Thursday, March 29, 2012

Joss Whedon on putting the dread back into horror films

I bought MovieScope magazine just to get the Joss Whedon interview on Cabin in the Woods.  In it, he discusses his disenchantment with the tone of recent horror films:

"Somebody brought up Friday the 13th and to me that was the tipping point of 'Well, now it's just about the kill.'  As opposed to Halloween, which was a classic horror movie where the dread of the thing was the point, and not the act.  But in Friday the 13th, especially by the second one, it really was about 'in what inventive way can we dispose of this person.'  And it really took the fun out of horror films."

Take it from someone who reads a lot of bad horror films - what Joss says might seem elementary, but I have several hundred vehement PASSES that I've given to scripts that are just about the "inventive" kills.  I've honestly seen and read so many ways to kill people that the only way you can really expect to shock me is by going so far over the top to an incredibly depraved level.  (The current leader in that race - the seriously graphic and misogynistic vertical bisection of a terrified woman at the hands of a deranged psychopath.)  And let me tell you, when you reach that level, it's not just a PASS that you get, but a "there should be no need for us to ever review a submission from this writer ever again."

Be about the dread, the suspense.  But if all you bring is the gore, I will END you.

Think I'm kidding?  Try me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Study the business

So I was reading the Baywatch oral history over in Esquire (I know, I know).  While it was full of all the backstage dirt you'd expect, there was also some sound business advice in there.  The show was initially ordered by NBC, but after a season on the air, the network found it too expensive to produce.  That's when another opportunity came along...

Michael Berk (Executive Producer, Co-Creator): Baywatch had started getting distributed in Europe by a very small company called Freemantle — it now produces American Idol — that said, "Can you guys produce new episodes of Baywatch?" We said, No, the show's been cancelled. They said, "Well, there's a market for it."

Douglas Schwartz (Executive Producer, Co-creator): My uncle, Sherwood Schwartz, who was the creator of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, said, "Doug, this is the golden opportunity that you will probably never have again. Baywatch can be your Brady Bunch. Go and buy back your rights. See if you can put it into first-run syndication, because you have something the other shows don't have — a hit show in foreign television"

Michael Berk: We ended up buying the rights to Baywatch back for $10.

Douglas Schwartz: Except now we owned it 100-percent. Then it took us the rest of 1990 to put the money together and get it in syndication. We went to David Hasselhoff and offered to make him an executive producer if he would lower his salary by 50 percent — because we had to get the budget down.

Michael Berk: He didn't want anything to do with it at first. But through Hasselhoff's popularity in Germany, we were able to get $300,000 an episode from continental Europe. 

Now some of you snobs might scoff at owning a piece of a fluffy T&A show like Baywatch - but then you probably don't remember that in its day, Baywatch was the most popular show in the world.   Schwartz and Berk got rich because they recognized a golden opportunity when it was presented to them AND they were dealing with rights-holders who didn't realize the value of what they had.  That $10 made them millions!

This is why I say there's no reason not to study the business, lest you find yourself with a similar opportunity.  If this was an obvious money-making proposition, Berk and Schwartz would never have been able to gain those rights.  Instead, some savvy told them that this largely untested strategy could pay off in spades.

So study up on the business.  Read The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.  Stalk The Wrap and Deadline Hollywood.  And those are just the main stream business trade papers and sites for starters.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Who's participating in Script Frenzy?

It's almost time for the yearly challenge known as Script Frenzy.  Each participant has 30 days to complete a 100 page screenplay.  That's only 3 pages a day!

Who's participating this year? It sounds like a great way to get motivated to finish a project.

Speaking of motivation, a few years ago, I wrote a motivational piece for the participants.  You can find it here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is The Hunger Games manipulative in its morality?

Like many of you, I saw The Hunger Games this weekend.  As someone who had never read the books, I rather enjoyed the movie.  I want to issue a fair warning that this post is going to be full of spoilers.

My usual policy is to not read reviews for movies I know I'm going to see, then to binge on the reviews, post-viewing.  Delving into the write-ups, I was unsurprised to see that they trended largely positive, save for the usual whining from book devotees regarding details that were changed or abridged for the sake of adaptation.

Ah, but there was one extremely negative review from Scott Mendelson.  It's an interesting read and I encourage everyone to take a look at it.  He raises a point that I admit, had occurred to me mid-film.  It seemed rather convenient over the course of a fight-to-the-death tournament, the deaths that Katniss causes are all either indirect or in self-defense.

Mendelson makes the same observation:

Almost from the start, the film divides up its contestants into two groups: the 'nice kids' who are almost never shown killing anyone and the 'bad kids' who not only kill onscreen but relish the opportunity.
 Led by Cato (Alexander Ludwig), a tall, muscular young man who is immediately tagged as 'the main villain', half of the surviving contestants formed what can only be described as a 'posse of evil', as they hunt down and trap the other 'sympathetic' contestants. Not only are these kids efficient killers, they seem to be outright psychopaths, taunting our heroes and doing all they can to create audience animosity... At no point do any sympathetic contestants get their hands uncomfortably bloody. 

[...] The film does not ask us to stare point-blank at the horror implicit in its premise, but rather pick sides, cheer for your heroes, boo for the villains, and thrill when the contestants you don't like get bumped off ("Take *that*, bitch!" the audience all-but shouted). Moreover, the sympathetic contestants never have to behave in morally messy ways, with Katniss only directly causing a single (self-defense) death, and indirectly causing another death via bee-sting. Co-survivor Peeta escapes without a single explicit kill to his name (Katniss and Peeta are both involved in Cato's climactic death without either of them being directly responsible for it). After establishing Thresh as a sympathetic character (he spares Katniss's life 'just this once' because she tried to protect Rue), he is eaten off-screen by CGI beasts who show up right at the end purely to allow the two remaining contestants to be killed with without dirtying Peeta or Katniss's hands. 

Remember, these people are not 'good guys' and 'bad guys', they are all impoverished children who have been kidnapped from their homes and forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment of the '1%'. The idea that we should have any favorites or that we should take any joy in the proceedings makes us as culpable as the would-be oppressors. And the fact that the film so readily divides up the contestants as such in order to promote an easily-digestible narrative shows how fraudulent it is no matter what relevant social issues it pertains to bring up.

Is the film manipulative on those points? Yes, that's a fair point.  But I can also easily justify the black-and-white morality to a certain extent.  It makes sense to me that the Tributes would fall largely into two catagories: fighters and flee-ers.  Of course, not every kid who envisions themselves a fighter is probably capable.  Thus, when the Games start, the more pacifistic among them head for the hills.  The rest of the tributes engage in the fight to the death, where it makes sense that the stronger and more brutal would survive.

Cato's pretty cleanly depicted as a sociopath, I won't dispute that.  The blonde girl on his team is equally demented, a blood-thirsty bully.  But I have a hunch that the rest of their pack might just be in it as an effort to survive.  You see this in school cliques a lot - one or two cruel bullies has a crowd of admirers who aren't evil, but just find it safer to join the pack than be an individual and risk becoming the next target. 

It might have been interesting to have Katniss end up facing one of those members, and then we'd really see how far they want to push kill-or-be-killed. But on the other hand, perhaps the "good" Tributes are good because they don't have the stomach to fight directly.  What's wrong with showing that these kids are horrified by The Games?  Wouldn't the kids who dive in head-first necessarily be less morally admirable than the kids just trying to survive?

This is putting aside the fact that early on it's mentioned that the kids are at least as likely to die of exposure than in battle.  I'd say that's a pretty good indication that the Tributes often try to run and hide.  The others, when pushed, revert to a more animal behavior.

If the film was over three hours long, maybe it would have been possible to explore some of the kids in depth before the Games begin, thus giving us an appreciation for how this barbaric situation corrupts some of those players.  At the end of the day, though, this is Katniss's story and all that really matters is how this affects her.

Is the depiction of the other players manipulative? Sure. But is manipulative always bad? Maybe not.  If Katniss reveled in her kills, she wouldn't be Katniss.  Her character is consistent and in the end, she's ready to basically commit suicide rather than kill in cold blood a combatant she care about.  That right there should tell us that the only situation where she'd kill is where she has literally no other choice.

I admit - it IS convenient that this is also the course that preserves her likability.  But hey, it's justified in the story.

Just my thoughts - what do you think?  (And let's try to confine discussion to the events as depicted in the film rather than the book.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street

Remember a while back when I said everyone starts somewhere?  Here's a good reminder of that - Brad Pitt appearing with Johnny Depp... on 21 Jump Street.

Who would have thought in 1988 that those two guys would be some of the biggest stars in Hollywood?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Minor characters, major opportunities

Another thing that struck me about 21 Jump Street is how effective the script was at creating memorable supporting characters, even if a few of them only pop up for a scene or two.  This is one of those things that can elevate a screenplay and often show the difference between a seasoned pro and a newbie.

There's an early scene where Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman plays the typical world-weary police captain who has to reprimand the main characters.  In most scripts, this character would just be there to yell at the guys, transfer them to a new division and then throw them out of his office.  It could have been purely an A-to-B plot moving scene, but the script does a little bit more with it.  Through his interactions with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, Offerman creates a character who feels three-dimensional.  Some of this credit goes to Offerman, but the writing gives him plenty to work with.

Offerman gets one of the best lines in the movie when he says that the Jump Street program is just another idea from the 80s that's been revived because no one has any original ideas anymore.  There's a sort of bitterness in his tone, and it sells the verisimilitude of a line that easily could have reeked of meta-humor and nothing more.  You buy this guy as someone who's counting the hours to retirement.

Another good example - the science teacher played by The Office's Ellie Kemper.  She's pretty much the only character in the high school to remark on Channing Tatum's attractiveness and it makes for an awkwardly funny scene as she trips over her tongue.  Is the scene necessary?  Does it really move the story forward?  No, but it's unexpected and makes for a funny moment.

Weak scripts only worry about making the main characters pop off the page.  Excellent scripts make every character memorable and distinct.  Always push yourself to make these smaller roles pop.  Write each part as if it could be a cameo by a gifted comedy star or a strong character actor.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Pretty Little Liars, Psycho, and damn kids today with no sense of film history

I've mentioned before that my wife is a regular viewer of most of the ABC Family slate, so it probably won't come as a surprise to learn she was eagerly anticipating last night's Pretty Little Liars finale, which promised to reveal the identity of the mysterious "A."  I've been exposed to enough of the show that I'm at least aware of most of the players, though I've missed just about every episode in this half-season.  But this isn't post about who A is.

No, this is about the numerous Psycho allusions and references scattered throughout the episode, including but possibly not limited to:

- a visit to a motel that bears a not-inconsiderable resemblance to the Bates Motel. (It might very well have been the facade from the Universal backlot.
- a creepy motel owner with a style akin to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates.
- stuffed birds mounted in the motel office, plus a later reference to Faux-Bates being all alone with his stuffed creatures.
- blonde character takes a shower, with a number of homage angles, most notably a shadow seen through the shower curtain.
- a closing scene stolen right out of the film, with a psych patient's condition being explained while several characters watch this individual through a two-way mirror.  Said character is wrapped in a blanket as Bates was at the conclusion of the film, and has an internal monologue played while the camera focuses on their face.  And again, many homage camera angles here.

Me being the film nerd I am, I was on the lookout for Psycho callbacks from the moment the motel showed up.  As they piled up, I couldn't help but wonder how many of the tween target audience got all the references to a film more than 50 years old.  And then THAT made me curious as to if the writers wrote this expecting their viewers would get the joke and applaud them for being clever - or if they had no expectation that the references would be spotted.  (Given the preponderance of references, I'm going with the theory they didn't expect the homage to be invisible.)

I couldn't help but picture some devoted PLL tween viewer being completely oblivious to all the nods.  And that's not a "Damn kids today! Get off my lawn!" judgement.  The film was released in 1960 and it's not exactly an all-ages classic on the order of Psycho.  (Though it would be a real shame of those teens lived their entire lives ignorant of a classic that has to be one of Hitchcock's best.)

I've been in that situation before.  When I was in about 4th or 5th grade, I was a regular viewer of Tiny Toons Adventures.  One episode was called "Sepulveda Blvd" and it cast Montana Max in the role of a struggling writer who ends up being taken in by Elmyra Desmond - a has-been actress who wants Max to write her comeback vehicle.

Sound familiar?  It's the plot of Sunset Blvd.  At the age of 10, that fact escaped me - but when I was 19 and had to attend a screening of the Billy Wilder classic for film class... we'll lets just say I had a lot of "there's something familiar about this" moments.

So has that ever happened to you?  Ever seen an homage before you saw the original and not figure it out until long after the fact?

And if you want to see the Tiny Toons Homage, you can find it here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street - a lesson in economical story set-up

I've talked before about how important the first ten pages of a script are.  One of the biggest issues I seen in amateur writing is writers taking too long to get their story in motion.  A bad writer thinks he needs 30 pages to set up his premise; a good writer can explain a lot in a third of that time.

I saw 21 Jump Street this weekend, and was impressed at how much the writers packed into the first ten minutes or so.  These are the plot-points that the script blows through:

- Jonah Hill was an awkward dork in high school.  Girls didn't like him (we see one hot girl rather cruely reject him) and Channing Tatum's popular jock character often teased him.
- Tatum's character couldn't go to prom because of bad grades, leaving him as humiliated as he made Hill feel.
- After graduation, the two re-encounter each other at the police academy.  It turns out, Hill is an ace at the academic stuff while Tatum is equally gifted at the physical challenges.  The two become friends and help each other through it.
- The two are assigned to bike patrol in the park.
- After botching a drug bust, the two are reassigned to an undercover unit at 21 Jump Street.

All of that only takes about a minute of time to set up in the trailer, and to be honest, in the movie, it feels like there's not much else added into those scenes.  I could easily imagine the hack writer version of this idea dragging its feet and not arriving at the church on Jump Street until p. 25.

Hack Writer would have insisted on a full 10-minute prologue in the school, driving home the point again and again that Jonah's a nerdy outcast and that Channing's big man on campus.  Here the point is made quickly - Jonah tries to ask out a girl way out his league, she crushes him, and Channing taunts him.  We don't need three scenes of bullying, we don't need to see Channing treated as the star athlete who has girls practically throwing their panties at him.  Their characters are such understandable archetypes that the script need only suggest these aspects of their characters and let us fill in the blanks.

Ditto for the police academy scenes.  The dynamic there really is established as fast as it is in the trailer.  We don't need a whole classroom scene to show off Jonah's smarts - just have him get back an A+ grade.  Similarly, two shots of Jonah being taken down by Channing in a wrestling match easily establishes the dichotomy.  From there, all it takes is a montage of them helping each other and we're off an running.

Why is it okay to do this ADD version?  Because as important as the set-up is, it's not the point of the story.  The story is about two guys who go back to high school while undercover and find that all the rules have changed.  It's about how it affects their friendship.  It would mess with the pacing to establish them as enemies, spend a whole act making them friends, then spend most of the movie with them breaking up only to make up at the end.  We just need a hint of how they became friends so we can take it as a given, and then enjoy how the rest of the story challenges that.

So when setting up your story, trust the audience to fill in the blanks.  Brevity reigns when getting to the main hook of your story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My question: Do I dare submit a "wacky" spec for the Warner Bros Writers' Workshop

I've been informed that the WB Writers' Workshop has announced that they will be accepting submissions from May 1 - June 1.  This is one of the more sought-after TV writing programs and it includes lectures and simulated writing rooms.  At the end of the program, studio executives help the participants get staffed on Warner Bros. shows.  When I interviewed Margaux Froley, she talked about some of this.

So I'm thinking of entering, but I've got some hesitation because the spec I'm working on is what you'd call a "gimmick spec."  I could define what that is, or I could let TV writer/fellow blogger Irwin Handleman do it for me:

That's where someone will write an original episode of "Family Ties", or an episode of "Two and a Half Men" where Charlie Sheen's character stabs Alan or gets addicted to crack. In other words, it's something that would never be on TV, but it's funny and a little more creative.

I think of this kind of spec as cheating. Anyone can do this nonsense. The hard thing to do is write a real episode of "Two and a Half Men" and make that funny and original. That takes talent! It's easy to step outside CBS and make a crazy episode that doesn't have to conform to the restrictions of TV.

But as time went on, assholes kept getting work off this bullshit. So I decided, if you can't beat them, join them. And I wrote a gimmick spec.

Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" had just started up. Thus, I wrote a spec called "Studio 69 on her Landing Strip", which was the porn version of that show.

I sent it to a friend to read. Unbeknownst to me, he gave it to a manager at Brillstein Entertainment. The manager loved it, and called me in.

Irwin ended up having a manager sign him off that script.  So you see why I might some merit in the idea, even though I kind of agree with him that going the gimmick route is cheating somewhat.

I've heard of other infamous examples of gimmick scripts, such as an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy gets an abortion, or an episode of Friends where they all get AIDS, or an episode of Saved By the Bell where Lisa and Screech have sex. 

Bottom line: I'm working on one such spec of a hit show, but I'm concerned it might be too much of a risk to submit it to WB.  While I mull that over during the next month and a half, I figured I'd toss the question out here in the hopes that someone might have some insight.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Do you deliberately avoid spoilers?

I ran across this video on the web recently.

It got me thinking - there are some shows I absolutely avoid spoilers for whenever possible (30 Rock, Revenge, Awake, Once Upon A Time) and other shows I'm a total spoiler whore for (mostly shows too terrible for me to cop to watching.)  More than that, there are a couple upcoming releases where I'm making it a point to avoid reviews, interviews and possibly even trailers.

We've talked before about avoiding spoilers, but if there are any shows or movies you're strict about remaining unspoiled for.  How far do you go? Do you avoid Twitter if you've got a show on the DVR and you don't want to find out what happened?  Do you tell people they can't talk about week-old shows around you if you haven't caught up?

Or what about shows on premium cable? Let's say you don't get HBO, so you're waiting to see Homeland on DVD.  Do you avoid entertainment news sites to avoid learning about plot points? Skip actor appearances on talk shows?  Hush friends when they try to tell you how great the show is?

I've made it a point in the past to add extra spoiler warnings when talking about a show that just aired or a movie that was just released.  Once or twice I've even delayed putting up some articles just so I wouldn't ruin the surprises of a film that really benefited from them. Do you find that you've adopted your own unoffical spoiler policy akin to the rules laid out in that video?

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Shit Script Readers Say" - I'm doing a web show!

If you checked out ScriptChat last night, you got an early peek about a little video announcement.  See friends, I have a new project that's so near and dear to my heart that I could only announce it to the world in the form of an outdated internet meme.

But what does it mean?  Well, next month I'm lauching a web show off-shoot of The Bitter Script Reader brand.  It'll touch on the same sorts of advice I dispense here, but in a succinct, bite-size way.  Don't worry, the blog's not going anywhere and will still be the go-to place for the longer, in-depth discussions as well as the more timely stuff. I realized a while back that I was going to YouTube with my "How do I..." queries almost as often as I was Googling them.  A weekly series seemed like the most natural way to expand the brand and enhance the blog content at the same time.

The web-show is meat-and-potatoes screenwriting advice.  Early on, we'll have a 12-part series where I take you through the writing of a screenplay step-by-step.  It's my intent to make this fun for you loyal readers who've been here since the beginning, as well as draw in a new audience. 

In addition to the straight-up advice, there'll also be interviews with screenwriters and other industry pros.  And I'm not talking about two or three minute soundbites.  These will be every bit as comprehensive as some of the other interviews you might have seen on this site.  There are a couple other surprises in store, but those may be a ways down the line.

I want you to know that I wouldn't have done this if I didn't have such a supportive and loyal audience.  You guys are great about coming here everyday and interfacing with me via comments and Twitter, so I wanted to do something that you guys would like.  I hope you enjoy the video.  Pass it around, bribe Nikki Finke to put it on Deadline, and show it to your friends.

Now I'm going to do my best to NOT read the usual YouTube comments of "this suxxxx" and "u r a l4m0."

Friday, March 9, 2012

I'm doing Scriptchat Sunday at 5pm PST

Just a general announcement to those who may not have seen my Tweet earlier this week - I'm this Sunday's guest on Scriptchat.  If you're so inclined, please drop in and join the fun.  You can find the instructions for how to join the chat on the page I just linked.

And I don't want to make any promises, but I might be making a special announcement there that followers of this blog should find interesting.

I've actually never participated in Scriptchat before, so I hope I don't make too big an idiot of myself while trying to figure this out.  I'm looking forward to it, though.  The last time I participated in a chat room, I ended up meeting Chris Hanson!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Are Script Readers misunderstood and unfairly maligned?

So right after I plugged Scott Myers's screenwriting roundtable on Go Into the Story, I found my profession was the subject of discussion in yesterday's post:

Scott Myers:  As a writer, did you ever want to kill a reader?” 

F. Scott Frazier: I actually think the readers are unfairly put upon, and just in my complete anecdotal experience, to me it always seems like, if the script is bad, but they’re trying to be nice. They come back with these Save the Cat, Syd Field kind of beats with what’s wrong with the script. This is what’s wrong with the script! Because you didn’t have your end act point on page 30. But if a script is great, I don’t think they care about that sort of thing. 

Chris Borrelli: I’ll tell you, building off of what Scott said. First off, short answer: yes, I have. And there is a bitterness that comes to people who read and read and read, and think that they can do a better script and they get mad when scripts sell, and they think their scripts are better than that. But that said, if you got asked in life why you don’t like something, you kept getting asked this about all these different things, at some point, you run out of things to say. Sometimes you just don’t like things. And these readers are doing at least two scripts a day and they didn’t like your script and they have to give a reason to fill out their three or four page coverage, sometimes they just go to templates or some basic things. So I don’t read too much into reasons why people pass unless I hear it over and over again. Because sometimes — and I’ve been on the other side of the desk — you have to say something, but a lot of times you just don’t connect to it. 

F. Scott Frazier: And I think not connecting to it goes right back to that emotion we were just talking about. 

True, true - ALL true! Here's the thing about readers... everyone who gets a PASS seems to have this perception that all we do is read something and try to find what's wrong with scripts - as if we get a prize for finding material falliable.

It's exactly the opposite - we want the scripts to be good. Every time we open a PDF, we're desperately, achingly, hoping that the next hour of reading and two hours of coverage-writing won't be painful and mind-numbing.

Don't you think every reader wants to be the hero who runs into their bosses office and says "This one! Make THIS one!" It's brilliant, it's exactly what you're looking for and I found it! That's right! That reflected glory belongs to me! ME! ME!"

Okay... maybe that last part is a little bit of overkill. But that's totally the mentality a reader might get when they find material they're excited about. It can work in your favor as the writer because bitter readers like me might feel that your success is their victory as well. We can be your best friend and your biggest champion. We want you to be good because it makes US look good!)

(On the other hand, any reader who boasts at a cocktail party about the great script he "discovered" is probably setting himself up for well-earned snorts of derision. I'm not saying it's always easy to spot the diamonds in the rough, but if a reader gets too cocky, he's likely to be reminded he merely read the script - he didn't WRITE it.)

And John Swetnam is very astute at pointing something else out:

"A lot of these readers, though, they work for somebody, and they’re also filtering their own opinion through the opinion of the person they’re working for. So they know their boss’s sensibility and to me, that’s really their job. To know what their boss likes. A lot of the time, they’re the first bit of the filtering process and you can’t really blame them because their boss told them to look for romantic comedies."

Too true. Having said that, I've never been afraid to slam something that's up my boss's alley if I thought it was a terrible script. (Hell, there are multiple examples of me slamming scripts that ultimately got made at the companies in question... only to tank HARD.) And when the writing is brilliant - even if it's not the most natural fit for my bosses, I certainly will give it a rave.

I have no reason to want you or your script to suck. I have no motivation to pass on a brilliant script and leave it there on the street for someone else to buy. What sense would that make?

If you want to beat the reader, write an awesome script. Greg Russo says as much:

"I’ll throw something out there to the person who asked the question, who I’m assuming is trying to break in as a screenwriter. Don’t worry so much about readers passing on your script. Be careful not to give them any easy ways to pass on your script. If they’re not going to like your concept, they’re not going to like it."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Go into the Story has some killer interviews with screenwriters

Go Into The Story has been kicking ass the last two weeks with interviews.  First, Scott Myers had a fascinating 6-part interview with Pixar's senior development executive Mary Coleman.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

And this week he's featuring a screenwriter's roundtable with Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam and the writing duo Jeremiah Friedman & Nick Palmer. Over the last 2 years, they have sold a total of 12 spec scripts.  There's a lot of great insight in there.  I just spent a few minutes trying to find a single quote to except and came to the conclusion that you should just get your butts over to Scott's blog and read the roundtable in full.

Part I
Part II

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: My Dead Idea File of Shame

Going through old writing folders is a little bit like looking at old yearbooks full of bad haircuts and fashions.  Last week, I was digging through some old files and I found an old treatment of mine.  Actually I found many old treatments among some scripts that were either half-written and abandoned, or completed and abandoned with good cause.  Of all my dead ideas, this is the one that I can't see ever revisiting in any form.

As I recall, this incomplete pitch document was actually derived from an email where I pitched my idea to a friend, seeking his feedback. It's dated April 2006, which seems about right to me.  What's notable is that by that point, I'd been reading scripts for a while, so there are a couple of points here where I should have known better.  Take a look and see how many of my own rules I manage to break here.

In my defense - the idea NEVER got past this stage.  I pursued concepts with stronger legs.

The Pitch: a "Scary Movie" like parody of the recent spate of "important" movies with a simplistic social issue at it's heart.

Examples include:
Traffic - "Drugs are bad, mmmmkay"
Syriana - "The oil industry is corrupt and anyone connected to oil is morally bankrupt."
Crash - "Racism is bad."

What do all these movies have in common? Well each of them is essentially a collection of subplots, often held together by only the barest of plot connections. In order for the writer to make his points to the audience, all subtlety goes out the window. Instead, characters are reduced to easily recognizable stereotypes - which makes them ripe for parody. They are as cookie cutter as the players in your standard action movie or romantic comedy.

Now, for our parody we need to find a social issue to blow out of proportion - one that also allows us to mock these other films. Since this film is in part intended as an indictment of the films it spoofs, I suggest we practice the same sort of subtlety as the filmmakers we intend to mock.

In other words, if we're going to say something about Hollywood movies, the industry we should choose is Hollywood.

Plot A - borrowed from the Michael Douglas plot of Traffic. We start with a noted director/producer/studio exec who has just been announced as the head of the MPAA. His mandate is to go in there and clean up the violence in today's films. All the while, he's unaware of the effect that the smut in the movies is having on his own teenage daughter. Through her, we parody not only the Erika Christiansen plot in Traffic. but we also attack the "edgy" films that purport to be deep explorations of teenage sexuality. (cf. Thirteen, Havoc.)

These are films that use one hand to wag their fingers at society for turning 13 year-old girls into blowjob giving, nipple-pierced repositories for VD - while using the other hand to masturbate to the bare-breasted teenage starlet they've seduced into believing that she can be taken seriously by rubbing her naked nipples and moaning orgasmically on camera.

Plot B - This means that somehow, our protagonist must be involved with a film like Thirteen. He might even think that a film like this is an "important movie" that will serve as a wakeup call to America. Instead, all it does is propagate the behavior it condemns.

Plot C - Now, we need a Middle East connection as a way to lead into a Syriana/ Fahrenheit 9-11 parody. Perhaps this is all part of an insideous plot to sexualize young teenage girls and sell them overseas to the Sultan of Brunei. It's a slave trade of sorts, and in return, the government gets inroads to oil, and the studios get sweet tax breaks on production, as well has competitive rates on distribution in foreign markets. (In true Syriana fashion, the jargon and connections in this point of the film should be almost deliberately impenetrable.)

Stray characters and notions to consider:

- We need a Clooney character. I don't know where he fits in, but there must be an equivalent to his role in Syriana.

 - Spoofing the subtitled Benecio del Toro subplot in Traffic, I propose that we have all the executives in one subplot only speak in insider industry-Variety jargon. Naturally this will be subtitled. [I can't find the follow-up email, but this eventually grew into a larger subplot where the executives got lost in one of the foreign territories they visit and are unable to communicate due to their dependance on insider jargon.  In hindsight it sounds like I was trying to rip off Babel, but that film wasn't released until at least six months later and probably wouldn't have been on my radar at that point.]

 - One part of Crash that really bugged me was the Ryan Philippe scene where he shot the unarmed kid. I thought that was too big a leap in his character in too short of a time. However, I do have a good idea for a parody....

Our Michael Douglas character spends the whole movie condemning another executive's lewd, sexually harassing behavior. After severing business ties with him, the other exec tells him, "Talk to me in a few years, you'll get it someday." Then later we'll see our hero working late at night in the office, a shapely intern or D-girl the only other one who's staying as late as he is. She seems to be coming on to him, subtly flirting. Our hero is clearly tempted, struggling the whole time. Then she seems to make a provocative move, inciting him to sexually harass her... unfortunately, he's mistaken and is almost immediately disgusted with himself for his moment of weakness.

 Okay, so I had the guts to look in the mirror.  Now YOU pull out some of your dead ideas and appreciate how much you've grown.   What are some of your worst ideas?

Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Sell a TV Show: the fine art of pitching

There's an old expression: "You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle."  There's an art to making a sale.  Plenty of screenwriters and producers will tell you that there are some writers who write brilliant work, but just "aren't good in a room."  They ramble, they get nervous, and they might even blow the pitch.  Meanwhile, there are guys who might lack the fine skills of character and plot development, but can sell the hell out of the idea in the room.

You can't rely on a great idea to sell itself.  Getting someone to buy your idea is an art all its own.  You've got to be your own best ad man.  Some people think this means that you have to pull some sort of silly gimmick to get your script noticed, like including concept art, having your horror script delivered in a minature (and bloody coffin) or sending a screenplay in a gift basket.

A silly stunt rarely helps.  If the delivery of your script makes someone roll their eyes, how is that going to translate into excitement for reading the script?

The Wrap has a blog post from Keith Feinmore talking about how got a buyer for a show that, by all rights, should have been a hard sale.  How'd he pull it off? Showmanship!

I developed a concept and crafted a written treatment for a show that was to be a non-scripted buddy-road-trip series where the guys roam through cities and towns performing magic and looking for local magicians along the way. A point worth noting: The development of this show cost me nothing but my time.

I set up pitch meetings at five cable networks and began the daunting task of selling a magic show with two unknowns. The odds were heavily stacked against me.

Sidebar: I want to make clear that in addition to this magic show, at that time, I had about five other projects in different stages of development. My advice is never, ever have just one project. A good way to beat the odds is to play multiple hands!

My pitch strategy was to forgo the typical presentation tape and rely on the power of a live performance. I was going to have these guys perform close-up magic, face-to-face with the buyer at the top of each pitch meeting. I did not utter a word. 

Not a bad way to hold attention, eh?  It would be easy to write that magic off as a cheap gimmic,, but it's a gimmick that's right at the core of the show's appeal.  Keith probably couldn't have sold "Awake" or "Smash" had he gone in with magicians.  Here, the buyers could see that if the magicians could keep them captivated, they'd probably entrance America as well.

 Keith concludes with the following advice:

Take meetings. Talk to people. Hear ideas. Don’t go off of network mandates, because a lot of the time they don’t know what they want until they see it. And most of all, follow your gut and take risks.

Sage words.  Print them out and hang them by your computer.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Deep Space Nine's wartime morality plays show that good writing is timeless - Part II

Part I

Following on from yesterday, when the Deep Space Nine episode "Paradise Lost" initially aired, I remember being a bit disappointed to find out that the attack on the Earth's power grid wasn't part of a Changeling plot.  I wanted to see the Changeling threat at last boil over and instead was treated to a story about how an Admiral's paranoia mixed with his best intentions put him and Starfleet on a path to compromising their own principles for what they believed to be stronger security.  I didn't think it was a bad episode - I just wanted action and instead I got a morality play.

In retrospect, this was one of the early examples of how DS9 would use the Changling threat and the later Dominion War to great effect.  The emphasis was not on space battles, but rather on morality during wartime.  Time and again, we were reminded that this war might not cost human lives, but also the very principles of those seemingly fighting for righteousness.

I find this compelling because those storylines rendered the series almost more timely ten years after it aired than it was when those episodes were first produced.  If the episodes had been written in a post-9/11 setting, surely some critics would say that the writing was too on-the-nose and too much of a direct exploration of 21st Century events.  Yet the DS9 writing staff couldn't have intended their work would be more relevant years after the series ceased production.

Writing ages well when it deals with big ideas and also universal ideas.  The morality plays of the original Star Trek still can be potent today, and the war stories of Deep Space Nine are timeless not because they deal with specific events, but because those "big events" are used to explore the characters and their conditions.  Writing that's about big ideas can resonate longer than stories that are just about flash and explosions.

The excellent (and extremely comprehensive) book Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann has a behind-the-scenes look at this episode, with some interesting quotes from the writing staff.  Writer/producer Ronald D. Moore, who's own Battlestar Galactica would also heavily explore wartime morality, recalls that this two-parter began life as a story about the Changlings turning Starfleet and the Vulcans against each other.  When attempts to follow that concept proved unsatisfactory, the writers changed course.

"We started talking about a military coup of the Federation by Starfleet, ala Seven Days in May.  We thought that was actually more interesting, and more unexpected in the Star Trek universe - that Starfleet would take over the government out of fear and paranoia.  What the fear of the other, of an enemy, could drive even Starfleet to do."

Episode co-writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe confirms that they hoped to draw the audience into the paranoia as well.  "We wanted to make people think we were doing a different story.  The whole thing is a misdirection.  Part I is a total misdirection of Part II."

If anything in these two episodes disappoints me, it's that the ending of Part II is a bit too pat.  As you might expect, Sisko thwarts the coup.  In the process, he narrowly prevents one Starfleet ship from destroying another.  Though he gets the corrupt Admiral to resign, it's hard to overlook the fact that everything the Admiral and Sisko were saying about the Changling threat in Part I still applies.  With their new security measures rescinded, that means that the Federation is no closer to halting the infiltration than they were at the start of the story.

And yet the tone of the ending doesn't totally acknowledge that. It's made somewhat clear that the real Changling threat is to foster enough fear and paranoia so that the Federation essentially destroys itself.  However, the final scenes of the episode don't play quite foreboding enough.  Sisko should be disturbed and uneasy that a man he respected would so easily toss aside his principles for a cause that he believed was righteous.  This should be treated as the first major salvo in what would turn into full-blown war down the line.  Instead the show raises a lot of really strong issues, takes them to a head, but leaves them jarringly unresolved.  Had the final scenes conveyed that "unresolved" feeling, sold the sense that things will soon get a lot worse, it would have made for a more powerful ending.  Oddly all the pieces are there that should make for this kind of ending.  The issue seems to be more one of execution. Later seasons would be more effective at dealing with that conflict.

I remember sitting in a college ethics class a few years after these episodes aired.  The topic of morality and principles during wartime came up (again, it was prescient because this was pre-9/11) and I distinctly recall being able to apply no fewer than a half-dozen DS9 storylines to some of the issues we discussed.  In fact, I was probably better able to develop and articulate my own moral stances in the class discussions specifically because my exposure to DS9 had already forced me to confront where I stood on those sorts of issues.

We aren't always lucky enough to deal with such grand ideas in our own writing, but if the opportunity presents itself, don't shy away from it.  Even if your story feels like it could be action-driven, see if there's a way to use that action to force your characters to confront something in themselves - something that challenges their own beliefs.