killer on the loose." It's always better if you can make this scene motivate the story, and somehow set the plot into motion. For instance, Scream avoids this problem by using Drew Barrymore's murder as the catalyst for the police questioning everyone at school, establishing how Drew's character and her boyfriend are connected to the main cast, and setting up the motif of the killer. (In bad scripts, the slasher merely jumps out of the shadows and kills.)

20 pages of boredom - The hack writer assumes that since they've spent the first 5 pages setting up the killer, that they can spend the next 20 pages slowly introducing their large cast of characters as they go about their mundane lives before setting up the next kill around page 30. The worst script I read recently had one group of four teens killed while skinny dipping on the first ten pages. Then they introduced another group of six teens heading out for another camping trip. This involved five pages of the teens assembling for their trip. Ten pages of them on their road trip, which mostly consisted of smoking pot and arguing over pop culture, and then ten pages of them setting up camp - seven of which were preoccupied with the girls stripping down and skinny-dipping.

How much of that turned out to be essential to the story? None. Zero. Zilch. The only point that had any significance was that Prude Girl hadn't yet slept with Nice Guy and that neither of them were sure it was a good idea to do it on this trip. Naturally Slutty Girl and Tool Guy were advocating this hookup, while Soon-to-be-Topless Girl and Dead Guy #1 (spoiler alert) don't understand why they just didn't do it in the Jeep on the way out to the woods.

I know... I'm bored too. Just imagine twenty pages of this drivel.

Anyway, my point is that the movie could have just as easily started with Dead Guy #1's death rather than Anonymous Cannon Fodder's death and the impact on the script would have been zero, save for the fact that it would now be twenty pages shorter.

So take this lesson. Act One's are not the place to kill time. The story starts on p. 1 - not on p. 30

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Call for Questions - Robert Levine interview

I'm very pleased and excited to announce that this evening I will be interviewing Robert Levine, currently on staff at The Human Target as a writer/executive story editor. Levine was also a staff writer on Jericho and Harper's Island and he's writing the current Jericho comic book, which picks up from the end of the second season of the canceled show. His other credits include episodes of Judging Amy and Close to Home.

I've been prepping for this interview for a while and have reviewed all of Jericho and Harper's Island via DVD marathons over the last several weeks, but I figured it would be nice to put out a call for questions from you guys. I plan in interviewing Rob not only about his time on the shows, but also about how he got started in the world of TV writing and exactly what being a staff writer entails.

I can't promise there'll be time to cover every question submitted, but if there's anything you want to ask Rob about the shows he's working, the writing process for TV, or just writing in general leave it in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: InkTip

I've never had much direct experience with InkTip. For those of you who don't know, InkTip is a site where writers can pay $60 to have their script's logline and synopsis posted in an index accessed by industry professionals looking for scripts. In this way, if you have a low-budget cop-thriller script, a producer who's in the market for material like that can search the database for that genre. Then, presumably, they'll come across your logline and if it sounds like an intriguing concept, they'll request the script.

A friend of mine posted a few of his loglines on there some years back and despite a few nibbles from producers, it didn't really result in any positive movement for his career. Since then, I've gone over to the site a few times, but never really got up the nerve to post anything.

Some of my hesitation comes from an internet post I saw a while back, from a guy who purported to have once worked in development at one of the basic cable networks that often produces genre TV-Movies and miniseries. He claimed that when his bosses needed ideas, they'd tell him to comb InkTip for interesting premises that they could then steal and have one of their own writers use. Now, that claim might have carried more weight had the poster used his actual name, or been able to point to a specific example of a produced project being ripped off from the site. After all, that could just be a lie from someone looking to discredit InkTip.

But a few weeks ago I realized that there were probably more than a few of my readers who have used the service, and decided to put out the call for any success stories. Unfortunately, I received no true responses to that. In fact, the only user response I got from an aspiring writer was this one from Rob:

Inktip blows man marbles. I paid $60 and in 5 weeks I’ve had 4 small-time production companies glance at my logline. Nobody has read my synopsis or script. I advise avoiding it like a one-legged, thirteen year old, syphilis infested Thai hooker...on her period.

Colorful language aside, I felt bad about putting up a post denouncing InkTip when I had only the testimony of one reader. A producer who reads this site also responded that:

Re: InkTip - I've found them very proactive about pursuing producers. I get polite, informed, follow-up phone calls every time my assistant logs on and searches (once a blue moon) - it's a great idea - unfortunately there's no quality control so you get log lines like my favourite below!

"A growth on an arthritic old woman's elbow develops an appetite for her pets"

So consider this an open call for all experiences with InkTip, postive, negative or neutral. If you've used the site, sound-off in the comments and let us know if you felt it was a worthwhile purchase.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rerun: Playing with Someone Else's Toys

I'll level with you guys, it's a holiday weekend and I've got so much other work to do that I didn't want to take the time to write up a new post. The next few weeks are going to be crammed with cool content - assuming all my planned interviews and projects go as they should this week. Thus, I don't feel too bad subjecting you to another rerun today. This post first appeared on Friday, Feb 20, 2009 and is called "Playing with Someone Else's Toys."


When I was 10, my parents bought a video camera and, knowing my interest in film, they encouraged me to play with it and perhaps make a movie or two. Naturally, I did what any aspiring filmmaker my age would have done – I shot a fan-film for a movie series I loved, casting my friends in the iconic parts of that franchise. The plot was thin, and basically an assembly of some of my favorite moments and lines of dialogue from that series and there were maybe about two ounces of originality to it – my own mistakes.

So it’s not that I don’t understand the compulsion to remake a favorite movie, or to make a sequel to a favorite film. And I’m hardly alone in my urges. When he was 14, Len Wiseman apparently shot a backyard version of Die Hard. The thing is, that kind of fan fiction has a time and a place. When you’re ten, it’s no big deal to invest your time in writing and/or shooting your own James Bond or Star Wars sequel. But if you’re trying to break into the business, writing a sequel or a remake really isn’t the way to go about it.

When you’re writing a screenplay, presumably you want to sell it, and logically that means that you want to have as many potential buyers as possible. Just by way of example, an action-comedy with original characters is the sort of script you can take to any producer and any studio in town. But what if you decide you want to write the next Star Trek movie. Do you know how many potential buyers do you have in that case? One – the studio that owns the rights to the series, which in this case would be Paramount. And do you know what you are if Paramount reads and feels they’d like to “go in a different direction?” Screwed.

If you don’t hold the rights to what you’re writing about, don’t bother. Amazingly, I’ve seen several scripts over the years where wannabe writers have ignored that advice. Possibly the most ridiculous violation of this rule I saw was a script that was a misguided attempt to continue a 30 year-old action franchise by crossing it over with another 40 year old film! One of those films featured an actor long dead, and the other featured an actor who likely would never return to this signature role. Out of respect for the writer, I won’t post the specifics, but it was sort of like crossing over The French Connection with the original Gone in 60 Seconds. It would have been difficult enough to do a sequel to just one of those films, but with a crossover, this writer was putting himself in a situation where he couldn’t make a sale unless two completely different sets of producers and rights-holders signed off on the concept. This would have been a legal nightmare even if someone like Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams was determined to make it.

And let’s be realistic here – in the case of franchise films like those, the studio never is going to buy the latest sequel as a spec. Those kinds of tentpoles already have specific producers attached, and they’ll have considerable say in the hiring of a writer. Even if you manage to query the producers, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d be receptive to a script from an unproven outsider, and again, there’s still only one guy you can take that script to. As a writer, the franchise film isn’t something you can really go after until you’re inside the club. Then, either your agent will lobby to get you onto, say, the next Superman. Or the producers or studio behind said movie will come to you and say, “How’d you like a crack at Superman?”

If you don’t have any script sales to your name, you’re essentially an unproven writer and no one hands a franchise movie to those guys. It’s like writing for the school paper and then expecting to get hired as the main political writer at The New York Times. It just doesn’t happen.

So consider all that before you invest six months of your life writing a live-action adaptation of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms or GoBots. In the end, you’re going to need your own idea and your own characters in order to break into this business.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Winner of the "I WILL Read Your F***ing Screenplay Contest"

Can I just say that I'm shocked by the response to my "I WILL read your f***ing Screenplay post earlier this week? All told, between the comments and direct e-mails, I got pitched 19 scripts! And in truth, just about every last one of them sounded mouth-wateringly awesomely bad, perfect for my purposes.

I know I said I was going to give it a week, but that was when I figured I'd get one at most, after several days. To be honest, I was even prepared to beg some of my friends for their worst writing or, failing that, haul out one of my own old specs and tear that apart. (The reason I didn't use mine in the first place is that I knew I could never be objective enough to be as savage as I wanted.)

A few submitters stood out. I was attracted to writers who had written many scripts since this first one. I knew that having at least three or four subsequent specs to their name would make them less attached to the spec script they submitted, and thus, they wouldn't take any shots at the script or the writing personally. I know that when I look back on my writing from ten years ago, I have no problem admitting when it's total shit. So if you came to me with just this spec to your name, or if you implied that you were looking forward to the chance to defend your writing after my review, I decided not to pick you.

Basically, if I got a sense that some part of you still thought the script was good, I didn't want to beat up on you. This will make sense when you see the review, but in some ways I might be going out of my way to be unfair to the script. I'd feel like a real dick doing that to writing that the author still had an emotional attachment to.

However, there were many, many scripts that sounded fully qualified for this contest, and so if we end up doing this again I invite all of you to resubmit. This makes me wish we had some sort of discussion board or archive of bad scripts because if so many of you guys are eager to share your work, it's a shame we can't all laugh together.

But without any further introduction, let's get to the winner. May I have the envelope please?

And the winner of the first-ever Bitter Script Reader "I WILL Read Your F***ing Screenplay Contest" is...

Joe Ollinger, for his 2003 spec "Blooming Season." Joe pitched this sci-fi film as "Space colonists flee their colony planet after an insanity plague breaks out, and then return to earth to find it super overpopulated and everyone's eating each other and shit."

Joe has kept writing since then, and has many other specs under his belt. We'll cover that in the eventual interview, which right now is scheduled to post the week of the 22nd. I haven't read the script yet, but I'm very much looking forward to it.

Friday Free-for-All: For the gents on Valentine's Day

[UPDATE 11:07 AM PST - Embedded video fixed]

I'm posting this as a public service to all men for Valentine's Day. This is a short film/commercial produced by Agent Provocateur, starring lingerie model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It didn't air here in the States, but it's the sort of short-film/ad that I often find cool and wish was more in vogue. It's rare that commercials actually try to tell a story these days.

Those men with a girlfriend will probably appreciate the reminder not to forget Valentine's Day, and those men without a girlfriend will probably appreciate this ad for other reasons.

Probably not all that safe for work, so exercise caution. Ladies, if you demand equal time, feel free to post links in the comments.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sex comedy week - Day 3: Bodily fluids aren't funny

Tuesday I invited everyone to comment on gross-out gags in sex comedies, and mentioned that two specific gags still gross me out to this day. I challenged the readers to guess which two gags they were. No one really took a stab at it, but they are:

1) Stifler drinking a semen-laced beer in American Pie


2) Austin Powers drinking Fat Bastard's shit in The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Humor is subjective, and I freely admit that there were probably viewers who found the whole thing hilarious. Both gags are based on similar premises - namely, that the victim's drink is laced with something disgusting that he's unaware of and the audience really hopes he doesn't drink. After several false starts, it seems like the character might not drink the disgusting concoction, only for them to gulp it down as the audience roars.

I will give the writers this, some thought went into the construction of the respective gags. It also seems that the writer's built up to these gags well enough that there was decent motivation for the payoff. It didn't feel like the writing session began with the mandate, "Let's have Austin drink shit!" However, I'd wager that 90% of the gross-out gags I read don't.

By the way, just assume I'm gagging as I type each paragraph. Like I said yesterday, just thinking about some of these gags makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

I wonder if bodily fluids gags are ever as funny as the writer thinks they are. Too often they feel just like that - gags. They serve no larger purpose in the script, they don't advance the characters and they don't have anything to do with the story thematically. The gag only flows from the writer saying "Hey, I figured out a great way to cover someone in semen!"

(And by the way, if I had ever made a list of "Things I never thought I'd type - especially in a forum I know my mother reads" the quoted portion of the sentence above would probably be near the top of it.)

A while back I read a script where some guys decide to have some fun with a sleeping friend. While he snores, they turn on a vacuum cleaner and set the tube so that it sucks his penis. That's only half the joke, as he suddenly starts to wake up. Panicking, his friends pull back the tube and try to shut off the the vacuum - but succeed only in going from suck to blow. Yep, that means that our poor guy who was just trying to take a nap ends up with a face full of semen.

Normally I'd feel bad about ruining such a seminal gag, but the fact is that even if such a joke were so unique that its mention here would force the writer to remove it, said removal would have absolutely NO impact on anything else in the story.

And why is semen the go-to fluid of choice lately? Is it just that American Pie seemingly broke that taboo and every urine joke has seemingly been told by now. I recall that one of the first slush pile scripts I ever read at my first internship dealt with a single woman who buys frozen sperm samples. Naturally, she kept these in the freezer and guess what happened when she threw a party and the guests realized they were running low on ice. Inspired isn't it? Then about two months later, I read virtually the exact same gag, except the set-up was that a guy was worried he'd be impotent after surgery so before he goes in, he freezes his semen in an ice cube tray.

Face it folks, you're not going to come up with an original way to deliver bodily fluids for laughs. I guess my point is that it isn't inherently funny to use semen or diarrhea in ways outside their normal context. Nor is just being gross justification enough in itself.

In the two produced examples I discussed above, the humor really comes from the close calls that the victim has with ingesting the fluid. That's where the comic tension lies. If Stifler immediately took a swig of his beer and gaged, it wouldn't be damn funny. Ideally, I'd ask you not to include such gags at all, but if you must I beg you to really ask yourself "Is this funny? Why is this funny?"

Words every comedy writer should hear - "Just because something makes you laugh doesn't mean it's funny."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I WILL read your f***ing screenplay!

Nary a week goes by when I don't get at least one request from someone to read their script. I always decline, for the reasons expressed in this earlier entry. I feel bad disappointing you guys, but that's pretty much the way it has to be.

Until now. One lucky reader will have the opportunity to get me to read their script - but there's a catch. I'm writing a piece for later this month, focused on the review of a flawed script. Yes, you read that right - "flawed."

I don't want to read the best and the brightest. I want to read someone's first script. I want to read one that includes many of the things I've railed against in my blog for the last year and a half. I don't want to give the whole ghost away, but trust me, there's a reason I need one that needs work.

So here's the deal, gang. For the next week, I will be accepting your queries for these flawed scripts. Send me a logline or a paragraph about your script and I'll weed through the premises and decide which script looks like the most fun for my project. Once I make my decision, I'll send you a release form and you'll have to email that back to me with your script.

The catch - you have to be cool with your writing being criticized in my article. I'm going to be brutal, possibly even biting in my criticism. If you know Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and how they used to mock the bad movies the characters were forced to watch, you'll probably have a read on the tone I'm going for

Why would anyone sign up for this brutality? Well, for one thing, after I post the article on everything wrong with the script, I'll also post an interview with the writer. They'll get a chance to talk about why the script came out the way it did, discuss how they've grown as a writer since then - and most of all, they get to pitch as many specs as they want.

Yep, if you want to promote your projects on a site with a readership that includes at least a few agents managers and producers, you can do that. The writer gets a free plug for their writing - or their blog, website or anything else of theirs they want to hype.

And all you have to do is turn me loose on your worst spec script. Don't worry, I'll make it clear in the article that this script isn't something the writer considers their best writing.

So who's game? Any takers?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Sex comedy week - Day 2

Over the years, I've read a lot of sex comedy specs from both pros and amateurs. If there are two things they all had in common they were: 1) cheap titillation and 2) gross-out gags.

Yet here's the interesting thing - I can't recall ever reading a scene in one of these films that was genuinely titillating. In fact, I can't remember even seeing a truly titillating scene in one of these movies. There's plenty of cheap T&A in those flicks, but that's not what I'm talking about. Scenes of naked breasts, or girls in bikinis and lingerie might be appealing as eye candy, but usually those moments are so "in your face" as to be empty calories. The fact that I can't pick out a single scene that was truly sexy might seem to back that up.

Gross-out gags are another matter. I can think of plenty of scenes that rubbed me the wrong way in some major films. We're going to discuss gross-out gags tomorrow, so I don't want to get ahead of myself. However, I'll give a no-prize to anyone who correctly guesses both of the gross-out gags that still make me want to throw up in my mouth a little when I think about them. (A few have made me laugh, so you lose points if you pick one I liked and one I hated.)

And while you're at it - try to prove me wrong and tell me what you think the sexiest moments in sex comedy history are. Shoot for "genuinely sexy" and not just "hey, cheap excuse to show boobs!" If you agree with my conclusions, then do you think the lesson is that sex in general is window dressing in a sex comedy?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sex comedy week - Day 1: Furries aren't funny

If you're writing a sex comedy, and you need a "funny" sex scene for shock value, I want you to go right now and check out this Wikipedia list of paraphilias.

As the article explains, paraphilia is "defined as powerful and persistent sexual interest other than in copulatory or precopulatory behavior." In plain English, it's a catagory that means "weird sexual fetishes."

Here are some of the more interesting ones on that list, with the titles, followed by the unusual cause of the sexual arousal. I invite writers to pick any one of these:

Abasiophilia - People with impaired mobility
Acrotomophilia - People with amputations
Agalmatophilia - Statues, mannequins and immobility[6]
Autoerotic asphixiation - Self-induced asphyxiation, sometimes to the point of near unconsciousness
Chremastistophilia - Being robbed or held up
Dendrophilia - Trees(!)
Emetophilia - Vomit
Formicophilia - Being crawled on by insects
Ursusagalmatophilia - Teddy bears

As you can see, there's quite a list to choose from. Unfortunately, most writers don't give it that much thought. Screenwriters often think they're being edgy and clever when in actuality, they're merely reusing an idea that has been done to death. Case in point, whenever a sex comedy calls for an "oddball" sexual deviance, there's a 99.9% chance that a writer is going to pull out a plush suit and subject me to yet another furry joke.

What's a furry, you ask? Well, in short, it's a sexual fetish that involves dressing up in an animal costume while having sex. In other words, it's people who like having sex while dressed as Yogi Bear and Elmo from Sesame Street.

(Dear god, I really don't want to see the Google searches that this post is going to bring to my page!)

Bizarre? Yes. Funny? Maybe when it's done for shock value. The fact is, this joke has been told many times before, not just in spec scripts, but in actual shows. It's been done on ER, CSI and Entourage among others. In other words, it's gonna take more to get me to laugh than showing Johnny Drama taking a girl from behind while wearing a pink plush bear outfit.

So strike out on your own and pick one of the more obscure "freak" fetishes. Or invent your own. If there is actual documentation on a guy who likes to have sex with trees, then surely your own imagination couldn't come up with something less plausible than that. Be creative and show me something I've never seen before.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Groundhog Day trailer

I always enjoy a clever trailer that is done in a way that completely alters the feeling of the movie it's promoting. It's a good lesson in how one shouldn't put too much stock in the previews and the commercials. A clever marketing team can always cull just the right footage and and play just the right music under it to get a specific reaction out of their audience.

In honor of Groundhog Day earlier this week, I present this fan-made trailer for Groundhog Day, which is cut in such a way so that it appears to be a creepy horror movie.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thursday Throwback: When good scripts go bad - "Domino"

As I mentioned last week, I've just celebrated the one year anniversary of this blog. I'm very aware that most of you who read this blog regularly arrived here after June. As such, there are some posts you might not have seen in the archives, or perhaps ones that you saw, but didn't choose to comment on.

With that in mind, I've decided that every now and then I'll repost an entry from the first five months of this blog's life. I won't do this every week... probably just the weeks I'm swamped with work and haven't had time to fill out an entire weeks worth of posts. So without further introduction, here's a post
from last February 5th, entitled "When good scripts go bad - 'Domino'"


For most readers, probably 90% of what we read will never be produced, but you can get a helluva education from the 1 out of 10 scripts you read that do end up produced in one form or another. The reactions range from “They made that? The script sucked?” to “What happened? The script I read was so good!” I’m sure there are readers who fear for their jobs or their credibility after a script they raved about comes out as a terrible movie, but the fact is that there are always plenty of other places to point the finger.

Almost five years ago, I had the then-rare distinction of reading a really clever and engaging script for my bosses at the time. It had a complex plot, a clever non-linear structure, some funny showbiz cameos, and some really well-executed twists. In short, it was one of the most original scripts I’d seen and also one that I would have been willing to stake my reputation on. The script in question? Richard Kelly’s Domino, the story of a former model-turned-bounty-hunter, based on a true story (sort of.)

Unfortunately there was not shortage of reasons why my boss felt that the script was an inappropriate fit for us at the time, and there were factors I wasn’t expected to know about, so the company quietly passed. I spent the next year lamenting the fact that my bosses had let such a sure-fire hit movie get away. During that time, whenever someone asked me if I’d read anything good lately, I was quick to reply that Domino was one of the best scripts I’d ever seen and that it was sure to be a hit when it came out. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but in hindsight it certainly feels like I was staking all my script-reading credibility on this movie, at least as far as my rep among my friends was concerned.

So it was apt punishment for my ego when the film came out and tanked horribly. The reviews were savage. This wasn’t just a weak movie, this was a BAD movie. Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 19% Fresh rating, and it made a paltry $22 million return worldwide on a supposedly $50 million investment. (The domestic box office was a pathetic $10 million.) By pretty much any standards, this was a failure. Clearly something had gone wrong, but what?

I saw the movie on DVD and there weren’t any drastic script deviations that I could detect. How had my instincts had been so off-base? Easy. I had forgotten about one major factor – the director. This was perhaps the most over-directed, over-edited, over-stylized film I ever had the displeasure of sitting through. The story and dialogue might have been the same, but the presentation was marred by the sort of ADD/MTV editing that critics like to rip to shreds. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with every criticism lobbed at this film – but I still think the script was awesome.

It is pretty much an inevitability for any script reader that eventually a script they loved is going to be horribly miscast, thus ruining the entire film. The best thing you can hope for is that when it happens, it isn’t with a script being produced by the company you work for.

And if that does happen. Just let it go. You don’t write the movies, you don’t produce the movies, you don’t cast the movies. You are just the guy who reads them and helps the important people decide it’s worth their time to read them too.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Secret Life of the American Teenager: How phone calls can kill a scene

Lady Bitter (who in fact is the exact opposite of "bitter") is a regular viewer of some excellent TV shows and one utterly, irredeemably awful series on ABC Family known as The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I've only caught a few episodes here and there, but the best I can tell, it's about a bunch of teenagers who repeatedly talk about sex in clunky, unrealistic dialogue, yet rarely have it. If you're thinking that sounds like Dawson's Creek, let me disabuse you of that right now. This makes Dawson's Creek look like The Sopranos.

After just a few minutes of watching this show, I realized there was something familiar about it. The crappy blocking, the uninteresting direction, the universally flat performances, the stilted conversations... and especially, the propensity for repeated expositional dialogue in each scene. And then came the final piece of the puzzle - multiple dialogue scenes staged as phone conversations.

Scene after scene featured one character talking on the phone to another. Each character remained stationary in their respective sets as they talked back-and-forth - usually about some plot-point that at already been reestablished at least once in the previous five minutes. It looked like the director had positioned the actor, told them to sit still, then just let the camera roll while the actor read their lines from an off-screen cue card. This also clearly was a director who didn't believe in rehearsals or second takes, judging from the The most work in this entire scene came from the editors, who had the hard task of cutting back and forth between both sides of the conversation. As I watched, I knew I'd seen this sort of hackery before... and I trembled.

Yes, friends. This had the unmistakable stench of 7th Heaven all over it. 7th Heaven, a show harder to kill than Jason Voorhees, though not nearly as redeemable. Occasionally sympathetic friends and readers inquire about the terrible quality of the scripts I read, and wonder if I ever see anything better than what's produced by Hollywood. I often answer, "So long as shows like Brenda Hampton's last two series are produced, there will be writing out there at least as bad as the slush pile.

I could devote a week of posts to using this show as a "how not to write compelling scenes" but frankly, I don't have the motivation to sit through that much drivel to unearth a few nuggets. And it's not just that the shows are badly written, it's that they have truly horrible ideas. The episode I saw revolved around how one teenage girl spurs on all the other girls in their school to start a masturbation club, called "Just Say Me." As I understand it, this club got started because a few girls were tired of having their boyfriends cheat on them. They considered cutting them off from sex, but decided that wouldn't work because, "Boys can't help that they want sex, and the problem is that there's always another girl willing to have it with them."

Yes, you heard that right... The problem with having a boyfriend who cheats on you is not that he's unfaithful - it's that some other Jezebel is out there ready to give it up if you won't! And this shit was written by a woman!

If I had a teenage daughter, I'd sooner let her watch something like, "A Working Girl's Guide to Giving Oral Sex" than The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

But I'm drifting. The point of this post was to discuss the right and the wrong way to handle a phone conversation between two characters. First off, I avoid writing scenes as phone conversations whenever possible. It's always hurts the performances when the actors aren't really playing against each other. Having said that, there are times when it may be unavoidable, so heed these warnings.

1) Try to give the two characters something interesting to do as they're on the phone.

2) If the film is a suspense/thriller, see if you can milk some tension from the location. Perhaps your hero is talking on the phone to a stalker and suddenly has reason to think that person is very close.

3) Avoid having dramatic conversations take place on the phone unless Rules 1 and 2 apply OR there is some deep emotion in the dialogue for the actor/character to call upon.

4) When dealing with exposition, as always, make sure we don't have to sit through one character telling us what we already know. Consider if it is important that we see the phone conversation, or if we have enough context for what's going on so we just need to see Bill dial and say, "Charlie, it's me. I need a favor..." Cut to - that favor being put into motion.

Good uses of phone calls:

The Scream movies: Often there's suspense drawn from the fact that the phone call means that the killer is in the immediate vicinity and could be ready to pounce on the character in question at any time. Tension comes from several facts here: since we only hear the voice, we don't know who the killer is - so he could be anyone, and we don't know where the killer is - so he could be anywhere.

In the Line of Fire - the same rules apply as for Scream. Director Wolfgang Peterson also does a great job in shooting these conversations so that they're not visually static.

Phone Booth and Cellular also make strong dramatic use of phone conversations, which are effective for many of the same reasons as the above examples. So, this proves that phone conversations need not always result in a dead duck of a scene - but it takes care to avoid falling into some easy traps.

If this makes sense to you, you'll already have a better understanding of how to craft an interesting scene than the team working on this show. Then you too can have a series that not only survives cancellation, but the cancellation of its entire network and the loss of half the principle cast - and get to create a new show after that!

Hmmm... perhaps I'm the crazy one.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Good movies from bad talent

I'm sure every moviegoer has had the experience of being let down by one of their favorite filmmakers, but how many times has a director or writer you dismissed as a hack totally surprised you? Can you recall ever seeing a good movie by someone you thought was a bad filmmaker?

The first film like this that comes to mind for me is Red Dragon, directed by Brett Ratner. I haven't liked a Ratner movie prior to this or since it, but Red Dragon was incredibly well-done. I know this is probably sacrilege, but I liked it a lot better than the previous adaptation of that novel, Michael Mann's Manhunter. Not only was it more faithful to the book (save for the expansion of Hannibal Lector's role), but it felt more intense, the film was paced better, and as much as it pains me to say this - it was more visually interesting.

Yeah, I can't believe I actually gave Ratner a "win" over Mann, either - especially since Collateral is one of my favorite movies and Heat was pretty cool too.

So how about you? When have your favorite whipping boys impressed you?

Monday, February 1, 2010

How do I do it?

Nicholas sent me this email a few weeks ago and I'm only just now getting around to it. Sorry!

I've been reading your site for a while. Love it. You give great advice. But to be honest, having never read or attempted to read a bad script, I never really knew what it was like to be a reader. Until just 20 minutes ago...

On a whim I decided to get a Triggerstreet account so that I could DL some bad scripts and learn from them. I immediately regretted my decision. Let me just say...the script I attempted to read was instantly painful to behold. No, seriously, it cause me physical pain. I don't know how, but it did.

So I attempted to read the first few pages of that same writer's newest script -- the forth they have uploaded. It was certainly better, but still so entirely cringe worthy.

How do you do it man? If nearly every script I read was that bad... Fuck, I just don't know... I'm not a drinker, but I feel like the only way I could get through being a reader is if I knocked back a bottle of scotch before heading to work each morning.

So really, all I wanted to say was: I feel your pain, man. I'm bitter after just 10 pages, and I'm not even required to finish the damn thing. I'd hate to find out how bitter you are after 6 years of this dreck.

I'm sure someone is going to pop up and defend Triggerstreet, but I will say that my extremely limited exposure to their scripts (a fact which goes back probably five years at this point) leads me to believe that most of what you'll find on that site is worse than what I read. Like I said, I haven't been there in a long time so for all I know, it could be a writer's haven, populated by only the best and the brightest who give insightful critiques to truly stellar scripts.

But I doubt it.

However, reading bad scripts is just part of the job. Sometimes the bad scripts excite me more than the good ones, to be honest. If it's a weak script, but I can see exactly where it went wrong and I'm pretty sure I know how to fix it, it really ends up stimulating my imagination. It's always fun to be able to write coverage that points out several flaws while still being able to offer a lot of intelligent solutions to them. How many jobs let you exercise that part of your brain?

And then there are the scripts that are beyond saving but are still entertainingly bad in an "Ed Wood" sort of way. These are rather rare, though. Most bad scripts are of the "boring bad" variety, and yeah, they can be total soul drainers. If you're lucky, they're bad in ways to entertainingly savage. Bad reviews are almost always more fun to write than good reviews. There are times where I'll write a really brutal, savage review of a script just to get it out of my system. Then I'll go back and rewrite a lot of it to make it acceptable for "agency-style" coverage.

Are there weeks where I'm bored to death and just frustrated with what I've had to read? Sure, all the time! But is there any job that doesn't suck at all? I'm sure that even the guy who gets to paint the bikinis on the naked Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models would have something to bitch about if you asked him.

Though I can't imagine what.