Thursday, March 31, 2011

An impassioned plea: Please DON'T read Tripp Stryker's script!

Related: Go Into The Story's post on Jaws 2012 3-D

Hi gang. I sort of hesitate to even post about this because I'm aware that the mere act of doing so is only going to draw attention to the problem. Hopefully, I can appeal to your better nature.

Earlier today, Tripp Stryker had a little trouble with modern technlogy and accidently send some script pages into the internet, via a misdirected Tweet from his Twitter account. Already I've gotten some static back from a few people who have seen these pages posted elsewhere. Some are taking shots at Tripp's writing, while others take offense to the very nature of the project itself.

It's not my place to speak about the project Tripp is connected to, and so I won't. I have been led to believe that it wasn't supposed to be announced yet, so I feel bad that he's suffering such embarrassment, even if it was his own doing. He has some producers he'll have to answer to, and I'm sure he'll make those amends in a timely fashion.

As regular readers know, I have a pretty consistent position on the distribution of scripts that are still in the development process. John August told us a while back that it was a dangerous process - both for the writers who find their early drafts reviewed and for those who take part in it.

Obviously I can't stop you guys from trading the script, and I can see how you might consider it a victimless crime. But I'm asking you as a favor to me, don't read Tripp's leaked pages. Don't Google them, don't post them... and please don't send me angry emails about how much you think his script sucks.

Enjoy the weekend, all.

Why Sucker Punch paid the price for starring kick-ass women

I discussed in an earlier post some of the storytelling shortcomings of Sucker Punch, but that wasn't the only thing missing. Like Sin City, it had sexy and scantily clad girls. What didn't it have? (Well, nudity, but that's not my point.) Tough, macho men.

I'm probably going to get attacked for this, but I'd guess that Sucker Punch held little appeal for a male audience because it was SO sold as a female-driven piece. I thought Warner Bros. sounded like fools a few years ago when they said they weren't going to make female-driven movies anymore, but stuff like Sucker Punch shows you the justification for their thinking.

Look at Sin City. Sure, it had Jessica Alba as a stripper, who's still one of the hottest screen strippers in history despite not actually appearing in the buff. It had Jamie King, Rosario Dawson, Carla Gugio and about a half-dozen other girls all in fairly skimpy outfits I'm sure every straight male in America could find some girl in the cast list that they'd love to see in various states of undress. But would they have turned out for a film that starred stripper Nancy and the gun-toting hookers of Old Town taking back the streets from slimy guys? I doubt it.

The other half of the equation: Mickey Roarke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis. The male heroes of the Sin City segments. And interestingly, they're all a breed of character we don't see as often in films these days - men's men, macho types. In a release slate dominated by Paul Rudds and Jesse Eisenbergs (both of whom I enjoy, it should be said), those three actors really played to the "tough guy" that a lot of male viewers probably idolize on some level.

What guy doesn't want to calmly kick-ass like Bruce Willis, prove how tough he is in a fight, all to save the girl? Yeah, I'm sure that the actresses who got to wield swords and shoot guns in Sin City were all about the "empowerment" aspect of it, but I don't think that was a selling point.

Because take a look what happened the next time Robert Rodriguez was involved in an action film that had female empowerment as one of its main themes. Grindhouse had two segments: Planet Terror and Death Proof. Rodriguez's Planet Terror segment had Rose McGowan in the lead, though it was a fairly gender-balanced ensemble. Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof had nearly a dozen fetching young actresses, half of whom really got to kick ass by the end. The macho character - played by Kurt Russell - was the villain, and the film ends with his brutal beating at the hands of the women.

Grindhouse didn't do so well at the box office either. Part of that might have to do with the fact it was three-hours long, and that it was paying homage to a particular kind of film geek. Still was the male audience turned off by the fact they had no one to either identify with or aspire to?

The male action hero is in a sorry state these days, too. We live in a world where Seth Rogan was the action lead in Green Hornet. Seth Rogan! I could beat that guy in a footrace! Sure, guys go to the movies to see people the identify with, but they REALLY go to see guys who they wish they could be. There's neither in Sucker Punch. The three main guys are the mysterious mentor, the skeevy pimp/orderly, and the lobotomizing doctor.

I'm not necessarily saying the women had to be more overtly made into damsels in distress or that male characters needed to be added to those films specifically to overshadow them. I am saying that I think the lack of such a presence did reduce the appeal for a significant percentage of the audience.

I wanted to like Sucker Punch, and to be honest, I liked Death Proof (though the leaner Grindhouse cut was WAY better than the uncut solo version.) But then, I like most of pop culture's kickass women, from Sydney Bristow to Buffy Summers. It's probably safe to say that Tarantino, Rodriguez and Snyder are also fans of that archetype.

But clearly there aren't enough of them in the ticket-buying public.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucker Punch and the desensitization to dazzling visuals

My review of Sucker Punch

Story is king, and I think nothing proves that more than Sucker Punch's disappointing showing at the box office this weekend. For a film that was budgeted at over $80 million, was pushed by heavy marking that showcased the stunning visuals, and was from a "hot" director, an opening weekend of less than $20 million is not a good sign.

I'm reminded of an observation from James Cameron around the time Avatar came out, where he noted that audiences had become jaded by stunning visual effects. Images that ten years ago would have made an audience's jaw drop with amazement are now being met with a shrug. Yes for years now, digital technology has been touted as the future. There's nothing that filmmakers cannot create in the computers, no vista they can't take us to, no object they cannot manipulate.

And yet, why are films like Sucker Punch not only so boring, but also failing to even draw viewers in on their opening weekend?

Six years ago, Sin City opened to a $29 million opening weekend on a $40 million dollar budget. Like Sucker Punch, it also featured a lot of sets that were created in the computer, a lot of sexy, scantily-clad actresses, and a lot of violence. In fact, Sin City was so violent that it was rated R, so one presumes that it might have done even MORE business had it been PG-13 like Sucker Punch! Overall it did $75 million domestic and $158 million world wide - and it cost half of the reported budget for Sucker Punch.

Four years ago, Zack Snyder's own 300 had an opening weekend of $70 million, on a $65 million budget and it too was rated R. It made $210 million domestically - which is probably what Sucker Punch will be lucky to do worldwide. It too features a lot of CG environments.

I'm not going to add summer movies into this equation because I mainly want to point out the trends using these late-March, early-April releases, but it's worth noting that CG-driven blockbusters had been a big part of the summer movie culture both before and after the two films I've just discussed. They came in the middle of a trend, not at the start of it.

I'm sure that for a long time, many would have given the stunning visuals of Sin City and 300 a lot of credit for their commercial success. Give us a few money shots, some action and some hot babes and we're a happy audience - that's the conclusion the studios drew. And sure, those other films had an advantage in being based off of existing graphic novels, but they were hardly mainstream - and being based off of one of the best selling graphic novels of all time didn't help Snyder's own Watchmen get much above $100 million domestically in 2009.

So if these hits have so much in common, why didn't Sucker Punch duplicate their success?

Because it's about story.

At the end of the day, the ability to create anything in the computer is insignificant compared to the power of compelling characters, strong plots and engaging pacing. We're told as writers to think visually, and that's always going to be important, but there needs to be something behind the visuals.

When a filmmaker can make us see ANYTHING, we become impressed by nothing. In 1993, we were stunned to see dinosaurs reproduced so realistically in Jurassic Park, both through CGI and full scale reproductions. Today, would creating photo-real dinosaurs be enough to propel a movie to be an instant hit? Hell no!

The trailers for Sucker Punch did a terrible job of selling a story. Visually it looked cool, but there was nothing cool about the story it presented, which seemed to be some kind of Alice in Wonderland-riff with a girl in an asylum. It's a far cry from the story of a conflicted hero who has the fate of the world in his hands, one of the more standard action movie tropes.

Another example might be the failure of Drive Angry, which opened at number 9 in the box office a few weeks back, despite having the boost of the higher 3D ticket price. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that 3D was going to bring in greater audiences who came for the spectacle. Guess what? Despite a lot of ads, Drive Angry just didn't look like a story most people were interested in.

It's about the story, stupid.

A visual without anything interesting to say is nothing more than a pretty picture. People don't go to movies to see pretty pictures, anymore than they attend the theatre to see how well the stage sets are painted. Or in the case of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, how well the safety line holds.

Yes, there are musicals that have made production design their selling point, but let me tell you, all the production design in the world won't save your ass from falling asleep during the interminable first hour of Les Miserables. (Tip: If you go to this, bring a pillow and ask your date to wake you at "Master of the House.")

Now, the clear counterarguement to my assertion there is Transformers: Rise of the Machines. I can't explain that one either, though it was a pre-sold sequel coming in the middle of a very big summer. It had plenty of action and mayhem, but very little plot to speak of. I'm sure there'll always be anomalies like these, but I believe as desensitization to visual effects increases, so will audiences become more discriminating in the stories they shell out their hard-earned dollars for.

So make your screenplays airtight. Make sure there's something entertaining and compelling you're trying to say. Oh, and don't forget one other secret ingredient...

But we'll get to that tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Budget

Just out of curiosity, how many of you keep budget in mind when you're writing? Do you just run hog wild or do you make an effort to stay within limits, so as to make the script more attractive on a financial level?

Monday, March 28, 2011

My review of Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch"

Sucker Punch and the desensitization to dazzling visuals

I've enjoyed most of Zack Snyder's other films, but from the first teasers of Sucker Punch were released, I found myself not anticipating this film with the eagerness I expected. Still, even with some of the questionable buzz, I still had the impression that even if it was a failure, it'd be an interesting enough failure to merit viewing.

I saw the film yesterday with four friends at an afternoon showing that wasn't even a quarter-full. You could feel the restlessness in the audience and as my group left the theatre, the consensus was that the film largely missed the mark.

It's interesting that Snyder's next project is a Superman reboot produced by Christopher Nolan, because like Nolan's Inception, Sucker Punch has multiple levels of reality, dreams within dreams. Unlike Inception, the story isn't nearly as engaging, and the relationship between the different levels of reality isn't handled as elegantly.

The film opens in what I'll call "Level 1." A teenage girl is committed to an institution for the mentally insane by her evil stepfather. The reasons exactly why he has her committed are revealed in the film's best sequence, the opening, and so I'll be light with spoilers there. The bottom line is that he's put there illegally and he's paid off an orderly to not only commit her, but also have her lobotomized.

We see the girl taken in for the procedure and just as the spike is driven up her nose, the film shifts to what I'll call "Level 2." In this fantasy, the asylum has become a brothel, with the patients now recast as dancers. The girl is now addressed as "Baby Doll" and has been brought there to be a gift for a high roller who will arrive in a few days. Most of the other dancers react to Baby Doll's horror with disinterest, and a clear sense that they've accepted their own sad fates. Baby Doll hatches a plan to escape, saying they need to work together to get a map, a lighter, a knife and a key in order to make their plan possible.

See, Baby Doll apparently has a talent for burlesque dancing, and is in fact so enticing that when she dances, everyone is so mesmerized that it makes for a complete distraction while the other four girls complete their various tasks. I say "apparently" because not once do we actually see Baby Doll's performance....

Every time Baby Doll dances, we find ourselves in what I'll call Level 3. Here, the five girls are in a fantasy scenario that vaguely resembles World War I, albiet with the girls as soldiers wearing fetishized outfits; mechas; zombie soldiers; dragons; and high tech bombs. It's basically like they're dropped into a video game and were dressed by 14 year-old boys. Their "mission" is treated like a metaphor for their Level 2 object. If they complete the mission successfully, it means they got the object they need for escape. If they don't... well, you know.

And that's where the movie really falls apart for me. The War missions are basically a dream with in a dream. I don't know if it works to add another fantasy within Baby Doll's existing fantasy. We learn at the end of the film that in Level 1, Baby Doll attempted a breakout with much the same results as events when they play out in Level 2. Indeed, the events in the brothel play out as a more direct metaphor for whatever Baby Doll apparently did in the real world. With in the movie, we could interpret this as a fantasy version she concocted to make the horrors of the asylum more palpable, or perhaps the way her lobotomized brain chooses to recall those events.

The problem I have is that the war fantasies just feel gratuitous. If the brothel was the film's reality, then the war sequences might have worked better. Playing them as a metaphor within a metaphor makes that portion of the movie essentially a mixed metaphor. It's all gratiutious flash, and in a metatextual sense, perhaps it's appropriate that the girls are clad in exploitation garb during those sequences.

Why does Baby Doll's fantasy need a fantasy of its own? How does that add a new layer of meaning to the story? I don't think the film as presented offers a good answer to that question. The fact that Baby Doll's war fantasies draw on influences that seem to post-date the timeline where Baby Doll "really" lives is another oddity. (The film's opening is set in 1955.)

So the problem is that we have a film that seems to try very hard to tell us it has deep meaning, but there are major, fundamental elements that don't justify their own inclusion. There might be some attempt at thematic meaning, or using these dreams as a metaphor, but it doesn't hold together.

I also took issue with the way that the film tried very hard at times to tell their story visually, only to undermine that with musical choices where the lyrics were deeply on-the-nose. Powerful silent storytelling is ruined by ham-handed sound cues. Part of me wishes I could have seen the film with the sound off.

Then, a series of events at the end of the film muddle things even further. There's a point where Baby Doll and the sole survivor of her group manage to get outside the brothel, only to find that there are men just outside who block their escape. Baby Doll realizes she needs to sacrifice herself as a distraction so her companion can get away, but she does so with some odd dialogue that left me wondering if some connective tissue fell prey to the editor's knife. She mumbles something about realizing that "this" isn't "my story." As if some great truth is revealed to her, she accepts her fate and allows her friend the opportunity to escape.

The script might have gotten away with that, but then later we see that friend nearly caught at a bus stop by local police, only to be rescued by the kindness of a bus driver. This sequence felt a little vague as to which level of reality it takes place in. It could be the patient as she escaped in Level 1, or it could be Baby Doll's dream of her friend's escape in Level 2. Of course, if that's part of Baby Doll's fantasy, why are we seeing it?

This is made more confusing by the fact that the bus driver is the same "mentor" character whom Baby Doll and her friends have taken orders from in all of their Level 3 adventures. He exists only in the dream-within-a-dream of Level 3, yet here he is in Level 1 or 2, giving further cryptic dialogue that's on the order of the writer trying to hammer home the meaning of his script. I'm not one to pretend that if I don't get the meaning of a script that necessarily means it doesn't have it, but here I feel secure in saying that the mixed metaphors of the film render any conclusion impenetrable.

And to add insult to injury, the credit sequence is "enhanced" with an inexplicable burlesque number. The girls are not only outfitted in a way unlike any of their other brothel costumes, but the brothel's madam and the owner of the establishment also take part in this musical number. It's the very definition of "indulgent."

Perhaps a version of this film exists where the metaphors are more coherent and the relationships among the three levels of reality are more coherent. Unfortunately, that wasn't the version that opened wide this past weekend.

As we exited the theatre and walked back to our cars, my group attempted to figure out the thinking behind that dance number during the credit sequence. My friend Liz's theory was "I think it was... 'hmmm... how can we get these girls in even less clothing?'" Given the way the rest of the film struggled to remain coherent, I don't discount that as a key motivation.

Did any of you see Sucker Punch? What did you think?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Sasquatch Birth Journal 2

A friend of mine sent me this last week. The joke is kind of a slow burn so stick it out until the end.



It's one of those things that seems very lame at first, but funnier the more you think about it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

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

We continue our talk with writer's assistant Scott Towler.

Part I

What led to Maria hooking you up with Bill Callahan, then on Scrubs?

Funny story actually, Bill was Maria's agent's assistant way back in the day. And Maria had wanted these tickets to a Broadway show or something, like day-of show. It was one of those requests you get as an assistant where you're like "shit, this is impossible!" Somehow, Bill made it happen, and as a thank you, Maria bought him a Directv and the NFL package. Maria didn't get me the interview though, it was just the presence of her name on my resume that did it. Bill saw it and wanted to pick my brain. And after we met and shared a few stories, I was offered the job to be his assistant as part of his term deal with Touchstone TV.

What was it like finally working on a long-running series? What sort of things did Bill ask of you and what did you learn from him?

I was welcomed with open arms, but that being said, I kind of felt like the party had already started and I was the latecomer, you know? A lot of the departments already had their teams and made their friends, so it was hard to get to know many of them outside of the writing team. Plus that hospital was so sprawling, the writers had their own little enclave, and unless you had business elsewhere, you didn't stray too far. Unless it was to the kitchen. We had the sickest kitchen on that show.

As far as my tasks went...here's where the great debate of being an in-room writers' assistant vs. being an executive assistant attached to a deal really comes into play. On the one hand, in-room writers' assistants are so close to the action, chances are good that if the show succeeds, they will too. They might even get a script out of it or be promoted to staff writer. Being an executive assistant is different. You manage that writer (or team of writers) lives. Their work, their homes, everything else they have no time for during TV season. And you hope that when they have down time, they give you the 1-on-1 training and guidance you need to really succeed and grow. Also, the hope is that you get to know the studio/network brass better so that when the time comes they'll read your stuff (like actually read it all the way through, not just say they did).

In this case, I did a lot of home management and things like that. I walked his dog every day. But I also finished a script and got some great feedback from Bill. He taught me that pilots have to be complete in every way. Mini-movies if you will. There can be no later-episode pay offs unless you have later episodes! This was a revelation for me. I would write all these things I planned on making work later and he helped me dial in my story a lot. Make it small and make it work.

Your dismissal from Bill's employ was rather unceremonious, as I understand it. During the writers strike, his deal was canceled. Was it hard not to get frustrated with the industry at that point?

Unceremonious to say the least. He lost his job too! We all did. The writers' strike was not a fun time employment-wise, especially considering it happened right before the holidays (boy, studios/networks sure know how to ruin the holidays). Luckily, I had some roots in reality tv as I mentioned, so I found my footing pretty quickly on The Two Coreys Season 2. And I was frustrated with the industry, but I also realized the writers were fighting for my livelihood as well. It wasn't selfishly motivated, it was what they were and are due. I'm sure there will be another one in the future. And I'm sure it will be equally if not more justified than that one was.

Plus the time off presented a unique opportunity for me to put my production experience to good work. I was hired as a producer on a micro-budget indie documentary and was able to use the time off to help plan the shoot, coordinate with our team and set up travel, rentals, etc. So it was almost a blessing in disguise cause it gave me a chance- no, it forced me to have the chance to do something I wouldn't have had time to do otherwise.

So what's it like to go from working on Scrubs to working on The Two Coreys? (Is there anything you can say about that job that isn't covered by non-disclosure agreements.)

Ha, I appreciate the footnote there. It's tough for me to speak too intimately about my experiences with Corey Haim, but I will say this: I did spend a great deal of time with him, and beyond being misunderstood in almost every way, he was also suffering a crippling addiction to virtually anything he could get his hands on. And it was almost like the show was encouraging it. They didn't go so far as to enable him, but they also didn't mind when he got messed up. It made for better TV. And it made me realize that Corey Haim might have been more of a victim than anything else. His death was really sad. I'm still pissed at the Academy for leaving him off the In Memoriam list at the Oscars this year. Just cause he had a bad stretch at the end of his career didn't make him any less of a part of the business. ... I think I've digressed a bit.

As far as cut and dry differences go, Scrubs was already running smoothly, Two Coreys had just moved from Vancouver to L.A. and revamped the entire concept. The first season of that show was really painstakingly bad. Not that my season was any better, but it was certainly closer to the American model of "reality tv" than it's predecessor.

Also, I was a PA on Two Coreys, and it was unlike any PA gig I've ever had. Not only did I manage a camera team, producer, and whomever else fit in our van, but I also had to drive the van! Nerve racking when you have 10 people who outrank you riding in the back seat. You feel like your every move is being scrutinized.

Ultimately, I did very well there. Had I stayed with them instead of going back to scripted, I would have gotten 3 months in NY and 3 months in Paris for their next show (whatever that was, I can't remember anymore). And I never would have had an opportunity like that at Scrubs. It's too expensive to move a scripted show all the time. That's why it's such a big deal when "Modern Family" goes to Hawaii. It's a sign that the show is doing very well. One Tree Hill was in Aruba this year too. Say what you will about the show, Bitter, but they're a bonafide success if they're getting approved for production travel.

Luck finally smiled upon you when Michelle Nader needed an assistant. How did you hear about that posting and how did you convince Michelle you were the man for the job?

She was one of the first writers to come out of the strike with a new term deal. And my old coworker and former Page Jen (Mark Binke and Todd Sharpe's assistant that I shadowed), called me and said she thought of me the instant she heard about the job. I took a long lunch one day from Two Coreys and met with her. It only took us about 10 minutes to realize that we were both no nonsense.

That being said, I was still pretty timid when it came to working with someone at her level. But I had at least realized by that point that TV writing was what I wanted to do for my career. And given her track record and prolific career, she seemed like a perfect fit. Plus she had worked with Bill Callahan on Spin City many years ago. He was quick to give a good recommendation on my behalf.

And before I even heard if I got the gig, I quit the 2 Coreys and crossed my fingers. I started work 2 weeks later.

Is working for Michelle similar or different from working for the previous writers you worked for? What sort of things have you been responsible for while working on her shows?

Working for Michelle has been the most career defining and unique job I have ever had. Because she has the best of everything in my mind: she's supportive and nuturing to almost everyone around her, but at the same time, she's as cut throat and "take no prisoners" as anyone I have ever met. It's a great balance, and one that has helped me learn how to be confident and assertive with my work.

My duties for her are pretty broad. When we're in development, I do a lot of her proofreading and editing (or at least I help!), and manage her personal life as best I can. When we're on a show (we've done two since I've been with her: Kath & Kim and 100 Questions), it's much much more. She let me co-write the webisodes for 100 Questions, and she gave me my first speaking role as an actor on Kath & Kim.

I tend to work as the liason between the writers and standards/legal as well. All the facades and fake names of products, companies, etc.-- I pitch as many as I can and hope the writing team (and ultimately Michelle) likes them. If they do, I go to legal and try and get one cleared, then I go to the art department and work on signage/logos/labeling. I also help with music from time to time, and even get to pitch some jokes for scripts when I really have something worth sharing. Occasionally I get to weigh in on casting as well. So I wear a lot of hats when we're in production. And that's partially because she can't do it all herself (no one can), but it's also because over time we have developed a great relationship and she trusts me when it comes to her "artistic vision."

Someone comes to you and says "Tell me what it takes to get your job." What do you say?

I'd say be willing to do any and everything you can to get noticed, but never seek attention. Good work always speaks for itself, and if you're good, the promotions and jobs will come with them naturally. Establish connections with any and everyone you can. Treat every single person you meet the same way: with respect. You have no idea how often I hear that I am "very pleasant to work with," or "am always positive despite whatever else is going on" for that exact reason. And I'm not bragging here, I'm just a nice guy. People remember that.

And you never know who will be the next JJ Abrams, so don't be an asshole like the rest of the lot. Be genuine, be good, be thankful, and it will happen. I'd go into some diatribe about karma, but I think I've said enough.

That same person then says, "Tell me what it takes to DO your job." How do you answer that?

It takes an indomitable spirit. Because 9 days out of 10 you won't be doing exactly what you love. But it's all with a means to an end. Its your job to be the backbone for your boss. Unchanged, immovable. Cause they have a heck of a lot on their plate. And if you can help relieve even just a little bit of that for them, it gets noticed in a major way. Also, you need a car and a smart phone cause the notion of "being in the office" does not exist (even when you have one collecting dust on the WB lot!)

Are you pursuing your own writing projects? Do you feel that you have a leg up on other aspirings due to your job and experience?

I am pursuing my own writing projects, yes. Aside from my blog, which is really just a hobby at this point, I try and match Michelle's pace as best I can. If she starts writing a pilot, I do too. And I can honestly say it has improved my craft immensely. When I look at my first spec and compare it to my work today, I am amazed at how far I've come. I'm also enthralled with how much I still have to learn.

And in answer to part two, this goes back to the in-room assistant vs. exec assistant debate. In my mind I feel like I do have a great leg up because I basically work for the CEO. And who better to lend you an ear than the boss, right? The real question becomes if my material will be good enough to market and sell. Because even if you have all the help in the world, if your work sucks, that's pretty much the end of the line. That's what makes creative endeavors so difficult yet so fulfilling all at once. Sure, I have great connections, but until I have a spec that is sold after one read and made into a headline on deadline, I'd say I've got just as good a chance as anyone else.

Thanks to Scott for all his time, and you can check out more of his writing at his blog, Great Scott!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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

I've been friends with Scott Towler for a couple of years now, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of someone I know who's had more odd jobs in the industry in such a short time. Currently he's enjoying his third year of stability as the assistant to writer Michelle Nader (Kath & Kim, 100 Questions.) However, unlike Amy Baack, the showrunner's assistant I interviewed last month, Scott wasn't lucky enough to land that job until paying a lot of dues in this town.


So what drew you to Hollywood in the first place? When you were in college, what did you want to do with your life?


When I was 11 I told my parents I was going to move to Hollywood someday and be an actor. At the time I was scared shitless of being in front of people, but then I started playing music, and eventually got into theater (both musical and legitimate) and that fear went away. By the time I got to college my decision had already been made: performance acting major, music minor. And the nice part about Denison was that I was able to earn a B.F.A. instead of just a B.A., so I didn't have to take Econ. or any of that nonsense. Instead it was primarily all art or performance related classes: dance, film, music, theater, etc. It was great. So long winded as that was, I guess was drove me out here was the desire to act and leave a lasting imprint on our culture.

What was your first job in Hollywood and what were the most important things it taught you?

My very first job was as a P.A. on Access Hollywood. It taught me a lot, most importantly that I took my work a lot more seriously than most of the other P.A.'s I worked with. It got me noticed quickly. By the end of that summer, this was 2003 I believe, I was promoted to research assistant in the newsroom.

I also learned never to go backwards up a parking garage ramp. Why you ask? My first day on the job (and my 3rd day in LA ever), I was going to make a delivery. Thought I was lost, tried to back up, backed into a $100,000 Porsche. It was terrible. The guy chewed me out, I freaked out and thought my career was over, and to top all that- my delivery was late!

After that you were hired as an NBC Page. Can you explain a little bit about the Page program and what it's designed to do? What's your daily routine, and do you have any memorable incidents from your time there?

The NBC Page program, despite what Regis Philbin says, is a corporate training ground. They try and hire people they think will eventually be a good fit for NBC Universal as an executive someday. And that's exactly what they were grooming me to be. I wound up in television production working for Mark Binke and Todd Sharpe as an assistant (it was shortly thereafter I made the leap into freelance). But before they put you "on assignment" in a department, your job is basically as a tour guide of the NBC Burbank facility. And yes, we wore exactly what Kenneth on 30 Rock wears today (though they did update the uniforms a few years back, making all us old timers really bitter. After all, ours were polyester and most of us were really really poor at the time, so we never got them dry cleaned. And I can tell you, by August, after giving sometimes 6 tours a day, those things stunk to high hell).

The tours were terrible. Anyone who has ever seen that facility can tell you that virtually any other tour in Hollywood is better (including those terrible double decker bus tours). They gave us fake anecdotes about the studio to tell too. So not only was there nothing to see there, but half the stories we told were BS. Beyond that, we were also assigned to load in audiences for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres show. That could also be fun. Whenever you were assigned to the Ellen show, that meant 2 things: 1, you had to dance that night. A lot. 2, you might get some free swag. It seems silly now, but that was a real perk back then. They also wouldn't let her audience go to the restroom on their own, so I would have to lead groups of 6 or 7 (mostly women) to a bathroom, stand there and wait for them to finish, and them walk them back. It was all very awkward.

As a Page, one of the jobs we had on Leno was called "CB" or "Client Booth." The job was to wait until each of Leno's guests arrived for the taping and then escort them to their dressing rooms, but there was one major catch: do not talk to talent, do not ask for autographs, just escort them and that's it.

Anyway, one day Jennifer Garner was supposed to be the guest and I was assigned CB. Having attended the same college as Jennifer Garner (and sitting in on a guest lecture she and Scott Foley gave the acting students at my school the year before), I was delighted to see her again when she stepped out of her limo. She recognized me instantly, and we started chatting like it was no big deal. Again, cause I knew her from before. We had a preexisting relationship (which, correct me if I'm wrong, would have been rude for me to ignore. Cause I'm not an asshole. We're all human beings here, regardless of job title), and so we were pleasant to one another.

But the Tonight Show Security guard, I think his name was Tony, but it just as easily could have been "meddling idiot," thought I was a little too friendly with Jennifer Garner, and tattled on me to my boss. What he didn't know was that I was supposed to be working the Golden Globes the following weekend, and because he spoke out against me, the Page department declared me a "loose cannon" and wouldn't let me work the event (my former page friends still won't let me live this down, the bastards).

Anyway, the next day, the band Wilco was on Leno, and I went right up to them and got their autograph. Cause at that point, it's like "fuck it," you know? If I obey the rules and still get in trouble, then clearly the rules are irrelevant. And if some guy wants to feel like a big man by attempting to ruin a kid's career, good for him. Besides, if they're going to openly let Snoop Dogg smoke weed at the studio, I think I can say hello to a former acquaintance.

How did you end up going from the Page program to working on Arrested Development? What sort of things did you do on AD and was there anything that surprised you while seeing the show's production from the inside?

As I mentioned earlier, I was working for 2 production execs at Universal. One offered me a job as his assistant, but I didn't want to do that. Will & Grace was hiring a PA, and so was Arrested Development, and working at the Studio allowed me a unique opportunity to interview before many many other candidates. And I did what I will always do after I was offered both jobs: I chose passion over paycheck. I never watched Will & Grace, but I was an AD die hard. The choice was easy.

So I started on Arrested as a PA, but then after 2 weeks they promoted their writers' PA to writers' assistant, and they offered me the writers' PA gig. I promptly took it. The job was the hardest I've ever had since I've lived here, and to be honest, it almost swallowed me whole. 7 day weeks, 16 hour days, no signs of that pattern ever changing. It was brutal. And it made me weak. I was only 23 at the time and I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. But I stuck with it and eventually we were canceled. So that took care of that one pretty quickly. Right before Christmas too! Thanks again, Fox!

Regarding the production though, the coolest part for me was seeing how detail oriented the writing room was. Every line, every reference, every single thing they put in there paid off. Even if it took an entire season to do so. And because we were distributing scripts for the first time on shooting days, the mood was very hectic yet relaxed all at once. After all, how stressed can you be when you are handed your lines 5 minutes before shooting? It was very loose, very casual. I even did a day as a Bluth Company Employee (311, titled "Family Ties"), and while on set Jason Bateman tried to throw me a line, but it was already promised to his stand in. But that's the kind of place it was- shit like that happened all the time. The whole experience was Hollywood in a nutshell for me: right place, right time, stars aligned.

After AD you ended up with a series of "odd jobs." Can you tell us what it was like doing this sort of "nomad work?" Did you have a larger plan you were working towards or at this point was it a matter of building up connections and trying to stay afloat?

It was tough. I was on unemployment for almost 8 months doing whatever work I could take. I didn't have much of a plan then, to be honest. I had felt like I lost my way a bit. I had moved here to act, and yes, I did some small parts here and there, but it wasn't my "job" at that point. It was just something else I did in addition to working. And since I didn't yet understand how to make acting a full time job, I took anything I could get.

I was a camera logger on a house flipping show. That was brutal. Show up at the crack of dawn, chase a camera around while listening to the feed so I can log the timecode of what was said and what room they were in-- all the while avoiding stepping on broken glass or boards or nails. Then they cut my days in half. So I walked. That kind of stuff happened a lot. I was hired, I would be recognized as helpful or efficient, and I would be taken advantage of. And the problem was that in my mind, I was just happy to work, so I let it happen. For too long.

Did doing so much different work give you a fuller insight into working in Hollywood?

Absolutely. I would say it gave me the industry "street smarts" that I possess today. It was also an integral part of understanding the production process. Cause I had only really done theater in HS/college. Film and TV were new for me. So there was a whole new vernacular to learn with it.

It also taught me to know my own self worth. As this period of my life was coming to a close, I was offered a writer PA gig on Family Guy and American Dad (they shared a writers' room at the time. They still might). The gig paid $400/week no mileage reimbursement. I turned it down as quickly as they offered it. They were like "plenty of people will work for this, you know." I said, "good, go hire them. I won't work for that little."

Bad decision? Who knows. More importantly: who cares. I did what was right for me, and I didn't sacrifice my own ethics or standards to do it. That's all we really have when it's all said and done.

Somewhere in all of this, you ended up as a writer's assistant with Arrested Development's Maria Semple. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, and how did Maria end up taking you under her wing? What sort of things did you learn?

I've always been a joke maker, I just never had any desire to be a stand up. And I've been keeping a blog since 2004, so writing has always been a part of me. Heck, I even wrote a spec of "Friends" in HS before I even knew what a spec script was(we read it aloud in class and assigned parts. It was so perfectly lame). But as a 'talent,' I thought I was better if I could hide behind a character. Then I realized- screw the acting, I want to create the character from scratch. That way I held all the power in my hands, and was not just assigned a role that fit me best.

I had time to write while on Arrested Development, but I wasn't focused, I had no idea what I was doing, and I lacked the follow through I have today. To be honest, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a writer then, but everyone else in my office was doing it, so I gave it a shot. Turns out I loved it. Maria recognized my drive, and she took me under her wing while I was unemployed.

Most of what I did was personal assisting work, but eventually she asked me about my writing and helped me work through a 30Rock spec I was working on at the time. Anyone who has worked with Maria will tell you that she is no-nonsense about story. If the story works, the jokes will follow. I had always viewed it the other way around. But she really clued me in to exactly what makes good TV work. And I grew from there. She hired me to be her writers' assistant on her first novel, and has always been an open ear for me, even to this day.

Tomorrow - More with Scott in Part II

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy Birthday William Shatner!

Today is William Shatner's 80th birthday. You've gotta admire the guy. For a while it looked like he was forever going to be typecast as Captain Kirk, but then in the mid-90s, he went through a career resurgence. After Captain Kirk was disappointingly killed on-screen in Star Trek Generations, Shatner went on to pen several memoirs, co-author ten Star Trek novels, and get a new lease on his career by sending up his image in Priceline commercials.

But even after that he still spent the first few years of the millennium appearing in low-budget direct-to-DVD fare and Hallmark movies... until his recurring role on The Practice as Denny Crane. The popular character was quickly spun off into Boston Legal, and Shatner officially began the "respected elder statesman" portion of his career, winning the awards and respect that eluded him in the days he wore a Starfleet uniform.

These days he's starring on $#!+ My Dad Says, and he's the lone bright spot on the sitcom. His more interesting venture is the interview show Shatner's Raw Nerve, where his unusual interviewing style leads to conversations more engaging than you'll find on most talk shows. His recent interview with former co-star Walter Koenig was an often-tense conversation between two guys with a lot of history and not all of it pleasent. The Jason Alexander interview was one of the more revealing I've seen with the man. He managed to make Rush Limbaugh seem not sub-human for a few minutes even while confronting the man's arrogance head-on and not giving Rush an opening to pull his usual bulldog replies when challenged. Even when the guest on Raw Nerve is someone you might not usually find interesting, the conversation is worth 22 minutes of attention.

So you have to salute the man. The man's starting his ninth decade and he's keeping busier than most guys half his age. Most actors are lucky to get one iconic role in their careers. Shatner's had at least three: Captain James T. Kirk, Denny Crane... and William Shatner.

What's your favorite Shatner?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reader question - Keeping characters straight

Francy wrote in a while back with this question:

I have a mostly technical screenwriting question that I've been pondering for a while. Hopefully you can help.

I've had non-writer friends read my scripts for feedback and, from time to time, I'll get feedback like: "I was confused by all the characters".

Now, I don't think my script has any more characters than similar scripts in the genre, so I believe that the issue lies either in the way I'm introducing and describing the characters, the fact that I'm getting my feedback from folks who've never scripts, or a mixture of both.

My specific question is: Is it beneficial or detrimental to offer "reminders" throughout the first act or so, to help the reader along. For example, after we've already met Jennifer's boyfriend Steve once, I would do this to the next scene in which he appears:
"Steve gets out of bed." would turn into:
"Steve, Jennifer's boyfriend, gets out of bed."
This way, the reader says, "Right, Steve is Jennifer's boyfriend ... Got it," and keeps reading.

Is there a more professionally-expected way of accomplishing the same thing?

Any advice beyond the scope of my specific question as to how to make sure readers are able to keep the characters straight would be greatly appreciated!

Short answer - it always helps. I saw two such reminders in this vein last week in pro scripts. There's nothing wrong with it, particular if there's been a long gap in appearances.

The key word there is "reminders," though. You don't want the scene description telling us something that the on-screen scene won't, as you can't have the reader end up with information that the viewer won't have. Now, in the case of your example, if Steve's first scene has him getting out of Jennifer's bed, it's a good bet he's her boyfriend, so it's fair to say that in the description. That also would work if we were introduced to Steve earlier in the film as Jennifer's boyfriend, and when he makes his reappearance some time later, you want to make sure we remember who this guy is.

However, if this is Steve's first appearance, and if Jennifer isn't in the bed with him, then that's a little bit of a cheat.

Other tricks: make sure your characters have memorable introductions that helps sum up who they are. If your characters enter the script blandly, they might not register on your readers' radars until they suddenly become active in the story. I see this from time-to-time in slush pile scripts. Writers who have been working a while are generally better at giving their major characters a first scene that let's us know "This guy is important. This other guy probably won't be."

Another trick is to avoid similar names, and be wary of bland names. Never have two characters whose names start with the same letter, especially in an ensemble. There's also a chance that the problem could be that you have too many characters who sound alike or perform similar story functions. See if you can distinguish their dialogue from each other.

I'm guessing you won't find one smoking gun here but rather a series of little problems that all add up to the confusion.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Bitter for 90210 Showrunner" Campaign a success! 90210 invites Bitter to share his "brilliant storytelling!"

My friends, we have done it. My campaign for 90210 showrunner has borne fruit. What began as mere disappointment at the anti-climactic resolution to a season long storyline on 90210 has turned into an invitation to pitch my own work. It's shocking that your humble blogger's voice stood out among the sea of critics who have questioned that storyline at least since its resolution in September, if not its inception a year earlier. Indeed, for all my admonishments of originality in writing, the sentiments I expressed in those posts were nothing that haven't been said by most watchers of the series.

I'm quite moved by the reply I got from @90210Assistant. The job of a showrunner's assistant is not an easy one. Long hours, meager pay. It has all the stress of being a writer in series TV without any of the benefits, and frankly, the respect. That this individual cared enough to reach out to me speaks to the passion he or she has for their job and their fans, and the pride they take in performing it. And so, even if the response had not been to my liking, I would commend them for standing by their work publicly.

If I may, I would like to share that Twitter response with you in full:

You honestly don't even deserve a response, but, as the one who spent four days speaking with the DA, an LA County judge, and numerous defense lawyers, I can assure you that house arrest would be the most severe punishment assigned to an accidental death in a case with a minor. In fact, most experts advised that she would likely get community service and not even house arrest. Maybe you should spend some less time bitter blogging and more time fact checking before you tear apart stories for plausibility....oh, and one more thing...can you send us some of your work? You're such an expert, perhaps you can share samples of your own brilliant storytelling.

Did you see that? They want to see my work! They think I'm brilliant!

Also, this is a huge load off of my mind. Should my 16 year-old cousin accidentally strike someone dead while driving drunk, I no longer need fear she face a stiff prison sentence. No, even in the event that that cousin leaves the scene of an accident and spends a year covering up the crime, she still can go to any college of her choosing. In fact, even if the hit-and-run death was such a big deal so as to make major news in a town so callous to the suffering of the homeless as Beverly Hills, I can rest assured the research backs up that at worst, she'll spend a few months picking up trash from the highway.

I won't lie. It's days like this that I'm proud to be an American.

Friday Free-For-All: Bitter for 90210 showrunner!

Deadline.com yesterday broke the best news since "Advisory: Nikki Finke Out Sick." 90210's show-runner Rebecca Sinclair announced she's stepping down from the series. Reached for comment by this blog, she responded, "Who the hell are you?" but I'm pretty sure she meant to say, "I couldn't possibly do more damage to this show than I've already done."

This means that there's a show-runner vacancy that needs to be filled. Well, breaking literally minutes of speculation, I, The Bitter Script Reader, yesterday used Twitter to officially announce my candidacy for 90210 showrunner.

Some of you might remember that back in September I used the resolution of a season-long storyline on 90210 as an example of television writing at its most inept. (In fairness to 90210, Perfect Couples still had yet to premiere.) The season premiere opened with the revelation that Annie - who killed a man in a hit-and-run and spent entire season trying to cover it up - had at last paid her debt to society. That payment: a summer of house arrest, which Annie assures us was SUCH a drag.

(True, the man she killed was homeless - but I think Annie would have had to have been a racist cop in order for that to get legally bumped down to a misdemeanor in Beverly Hills. Fortunately, this apparently didn't leave any sort of mark on her permanent record, for later in the season when she's suspended from school for three whole days it's treated as a potentially disastrous blow to her college applications.)

So in that blog post I had some strong words for the writers of that show. I implied that I any idiot would have seen the pitfalls of that plot, and said that I would have cared more about the quality of the show than they did, even if I was working for free. Summing up the quality of the writing that made it to air, I said, "Professional writers should be better than that."

You might argue that professional bloggers should know better than to directly insult people they're trying to work for or with, but I would remind you that I'm not paid for this blog and therefore, am absolutely not professional.

I do, however, have experience. In college I ran a student-produced half-hour drama that was not too dissimilar from what you do on 90210. It was no One Tree Hill, but it's certainly at least on par with your "Adrianna steals a dead man's songs" and "Annie sent to bed without supper after shooting a hobo just to watch him die" storylines.

More than that, I'm already a Google-certified expert on 90210's bad writing. If you Google the search terms "90210" and "bad writing," my blog is the first entry that pops up. (NOT a joke - try it yourself.)

Thus, I seek to get what I want the way anyone else does these days - by complaining about it on the internet and launching a massive Twitter campaign to be selected as the new 90210 showrunner. As showrunner, I promise I will not cast any teenager who looks old enough to have his prostate examined. I'll be hard on fake crime too. In my TV-universe, murder would be punishable by more than a summer's worth of house arrest!

I promise not only to reach out to Jennie Garth to return to the show, but I'll even bring back Ian Ziering if that's what it takes!

We need to move past the failed policies of the Rebecca Sinclair era! Support my grass roots effort on Twitter by Tweeting your meesages of endorsement. Use the hashtag "#BitterFor90210." You can also Tweet the CW directly at @CW_Network and demand 90210 gets more Bitter!

You can also reach people connected with the show at: @90210Assistant and @90210PRgirl.

Even if you think I'm an asshole for campaigning for the job so rudely, wouldn't it be worth it to see me have to share a writer's room with people whom I have directly insulted? If you don't want to see me succeed, I'm betting you'll enjoy watching me squirm.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day at Cheers

This is one of my favorite Cheers episodes. I can't explain why, but that guest actor's delivery on the final line of the scene has always cracked me up.



Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Good enough"

This'll be a short one today. I read a truly nasty terrible script this past afternoon and I can't even use this blog to process my outrage because it hits so many topics that I've already ranted about here.

So I think I'll just offer this word of advice - maybe you've got a contact who can get your script into an agency or a production company. You might even have a contact high up in development or even at the agency levels.

All the friends in high places don't do you much good if your writing is shit. A Pass is a Pass. Sure, politics might force that Pass to become a very gentle pass, or even a face-saving lukewarm Consider - but don't count on your connections to save you from your own incompetance.

Don't give someone in power a shitty script just so you can give them A script. And deciding that a script is "good enough" is often an excuse for laziness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Virtual Pitch Fest

Clint sent me this question last week:

I ran across this blog entry about Virtual Pitch Fest and thought it might be fodder for your site.

http://coverageink.blogspot.com/2011/02/virtual-pitch-fest-review_21.html

What is your take? Useful or useless hustle?

I've never participated in a Pitch Fest - virtual or otherwise - so I can't really bring any first-hand experience to this assessment.

My thoughts are that at first glance, it seems a bit pricey to pay all that for a "query" - though the blog writer's request rate and success at landing representation certainly go a long way towards making this look like a decent use of the money.

I'd like a little more information on who specifically at the company is reading these queries - and it would have been interesting to do a comparison on how these responses stacked up against query letters and emails sent to the same people. Does the email query get ignored or sent to the spam folder, while this gets a little more attention because it's specifically flagged as a query? I can't really think of why someone who responds to a VPF query wouldn't respond to a direct letter or email, and that information is certainly easy enough to look up for free.

(I don't think any of the responders would assume that the paid queries are of any higher quality than the cold queries. You might think that someone wouldn't spend $100 putting their work out there unless they and polished it and workshopped it to death, but you would be dead wrong in that assessment.)

But I suspect this is an area where some of my readers might have more experience than I. What say you?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reader question - How far is too far when a writer describes a rape scene?

Last week, Rav left this comment on an old entry of mine about The Last House on the Left remake:

I read somewhere that the director of the last house on the left wanted the viewer to feel as violated as Mari and that is why the scene seemed to take FOREVER. (some things cannot be unwatched)

My question is not about the movie per se but a general writing question... in your opinion how far is too far when a writer describes a rape scene?

In my story the main character is explaining her past and a rape that happened to her when she was a teenager. Are there actual laws against writing about minors(shes 14 in the backstory)? I am not doing it for shock value, or for entertainment (because it is far from entertaining) but to explain things the main character does in present day.

I am a big fan of Poppy Z Brite and want to push the "taboo" envelope but I do not want to lose my audience or break any laws.. I want them to feel as violated mentally as my character did physically. if that makes sense. What is your opinion on this?

This is going to be a hot button topic, and I think what you'll have to accept at first is that you WILL offend some people who read the script. Rape is a loaded subject, and I'm sure there are rape scenes that have been both defended as artful by some, and labeled exploitative trash by others.

To my knowledge there isn't any law about writing about minors being raped. The fact that many, many episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit have featured teenage rape victims would seem to back that assumption up. However, I would suggest discretion when writing a scene like that with an underage character. Characters in their late teens will probably be played by someone in their twenties, but if your lead was nine when she was raped, you're really playing with fire. A rape scene with a VERY young character is just begging for walk-outs. Beyond that, do you really want to be responsible for putting a pre-teen actress through the ordeal of performing such a scene?

I'd suggest renting A Time to Kill and taking note of how powerful the rape scene (and the subsequent description of it in closing arguments) is without being graphic at all. We see it in quick flashes from the point of view of the victim. Thus, we get what's going on, without having to be subjected to seeing a little girl actually manhandled by an adult male.

I'm glad you're not doing it for shock value. That's the fastest way to alienate an audience. If it's integral to the character and the story (as in Last House, or The Accused, to cite another example) it's a lot easier to endure that brutality as an audience member.)

Then, in writing the scene don't you DARE attempt to make the scene itself titillating. I've read too many rape scenes where you can practically feel the writer leering as he has his avatar ripping the clothes off of the nubile female lead. Nothing makes me hate a writer faster than the sense that he was typing his rape scene with one hand, if you follow me.

You admit that you want to push the envelope and make the audience feel violated mentally. That seems like a recipe for some negative blowback on that scene. The violence and the violation are bound to make some viewers uncomfortable, and often they'll process that reaction as "I hate this." Is it necessary to go that far? What are you getting out of this that you aren't getting by being suggestive rather than explicit?

If you're doing it JUST to push the envelope, then I have a hard time seeing the distinction between that and doing it for shock value. What's the purpose in violating the audience? Is the rest of the film constructed in a way that makes use of that? In Last House, the ugliness of that scene seems to be there to cement in the audience the desire to see Krug and his crew meet some nasty ends. It's to put us in the shoes of the parents in the film - to make us want vengeance as bad as they do.

When I've had to write a scene like this in my own specs, I've always made myself justify the very existence of that story beat. In every instance, if I determine the act is absolutely integral I've also found that the less graphic the scene is, the better it works for what I'm trying to do. I err on the side of caution - usually making it clear what's about to happen, then drawing out the tension as long as possible before the act. Then I either cut away just before the act, or find some way to pull the audience's focus off of the actual characters. The sounds of the act might be on screen, but the visual is kept just out of camera range. That not only prevents the reader from thinking I found this titilating - but it prevents the more perverted members of the audience from getting any such thrill from it either.

(And believe me, there are sick minds out there. When I posted that Last House entry over a year ago, there was quite a while where I saw Google searches of "Sara Paxton rape scene" were leading people to my blog.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Billy Joel - Live at Shea Stadium

This week saw the release of a new Billy Joel live album/DVD, Live at Shea Stadium. Back in 2008, Billy played two shows as the final performance ever at the stadium, which was built in 1964. It's first concert was a year later - an historic live performance from The Beatles.

If you at all have an interest in Billy Joel, the history of Shea Stadium, or the Mets, you MUST check out "Last Play at Shea." It's a documentary that uses Billy's final show as a framing device to tell the story of Shea Stadium, focusing not just on the musical acts that have played there, but some of the most notable Mets moments. Along the way, the documentary finds time to trace Billy Joel's life and career - compressing all of this into 90 minutes that are remarkably fluid and fast-moving.

Appropriately, Billy had several special guests at his final show, and he saved the best for last. It wouldn't have been right to give the stadium a send-off without Paul McCartney. The documentary details how at first Paul's participation seemed impossible. He was flying to America that evening, but his schedule wouldn't have him on the ground in time to make it to the stadium before the close of the show... until they found a friendly air traffic controller who cleared air space for Paul's flight to arrive early, and then arranged to have him swept through customs.

No one at the show knew Paul was coming and so this performance below came as a surprise to everyone.



And as a special bonus, another Billy Joel duet. This is from a show he did in Japan with Elton John. Elton chose some special wardrobe for this song to pay tribute to one of Tokyo's most famous residents.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Job Watch - Week #1 - Are there any writers' assistant or development gigs out there?

Another interactive post this week, dear reader, but first a preamble.

From time to time, I get emails from readers wanting to know how they can get my job, and for a while, my answer has been the same - "You don't want it." Allow me to explain. I'm currently working freelance for two (well, technically three, but the third one rarely has need of me) companies. Freelance means that I'm not on salary. I get paid per script. For several years, this was a fairly agreeable arrangement, as the work flow was heavy and constant.

A while back, that flow started to recede. It was a combination of having perhaps a few too many freelance readers dividing up the work and also a desire to cut costs. Think of it this way: in a recession, everyone is looking to save money. So when you're looking at a pile of 30 or so scripts that need to be read over the weekend, are you going to pay just under $2000 to have your outside readers cover them, or will you just make the company's assistants - who are already on salary - divvy them up and handle the reading themselves?

So to make a long story less long, I'm looking to move on from my current gigs. There's no acrimony between me and the people there, so don't think that me publicly posting my active job-seeking is in any way me pulling a "Katherine Heigl." I've enjoyed working for these companies and I'm sure that whenever it comes time for us to part ways, it will be amicable.

Right now, we're in the midst of pilot season. Shows are being cast and shot, and it won't be too long before some series learn of early pick-ups and will be staffing for next season. This is a call aimed largely at those people who already have jobs on those shows. I'm aggressively looking for a job as a writer's assistant - or even a writers' PA if that's what it takes to get my foot in the door on a show.

Most of the time, you won't find many of those jobs posted on the UTA list and other accessible job boards because the call often goes out internally to fill those positions. People hear about openings and let their friends know. Agency assistants are told about job postings and tip off their friends. I know I have a lot of people on that level who read this blog. So if you're a fan of my writing and think I'm the sort of personality who'd fit well on your support staff, please contact me.

Like the side of the blog says, I've read for agencies and production companies. I've worked in development and have a fair amount of experience in the industry. Honestly, I'm keeping my eyes open for development openings too, as I'm aware my resume is pretty tailored to that position.

So if you've got any openings, please drop me a line at ZuulTheReader@gmail.com. We'll chat and I'll give you my resume, no obligation. I've got plenty of good references too if you're not willing to take my word for it.

I'm not badgering for a job so much as I'm putting myself out there for the interview. TV and Development folk, you've got nothing to lose by meeting me, save for the few minutes it takes to completely size up someone's worth in a job interview. I've probably spent more time composing this post than you'll have to spend interviewing me.

And don't think that' it's lowering yourself to interview a blogger. I bathe, comb my hair, and am professional enough that I'd dare you to look in your reception area and identify which waiting interviewee is the embittered screenwriting blogger. I might not look like Harrison Ford, but I definitely don't look like Harry Knowles either. (Curious about what I do look like? Only one way to find out... call me in for an interview.)

Not only do I know when to talk, I also know when to shut up. Like now. I've made my case - hopefully I'll hear from some of you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reader question - writing musicals

Jordan wrote in with a question that I'm honestly surprised I haven't gotten more often:

While I understand the conventional wisdom to not include songs in specs, what about when it is the driving force of the story (like a musical)? Would it also be bad for the writer to go out of their way to commission original music for the show or musical if they aren't well versed in song writing? Are these two genres the exception to the rule or is it better to have a track record before writing a music-driven show like Glee or a musical?


As far as most people reading this blog are concerned, it's a bad idea to write a musical. It's really, really hard concept to sell on spec. I'm mildly shocked that the success of Glee hasn't provoked a few more movie musicals, but I think a big part of Glee's success comes from the fact that it uses popular music that everyone is familiar with (be they classics or current Top 40 hits.)

As far as if it's a bad idea to commission original music for your own script if you don't know songwriting, in theory, there's nothing bad about it. There are plenty of musicals - either Disney films or Broadway shows - where the writer of the "book" is completely different from the song composer. But then... those are rarely written on spec. If I was to embark on such a project, I'd want to be sure that the song composer I was working with was someone I had a good working relationship with, and who shared my vision of the script. You should take it as seriously as if you were hiring a co-writer... because you are.

In practical terms, I'd say you need a track record before creating something like Glee. Musical shows have murderous production schedules and no network would be crazy enough to put an untried show-runner on a project like that.

In my long time as a script reader, I've read precisely ONE musical script. And unfortunately, the writer didn't see fit to include a CD with his original music score so I was stuck trying to imagine the melody from the lyrics. Suffice to say, the script didn't get a "Consider."

The only way I could see a musical getting you any traction as a newcomer is if you went out and shot it yourself. I remember a few years ago there was a short film called "Zombie Love," a musical with zombies. It did well at a few festivals, but I don't know if it opened any doors for the writer or director.

So if you're asking me if writing a musical is worth your time right now, my answer would probably be "no."

PS: I can't believe some people call you BitterScriptWriter. I guess they have become so bitter about reading they take it out on you. ;)

Yeah, seriously people... it's not that hard. My names right at the top of my blog and on the Twitter account.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Kick in the ass

Right now I'm staring at two fairly solid treatments for feature films I have yet to write. I have spent a fair amount of time refining them and working on them because like any real writer, I procrastinate actually writing the script until the last possible moment.

I have decided that I'm going to force myself to write at least five pages a day until I finish the first draft of one of them. In the past, this has proven successful, as I'll usually get on a roll, finish the first act in two days, sew up the second act within a week, and then take five days or so to get the third act done.

That's when I'm writing consistently. When my schedule is broken up by work and other obligations, I find it difficult to get the momentum going and the full process takes a bit longer.

So what's your method for kicking yourself in the ass?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reader Question - Dialogue differentiation

Max has a question about dialogue:

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on differentiating dialogue between characters. As a new screenwriter, I don't mind trying to distinguish the "voice" of characters who have very different backgrounds, but I struggle on this issue when the characters are similar to each other. Obviously differentiation just for the sake of differentiation would be a bigger debacle, but in the good scripts you've read, how do they handle this?

I think giving them contrasting points of view helps. Ideally there'll be some conflict in the scene and that will be how you find a way to differentiate the two. The more developed your characters are as people, the more different their dialogue will naturally sound.

Take a look at Seinfeld. George and Jerry are close friends. They grew up together, they share a lot of the same interests and they're both vaguely Jewish. What makes their dialogue different? Attitude. Jerry is far more likely to toss off some dry insult or throwaway snide comment. Told of George's latest antics while working for the Yankees, Jerry says, "That's a helluva an organization they're running over there. I can't imagine why they haven't won a pennant in years." Can you see the same line of dialogue coming out of George's mouth?

How would George express frustration or contempt for that situation? He'd probably just say: "Can you believe this? No WONDER they can't win a pennant!"

Both Jerry and George often say exactly what they think. The difference is that Jerry masks his feelings with sarcasm, where as George will either lay it out there or lie outright in the furtherance of some larger scheme.

Another good example - The Vampire Diaries. Stefan and Damon are both vampires, they both hail from the same era, and to a large extant you could argue they both love Elena in their own way. However, despite the similar backgrounds, they are completely different people. Stefan is more internal and thoughtful. He chooses his words more carefully and rarely goes on the attack in a conversation, save for talking to his brother. Damon, on the other hand, is all about throwing verbal daggers. On top of that, he tries very hard to make it appear that he doesn't give a rat's ass about whatever's being discussed, even when it's clear he does.

Good dialogue comes from point of view, and THAT comes from character. Work that out and you should be fine.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writing samples

I'm sure there's a stage of Screenwriter Denial that is called, "It's still useful as a writing sample, right?"

That's pretty much the knee-jerk question I'm asked after I tell a writer that their spec isn't commercially viable. Sometimes its because they wrote a drama and nobody's buying dramas. Sometimes it's because they asked me to read an expensive period piece all about Elizabethan furniture movers, and sometimes, it's like last week, when I explained that if another writer has beaten you to the punch on the concept, the script is pretty much dead.

"Sorry man, but your comedy about two guys whose wives give them a week off from the marriage isn't going to sell because Hall Pass just came out. It's WAY too close to it in concept and execution."

-"But it's still usable as a writing sample, right?"

I wrote this response up as a comment last week, but I decided to post it here in the interests of getting more eyes on it and also so that I've got a quick-and-easy post to point similar questioners to in the future. I could have sworn I've addressed "writing samples" somewhere on this blog, before though.

In short, I think writers are a little to quick to grasp that "writing sample" thread when trying to salvage their work.

Best case scenario - You submit an idea that's been done before. The reader gives you the benefit of the doubt and says it shows promise. If your sample is really close to the already-sold or released film, that's a huge benefit of the doubt, because he's taking you at your word that you came up with this material completely independent of the other project and didn't just rip it off. I once saw a writer who ripped off Jurassic Park shamelessly and another writer try to sneak in a Star Wars rip-off as if no one would notice. For a guy like me to take you at your word that this was an original idea of yours is an incredibly lucky break.

Now, since the reader's boss can't do anything with this spec, they ask you to submit something else. They read your second script, love it, decide it can be a movie and sign you.

Worst case scenario - They read your "writing sample", decide you're a hack and the door slams shut. You don't get to move forward with the second script because if a guy like me hated one of your scripts, he's not going to be welcoming to a second one.

Thus, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by leading with this "writing sample" script because it's still your "real" spec that will made the final decision for them.

I've always been told "agents are looking for something they can sell." The one time I can think that the writing sample might help you is if it proves you're not a "one hit wonder." If you hit them with one awesome and marketable spec, and they want to see what else you've written just to size you up, THEN the writing sample might bail you out.

In the other instances, such as the period drama set in the 1600s, my feeling is that the script isn't going to be very helpful as a writing sample. What good is it to have a strong sample in a particular genre if that genre is more or less radioactive? Sure, you can write all about the Pilgrims, but how does that show you can write a modern day action-film set in contemporary New York?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Appreciate your teachers... someone has to!

Normally I save these editorials for the Friday Free-For-All, but hits to the site are usually less on Friday no matter what I post, and I've got something I really want to say about some ongoing news...

For just under two weeks, Wisconsin has been the sight of a heated battleground, as Republican Governor Scott Walker has introduced a budget plan to take away most collective bargaining rights from public workers - including teachers. This also calls for deep cuts for schools and local governments to help close a budget shortfall.

This article shows the public divide over the issue:

A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found 42 percent of adults surveyed nationwide sided with the unions and 31 percent sided with Walker in their dispute. That poll of 1,009 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The latest New York Times-CBS poll found Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of almost two to one — 60 percent to 33 percent. The nationwide telephone poll of 984 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.


Yet the GOP shills at Fox Opinion have been working overtime trying to spread anti-teacher sentiments. I don't have the strength to transcribe these horrible, horrible statements, so please indulge me by watching at least just the beginning of this video embedded below.

NOTE: This linked to the wrong video thanks to a bug on the Daily Show site. It has been fixed now.



It takes incredible nerve to attack teachers, calling them either overpaid, underworked or undermotivated. In particular, I take exception to that gasbag who acted as if the moment the school bell rings at 3:00, teachers take the rest of the day off. Many teachers are up as early as 5am, several of them serve as coaches or advisers to school teams. And as the child of a woman who has worked in education for over 30 years, I can tell you that the work doesn't stop at "Class dismissed."

When I was growing up there was many a night when my mother returned home at 5:00 or later and spent much of the evening dealing with school matters - be they paper work, phone calls, frequent evening meetings. I'm sure she would have loved to get one of these cushy jobs where you're out the door at 3 and school is out of sight, out of mind until the alarm the next morning - but they don't exist. Nor do they usually get three full months off.

Teaching is one of the last noble professions. It might be the last truly noble profession. They're expected to be parent, disciplinarian, traffic cop, therapist, prison guard, and if they find a few extra seconds... educator. These are the people you entrust to shape your children's minds and prepare them for the best colleges. They have their attention for at least seven hours a day, and you have the gonads to complain that $48,000 a year is overpaid?!

Their jobs have only gotten harder over the years. Budget cuts have increased class sizes while resources like textbooks and computers have gone out of date. Not that the up-to-date books are any help, as your colleagues in the Texas educational system have done what they can to rewrite history. Among the falsehoods they sought to propagate, the notion that Senator Joe McCarthy was a hero. That man's name deserves no decoration beyond spit accompanying its every mention. If ever a politician deserved to be stoned on the Capital Mall, it was Joe McCarthy. To glorify not only his actions, but his methods as well, is nothing less than evil.

(What exactly do people like you have against education, Governor?)

How do I know this history? Because I had many good teachers over the years, people who made a profound difference in the course of my life.

There was the 4th grade teacher who first stoked my interest in creative writing. At least once every three or four weeks she'd make us do a creative writing assignment. She even had me enter mine in a national writing contest - in which I was one of 104 winners. I'd never even thought about writing as a career or even a hobby up until that point.

There was the sixth grade teacher who guided me through a science fair project and helped me realize I was fascinated by behavioral sciences. On top of that, he was responsible for my learning valuable research and presentation skills - and he later encouraged me in leadership roles, seeing that I had an aptitude for it.

There was the ninth grade English teacher who reignited my passion for writing, taking my creative writing to the next level. He also gave me a solid foundation for my analytical writing, and he really cared about pushing me to do my best, even when it didn't take "my best" to earn an A.

There was the history teacher who got me involved in Mock Court and again taught me about writing and presenting from an impassioned point of view. With him as my mentor, I not only participated in a program where I spent two summers working in a law firm, but I was on a local area commission as a student trustee.

Another English/History teacher had a wry sense of humor and a slightly rebellious spirit that helped teach me to stop taking myself so goddamned seriously.

I had a Calculus teacher whose enthusiasm for teaching and love of her students made my hardest class a genuine pleasure to attend each day. She made a difficult subject entertaining and accessible - a task who's remarkableness was evident when she was replaced by a substitute for two weeks and the subject became instantly incomprehensible to all in the class. A Spanish teacher of mine possessed many of the same qualities.

And then there was the History teacher who gave 25 years of service to his country in the military, and was determined to give another 25 years as a teacher. He died in the 24th year of that pursuit, after a battle with cancer that lasted just under two years. His tenure in the classroom, however, expired a mere four months before he left us.

That's right - for over a year this man came to work every single day, dying and weak - not just from the disease that would take his life but from the treatments designed to stave off that inevitability. I remember him as an honorable man who went the extra mile. My favorite activity was that every day, he'd pull a few students up to the front of the room to take turns on "Impromptus" - sort of a verbal editorial designed to teach us both public speaking and applied thinking. You had to think on your feet, you had to make an argument, and you had to be persuasive.

The teachers I have known are overwhelmingly in the company of these good people. I'm proud to have thought of many of them as friends. For you to disparage the hard work of them and their brethren, Mr. Walker, makes me furious beyond belief. They are not lazy and they didn't spend their careers watching a clock and lazily collecting a paycheck. They took their jobs seriously.

I'm tempted to say three words, Mr. Walker. Three words that would invite you to an intimate encounter with yourself. And frankly, the only thing that stops me is that I know that if I was giving this as an Impromptu, that teacher would be disappointed that I stooped to that level. Not just because of the profanity, but because the positions held by you and those who stand with you are so obviously odious and repugnant, it would be beneath me to stoop so low to make that point.

Instead, I pity you, Mr. Walker. In 13 years of grade school education, I can count on less than one hand all of the unremarkable teachers I had. These "bad apple" teachers are few and far between, though you and your ilk speak of them as if they are rampant. I attended public school, and the majority of my day was with the most noble teachers one could hope to know. If you honestly never had such a teacher who made a difference, who saw potential in you that you didn't yet realize yourself, than you have truly missed out.

If we are to judge all teachers based on the mere presence of a few bad apples, then it would only be fair to judge you, Governor, by your peers. So tell me, how are you different from Rod Blagojevich and hooker-patronizing Eliot Spitzer? I'll tell you the difference - when Spitzer screwed someone, at least they got paid!

I can't believe that in your whole education tenure, Governor, you never had a teacher who cared about his or her job, sacrificed weekends and evenings in the service of your education, and who took a personal interest in you. And if such a person exists, I hope that they are ashamed of what you've become. To disparage them and take away their rights to bargain for fair pay for a difficult job is an act of ignorance so profound that I don't envy you your next parent-teacher conference.

See Scotty, the problem with you - heck, the problem with your whole party - is that you've turned into bullies. Even after the teachers concede to the budget cuts you remain determined to bring them to their knees on collective bargaining, for no better reason than sheer obstinacy.

But if there's one group of professionals that deals with bullies on a daily basis, it's teachers.

To my readers, if you get a chance today, try to reach out to some of those teachers you knew who made a difference. Or at least, reflect on those educators who put you on the path to success. When you see them, thank them because there will come a day when you won't have that opportunity.

And if you have time, tell me about your favorite teachers in the comments below.