Wednesday, March 31, 2010

FAQs - How to get hired as a reader and the percentage of good material

Kristee sent in a few questions that pretty much qualify for an FAQ at this point:

1) What is the best company to work for as far as being able to get your foot in the door for script reading. I'm willing to take freelance, etc...


As far as I know there aren't any companies that are in the business of hiring readers who don't have any experience elsewhere. My experience is that you don't start as a reader - you work your way up to being one. I've covered my path to becoming a reader in this post. Most of the readers I know have similar stories. If you really want to be a reader, expect to start out as a PA or Development Assistant first.

2) How much does script reading pay? Could I quit my day job in other words.

Well, most readers aren't on a regular salary unless they happen to be development assistants. That means you get paid per script. These rates vary wildly among various companies. I wouldn't recommend quitting your day job for this. Companies are cutting back and the easiest person to cut is the guy who only pops into the office maybe once a week for ten minutes.

A lot of companies have started farming out work to outsiders only when absolutely necessary and have forced the assistants to do a lot more of the reading. The reason for this should be obvious - the assistants are already on salary and they aren't paid extra for these additional coverages. If you were in charge would you pay someone $300 to read five scripts, or would you rather just make someone do a little extra work for free on the weekend?

It's a really bad time to try to break into reading. The jobs aren't out there, the workload is shrinking and you're competing with guys like me who have a lot more experience. Reader jobs tend to go to people who have already made contacts in the business and guys like me are always looking for additional freelance assignments. If you don't have any contacts in the business yet, it's going to be hard to break into this end of it.

On that note, if any companies out there need new readers, call me!

3) What are the credentials you need to get into script reading?

Experience with at least one company, most likely. My post linked above probably answers this already. Basically, in order to get the job you want, sometimes you have to do it for free for a little while first.

Mr. Dearth asked another question that I get a lot in one form or another:

We hear of astronomical numbers thrown around about the spec market, the slush pile and the amount of scripts registered with WGA and/or entered into contests each year, but (knowing this is an impossible question to answer with any kind of certainty) where would you approximate the numbers actually are per year of new scripts submitted to the general market?

I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess.

And with that number, what kind of percentage would you estimate as far as scripts that are:

* Nearly ready for development
* Worth another look by someone else
* Technically sound, but not interesting enough
* Interesting but not technically sound
* Barely readable

I realize that you might only be able to go by what you've experienced, but I think it's always interesting to hear what we are up against from someone on the inside. Plus, getting a read or any kind of positive feedback can feel even more special when you realize the astronomical odds against that happening--at least momentarily.

Well, your categories are all a little to relative for me to come up with a useful answer. "Nearly ready for development" is sort of a broad topic. Something that's right in the wheelhouse of one company you read for might be completely inappropriate for another company in terms of subject matter, budget, genre, etc. Something that's totally ready for development at Handsomecharlie Films (Natalie Portman's company) might be completely wrong for Silver Films.

Part of being a good reader is knowing what sort of material the people you read for will respond to. You might find an action script that's completely ineptly written, but has a hook or a premise that is EXACTLY what your boss is looking for. If your boss also happens to dislike dramas, then the hack action script probably would stand a good chance of getting a CONSIDER over the emotional, deliberately-paced Nicholl Fellowship script about an 8 year-old boy who escapes the pain of an abusive home by trying to teach an ostrich how to fly.

Stuff like this is why you should always research the people you're targeting with your spec. And frankly, it's why some agents should be more discriminating about what they send out. There are at least a few times a week where I read a script that just based on premise alone would not be made by the people I'm reading for.

But if pressed, I'd give the same answer I gave here:

As far as "Professional submissions" (i.e. from agents, managers, other industry pros) the numbers break down like this, more or less:

Great - less than 5%
Good - maybe 20%
Mediocre - 50%
Bad - 20%
Awful - 5%

If you add slush pile submissions to this, the bad/awful percentages increase at the expense of Good/Great.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Working out your issues

Two questions this week:

1) Do you/have you used your writing as therapy?

and

2) by any chance did you do this a lot more on your earlier scripts than your later ones?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Compete archive of my interviews with pro writers

It seemed like a good idea to put together a post that links to all the interviews I've done with professional writers over the life of this blog. This will be updated with further links as each new interview is added.

Interview with Dan Callahan, writer of COLLEGE and DEMOTED:
Part I - The Writing Process
Part II - Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Part III - Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD
Part IV - More Rewrites
Part V - Release and Reaction


Interview with Jericho and Human Target's Robert Levine:
Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
Part II - Working on Jericho's first season
Part III - Writing season two of Jericho
Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent
Part V - Writing for Human Target


Interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer - A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake:
Part I - Breaking in and writing the ELM STREET remake
Part II - Details on THE THING and FINAL DESTINATION 5


Interview with Privileged writer/"This is Your Pilot Speaking" blogger Margaux Froley:
Part I - School, internships and assistant jobs
Part II - The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged
Part III - Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots


Interview with Shrek Forever After and Date Night writer Josh Klausner:
Part I - Breaking in and SHREK
Part II - DATE NIGHT


Interview with web comedy filmmakers Chad, Matt & Rob:
Part I - Breaking out on the web
Part II - The Interactive Adventures
Part III - Producing web shorts


Interview with Amy Baack, Assistant to "V" showrunner Scott Rosenbaum


Interview with director Gregg Bishop:
Part I - Making a $15,000 film
Part II - Making DANCE OF THE DEAD


Interview with Scott Towler, writer's assistant to Michelle Nader (100 Questions, Kath & Kim)
Part I
Part II


Interview with SCREAM 4 Co-Producer Carly Feingold

Part I - The path to being Wes Craven's Creative Exec
Part II - What does a Creative Executive do and what do they look for?
Part III - Making Scream 4

Video interview with TV writer Liz Tigelaar, creator Life Unexpected.
Part 1 - Breaking in as an assistant
Part 2 - First Staff Writer Job on "American Dreams"
Part 3 - How Do I Get an Agent?
Part 4 - Selling a Pilot
Part 5 - Personal Themes in Writing
Part 6 - Genesis of "Life Unexpected"
Part 7 - First-Time Showrunner
Part 8 - Developing the second year of LUX
Part 9 - Dealing with network notes
Part 10 - Controversial LUX storylines
Part 11 - LUX lives on
Part 12 - Network overall deal, working on Once Upon a Time and Revenge
Part 13 - The Bitter Questions

Video interview with Franklin Leonard about Black List 3.0:

Video interview with screenwriter F.Scott Frazier:
Part 1 - His stats and process
Part 2 - "How do you get an agent?"
Part 3 - The Working Writer.
Part 4 - The Bitter Questions

Video interview with Franklin Leonard about The Black List:
Part 1 - The Origin of the Black List
Part 2 - Criticisms of the Black List
Part 3 - The Black List Statistics
.

Therapy scripts

I recently read a script that was written by a person who was something of a bystander to a national tragedy. Their participation in this incident, even though they were largely a spectator to the events around them, clearly traumatized the individual. It was clear from early on that this writer was using the script in an effort to work out some of their own issues. There was unfortunately a very big problem with it - it wasn't very good at all. There was no structure, the character development was all on the nose, the dialogue was overwrought and there were a lot of extraneous little subplots, that while they weren't strongly related to the national incident, I'd bet my life they were actual incidents from the writer's life.

I'm being a little extra vague here because I don't want to take the chance of the writer somehow stumbling across this page in a Google search and be re-traumatized by seeing me mock their writing here for all to see. This was one coverage write-up where I actually felt very sorry for the individual who I was passing on and hoped and prayed that they would never see my one-page write up that pointed out every single major flaw in the writing in a cold dispassionate manner.

Let me put it this way: You ever see the rare occasion on American Idol where someone auditions convinced that that are awesome - and not in a cocky "I am the shit!" way, but in an endearing way? Like maybe they've lived a hard life and they walk in with the conviction that they are going to impress the judges and walk out the next Kelly Clarkson? And then have you seen their face just crumble as Simon tells them they simply aren't that good? You know those times when even Simon doesn't have the heart to be cruel and actually tries to let them down easy? Don't you just cringe and feel bad for everyone in the room - both the one being turned down and the people who have to be the bad guy to the sweet but untalented wannabe?

Just me? Okay, maybe I'm projecting. My point is, it's sometimes hard for me to be dismissive of a script that so clearly has great emotional meaning for its writer. This writer was clearly working out some issues, and while I often joke that I'd love to recommend therapy for those writers who have violent fixations on disemboweling characters, this was a case where I wished I could recommend therapy just so this person could begin the healing process they clearly need.

But at the end of the day, my job is to say what's good and what's bad. And this was bad. Very, very bad. Unfortunately, that's not too unusual with the "Therapy scripts" I've seen.

I'm sure there are plenty of good scripts that have been inspired by a writer's bad relationships and emotional hardships. Look at Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Jason Segel says was inspired by a bad breakup he had - and if you listen to the commentary track you get the feeling that both the writing of the script and the recording of the commentary were extended therapy sessions for him. Consider how songwriters like Alanis Morissette have built careers writing about their bad break-ups and horrible lovers. There are always great stories to be found in personal events.

But at the end of the day, even though it's a story from your life, it still has to work as a movie. There needs to be structure, and you need to be able to develop the "you" character objectively. Bad therapy scripts usually present the protagonist as the victim of a cruel and indifferent world that's against them. "Why does all this happen to me?" the character whines. Nothing is ever their fault - stuff just happens to them. They're a victim of circumstance. That sort of rage against the world might be enough fodder for a three-minute song, but the pity party gets old after ten pages.

If you need to write these stories just as a way of dealing with whatever trauma is bothering you, that's fine and good. Indulge your creativity - but think long and hard before sending that baby out in the world. Taking criticism is hard enough when the story is just something you made up - it's excruciating when those notes are taking aim at real events you lived through and the character who is acting as your avatar in the script. Basically, don't send that script out while you have an emotional attachment to it.

Another thing to be aware of - when I started reading scripts in late 2002, there were a ton of 9/11 scripts in the slush pile. Over the next few years I read a lot of stories that were set in New York on September 11th. I'm sure that happens with every national tragedy, and unfortunately, few of these scripts had a truly interesting take on the incident. Most of the time, the story was about an average Joe who was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that day and had their life imperiled five or six times. Unfortunately, most of those writers usually skimped on making their protagonist all that interesting and merely used them as a chess piece to move across the game board that was the historical events.

I often thought that those writers were missing a real emotional connection to the material - that the key to making an interesting script that wasn't a rehash of the news of the day would have been to get a writer who lived through it. Having read a script from a writer who was just on the periphery of a national tragedy, I've had to rethink that somewhat.

Therapy writing might be good for you, but such a script would not be the first one I'd send out to that Hollywood contact you have - especially if you haven't had a few dispassionate readers vet it first.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Script Frenzy starts April 1st

I know a lot of you came over here from Script Frenzy but for those who didn't be aware that you only have a few days left to sign up. The Script Frenzy Challenge is to write 100 pages in the 30 days of April, so if you've been looking for a deadline to motivate you or just need some healthy competition to get you going, this is the project for you.

Full details here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Kevin Smith and Superman

I've been meaning to post this for a while. This is a clip from Kevin Smith's lecture DVD "An Evening with Kevin Smith" where he discusses his work on Superman Lives. This is the Superman project that Warners spent about ten years working on before Bryan Singer came into the picture with Superman Returns.

This is somewhat legendary for Smith's anecdotes about producer Jon Peters. Many of you have probably seen this before, but if you haven't, I won't spoil the punchline for you.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

TV specs and adaptations

Today, I'm answering the first questions that were sent to me via the Facebook Fan Page. Feel free to hit me up there with more questions you'd like to see in future blog posts. Ingrid recently sent in two questions:

In order to eventually get TV comedy writing gigs, it is recommended that newbie writers knock up a few specs of currently popular shows. I notice a lot of people put their specs on blogs, websites, etc., for the world (or bored 2am Internet-trawlers) to read.

But what if the producers of the show saw the script? Would there be copyright issues? And what if they liked the script? Would they decide not to option/purchase it because it had been made public online, and therefore the plots and twist are no longer secret?

First, let me just say I don't deal with a lot of TV specs, so if someone with more experience in that world give an answer that conflicts with what I'm about to say, listen to them.

Here's the thing about writing a spec for TV - they're not intended to sell. Not in the way that feature specs are. They're just intended to be used as writing samples to show how well you can imitate the "voice" of another show. Thus, that 30 Rock spec you have about how Liz's new boyfriend also happens to be Tracy's illegitimate son (he's 60, remember?) isn't likely to be bought and produced as an episode of the show.

In fact, the producers of the show you spec'd absolutely would not read your spec script. What usually happens is that it would go to a show in a similar style and genre. Thus, your 30 Rock spec might find its way into the hands of the producers of Community or Modern Family. So the question "Would the fact the script was on the internet cause problems in selling it?" is moot.

TV specs aren't written to sell. They're written to show, "Hey! I can imitate another writer's voice and turn out something that sounds just like the sort of episode that would be done on this other show."

Two of the big reasons producers don't read specs for their own show:

1) Legal issues - if a later episode of the show contains a plot that happens to be the same as your spec, they don't want to give you grounds to sue them. Sometimes, writers steer clear of obvious stories for this very reason. I've heard the M*A*S*H writers say that this is why they never did an episode where Hawkeye had to operate on Trapper John, as every freelance writer who came in tried to pitch it, and they knew there had to be a ton of specs out there with that premise.

2) Those writers are going to be the people mostly likely to pick up on the slightest deviations from the character's voices. Honestly, do you want the people who live and breath Michael Scott to hold "your" Michael Scott up to that standard? You're better off with a producer who might not be so intimately familiar with the show you're writing that ever line sounds "off" to him.

In features, it's somewhat different. If you write Iron Man 3, there's only one person who CAN buy it - the people making the Iron Man movies. Since those tentpoles are always developed in-house, you're out of luck.

Question 2 -

Last year I read an amazing British YA novel and was inspired to adapt it. I contacted the author and her agent, and was offered a non-exclusive 6 month option (i.e. crap). I don't really want to spend thousands of dollars for a non-exclusive option, so is it possible to just g...o ahead and write the spec script without the option? I know for legal reasons it's wise to have it, but being a student screenwriter they didn't trust me with the option hence the poor terms (plus they wanted regular updates over the 6 months).

I still really want to do the adaptation, but by writing it and showing it to producers/agents, would that land me in a dire copyright fiasco?

If it was me, I wouldn't do it. Not without the option. If you're an unrepped writer and you don't have any credits to your name, I'm not surprised that they offered a non-exclusive option, especially if this novel is known enough that there's always a chance a "real" producer will come along and option it.

Say you spend three months of your life writing it without permission and then try to shop it around. Probably the first thing any agent will ask you once he sees "Based on _____" is: "Do you own the rights?" Once you say "no," they'll promptly decline. There's no upside for them - if they read it and love it, they can't do anything with the script - especially if in the intervening time someone else has snatched up the rights. And if they don't like it, you've wasted their time on a project that can't go anywhere.

Basically - there is NO upside to writing a feature script for a property to which you do not control the rights. You might as well be writing fan fiction.

I'll also handle the likely follow-up question: "Well, can my adaptation be a good writing sample?"

Not really. In fact, I'd argue that these days, there's no such thing as a writing sample - just scripts that can be sold and one's that can't. On top of that, your adaptation gives the reader/agent/whoever no indication of how good you are at developing, crafting and structuring your own stories. A lot of the heavy lifting was presumably done by the person who wrote the first novel.

So regrettably, my answer is that you're better off working on your own material and putting this idea on the back burner until you can buy the rights.

If you haven't become a fan of The Bitter Script Reader on Facebook, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not trying HARD ENOUGH to justify your premise

After Monday's post went live, I got an email from a friend of mine, who's also a fellow reader.

Hey man, been meaning to send you this for a while as there's totally a blog post (or six) in this turkey. It's been slipping my mind, but after you read the first 30 pgs or so, you'll figure out why I thought of it this week. btw, if you use any of this, could you go out of your way not to mention the premise of the film? I'd rather not have my ass chewed out by my boss.

So I took a look at the first thirty pages of the attached script. Ye gods! I think I see why this was sent my way. Monday I whined about scripts trying to hard to justify their premise. This script doesn't try hard enough to justify it.

The shit starts on p. 1, with one of the most boring scenes I've read in a long time. Two characters not given names - just job descriptions - are engaging in what I read somewhere is called "As you know, Bob" dialogue. This is basically when a writer has a conversation between two people where they discuss something they already know solely so the audience can be caught up on exposition. Picture something like this:

HUSBAND: Good morning, wife.
WIFE: Husband, remember how we got married 6 months ago?
HUSBAND: Yes, and the honeymoon was in Hawaii, as you know.
WIFE: Well, I'm worried that Janet and Bob's marriage isn't as happy as ours.
HUSBAND: I agree, as you know we saw them get into that very loud fight at the restaurant last night while we were having dinner with them.
WIFE: Janet was so angry that she threw her food at him and then walked out.
HUSBAND: I hope this isn't stress because Bob lost his job when, as you know, I had to fire him last week.

Gag. You get my point. Real people wouldn't have a conversation about this. Even if Husband and Wife were going to gossip about their friends' fight, they wouldn't treat the conversation like a recap since they were both there and saw the exact same thing. It's all on-the-nose dialogue and worse, it's recapping events that would be much more interesting if they played out on screen! What's more interesting to watch: a tense fight between a married couple that ends with food being thrown and one person storming out - or two people having a static, dry conversation about said fight?

In this hypothetical, let's say that Janet and Bob are actually the protagonists and that these nameless friends of theirs don't pop up again in the script until the third act. That would just be bad writing. Let's also say that after this recap, the script jumps forward two months to Janet and Bob's divorce proceedings. Bam! By page 4, they're already divorced. And let's also assume that the premise of the script is how each of them deal with the problems of being divorced as they realize that there's a lot that they miss about married life and each other.

The problem is that this is a premise that would require both characters to be upset by a break in the status quo (marriage.) Yet since we never saw them married, that status quo doesn't exist for us as the audience. To us, the divorce IS the status quo. The writer was so eager to get to his story about two divorced people finding that a flawed marriage was still more fulfilling than being alone, that he forgot to show us what was good about this flawed marriage.

This isn't the actual premise of the script, by the way. My friend was pretty adamant about me not mentioning the real set-up. I think it's a script he was reading for a boss's friend or something. Suffice to say, the premise in that script is even more ludicrous and sends the story in a completely implausible direction that would never happen in real life unless some pretty extreme circumstances led to it. Only a few of those circumstances are even hinted at, and as you guessed, it happens in on-the-nose dialogue. Thus, the script not only didn't take enough time to justify its premise, but it relied on a lot of contrivance to get to its concept.

So my advice would be that when you're setting up your story in Act One, make sure you've laid enough foundation and aren't racing ahead to get to "the good stuff." A lot of times I see scripts with the opposite problem - writers taking too long to get their stories moving. While there is an advantage to starting your story by just diving in and running, make sure you're not leaping in by opening the film with what should be the inciting incident, or even the first act turning point.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: "It's Just a Movie!"

Building off of yesterday's question, what's your particular threshold for invoking the "it's just a movie" defense of a plot hole, and which plot holes are impossible for you to ignore even with that defense?

Like, for me, I find the ending of Independence Day insanely dumb. I'm willing to go with the idea that these aliens have mastered interstellar travel and come all this way simply to wreak devastation and destructing. And you know what, I'm even willing to go with the fact that it's rather easy to destroy an entire alien ship simply by hitting it's one weak point. Hell, I'll even allow for the ridiculousness that since the ships are 15 miles wide, that the one Randy Quaid destroys must have shifted at least 7.5 miles in another direction before it crashed - otherwise it would have hit Area 51.

But you know what I can't ignore? The fact that Jeff Goldblum is able to hack into an alien computer and implant a virus using his Mac laptop. Ridiculous. I can invoke "It's just a movie" for a lot, but for some reason that straw breaks the camel's back.

Conversely, even though I'm sure 95% of what the computers in Live Free or Die Hard do is ridiculous, I'm able to just shut off my brain and go with the flow for everything in that movie. Go figure.

So what examples can you think of where a particularly ridiculous plot point pulled you out a movie, and what is the most ludicrous twist you HAVE been able to swallow?!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Trying too hard to justify your premise - Bolt

Anyone here seen Bolt? I caught it recently when it was running on cable, and as much as I wanted to just put my brain on hold and enjoy it, there's a scene early in the film that pretty much begged me to nitpick the entire premise. The irony? It's pretty clear this scene was written to head off any naysaying of the premise.

The set-up is simple - Bolt is a dog actor who stars in a TV-show where week-after-week he saves his owner Penny from evil spies. The opening scene makes the formula pretty clear and then a subsequent scene "hangs a lantern on it." Every week, Penny gets captured and the dog - who has been given super powers - saves her. In order to get a realistic performance from the dog, the creators of the show have shot it in such a way that Bolt believes the show is real.

If it helps, think The Truman Show, but with a dog. Of course, the problem is that this TV show is a heck of a lot more complicated than The Truman Show, with regular stunts and special effects. If you think about it, that means that any scene involving the dog must be achieved in one take. That's an implausibility that a good writer shouldn't want the audience to think of, lest the practicality of the whole premise falls apart. Unfortunately, before the main plot has really even started, we get the following speech from the show's producer, voiced brilliantly by James Lipton:

"You see a dog. I see an animal who believes with every fiber of his being, every fiber, that the girl he loves is in mortal danger. I see a depth of emotion on the face of that canine the likes of which has never been captured on screen before!

[...] "We jump through hoops to make sure that Bolt believes everything is real. It's why we don't miss marks. It's why we don't reshoot, and it's why we most certainly do not let the dog see boom mikes! Because, Mindy from the network, if the dog believes it, the audience believes it."


Sorry. I don't believe it. This is the sort of explanation that I once saw The Agony Booth refer to as a "left-handed explanation... an explanation that's at least as stupid as the plot hole it's supposed to explain." The script is trying too hard to justify why Bolt thinks he has superpowers.

Why is that important? Because after shooting a cliffhanger scene where Penny is "kidnapped," Bolt escapes from his trailer into the real world, where he's determined to save Penny. Naturally much of the humor arises from the fact that he doesn't have super powers and keeps expecting things to work the way they do on the show. It's a little like an inverted Galaxy Quest. Instead of everyone else thinking he's a hero, Bolt is the one convinced of his own importance.

So for that, all the audience really needs to buy is that Bolt believes he has powers, and frankly, that's a problem that easily could have been solved by Bolt simply not understanding fantasy. It's a mindset that easily could have developed even without the show jumping through hoops to convince Bolt that everything happening on the show is real.

See, with Lipton's speech, all it does is make me aware of how silly it is that this show is produced in this fashion. It highlights a nitpick that would be easy to gloss over otherwise, once the plot was in motion. Then it gives a really stupid explanation to a very good question. I know that I often harp that one must justify their premise, but writing like this actually undermines the premise. It's good to have an idea of how elastic a reality your viewers will accept.

After all, which is more believable - that a dog just doesn't understand that what happens on a TV show is fantasy, or that a production involving hundreds of people and millions of dollars is built around getting a method performance out of a dog?

If the whole movie was about the production of Bolt's show, then perhaps that producer's speech would be relevant. Since it's not, all it does is add a neon arrow pointing right at the movie's flaws.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart mocks Beck

See, THIS is how you attack Glenn Beck:

[UPDATE: 11:40am PST - I actually wrote and scheduled this post two or three weeks ago. The clip immediately below is from last November. As it turns out, just last night, Jon Stewart did another extended impression of Beck. I have updated the post to include those two new clips below.]


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The 11/3 Project
http://www.thedailyshow.com/
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform



The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Intro - Progressivism Is Cancer
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform



The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Conservative Libertarian
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Talking politics - attacking Beck and Limbaugh

I'm probably about to wade into volatile waters here, so as such, I'm coming to this post armed with a bit more secondary sources than I usually do. Yes, friends... today we're talking politics.

There's been a specific sort of tertiary character who pops up in a fair amount of scripts I read, particularly those that fancy themselves political satire. That is the right wing blowhard and bigoted radio commentator. Yes, screenwriters love to mock that conservative fat jolly old elf himself, Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh, for those who don't know, is a conservative radio mainstay who is enjoying a recent resurgence in media coverage after losing a fight with relevancy somewhere back in 1995. Seriously. Until Obama got into the White House the last time Rush was of any relevance, Michael Moriarty was the lead assistant District Attorney on Law & Order. He's the angry voice of the disenfranchised privileged white man. You know, people who don't understand why everyone in Springfield is so hateful to that nice Mr. Burns. He's Archie Bunker without the likability or the sense of tact. (If you don't believe me, listen to the callers on his shows.)

From the time I started reading scripts in 2002 to about 2006, I rolled my eyes when a Limbaugh clone turned up in a script. Not because of any of my own political views, but more for the fact that deeming Limbaugh relevant enough to mock was an attitude about as timely as a Murphy Brown spec script that has been sitting in a drawer since 1992.

But Limbaugh has managed to shout his way back into the the wider public eye, so references to him again seem timely. Sharper writers have also moved on to mocking analogues for Fox News' Glenn Beck. For those uninitiated, Glenn Beck is like a batshit crazy Mr. Rogers. Both speak in simple sentences, both of them consider themselves educators, and both of them have shows that regularly venture into worlds of vast fantasy. The only significant difference between the two is that Mr. Rogers fantasy world is achieved by his putting his hand up a puppet's ass, while Beck's fantasy world is born when Beck puts his head up his own ass.

So I don't dispute that both men are eminently mockable. My problem is when there is zero artistry to the hatchet job. In the worst cases, the writer has stuck the most ridiculous dialogue in the Beck/Limbaugh character's mouth, as if to make the point, "This guy is so evil that he says the most offensive ridiculous things." They give the characters on-the-nose dialogue like "All blacks should be denied a vote if they're only going to vote for black men," and then call that satire.

I once read a script that had such a hard-on to attack Bush and the Republicans that literally every villainous character in there was spewing Republican talking points. Another script revolved around an election where the "evil" Republican candidate was running unopposed, so our hero ran against him and challenged his "vile" views. However the "hero" of the story ran not as a Democrat, but as an independent. (For you see, had he run as a Democrat or had a Democrat been in the race, the script would have been obliged to either show faults in Democratic philosophy or else reveal its bias.)

That script had one agenda - vilify the Republicans, and there was literally no low that the Republican candidates, the Republican media and the Republican commentators in the script wouldn't stoop to. I think the writer thought he was making some grand point, that he was dealing a serious blow to the Republican party. Instead, all he was accomplishing was making me roll my eyes at this painful straw man story.

It offended me greatly and I am NOT a Republican. The fact that the writer didn't appreciate the irony when his character took Fox News to task for only presenting one part of the story in furtherance of a larger ideological agenda also angered me. While I love political satire, I detest straw man arguments.

Even more annoying is when a Beck/Limbaugh character shows up so the writer can get a cheap shot in at Republicans and that scene has nothing to do with the larger plot. The whole script stops dead so the writer can get in a "I hate Rush" scene that can easily be removed. I think that's somewhat dangerous to do in a mainstream comedy. At least in a political satire, the audience expects that sort of gag to a degree. Drop it in a romantic comedy and all you've accomplished is getting half the audience to resent you. Bravo.

I don't like either of those men, but to dismiss them outright is to overlook how fascinating they and their followers are, and thus, miss a potentially greater source of satire.

Honestly, a year or so ago, I wouldn't have included Beck in this diatribe or even considered him worth mentioning. He seems so unbalanced, so disconnected from any semblance of reality that I had long assumed that those who watched his show did so ironically. That was before the town hall meetings and the Tea Parties last year, which showed that a lot of people believed utterly outrageous lies and show up to shout at government officials merely because Glenn Beck told them to.

How does one not find that fascinating? Real satire would not be putting these characters in and having everyone in the script roll their eyes at them. Real satire would explore how his followers latch on to his every word, lemming-like. What makes Beck credible in his audiences eyes? How does he cast that spell? How does he present his argument and his beliefs in a fashion that stokes his audience's passions?

You bring me a comedy or a drama that explores that in depth and you'd better believe I'm captivated by it - no matter how much I detest Beck. Don't go for the easy gag - understand why that easy gag exists.

It's amazing that Beck commands such a following that they accept his word so blindly that they don't even need to fact check, they just react. Honestly, when I hear something ridiculous, even from a news personality I trust, my first reaction is "That can't be right." Then I go to Google and let my fingers do the walking. Usually within five minutes I can find at least two trusted sources that can either debunk or affirm those claims.

It's the same with Limbaugh, only the scary thing about him is that he's more mainstreamed. Yet whenever I can choke down enough bile to listen to even part of his show, I find it riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths, false equivalences and blatant misrepresentations. We're talking about a man who once got duped by an article that was clearly labeled as satire! Then, after the truth was pointed out to him, he said he didn't care the quotes were fake, that he "knows" that's what Obama really thinks.

But take a look at just a few of the recent bullshit that has spewed from this man's mouth:

- He had a listener help him insinuate that Obama's reasons for directing those who wish to donate to the Red Cross Haitian relief fund to the link on the White House website. He stirs up paranoia that the Dems are going to use this to put those people on a list. In truth, all it was was a link to the Red Cross, and that link was placed there in part so that people wouldn't get duped by false charities that spring up during these tragedies. Then he vilely says, "We've already donated to Haiti, it's called the U.S. income tax."

- He distorted the facts on the ClimateGate emails.

- Perpetuated untruths about the Health Care bill, including the "Death Panels."

- He regularly race baits, though for some reason this quote is my favorite, even though it's probably one of the less inflammatory ones: "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering"

- said it "seems perfectly within the realm of reality" that the H1N1 vaccine was "developed to kill people"

- Failed to appreciate the irony that the Hawaiian health care that saved his life when he suffered a heart attack is EXACTLY the same sort of heath care that his party is fighting tooth and nail. Then he tried to argue that had Obama's plan taken effect, he would have been denied that health care. (starting 3:00 in, Rush's quote is at 4:11).

To say nothing of the fact that when Limbaugh is on the losing end of an election, he claims that the winning party only has the right to 56% of their agenda - but then defines "Bipartisanism" rather uniquely. I would not want this man educating kindergartners, much less functioning adults. (Can you imagine Rush teaching kindergarten? He'd call a lecture on sharing "socialism," and then mediate disputes by encouraging both participants to fight it out, with the stronger participant declared the winner. Compromise is the same as pugilism in Rush's world.)

I don't like Limbaugh in the least, but I also don't like seeing him dismissed as just a pill-popping overweight shock jock who's whining about wanting to boot anyone less than 7/8ths Caucasian out of the country while calling for giant magnifying glasses to be placed in the Arctic specifically to melt the ice because it will piss Al Gore off. That's not a parody of Limbaugh, that's a cartoon.

I think most of the people who take shots at Limbaugh don't even listen to him. They have a vague sense of who he is and what he does, but they've never studied this man that they're attacking. That's just bad writing - bad research.

Just look at that list above - that's all the shit I found on him without even looking HARD! Use something like that as the basis for your Right Wing punching bag. Don't just look at the arguments - look at how he presents the arguments. Rush tends to set himself up as the victim, or he'll frame the argument in such a way that his listener's are co-tenants in his persecution complex. He'll say something racist and then attempt to head off that criticism by saying something that translates as "You can bet those black racists will try to twist that and make ME look racist."

I stop short of calling it masterful because too often I see those puppet strings, but the man does know how to twist an argument so that it overrides the brain with emotion. He finds the worst sides of his listeners' politics and fans that spark into a forest fire. I hesitate to call it charisma, but it is a skill of sorts. Yet in all my years of reading scripts with bad Limbaugh clones, I've never ONCE seen a writer truly capture this.

Propaganda is subtle and is rarely on-the-nose. Limbaugh and Beck are masters of it, but their counterparts in bad spec scripts are about as skilled in propaganda as the average editorial writer in a junior high newspaper. If you're going to play with those characters, at least make sure you're playing at their level. Otherwise, you're just wasting a lot of valuable time in your script just to tell me you think Limbaugh sucks. I know he does, but at least give me some substance to that argument.

(Before I get a host of comments wondering why I didn't go after any liberal commentators, the answer is simple - in seven plus years of reading scripts, I can't recall a single instance of a liberal ideologue being the punching bag. Not once. I've read enough war mongering Republicans and their evil cohorts to fill an entire book shelf, but the worst any writer does with an overtly liberal politician is have them cheat on their wife. Apparently Republicans are out to destroy the world, Democrats just want to get laid. Go figure.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Hot Button week

Since I'm taking on a few hot-button topics this week, race and religion, I figured it was a good time to open the floor up to you guys and see what sets you off. What do you find most offensive in movies and TV? Where do you draw the line of bad taste?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guest-blogging on Script Frenzy

Recently I was asked to write a "Cameo" for the Script Frenzy website, promoting "The Script Frenzy Challenge" in a few weeks. For those not in the know, Script Frenzy is an writing event that challenges participants to write 100 pages of scripted material in the month of April. As of now they have over 7,000 writers signed up and I'm led to believe that a typical year has nearly 20,000 participants once everything gets going.

It's a non-profit, so there are no fees to participate. There also aren't any prizes - the goal is to motivate writers to put their noses to the grindstone and write like mad in the month of April.

You can find my article "How to Use the Extra Time in the Script Frenzy Challenge" on their website.

Is anyone planning on participating this year? I had considered it, but I just finished a new spec and am working on rewrites. I'd hate to break my momentum on that one to start something new so I'll probably bow out this year.

Why using racial slurs makes you a racist

I've spoken a few times about how an abundance of creepy sex scenes in a script often makes me wonder about how demented the writer behind the script is. I think I've even alluded to an utterly misogynistic read that was so offensive that if I ever met the writer, I'd have a hard time not suggesting professional help. When you're reading someone's creative product, sometimes it's hard not to profile them, particularly with regards to their most intense writing.

Just as excessively violent rape scenes tend to unmask latent misogynists, latent bigots often expose themselves in their own work through the use of racial slurs. Look, I'm not a PC-thug. I'm not out to revise history either. If you're writing a Civil War-era script about slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad, I'm not going to blink at a few uses of the word "nigger." It's in context, and that word was a part of those times. Similarly, a WWII script focusing on American G.I.s is well within its rights to use the word "Jap." It's not politically correct to use those terms today, but the writer shouldn't feel like they have to rewrite history.

For me, the problem comes in when I can tell that the writer is enjoying deploying those words too much, as if the setting gives him license to say all the things he wishes he could say today. I read one Western script where the writer not only had at least one use of the word "nigger" on almost every page, but his characters regularly employed the terms "wop," "Chink," "Chinaman," and "Kike." The only major slurs I think he missed were the aforementioned "Jap" and whatever word is used to insult Eskimos.

Those words popped up to such an extreme degree that by p. 20 it was uncomfortable to endure this writer coming up with new slurs, on top of the physical beatings he had his black slave characters enduring. There was so much hatred for other races radiating from this script that I was convinced the writer conceived the story just so he could have unbridled use of these ethnic and racial insults. Certainly there can be legitimate reasons for using these words, especially to show what the slaves of the time endured and show how a character was racist. But if you're playing in this arena, take care to make sure you don't alienate your audience by making every sentence consist of "nigger-this" and "nigger-that"

Context is key, but remember that at some point this is a piece of culture that will be finding its audience in the 2010s, not the 1870s. Do your best to evoke the time and be true to it without turning off your audience.

Many of you probably noticed that I didn't use the euphemism "the n-word" in place of the offending slur. There are probably even a few of you who take issue with that. If my usage of the word offended you, I apologize. I would never use that word to describe a person, as I agree, it is a vile, hateful word. There is a world of difference between using that word as an example of bad language, and using that word as an adjective to describe someone, as in "Joe Schmoe is a ______."

My opinion on the euphemism "the n-word" is that it doesn't really help. Frankly, it reminds me of the ridiculous way that many characters in Harry Potter are terrified of the word "Voldemort." As I believe Dumbledore points out, that sort of fear only ends up giving that word, and thus Voldemort himself, more power than it deserves. I think that if that euphemism were retired, it would de-mystify the slur somewhat. (After all, when the news reports on someone saying "fuck" they rarely refer to it as "the f-word." They either bleep the word or report that "a profanity" was uttered. Yet any time this slur makes the headlines, "the n-word" tends to be the euphemism of choice.)

Let me just preempt one argument. And this is going to a lead to a digression more of the sociological variety rather than the screenwriting, so feel free to head for the exits before I set up my soapbox.

I am not one of those asshole white bigots who tends to whine in op-eds and calls to talk radio shows, "How come WE can't say 'n**er' without being called racist?" Well, assclown... No one's stopping you from saying it. But if you use it, we're free to evaluate your credibility based on that language. "Nigger" is a racist word, so if you call someone a "nigger," YOU are a racist. If I call my friend Fritz Schumacher "a dirty Wop," would I really have a leg to stand on when someone accuses me of being a bigot?

Though to be fair, Fritz IS kind of a dick.

The usual counterargument is "Well, they call each other that!" Speaking as someone who's been on a schoolyard (and the schoolyards of several schools with 50% or higher black enrollment) I can say, "No, they don't." The slang term is "nigga" (no "r" sound) and there is a world of difference between the two words. Not that any Caucasians should use that either. Think of it like this: I can say, "Man, my brother is an utter moron" and we'll all have a laugh, but the instant YOU say, "Dude, your brother couldn't find his own ass even with both hands and a laxative to point him in the right direction," I would be well within my rights to kick your ass.

But to get back to the main issue, be careful when using loaded language. Shock value can only get you so far, satire might get you a little farther, but going overboard often makes readers feel like you're enjoying it a little too much.

But just to contradict myself, I thought it was implausible in The Blind Spot when the incredibly racist opposing teams neglected to use the most culturally loaded slurs when taunting Michael Orr. The fact that "digger" was the worst they could come up with left me feeling like there had been some last minute dubbing going on.

However, I can guess the motivation for restraint. It's not unreasonable to assume that the producers wanted this to be a family film and didn't want to use the slur in a way that might encourage imitation from younger viewers. That's fair considering the movie's intended audience, but had it been an R-rated drama, that oddity would have stuck out even further.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Barbara interviews the Ninja Turtles

A recent Entertainment Weekly reminded me of this bizarre bit in one of Barbara Walters' Oscar specials - an interview with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Does my writing need to be good?

Rudy wrote in a while ago with an interesting question:

i came across your blog and found it interesting. i was wondering if you could help answer a question i've had for awhile.

every piece of advice i've seen directed towards aspiring hollywood screenwriters is to focus on writing quality; create compelling characters, weave solid storylines, write great dialogue. the quality of the script is paramount. writers should toil to create nothing less than amazing stories.

yet i go to the movies and i see avatar has made a trillion dollars and most of the highest grossing films of 2009 had pretty bad writing. joe eszterhas never seemed to let good writing stand in his way. he's written more flops than i've had hot dinners and even after writing "the worst movie of all time", still managed to get millions thrown at him. most of the nicholl fellows could write circles around eszterhas yet most will likely never sell a script to a major studio.

so if the goal is to sell scripts in hollywood, does writing quality really matter? current theater fare suggests that bad writing seems to sell pretty well.


First, as backwards as it seems, it's not always fair to judge the quality of a script by the quality of the film that resulted. I've seen this first-hand with many scripts over the years, though I'm pretty sure the only one I've blogged about was Domino. For one reason or another, such as miscasting, bad directing, too much studio tinkering in post-production, good writing can be rendered less than stellar.

Also, if you're a nobody, you absolutely need to be able to prove you can write. Writing takes discipline and dedication. Studios aren't going to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a writer who takes six months to write a first draft. They spend that money on writers who can turn out efficient, shootable pages on their timetable. Often, even on a studio script that has wretched plotting and horrible characters, it's still possible for a reader to feel the professionalism in the writing style, the description and the structure.

I really dislike the attitude of, "I don't need to write well because look at all the shit that's getting made." Any writer who starts a script with that attitude, or argues against working hard on writes because of that attitude, sucks. There is no excuse for not working hard to make your script the best it can possibly be. If you, the writer, don't care about the quality of your product, then why should I waste my time giving you notes designed to make it better? If you want a pat on the head and empty encouragement, call your mother.

Even when I was working out a schlocky horror film, I took great care to make sure that it held together and that the motivations were consistent. Part of the selling point was going to be the cheesiness of the concept, but I never went in with the attitude of "I can just write any crap here because schlocky horror movies are always dreadful.

If that doesn't convince you, let me put it this way. There are hundreds of wannabe screenwriters who don't give a shit about the quality of their writing. If you want to be plucked from that mass and elevated to the status of working writer, how the hell do you plan on standing out?

You mention that some of the highest grossing films of the year had terrible writing. Fair point, but let's take a look at some of those. You were too polite to name names, but I'm not.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - 2nd highest grossing film of the year at $402 million domestic/$835 million worldwide. Budget: $200 million. Utterly terrible script.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 4th highest grossing. Nearly $300 million domestic/over $700 million worldwide. Budget: $50 million.

Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel - 9th highest gross. $212 million domestic/$428 million worldwide. Budget: $75 million.

Wolverine - 13th highest gross. $180 million domestic/$373 million worldwide. Budget: $150 million.

2012 - 15th highest gross. $166 million domestic/$769 million worldwide. Budget: $200 million.

Fast & Furious - 17th highest gross. $155 million domestic/$343 million worldwide. Budget: $85 million.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra - 18th highest gross. $150 million domestic/$302 million worldwide. Budget: $175 million.

I've seen about half of those films, and none of them were very good at all. Three of them (TF, G.I. Joe and Wolverine) were in a three-way tie for Worst Film of the Year as far as I was concerned. The others in there are also ones that are pretty universally considered to be terrible scripts. So yeah, with so many films that seem to be utterly irredeemable in quality racking up the box office, I can understand how it might appear that a writer doesn't need to worry about good writing.

Except for the fact that it wasn't the writing that got those movies made. Of those that I picked, only two aren't sequels, and one of those two is an adaptation of a pre-existing property. Ten of last years top 20 grossing films were sequels. Of the remaining ten, there are really only five movies that could be considered "surprise" hits: The Hangover, The Blind Side, The Proposal, Taken, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Everything else was either an adaptation of a major property - like Sherlock Holmes - or came from a major talent - like Avatar and Up.

In other words, only five out of twenty - one-fourth of the top grossing films - are the kinds of films that could have been plucked out of the spec pile, and even that's fuzzy math on my part considering that The Blind Side is an adaptation of a book based on a real life story. Out of those five, the only script that has been slammed with any regularity as far as I know, is Paul Blart. (It also happens to be the only one of the five I haven't seen.)

Your competition isn't the franchise films I cited above, and they are irrelevant to a debate about if good writing sells. Those movies were going to get made even if the scripts had been even worse. Their predecessors had made enough money to justify a sequel, a lot of those films were made under extraordinary pressures to meet a release date, and in the case of my Unholy Three, the Writers' Strike played all kinds of hell with getting scripts done in time for the film to go before the cameras. Rushed films rarely turn out well.

Let's not forget that even if your writing is good, there still has to be an audience for it. It has to be marketable to the people putting up money for the production. You can look at The Proposal, The Blind Side, Paul Blart, Taken and The Hangover and understand exactly why those scripts got greenlit. Most of them were low-budget, most of them appeal to a specific target audience, and most of them have lead roles that fit a bankable star. (Or absent that, a star recognizable enough to carry the film, but cheap enough that their salary won't send the budget into the stratosphere. And yes, I am talking about Kevin James.)

So until you can write...

a romantic comedy as fun as The Proposal...

an action-thriller as tense as Taken...

an R-rated comedy that's as clever as The Hangover...

a high-concept comedy that's just dumb enough to work like Paul Blart...

or come up with an Oscar role for an A-list actress that also happens to be a movie you can take the kids to without boring them....

you've probably still got a long way to go.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Do the Oscars influence you?

With the Oscars behind us, I have to ask, do the Oscars really influence your viewing choices?

I'm not one of those people who makes it a point to see everything that's nominated. If a movie has gotten a lot of positive buzz and seems to be the sort of film that I might enjoy, then I'll certainly go out of my way to find it. Sometimes if the buzz is so overwhelming, I might venture outside of my comfort zone, which is why I made it a point to see The Hurt Locker.

But I did not see, and have zero interest in seeing Precious, A Serious Man, and An Education. I don't care how well-crafted Precious is, it's not my kind of film.

Last year I had only seen Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon. I note with some amusement that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has spent a year on my Netflix list and has been continually pushed to the bottom by films I'm more interested in seeing. Nothing about The Reader looked appealing to me, and frankly I had no interest in Milk either.

Most years I end up seeing at least three of the nominees, but rarely does a win by a film I haven't seen end up motivating me to go check it out.

There have been plenty of recent cases where the Best Picture Oscar went to a film I saw that I was either indifferent to (A Beautiful Mind, Chicago) or utterly hated (Crash, No Country for Old Men, Gladiator). With an average like that, I don't let the Oscars influence my viewing habits.

Do you?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Why "The Hurt Locker" shouldn't encourage you to write about the Iraq War

Those who follow me on Twitter probably heard me express this opinion a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating in the blog proper - just because The Hurt Locker has gotten a lot of press, and picked up the Oscar for Best Picture last night, don't expect that to start a spate of Iraq War movies. In fact, I'd actively discourage you from starting a spec about the Iraq War.

Here are the facts when it comes to The Hurt Locker. The film reportedly cost $15 million dollars to make, but has made barely $13 million domestically, with just under $7 million coming from international sales. A $5 million profit might be nothing to sneeze at, but for the fact that it's probably more than eaten up by marketing and distribution costs. One could blame the limited release for that fact, but studios have expanded limited releases before when the demand has proven to be there. There wasn't that amount of audience support for The Hurt Locker, despite all the press it got as the Oscar-frontrunner against the highest grossing movie of all time!

For a few years now, I've let out a heavy sigh each time I've opened a script to the slugline: "EXT. IRAQ - DAY" or "EXT. FALLUJAH - DAY." I know I'm probably in for spending a few hours reading and writing up something that my bosses would be loathe to make even if it was good... and let's face it, most of the Iraq specs I read aren't that good.

I challenge anyone to name a single Iraq War film that has been a hit. Let's even expand that to Iraq and Afghanistan War-on-Terror related movies.

Still nothing? Let's look at the numbers that the development exec, producer, or studio bean counter will look at when your Iraq spec crosses their desk.

Rendition - Budget: unknown. Domestic gross: $9 million. Foreign gross: $17 million. This was pretty widely considered a flop, so odds are it cost a lot more than it made.

In The Valley of Elah - Budget: $23 million. Domestic: $6.7 million. Foreign: $22.7 million.

Lions For Lambs - Budget: $35 million. Domestic: $15 million. Foreign: $48 million. This was a huge flop for Tom Cruise and his United Artists' pictures. Not only did it open at 4th in the box office, but it was Cruise's lowest-grossing film since 1986!

Home of the Brave - Budget: $12 million. Domestic: $51, 708. Foreign: $447, 992.

Redacted - Budget: $5 million. Domestic: $65,388. Foreign: $714,212

Stop-Loss - Budget: $25 million. Domestic: $10 million. Foreign: $291,386.

Body of Lies - Budget: $70 million. Domestic: $39 million. Foreign: $75 million. This wasn't a total flop, but you can bet that even with Foreign bringing in some cash, the studio was not happy with the box office on this.

The Kingdom - Budget: $70 million. Domestic: $47.5 million. Foreign: $39 million.

The reality is that your audience has spent the last seven-plus years trying to ignore this War on Terror. We're stuck in a quagmire of two wars with no sign of getting out anytime soon. They're not going to pay $14 admission to see something they've only been too happy to ignore for free on CNN.

All of this is exactly why I have precisely ZERO expectation that Green Zone will do well at the box office.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Interview with JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET's Robert Levine: Part V - Writing for Human Target

Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
Part II - Working on Jericho's first season
Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho
Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent

After a stint on staff of CBS’ Harper’s Island, Levine was hired as part of the writing staff for Fox’s Human Target, which is currently in its first season, airing Wednesday nights at 8/7c on Fox.

Let’s move on to Human Target. You did the second episode of the season which was the “trapped on a plane” story, and when I set this interview up with you, you hinted that episode had an interesting genesis, so can you take me through how that story was born?

It started with Jon Steinberg, the show-runner, saying “I want to do an episode on a plane. The whole episode is gonna take place on the plane.” And his vision from the beginning was “I want to tell the story out of chronological order so it builds as a mystery in terms of what you know at any given moment about anyone on this plane.” Because by definition, you’re limiting the number of people in the story, so how do you keep it interesting? Well, you keep it interesting by changing the audience’s perceptions.

Like we come in at the middle of the story and we meet the flight attendant and we spend half the show thinking she’s just a flight attendant and then by flashing back we learn she’s really one of the bad guys involved in the whole scheme.

We can play with who we think the good guys are, who we think the bad guys are, and who we think the person we’re supposed to be protecting is. In the final form… the twist about who we think the person we’re protecting ended up being very minimal. But that was the sort of thesis for the show.

So it’s to find as many things as you can introduce in the future time point that can be turned on its ear when we see the past time point.

It’s very difficult to find a story to fit that rigid of a format, but to Jon’s credit he felt it would work and we found it. It just took a while.

I have to say, I hate when shows start with a big action scene and then, BAM, a caption that says “18 Hours Earlier,” which J.J. Abrams did a lot on Alias. It’s used effectively sometimes, but I feel that done wrong it becomes a crutch. I think the way you went back-and-forth kept it interesting so there were multiple reveals throughout the episode and not just so you could have an exciting opening and then give the set-up.

It’s interesting that you say that because Jon said the exact same thing, “I don’t just want to do it once. I don’t want to do the J.J. thing. I want to really make it a device and go back-and-forth a couple of times." And at a certain point in the process, that format is so naturally complicated, it was suggested, “Why can’t you guys just show one scene from later at the beginning and then tell it linearly from that point forward? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?” And to Jon’s credit [he said] “We’re gonna try it this way and we’re gonna make this work.”

Then it became a question of why are these people on this plane? Why is this plane in trouble? It would have to be a scenario that Chance (Mark Valley) wouldn’t know about because then he never would have put the person on the plane or gotten on the plane himself. So it has to arise out of the story.

Like turning the plane upside down. How did you come up with that one?

I think we pitched a whole story to the network that had none of that. I think at that point the story was that something was wrong with the plane and that everyone on the plane was not there by accident, that one person had manipulated all these people onto the plane and then sabotaged it to kill them all for some reason. It was a revenge motive or something. And the network to their credit was like “It’s okay. It’s not Human Target.”

Was this produced as the second episode?

It was produced as the fourth.

I had a feeling that they had moved it up to number two in the airing order from later in the production schedule because it seemed odd creatively that the “trapped on a plane” story immediately followed the “trapped on a runaway train” story in the pilot.

That’s one reason why you make a show that doesn’t have heavy serialization. The network wants the option of showing them in any order they want, [leading] with the ones they feel are the strongest.

This episode was directed by a guy named Steve Boyum. He’s an amazing action director. He shot the shit out of it and it doesn’t look like a TV show, it looks like a movie. So naturally they were like, “We want to show it second.” They didn’t really care about the planes/trains thing.

Plus you had such an odd airing schedule the first week that maybe you had people catch the second episode who didn’t see the first, and as you said, it doesn’t really matter because they’re not serialized.

Right. So we had a story that was action on a plane, but it wasn’t "Human Target” yet. We’re all sitting around in this moment of despair because we’ve been working so hard to make this work and the network’s saying it’s not enough and then Steve Scaia, one of the writers on the show – who’s really into planes – he goes, “Well we could flip the plane upside down.” And everyone’s like “What????” He says, “Yeah, it’s not impossible. Technically the plane should be able to do it. It probably wouldn’t stay in the air…” So it starts spinning out and [we realize] I’ve never seen that before, I’ve seen it with a boat in The Poseidon Adventure, it’s a crazy visual. And then you think about it in terms of the story we’re trying to tell… we’re telling it in two timelines, it’s like “What if in one timeline the plane’s [right side up] and in one timeline it’s [upside down?] You know immediately where you are in the story because when the plane is upside down, it’s later and when it’s right side up, it’s earlier. It clicked. So from there it became “Why do you turn the plane upside down?”

And out of that comes the fire, and that probably leads to having them crawl up into the crawlspace area…

The wheel well, yeah. That was the work I did at that point. We had talked about who this person was that Chance was protecting and we landed on the idea that they were a hacker, which is actually semi-based on a real story. Two years ago, this computer expert Dan Kaminsky is fucking around one morning and he discovers what’s called a DNS flaw in the internet. It was something that always existed and if anyone actually knew about it and recognized it you could create all kinds of problems with it. It’s basically something that would allow you to, if I’m you and I type in Bank of America on my computer, a website pops up that looks like Bank of America, but it’s not. And I’d give them my information and then it would be stolen. That’s what DNS is, it’s the protocol by which when you ask for a website, it’s delivered to you by the internet.

So he had discovered this flaw that would allow all kinds of crazy exploitation of that. It didn’t seem like anyone was aware of it and he pointed it out to his girlfriend and she was like, “That’s insane.” He called all his buddies that were expert programmers and they formed this sort of secret meeting… he got on a plane without telling anyone, met these guys and they just worked through the night to create a patch for it before anybody realizes what’s wrong. So that was the inspiration.

In the effort to make it concise and understandable to the layman, it becomes something [in our show] that’s completely implausible which is “the skeleton key to the internet.” But the point is it allowed us to create a story where Chance would get on the plane. If Chance knew who the protectee was he wouldn’t let them get on the plane. But if he doesn’t know who the person is and getting on the plane is the only way to figure out who the person is, then it makes sense.

Making a computer hacker the protectee allowed them to be important, but also anonymous. So I knew I had a character who was a hacker with the skeleton key to the internet, and you want that character to be an agent in their own survival. So if the plane is upside down and stuck that way, and you have someone who can access the internet and get whatever they want… What if you have them essentially create a new flight computer that Chance then has to go plug in, and conveniently the only place you can plug it in is the most dangerous place on the plane… the wheel well And that’s perfect because Chance now has to go into the wheel well, it’ll be open to the sky, but then as soon as he fixes the plane, the ceiling becomes the floor and suddenly he’s falling out of the plane. So it all made sense for me.

One domino knocked over the other and suddenly you have a cool set-piece.

Exactly. Now I have my big action for the show. And from there we talked about her [the flight attendant], and the story for Chance and that stuff ended up linking in to what we’re eventually going to reveal about him – which I won’t talk about.

Well, I did have a reader want me to ask you if we’ll ever learn the backstories of how the leads first met?

Yeah. Very soon actually. I think we’re gonna do it in episode 12. That’s all I’ll say.

Alright, well that’s a bit down the line, so no need to spoil that. My last question about your episode is, did you end up doing a lot of technical research about airplanes in order to work everything out?

Well, we have a tech advisor on the show who’s a guy with a heavy military background. He hooked me up with a lot of people. My questions were primarily about fire safety on planes, and what kind of systems are in place to deal with fires on planes – which is scary. The reality of it is scary. He’s telling me about how if the fire’s anywhere but in the luggage compartment they have to take axes and literally cut up the ceiling or the floor to access the fuselage of the plane to put the fire out. At one point I had a scene like that in the show… I talked to two pilots… the director is a big pilot guy, so he knew a lot of stuff too.

So definitely a lot of people who knew the reality, and then I’m sure there are moments where you make a conscious decision, “Reality’s going to be boring – we can stretch plausibility a bit.”

It’s definitely that. It’s also that you can’t get a consensus. One guy tells you one thing, one guy says something different. There’s a lot of different planes out there, a lot of different models. The big question obviously was, “Can a plane fly upside down?” So the first thing we did was, Scaia – who pitched it – has a friend who has a flight simulator in his home. So we called that guy and asked “Can you run this scenario?” Two hours later he sends us a link and we go to YouTube…the simulator will spit out like a cartoon of the plane actually doing what you tell it to do and it shows you what the instruments are doing… so the plane goes upside down… and right when [it’s almost flipped 180 degrees] you look at the instrument panel and… it just completely dies. It doesn’t even know how to process anything.

So if the flight simulator can’t tell you what will happen…

Guys have flipped those kinds of planes before. There’s video of it. They haven’t kept them in that position obviously. The basic sense was “No, it would fall out of the sky” but…

It’s a TV show.

Yeah. What’s more fun?

And that's where we'll leave it, with thanks once more to Rob for generously talking with us for this in-depth interview.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview with JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET's Robert Levine: Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent

Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
Part II - Working on Jericho's first season
Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho

Jericho was canceled again due to low ratings after the second season, but true to its reputation as a show that refuses to die, the storyline was recently continued in a Jericho comic published by Devil’s Due. Rob was given the task of co-writing a few issues in that storyline.

With the death of Bonnie in your last episode, you knew you had something that was going to make everyone on the internet go “Holy shit!” Do you track internet reaction after one of your episodes airs?

Especially on that show because [there was such a passionate following.] I know those people now. They’re still vocal. They read the comic book.

Which is a great segue way into talking about your work on the comic. So in comics, you’re freed from any production concerns.

Yeah!

You can do anything, but is there a point where you feel yourself putting limits on yourself so that it “feels” like Jericho?

No. Not really. Only in terms of wanting to stay with the characters [from the show.] If anything you’re tempted to do too much, and the only limitation in comics realistically is that you only have 22 pages. But at the same time, you’re completely free from limitations in terms of locations, the actors that you’re using. You can use a character in just one scene [and not feel it’s] a waste of money to pay them that much and only use them [so briefly.] It came at a good time for the story, because the story by the end of Season Two wants to explode.

So you can actually show this civil war instead of just being locked into everyone back in their bunker in Jericho?

Now I think the challenge is keeping a story in Jericho going, keeping that interesting now that the scale is so big. It’s been fun.

I’ve got a few readers who want to me to ask if there’s any news about a Jericho movie, and if there’s any bearing that the comic would have on the storyline for that movie.

I don’t know. I don’t know any plans. Jon Turteltaub’s guys would be able to answer that better.

Is there any direction you’ve gotten from them in terms of “You can’t do this in the comic because these characters need to be available for the film?”

Hopefully I’m not talking out of school, but a lot of what we’re using in the comic, I think, is what they had initially talked about for the movie, telling these kinds of stories – Jake and Hawkins on the run with Smith, Jericho becoming an active place of resistance. It’s all that stuff. I’d like to think that if they made the movie they’d either pick up where the comics are leaving off, or basically adapt the story we’re telling on the big screen so you can actually see the stuff with the actors.

But I don’t know. I don’t know where [the movie] stands.

Any desire to keep writing comics after this?

I had to learn from scratch how to do it, and now that I have I want to keep doing it. You know, it has that benefit of minimal production costs. You can do what you want for very little.

Scripting comics is strange because unlike TV or movie writing, there is no set format for comic scripts. I’ve seen some that look like screenplays and some that are just written in paragraphs. Did that take some getting used to?

Yeah, someone said it’s like directing a movie because it’s not just dialogue, it’s what in the frame, what you’re showing, how you’re showing it. I haven’t gotten that adventurous in terms of the pages I’ve written whereas there are other writers for the show who have. Issue four is by a different writer, Matt Federman, and it’s the entire story of John Smith [the character in the show who masterminded the nuclear attacks that begin the story], which is something you could only do in the comics [because he’s not a regular character on the series].

You could never do that on the show. You could never take an entire episode and just devote it to that character. But in this format you can, and it reveals the entire backstory mythology of the show. It spans years. Every question you have gets answered. As a fan, you can move forward. You know the origins of this guy, you know how he did what he did, why he did what he did. It’s an emotional story. It’s great, it’s really great. [And] Federman did much more radical things [than myself] in terms of how the page is arranged, the things you see and how information’s coming out. It’s awesome.

At what point in your career did you obtain representation, and do you have any advice for unrepped writers currently seeking representation?

I obtained representation around the time I was staffed on Jericho, then I changed agencies before the beginning of the second season. From my story, you can see representation didn't make much of a difference in terms of landing my first job. It was the inverse: the fact that I already had a deal made me attractive to agencies, because the hard work was done.

Still, having an agent is important because they'll negotiate your deal for you and even after you're staffed, they're working to get your name out to all the studios, networks and production houses that might hire you in the future.

My advice for unrepped writers is to start approaching agencies as soon as you have a couple pieces of material you feel confident in. Use personal connections if you can. But I would also say you need to manage your expectations in terms of what difference an agent will make at that stage in your career. Obviously, the strength of your writing is a huge factor. But the more relationships you're able to develop on your own, either through your day job or otherwise, the better your chances will be.

Let's talk writing samples. As someone on the inside, what would you tell a writer who was looking to start his TV specs. I hear original pilots are the way to go these days, is that so? What are the essential qualities of a good TV spec?

I think original material is always a good bet, but I wouldn't feel limited to pilots. A short story or a play can suffice just as well.

Remember what your objective is with a writing sample: it's not to sell a specific piece of material. It's to sell you as a writer. Your voice. Your vision. Pilots can do that, but they also come with an added expectation, because a good pilot needs to have more than just a good story, characters and dialogue. It needs to work as a launch for a show that could run several seasons, and if it doesn't suggest that kind of longevity, it will judged on that. Short stories and plays don't carry that expectation. Plus, frankly, they can be shorter, which means someone will be that much more likely to start and finish reading them.

Now, writing plays and prose carry their own challenges, but I think it's worth considering the advantages. Features can work as original samples as well, but again, they tend to be longer.

Those guidelines aside, I think what it boils down to you is fairly simple. Write what you like, what excites you as an audience.

Part V - Writing for Human Target