Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joe Webb on "Books" - from pilot to webseries

Yesterday we talked to director Tyler Gillett about his work on the webseries Books.  Writer Joe Webb was also kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the project.

Are more episodes planned?

We hope so; but, probably not in the current webisode format. The scope of Books is so damn big, and the execution was so complex, that it's hard to justify the cost per episode without better distribution. So, realistically, if we're gonna have a life after this, it'll be as a half-hour show - but that's not at all out of the realm of possibility. The current plan is to shop the project to Hulu, smaller cable outlets like IFC, and potentially even a few Canadian networks (Fremantle's had success there before) in the spring of 2012, and to shoot for deficit financing in the 150-200 range per ep for six episodes. If that happens, we've got a Season One story arc ready to rock.

From the start, did you shoot this as a half-hour pilot or as a web-series? 

A little of both, which made writing the script a painstakingly long process. The awesome part about digital production is that it's like the Wild West, and if you're aggressive and ambitious, you can make something that looks like, I don't know, Shameless, with a low-five figure budget if you don't have to pay people to work. So we decided early on that our primary goal was to make a Showtime-like pilot, that we could then take out and sell (and it would hopefully be a product that would also, indirectly, sell ourselves).

But...we also had a responsibility to Fremantle to try to make it playable as a web-series, since they kicked in some money for the rights to distribute it via their small internet TV portal. To what extent we succeeded I'm still not sure. We feel like it plays great in sequence, and we've pieced it back together into it's full pilot form for sales purposes and a few big TV festivals in 2012; but I don't think a random viewer could stumble upon one of the middle chapters in the web format and have much idea what's going on.

You mentioned Fremantle covered some of the costs.  How did you fund the whole thing? 

At the end of the day, we ended up splitting the cost about 50/50 with FremantleMedia. So like 3 seconds of one Ford advertisement from American Idol were devoted to paying half our production budget. The other half came from months of Tyler shooting extra NatGeo stuff at his day rate and me teaching kids how to get into business school.

Do you have any future projects on the horizon? 

We just talked about getting the whole team back together to shoot something logistically simpler this spring while we figure out the future of Books (it'll be My Dinner with Andre, featuring Josh Beren and Peter Douglas), but we're also both working on other things. This fall, Tyler directed a horror-anthology that got into Sundance and a cool new digital show with Chad, Matt, & Baron Davis. I'm pitching in early January on a couple features and have 2 TV projects in development for the 2012 pitch season.

That being said, there's that old business adage about it being 10 times easier to keep an existing client than to attract a new one; and, somehow, I think that applies as a parallel to Books. So much of the groundwork has already been laid on the show, and I've spent so much of the last year living it day in and day out, that if I got the opportunity to continue working on it, I'd jump at it, even if the money proved barely enough to cover the monthly bills.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tyler Gillett on "Books" - from TV pilot to webseries

Some of you might remember Tyler Gillett from my interview with Chad, Matt & Rob.  The team formerly known as CMR has recently become Radio Silence.  Their first project under the new moniker was a segment of the Bloody Disgusting anthology film "V/H/S." The movie, Bloody Disgusting's first, will be screening out of competition next year at Sundance as part of their Midnight Movies program.  The film's already been given some good press, in articles like this one and this one, and I'm hoping to get all of Radio Silence to sit down for an interview in the very near future.

In the meantime, I caught up with Tyler to discuss another recent project of his, Books.  Tyler directed this pilot-turned-webseries produced by Fremantle Media.  With webseries being produced with increasingly higher production values, I thought it would be good to take a look at how Books traveled from script to screen.

Tyler, on how he became attached to the project:

I was approached by Fremantle Media who, when I started collaborating with them, had just started soliciting original scripts from writers. I was busy with some other projects and wasn't able to really dive into the writing process myself but was anxious to develop something with them - when I asked if they had anything they were interested in creating that was already penned, they gave me a copy of Joe's story bible for Books. I loved it. It was tight, full of character, had a dark sense of humor, and was really a departure, at least how I viewed it stylistically, from a lot of the web content that I had worked on in the past. It really read to me like a serialized TV show - a mashup of Californication and Breaking Bad. 

When Joe and I first met up to talk more about what the scripts would feel like, the conventional cinematic/tv style is something we both instantly agreed on. We knew producing the show with this style instead of what is commonly seen on the web might get us in to trouble as far as view count goes but the end game for Joe and I and for Books has always been TV. The model that Fremantle approached us with was "make a show that looks and feels ready for TV." To us, that meant we were being tasked with making some very specific and polished aesthetic choices and high concept character/story choices. 

On repurposing the show into a webseries:

The first edit of the project was actually strung out into one long 33 minute episode - our "pilot" - that was then parsed down into smaller, more digestible web-friendly pieces. Breaking it up was a hard choice to make - it felt like we were betraying the style the show was produced in and I still think that what we created works better as a single piece of media. The cliffhangers that punctuate the end of each of the 6 episodes don't quite resonate with the right tone because, with this type of show, it's hard to get an audience to invest enough in the characters in such a short amount of time for those stakes to really feel significant. The significance of the Frost brothers' predicament lands more squarely when the show is played out in one long episode.

Tomorrow: We hear from the writer of Books, Joe Webb.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Happy Festivus!

It's December 23rd, which means it's Festivus, created by Frank Costanza.

Seinfeld writer Dan O'Keefe based the Costanza version of Festivus on a holiday his father invented.  As depicted in Seinfeld, the holiday begins with the display of an aluminum pole.  Then come the Feats of Strength, and most importantly, the Airing of Grievances.  During this ceremony, you are to gather your family around and tell them the ways in which they have disappointed you in the last year.

For more about Festivus, go here.

And please feel welcome to participate in the Airing of Grievances in the comment section.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday Throwback: Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Three

This post first appeared on Thursday, April 16, 2009.

This week's cliche alert is a public service to every writer who thinks they're being clever when they stage a dramatic gunpoint confrontation between their protagonist and their antagonist. One of the most overused tropes plays out as follows:

Two combatants, one gun. Usually one character draws and the other one lunges at them, setting off the attack.

A brief hand-to-hand struggle ensues. The characters wrestle, each one trying to get the upper hand and the gun.

Two shot. The characters inevitably end up framed in a profile shot towards the climax of this fight.

BANG! The gun goes off. Both men look shocked.

DRAMATIC PAUSE. OMG?!!!! Who took the bullet?

Fake out. the hero seems to wince.

Victory. the bad guy falls down dead. The hero breathes a sigh of relief.

At that point, I groan and roll my eyes at the hundredth use of this cliche, wondering how anyone found it original to begin with. Take note, it's no longer clever to use the dramatic device of the gun going off with the actual victim being unclear initially.

An alternate version of the same trope has the bad guy getting the draw on the good guy and just about to pull the trigger. If this happens with the bad guy moving closer to the foreground, thus blocking out a decent section of the background, get ready. It means that the hero is about to be saved when his buddy (who will be revealed when the villain falls down) gets off a fatal shot from behind the bad guy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Guest Post: Alan Trustman on MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

After his first guest post, I gave BULLITT screenwriter Alan Trustman an open invitation to submit a guest blog post whenever the mood struck.  Much to my delight, it didn't take Alan long to capitalize on that open door with a piece on his feelings about the Oscar prospects for MY WEEK WITH MARILYN.

As always, the views expressed by Mr. Trustman are Mr. Trustman's views.

Once upon a time the Academy members were largely old timers who knew the business inside out, including the selection process and the campaigning and credit games, and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN would have won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The recent influx of leftists, revolutionaries and gays have made such predictions impossible but the movie is, unquestionably, one of this year’s greatest even if it never does the business it should.

Michelle Williams has captured Marilyn exactly, uncannily,—I say, having met Marilyn once for an hour plus when my Boston law office represented the seller of the Connecticut house to her and Miller,—a sweet, loveable, friendly, funny, frail, tormented, exploited, drugged and doomed little girl.

The movie is also, unintentionally, one of the truly great Hollywood movies in the sense that is demonstrates, almost clinically, how the industry powers have controlled one great beauty after another with pills and a never-ending diet of power-hungry studio executives, vicious celebrities, empty and self-loathing super-rich, and solipsistic studs. If any girl you know is dreaming of Hollywood stardom, take her to see MY WEEK WITH MARILYN twice.

Missing from the movie also is the greatest Monroe tragedy, the fact she spent her entire life longing for a man who truly loved her for what she really was underneath it all, and when she finally found that man, it didn’t work. Is it true that DiMaggio barred from the funeral any Kennedy or anyone from the rat pack?

HUGO is delicious although much too long. My French god-son, mon fileul, looked a lot like Asa Butterfield was he was young. His name is also Hugo.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Most pleasant surprise of the film year

As we wind down the year, we'll be hit with an endless parade of "Best and Worst of 2011."  In the interests of standing out from the flock, how about we discuss which films were our most pleasant surprises this year?  Were there any films that really surprised you by surpassing your expectations?

My pick would probably be Bridesmaids.  As the advance press began for this one, I was expecting to loathe it.  Not only had constant reuse of her weakest characters on SNL gone a long way towards wearing out Kristin Wiig's welcome with me, but it had an amazingly unfunny trailer.  The "grassroots" support for the film didn't take long to prime me for a backlash either.  I get there were noble intentions behind it, but the "See Bridesmaids to support female talent" was a really, deeply obnoxious campaign.  How about "See Bridesmaids because it's funny?"  Or "See Bridesmaids because it's original?"

The fact that the main creatives had vaginas meant squat to me as a viewer.  The way that campaign was framed, it was as if the quality of the product was secondary to the gender of its makers.  It's also the kind of thinking that promotes support for sub-par work.  Anyone who went to something like What's Your Number? only out of a misguided obligation to feminism deserved to lose $15 and two hours of their life.

So with all of this in mind, I went to see Bridesmaids with the lingering expectation that I'd walk out unsatisfied, but with enough material to fill a column or two on this blog.  Much to my surprise, I enjoyed most of it.  I didn't love every minute of it - the bridal shop scene had me saying a silent prayer that this would be the film's only foray into gross-out humor.  There are also a few scenes that fell victim to "improv-itis," where you're painfully aware that the actors are riffing and driving the scene in circles so that they can cram in as many punchlines to the same set-up as possible.  (I should probably call it "The Vince Vaughn Rule.")

Still, I though Kristin Wiig reminded me of what I liked about her when she first joined SNL and in smaller parts in movies like Knocked Up.  The supporting cast was strong, but most of all, the script understood its characters.  It's so rare to see a character-driven script done right - particularly in a movie that's so broad in its humor, and filled with actors who seem primed to steal a scene at the slightest opportunity.

I'm glad Bridesmaids did so well, but most of all, I'm glad that it was riding on a generally strong script and strong characters.

So what was your pleasant surprise?

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Golf Ball" - building to a Seinfeld-like payoff

While getting notes on a pilot script last week, my friends coined a new term I'm going to do my best to get into the screenwriting lexicon: "The Golf Ball."

Basically, this came about because one of the members of my writing group expressed disappointment that my story lacked the complexity of, say, a strong Larry David-developed episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  He said I had several plot lines set up over the course of the script and he was expecting them all to collide in the end for maximum comic effect.  Most of all, he pointed out one element in particular that had been established in an earlier scene, then neglected when it came time to fashion the climax.

"Give us 'the golf ball,'" said another member of the group.  It's a measure of how in sync we are that I knew EXACTLY what he was referring to.  In a classic episode of Seinfeld called "The Marine Biologist," an early scene reveals Kramer's plans for the day.  He's bought a bunch of new Titleist golf balls and he invites Jerry and George to drive out to the beach with him "and hit 'em into the ocean!"  The others decline, but Kramer follows through on his plan.

Later in the same episode, George gets embroiled in a lie where he's trying to pass himself off as a marine biologist to a woman he's attempting to date.  It's his bad luck that he takes her for a walk on the beach just as whale in distress is discovered.  As George and the woman happen upon the scene, one bystander cries out, "Is anyone here a marine biologist?"

Wonderful, now George has to either save the whale (which he has no idea how to do) or blow the lid on his lie (which he REALLY doesn't want to do.)  He marches towards the water, and then we fade into George sitting at the diner, telling his friends what he did.  It's one of the classic Seinfeld monologues.

George reveals that he was in a position to see that the whale's breathing was being impeded, and so he reached in the blowhole and pulled out the obstruction - a golf ball!  A Titleist, to be precise.  The detail that the audience has all but forgotten about is revived as the punchline and the cause of the climax.  Thus, "The Golf Ball" is my term for the comedic plot device that unites two or more unrelated story threads.

I grant this is similar to an existing screenwriting term: Chekhov's Gun.  If one insists on a distinction between the two, I see The Golf Ball being more of a comedic device.  That, and I'd bet that more aspiring writers these days are likely quite familiar with Seinfeld, while to them, Chekhov is that Russian guy from Star Trek.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thursday Throwback: Including extra materials

This post first appeared on Monday, April 6, 2009.

So you’ve just finished your awesome script and are ready to send it off to an agent. It took several dozen query letters but finally someone requested the script and you just know that once they read it, they’ll be bowled over with your brilliance. However, you happen to have written a sci-fi film with lots of weird-looking aliens and ships, and you want to make sure they visualize everything properly. In that instance, there’s no harm in including a little conceptual art to give the agent something to work from, right?


This falls into the category of one of those seemingly arbitrary no-nos that everyone in the biz knows about, but no one is sure where the rule came from. Including supplementary materials is usually seen as the mistake of an amateur, and as we’ve often discussed, the last thing you want is for your audience to think they’re dealing with an amateur. It gets you off on the wrong foot with your reader.

Now, I’m sure that no one ever got a PASS just because they dared include a few conceptual drawings. I can say that over the years I’ve gotten more than a few scripts with such supplements, and the corollary usually holds that the greater the quantity of the supplements, the worse the quality of the script.

On the other side of the fence, I read an interview with Kate Beckinsale years ago and she said that when her agent sent her the script for Underworld, Len Wiseman’s had included a drawing of the character Selene. Apparently it got her attention and the look of the character helped sell her on the idea of doing the movie.

The worst supplement I ever got with a submission was a 20 minute CD presentation that I was instructed to play on my computer. The notes suggested that I might find it more engaging if I turned off the lights in my room and had a strong speaker set-up, so before I even put the disc in, I was rolling my eyes. Then, it refused to work on either of the two PCs put it into first attempted on, and only ran on my roommate’s MacBook.

What followed was one of the most laughable efforts at self-promotion that I have ever seen. Not only was the music akin to what one might hear in a planetarium, but the narrator’s voice was narcolepsy-inducing. The images themselves were an odd and inconsistent mix of actual photographs taken in space, and draw clip-art that were clearly cobbled from several different sources. Not only did this make for an inconsistent patchwork of art design, but I recognized the sources of many of the drawings. A few seemed to have been taken from technical books inspired by the Star Wars trilogy, while images of other creatures like bears and dragons appeared to have been scanned in from drawings in children’s books.

On top of that, this 22-minute presentation wasn’t just an introduction to the story – it told the whole story! All 140 pages of it. Have you ever listened to someone give a 22 minute verbal description of a screenplay? For most people, five minutes would be testing their limits and a few might check out at three. If it takes this much explaining for someone to understand a story, no one will want to buy it. When it comes time to sell this movie to an audience, the concept will need to be explainable within the time allotted to a movie trailer – three minutes tops.

Then, just to top off the experience, the writer included a timeline of historical events (this film took place in the far future and involved some time travel.) Guess what? The written timeline didn’t match the timeline of the events on the CD.

So in this case, I hadn’t even read one word of the screenplay, hadn’t even turned back the cover page, and I already knew it was going to be bad. That’s not a fun feeling.

Don’t waste your time making these supplements. Most of the time, this material will never be read if it’s submitted to a production company or an agency. Having worked in those places during both internships and paid jobs, this reader can state that the supplementary materials are immediately cast aside 99 times out of a hundred. Furthermore, that remaining 1% of the time, it’s likely that your material will be an annoyance rather than an asset.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's "Fuck you Money?" Matt Damon's GQ profile suggests Tony Gilroy knows

A GQ profile of Matt Damon had some interesting details about the writing of the Bourne movies.  I don't get to focus on the business of screenwriting - at least as it pertains to this kind of work - so I decided to reprint a few paragraphs here.

Writer Tony Gilroy basically wrote the first movie under duress, and he was never happy with the experience for various reasons.  When asked back for the sequels, he made sure the studio made it worth his while.  I'm curious how some of you assess the ethics of what he did, though.

Later, though, Damon will wonder if maybe he has become a little too relaxed. Because suddenly, as we sit on a bench in the afternoon sunshine, he takes a major swing at Gilroy. Damon says that back in 2001, when the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, was still in postproduction, Gilroy saw a rough cut and got worried. "The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey," Damon says. "It's very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it's good. So Tony Gilroy arbitrated against himself to not be the writer with sole credit." 

Typically screenwriters use the Writers Guild's arbitration process when they feel they've been denied credit unfairly. This time, Gilroy wanted to share the credit (and the blame), Damon says, "to have another guy take the bullet with him." And so someone named William Blake Herron is now cashing residual checks on Bourne, just like Gilroy is. (Actually Damon may have gotten his chronology wrong—one source says Herron initiated the credit dispute, but that Gilroy didn't oppose sharing credit.) 

Gilroy wrote Bourne 2 as well: The Bourne Supremacy. Then, Damon says, for The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the franchise, Gilroy struck a deal to write just one draft of the script, take no notes, do no rewrites, and get paid "an exorbitant amount of money." "It's really the studio's fault for putting themselves in that position," Damon says. "I don't blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It's just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay and it would be game over for that dude. It's terrible. It's really embarrassing. He was having a go, basically, and he took his money and left." 

Gilroy's lackluster work left the production in chaos, Damon says. "We had a start date. Like, 'It's coming out August of next year.' We're like, 'Hang on, we've got to figure out what the script is.' " In the end, the shooting script was written under extreme deadline pressure by George Nolfi and Scott Z. Burns, with input from Greengrass, Damon says. And then Gilroy raised another challenge. "Before the movie came out, he arbitrated to get sole credit," Damon says, disgusted. The WGA looked into it and turned Gilroy down. (He shares credit with Nolfi and Burns.) "That was just a little bit of justice, I have to say," Damon says.  

The rest of the profile can be found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: John August's blog comment holiday - bad idea?

I see that over on his site, John August has turned off comments on new posts and has hidden comments on all old posts.  He says he wants to experiment and see if it makes a difference in how the site feels to readers and him.  Already, I feel a difference.  I think one of the great things about the net is the interactions we can have and the discussions that can take place when reasonable people share their insight, knowledge and advice.

Note that I said "reasonable people."  I consider myself pretty lucky that the people who comment here are, by and large, a fairly civil group of people who know how to express themselves maturely.  I've run this blog for nearly three years and only once have I deleted someone's comment.  (And in that case, it was not because of trolling so much as it contained information of a privileged nature that I didn't feel was necessary to post.)  I've not had to censor anyone and on the rare instances that a dickhead or two shows up, they're usually swatted down swiftly.

I understand some other bloggers aren't as fortunate.  I've seen plenty of comments elsewhere that are petty, mean, trolling and go out of their way to be belligerent.  It's nice we don't deal with that here much, and to be honest, it seems rare that August's site gets plagued by those morons either.  I like the conversations that result over on John's site.  To me, it's an asset that there isn't just one point of view and we can see why some people agree or disagree with John.

It's fun for me to watch you guys comment on my posts and either agree with me or challenge the views.  It's even more fun to watch you talk amongst yourselves, spurred on by something I said.  Even when I don't contribute in the comments, it's really satisfying to see some of you discussing and forming your own opinions in reaction to something I've posted.  This is particularly true when I put something up with the intent of getting a reaction and also getting you to look below the surface and perhaps understanding your own reactions to a particular stimulus.

Basically, blogging is a two-way street.  Or at least that's the way I see it.  Does a blogger even exist if there's no tangible audience reacting to them?  Do they continue to thrive, or do they die like an applause-deprived Tinkerbell?  For now, I think it's our loss that we can't contribute to John's blog and interact with other readers there - but not as much as it's John's loss

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gender issues: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?"

I came across this quote from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable.

THR: And what's been your worst experience as a screenwriter?

Sorkin: My very first movie was A Few Good Men, which was an adaptation of my play. There was an executive on the movie who gave me a note: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?" I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.

It almost makes you want to go "Oh snap!" doesn't it?  But this is where having a near-eidetic memory comes in handy because I immediately thought of this line from Roger Ebert's 1991 review of the movie:

Given decades of Hollywood convention, we might reasonably expect romance to blossom between [Cruise and Moore], providing a few gratuitous love scenes before the courtroom finale, but no: They're strictly business - so much so that it seems a little odd that these two good-looking, unmarried young people don't feel any mutual attraction. I have a friend, indeed, who intuits that the Demi Moore character was originally conceived of as a man, and got changed into a woman for Broadway and Hollywood box office reasons, without ever quite being rewritten into a woman.

Granted, this was 1991, but it's a little strange to think a prominent female character not being written as a sex object was seen as so odd.  That was the same year of Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, one of the strongest female characters of that decade.  Perhaps one would argue that the sexism she faces is specific enough to her gender that it "justifies" making her a woman.

But it's strange because I've never thought of movie characters in those terms.  This is partially because so many of the scripts I read seem to go overboard in making the women into sex objects.  And yet, as I try to come up with a recent film where the lead female character's gender was completely irrelevant to anything else in the script, I seem to be coming up empty.  Oddly enough, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character in The Thing prequel is the only one in recent history that seems to pass that test, at least that I can come up with.

So here's a New Year's resolution for all of you - write a strong female character who's arc doesn't depend on who she's sleeping with, or anything centric to any gender issues.

(Not that writing characters with experiences that are uniquely female is a bad thing, but it would be nice to break the stigma of "Why didn't the lead female sleep with the lead male?")

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Max Weinberg's Greatest Hits

This has long been one of my favorite Conan sketches and I recently found it on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Guest post: BULLITT's Alan Trustman on DRIVE and the potential for Ryan Gosling to be the next McQueen

Over the last few weeks I've been corresponding with BULLITT screenwriter Alan Trustman and in one of his emails, he asked me who I thought the modern day Steve McQueen was.  I mused over the question a bit and even asked some of my friends who they thought measured up.  We had a few candidates, with the best one being Ryan Gosling.

I reported this back to Alan, who mentioned he had several screeners to choose from and that he'd move one featuring Gosling to the top of his list.  Soon enough, Alan sent me the following email with his thoughts on DRIVE and Ryan Gosling's potential to be the next McQueen.  With his permission, I'm reprinting it here.

I loved DRIVE’s trips down my memory lane. 

In BULLITT, we were pushing mass audience taste by blasting two victims with a sawed-off shotgun onscreen, which we didn’t think anyone had ever done before. DRIVE pushes that limit to the edge and beyond with its deliberate onscreen savage butchery. Fortunately we were watching the DRIVE Academy screener so when my wife felt sick, she up and left. 

Question: Will the audience segment with that sort of taste require it of Gosling movies in the future? Will they be disappointed if it isn’t there? And if it is there, what will it do to Gosling’s appeal? 

We thought our BULLITT car chase would be the car chase to end all such chases. Peter Yates bettered his ROBBERY camera-on-the-following-bumper shots, the San Francisco hills were glorious, and my soaring hubcap and ebb-and-flow of tension sequences were kept by Academy Award winning editor Frank Keller. We never dreamed that we were setting a requirement for action flics and that the chase would be copied a hundred times, often in the very same locations. I thought the DRIVE chase was pretty damn good, but L.A. at night can’t match San Francisco by day, and the DRIVE chase fails to match the BULLITT ebb-and-flow of tension standard. 

Another Gosling question: Can he be the new McQueen? The physical resemblance is striking, but nobody has told him to study the facial expressions of Bogart and McQueen and no one has given him the character mantra he needs to say to himself before he shoots each and every scene so that he never seems unsure and lost and the mass audience will see him as a star they love and not just a sexy lookalike wannabe. 

Good luck, Ryan Gosling.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Film School or No Film School

Over two months ago (hey, I fell way behind in emails) I got this email from Stephen Dypiangco.

My friend and I are both independent filmmakers in LA, and we just made this humorous video called Film School or No Film School:

I'm sure this is a question your readers think about, and we'd greatly appreciate it if you could share it on your blog!

We went to film school. Patrick went to San Francisco State, and Stephen went to NYU. Find out why we went and whether the debt was worth it.

Who We Are:
National Film Society
The National Film Society is a new media studio co-founded by filmmakers Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco, who've decided to take their talents to YouTube. They produce original content, showcase amazing works, interview talented creators and make fun of each other as much as possible.

So let's make this today's Tuesday Talkback.  I got an undergraduate degree in film, but never went to graduate level film school.  Frankly, I don't feel like the money I'd have spent on the education would have been worth it in the long run, or gotten me substantially closer to achieving my goals.  I think moving to LA and diving right into the job market was probably the best thing I could have done.

But what do you guys think?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reader question: "Will Hollywood liberals hate my script if it doesn't lean left?"

David writes in with a question:

I know getting my action novel made into a movie is a million-to-one longshot.  In your opinion, given my story's theme doesn't lean left like Hollywood, do those odds decrease to a billion-to-one?  Or are producers progressives at cocktail parties, but capitalists when deciding what to finance?

I've touched a little bit on the risks of writing political material in this post here, so that older post might be worth a look, even though it doesn't directly relate to the question above.

Honestly, I think too much is made of "liberal Hollywood's" supposed bias.  Yes, there are ranting lunitics in the Deadline Hollywood comments who seem to be ready to foam at the mouth at anything they see as a leftist lean, but most of those lowlifes are devoted Drudge readers - and not even the intelligent ones at that.  The only people on the right who really get stirred up by this are the extreme rightists, and they've attempted to create a climate where "you can't trust those people" simply by repeating their lies and outrage enough.  You can recognize these idiots because they'll "defend" Mel Gibson against a liberal Hollywood that wants to punish him for racist slurs, yet attack Morgan Freeman and wish all sorts of ill on him for stating his beliefs about the Tea Party.

I think conservatives are far more aggressive in trying to squash a message that they don't believe in than liberals.  I'm old enough to remember back when the movie Primary Colors was made, and there were all these voices from the right screaming, ranting and raving about it was deplorable that liberal Hollywood was making a love letter, nay, propaganda that was aimed at glorifying President Bill Clinton, who bore something of a resemblance to the main character of that film.  They even pointed to the fact that Clinton buddy John Travolta played the character as evidence this was a pro-Clinton puff piece.

I'll pause for effect before I drop the bomb that the major revelation of the film is that the Clinton character is later revealed to have had sex with an underage black girl during his campaign.  Yes, this is the pro-Clinton message that Hollywood in its liberal bias made.  This is the part that Bill Clinton's good friend took.  If my "friend" took a part that was a clear pastiche of me, and that character was revealed as an adulterous, statutory rapist, I'd never speak to them again.

That's why I was at a loss to understand why the right was so threatened by this, that they thought such an association could ever be positive for Clinton.  Were they upset that the statutory rape was sanitized by not being directly depicted on screen?

Let's go with a more recent example, George Clooney's The Ides of March.  In it, Clooney plays a Democratic governor trying to win his party's nomination for President.  Some might describe him as a liberal's wet dream, but I actually see him more as a moderate's wet dream because he's not an extremist and he doesn't show a particular blind devotion to the more extreme elements in his party.  Having said that, it's clear he's left-leaning and the first third or so of the story is devoted to getting the audience to really like and empathize with this guy.


So naturally, he's revealed as having feet of clay when it turns out he slept with a 19 year-old intern and got her pregnant.  Clooney's campaign manager cleans up the mess, taking the girl for an abortion, but when he's fired from the campaign, she ends up committing suicide.  When Clooney finds out about this and the consequences start to fall, suddenly this "good guy" becomes a lot less admirable.  The principled Democrat is shown to be morally weak and corrupt.


And yet I'm sure there's some conservative blogger out there ranting about how that film too is an example of Hollywood pushing a liberal agenda.  My real point is that Hollywood has never been afraid to make a film that casts the left in an unfavorable light.

My first question about your script would be: is it a good story?  Or is it a bully pulpit wrapped up in a three-act structure?  Is the aim of the story to entertain, or is it an anti-leftist rant?

Here's a good example: a few years ago, there was a glut of Iraq War scripts, all of them sermonizing against the war, the Bush Administration, the dishonest way the American people were "sold" the war, the neo-cons who manipulated the public and the campaign from the begining, and pretty much everything else along those lines that you could imagine.

And I passed on ALL of these.  Including Fair Game and Green Zone, both of which leaned to the left in their politics.  The issue wasn't so much that they were badly written scripts - it was that I didn't see a market for either film or those like it.  The Iraq War was dominating the news most weeks, and the longer it raged, the more polarizing a topic it became, contributing greatly to the extreme political polarization we now face today.

In that climate, who would want to go see a film that's basically a lecture on the corrupt practices of the Bush Administration, the quagmire that Bush's War became, and the living hell that life in Iraq was?  Both scripts were what I called "eat your vegetables" movies - they were more concerned with the message than the entertainment.

(Full disclosure: I've not bothered to see either film, so it's possible those issues were moderated.  All I can say is at the script stage, my reaction was "Great, another anti-Bush piece.  Wonderful.")

So look, if you've got a great, engaging story that's wild entertainment and just happens to be conservative in it's politics, you probably don't have much to worry about.  But if you're going to shove a plate of broccoli and brussel sprouts at me, pry my jaw open and force it down my throat, odds are I'm going to resist swallowing.

Okay, that's a weird analogy.  What I'm getting at is, if the politics are at the forefront of your story, you've made a sale harder because doing so makes the script less marketable.  It's no sinister liberal conspiracy - it's more of a capitalist one, I suppose.  If Hollywood sees money in a property, they'll make it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Cindy Crawford on Muppets Tonight

In all the recent hype over The Muppets (sidebar: if you haven't seen it yet, GO!), it's interesting that most people seem to have forgotten completely about the short-lived ABC revival in the mid-90s called Muppets Tonight.  Most of the articles about the Muppets have focused almost exclusively on the progressively weaker theatrical and made-for-TV movies that were produced after Jim Henson's death.  Muppets Tonight was actually pretty witty, and unfortunately just didn't find its audience.

Below is one of my favorite sketches from the series and a good example of how the Muppet creators were adept at weaving in some humor that is aimed more at the older folk in the crowd than the young kids.  The punchline to this scene is still one of the biggest Muppet-related laughs I've ever had.  (Either click the link in the last sentence or go to 7:08 in the embedded clip below.  For some reason I can't embed a version that goes directly to the sketch in question.)

And as a bonus, here's a little manufactured adult humor from the Muppets.  It's called "The Song of the Count."  I dare you not to laugh hysterically at this.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Using a short film to get your writing out there

Lacy & Kevin asked me this question a while back:

What's your take on making a short film as a means to getting your writing out there?
Even if it's well filmed, are you better off querying, or do you think it's a waste of time?

I think it can be useful, but you're better off if there's a clear hook to the idea.  That might mean that doing the short film version of your feature script might be problematic.  Instead, make sure you choose a premise that makes the best use of the medium.

One of the best examples of this is the short film George Lucas in Love.  Written by Joe Nussbaum, Timothy Dowling & Daniel Shere, and directed by Nussbaum, the film was produced in 1999.  This was right at the time that anticipation was building for the release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and also right around the time that Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture.  The creators saw an opportunity to make something timely that would get them noticed and have a built-in audience.  If you're interested in finding out more about the film, check out this interview.

The film was later released on DVD, along with a behind-the-scenes documentary.  In it, the creators talk about sending the film to all their contacts in Hollywood, only to return home one day to get a call from one of Steven Spielberg's assistants.  It seems that a copy of the film ended up being passed all around Hollywood.  It made its way to Spielberg's office and the assistant recounted how they gave it to Spielberg and heard him laughing as he watched it.  Then the assistant was tasked with putting Spielberg through to George Lucas and heard Spielberg rave about the film to Lucas.

Nussbaum went on to direct the feature films Sleepover, The Naked Mile, Sydney White, Prom and is currently attached to Brad Cutter Ruined My Life... Again.

A more recent example is Kevin Tancharoen, who directed a Mortal Kombat short as sort of a calling card for what he'd like to do with the property.  This was probably a smart move, because his lone feature credit - Fame - probably would have kept him in "Movie Jail" for a while otherwise.  Instead, it landed him a job as the director for the feature version of Mortal Kombat.

Check out an interview with Tancharoen here.

I'm sure those are far from the only examples.  I also have to assume that there are people who have gotten some notice from shorts that have placed in film festivals.  I have to admit that I don't keep much of an eye on that world.  If anyone has further examples, free free to bring them up in comments.

The internet is littered with "calling card short films."  Sometimes they go viral, sometimes they don't.  So long as you're not reaching beyond your means, I'm all for taking a shot at it.