Monday, April 29, 2013

I *should* hate The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I loved it. Why?

I finally saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower this past weekend and came away very impressed by it.  It's a very moving coming-of-age story about a high school freshman named Charlie who feels out of place in his new school and ends up being befriended by some seniors who are also on the the fringes of their social group.  Emma Watson plays the dream girl whom Charlie falls hard for, even as he's too timid to approach her as anything other than a friend.  Charlie's other friends include a gay outsider struggling with the fact that the jock he's hooking up with is in the closet and won't acknowledge him publicly.

I've never read the book (written by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote and directed the film), so I went in completely fresh, beyond knowing what little had been shown in the trailers.  One of the more remarkable things about this film is how we are immediately drawn into Charlie and his angst. From frame one - this is a film that just GETS IT.  Voiceover is used to take us inside Charlie's head, but it never feels like an expositional cheat.  It's never intrusive either.  More often it's used as a transitional device and is only sparingly used to underscore scenes.

About halfway through, I realized something - this script was chock-full of little devices that I usually hate in these indie films.  A quick accounting:

- voiceover.
- a female object of desire who hews close to both the "emotionally damaged" dreamgirl and the manic pixie dream girl types.
- an exploration of how hard it is to be a gay teen.
- character dealing with suicide of a friend.
- character dealing with being sexually abused.
- an exploration of the social intricacies of high school hierarchy.
- a soundtrack that can easily be mistaken for a mixtape.
- characters bonding over music that they assure the other will "change your life."

For the last day or so, I've been trying to figure out how this film does things so right that it avoids the pitfalls.  Frankly, I fear it's like the old saw about how examining a joke is like dissecting a frog; you can't do so without killing it.  Still, I feel obligated to dive a little deeper, just to see what can be learned here.

I'm not saying that the above elements are always bad - but they DO have a tendency to be mishandled and often are cliched in indie films.  Garden State hits most of those boxes and I despise the film for being the sort of quintessential self-indulgent "filmmaker works through his own emo issues" movie.  And I know it's kinda trendy to hate on Garden State now, but I've been on this bandwagon since I noticed the most substantive thing any one would say about it was "It's such a good soundtrack."

I'm at the right age to have been in love with Natalie Portman for a while and not have it be creepy (she's about a year younger than me), so I should have been over the moon for her in Garden State, right?  It feels like the intent is to make her that quirky girl who makes a man "feel alive again."  And yet, it didn't work for me.  As likable as Portman can be, she never made me believe that girl could really exist.

Emma Watson's Sam is a different story.  It's probably unfair to say she's a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she definitely represents an archetype often overused in these indie films.  The difference is that I don't think it's possible to watch Perks and NOT fall a little in love with Sam.  She's fun, she's compassionate, but it doesn't feel like she exists only to further Charlie's story.  The script does a good job of alluding to her history and shading her background in a way that fleshes her out without detracting from the story. 

Better still, the film accomplishes all of this even while limited to just showing us Sam through Charlie's eyes.  Being restricted to what Charlie sees of her somehow provokes us to imagine there's more to her life beyond those fringes.  We never see her alone, so we're left to draw our own conclusions where the film doesn't fill in the blanks.

I think that's the key to the movie's appeal - the emotional identification with Charlie's perspective.  It was funny to me how much I felt like I identified with Charlie as I was watching it even though, upon reflection, our high school experiences were very different.  My school wasn't as cliquey, I had a lot of friends, many of whom I'd known for several years by that point.  Unlike Charlie my home life was relatively undramatic, and so on and so on.

But what this film nails is that everyone feels like an outsider in some way.  If we're lucky, we have that group of people that "gets" us.  Charlie's high school world looks the way that most of ours probably felt.  And the reason the film probably works is that it doesn't beat us over the head with this.  I feel like the films in this genre that go wrong are the ones that try too hard to make sure we get the point.  They're so fixated on making the statement that they deny us the discovery.

And that's it.  We can probably watch this film and remember what it felt like to fall hard for someone who was so close to us, but also unattainably far away at the same time.  One of the film's smartest moves is to not white-wash that into some kind of romantic comedy happy ending where Sam and Charlie realize that they're each other's one true love.  We're given an ending that is satisfying, but also realistic, perhaps even wistful.

Why does this movie work?

Because it makes you feel.

Some films that you don't watch - you experience.

You understand why Charlie falls in love with Sam.  You even see what she loves in him.  You project your own experience on the characters.  That makes it sound like the audience is doing all the work, but it takes skill to write material that can evoke those feelings.

Bravo Stephen Chbosky, and the cast that brought those words to life deserves equal praise.

Do you want your script to resonate like that?  Do you want your words to stand out from the massive stack that every reader goes through each week?

Make me feel.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hear me discuss Amazon Studios on the Broken Projector podcast

I really should have linked to this sooner considering that posts about Amazon Studios tend to be among my most-viewed.  This week, I had the honor of being the guest on Scott Beggs and Geoff LaTulippe's podcast Broken Projector.  Screenwriter Justin Marks also joined the conversation as we weighed the pros and cons of Amazon Studios' new venture into producing 14 pilots and then crowdsourcing the development of those pilots.

You can find the embedded post here.

You can download it directly here.

You can subscribe via iTunes here.

Broken Projector is one of my favorite podcasts, so it was a great pleasure to be invited on the show.  If you love movies, this is a podcast you need to be listening to every week.  As a bonus, you now know the proper "voice" to hear in your head as you read Geoff LaTulippe's tweets.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

See F. Scott Frazier's THE NUMBERS STATION this weekend!

Screenwriter and friend-of-the-blog F. Scott Frazier experiences a milestone this weekend with the theatrical release of his first film The Numbers Station.  It's getting only a limited release, but I know he'd appreciate it if those of you near those theaters would check it out.  Need some enticement?  Check out the trailer.

And here's a complete listing of cities and theaters where you can find it theatrically.

New York - AMC Empire 25
LA - AMC Burbank Town Center 8
Chicago - AMC Streets of Woodfield 20
Detroit - AMC Forum 30
Houston - AMC Studio 30 Houston
Dallas - AMC Grapevine Mills 30
Phoenix - AMC Ahwatukee 24
Cincinnati - AMC Newport on the Levee 20
Kansas City - AMC Studio 28
Tampa - AMC Veterans 24

But this being the 21st Century, theatrical isn't your only option.  You can also rent it on iTunes and watch it in the comfort of your own home. And just to sweeten the pot a little further, Scott will be doing a live-tweet tonight (Thursday), starting at 8pm PST.  Follow him at @ScreenWritten or use the hastag #TNS to follow the conversation.

And if you're interested in revisiting my interview with Scott, you can find it here:

I hope you enjoy the film!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Webshow: "I wrote it, now what do I do with it? Part 2 - What to look for in a contest"

It's not uncommon for me to get a question along the lines of, "I wrote it, now what do I do with it?" It's a good question, and one with no easy answers. So don't think of this continuing series AS those easy answers. There are merely points to ponder. This week, I talk about what sorts of things you should look for in a reputable screenwriting contest.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: Does Amazon Studios have any idea what it's doing?

Long-time readers probably remember I took great exception to the original mission of Amazon Studios, which seemed to be attempting one of the most egregious exploitations of amateur writers that I'd ever seen attempted.  Beyond that issue, I had the distinct impression that the people behind the then-new venture had little understanding of the industry they were attempting to "revolutionize."  While it would be improper to go into any great detail about some off-the-record encounters I had with those behind the scenes, I will say that nothing I learned through any channel - both official and unofficial - dissuaded me from that feeling.

But as Amazon Studios seemed to give up on their attempts to seize rights to all the amateur scripts willing to dive into its maw, I found less motivation to focus on their dealings.  The rules for those amateur submissions seemed less draconian, and more importantly, they seemingly did a pretty thorough job of alienating most amateurs by so clearly focusing on projects from established writers.

And yet, even after two and a half years and all those changes to the program, I still feel like the guys in charage are way too naive about the TV and film business.  What makes me say that?  Quotes like this from Amazon Studios director Roy Price:

TV Guide Magazine: Why did you cast and produce these pilots during network pilot season, when competition for talent is fierce? 

Price: That was not intentional. That's just the way it worked out. I guess if we had really planned it by the calendar then maybe going off cycle would have been a good idea. Maybe we'll try that in the future.

Did Price just admit they didn't put a lot of thought into the timing of their venture? They they were completely ignorant they were competing with network pilot season? That would be like failing to realize that you accidentally scheduled your Great Britain Appreciation party for the Fourth of July!  You can't have more than 12 months of experience in this business and NOT have an appreciation for how all-consuming pilot season is.

It would be one thing if they made a deliberate decision to go head-to-head with the big boys. (I don't know WHY they would, but at least it would be an informed choice.)  Price's phrasing indicates that they're only focused on their venture and not accounting for it's position relative to the rest of the ecosystem they inhabit.

That's... troubling.

Addendum - 1:00am PST: Just to toss this into the mix too - compare Amazon Studios foray into streaming programming with Netflix's.  Netflix brought in people like Kevin Spacey, David Fincher and Eli Roth - creators with strong visions.  Those are guys used to having creative control and all indications are that Netflix gave them fairly close to a free reign in developing their shows.  Meanwhile, Amazon's method is more along the lines of test-marketing and focus-grouping the hell out of their pilots.

Netflix = few-to-no notes.
Amazon Studios = mountain of notes.

Which one seems more conducive to the creative process?  Which one would you rather be working under when you ascended to the rank of show-runner?

So what do you guys think? 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reader questions - Listing achievements in queries and suspension of disbelief

Driscol asks:

My script recently made it to the top 10% of Nicholls and the Quarterfinalist round for Zoetrope and the Final Draft Big Break contest. Is that something worth including in queries? Or are agents/managers just going to see that and say to themselves, "He couldn't make it to semi-finalist?"

 You're probably not far off with your latter assumption.  As much of an achievement it is to be a Quarterfinalist, it's probably not quite impressive enough to pry open the door on its own.  If you've got a kickass logline, though, that's a different story.  But then, if you have a kick-ass logline, it'll probably stand on its own without the Quarterfinalist note.

Being in the top 10% of Nicholl entries is kind of the same thing.  Last year there were 7,197 entries in the competition, which means that 10% of that places in you in the top 720 or so scripts.  And since you didn't make the top 5%, it's safe to assume that there are at least 359 scripts that were better than yours.

When you break it down like that, it doesn't sound quite so good.  As with everything, it's a judgement call.  If it was me, I'd probably lead with the hook of the script rather than the achievements unless you've got some serious accolades.

Samuel asks a good question about plausibility:

I'm writing a script that relates to a couple trying to adopt a child from another country. One of the key plot turns in my script is when the couple discovers they don't fulfill a little known requirement that the foreign government holds for prospective adoptive parents. My problem is that when people read my script, they feel like this regulation is too far-fetched and that I bring it in only as a convenient plot device to serve my own purposes. However, the truth is that this particular foreign regulation is actually REAL and I'm not making it up. I have no idea on how to make that evident to the reader short of just telling him/her that when I give them the script to read. Is there any way to make it clear in a script that I'm not making something up?

Honestly, there isn't.  And I advise against putting a note in the script because that still doesn't solve the problem you have of figuring out how to convince an audience that this is real.

My go-to example in these cases is usually Apollo 13.  Almost every thing in that movie is accurate and there are some twists that would be called out if they sprang from the mind of a Hollywood writer.  The two I'm thinking of in particular are when Mrs. Lovell loses her wedding ring in the shower and then later when the NASA scientists are tasked with figuring out how to essentially fit a square peg into a round hole using only the materials on the space craft.

That task in particular seems incredibly difficult and somehow the scientists pull it off within an extremely tight time limit.  (There's even some drama when the astronauts make a mistake and tear a plastic bag that's essential to the procedure.  Fortunately that problem is easily solved.)

On the other hand, I'm sure I've heard of cases where writers have taken the step of removing the most implausible details of "based-on-a-true story" adaptations because they know the audience will be pulled out of the narrative by them.  In those cases, I'm pretty sure they were side details that were mostly unimportant to the larger story, so removing them wouldn't take the teeth out of the script.

But if your script hinges on this twist, you might have to just bite the bullet and go for it.  There's also the possibility that something else in your script isn't working and your audience has one foot already out the door when this new twist arises.  If you can reinforce the rest of the story, perhaps this one element won't be catastrophic.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Webshow: "I wrote it, now what do I do with it?" Part 1 - The Death of the Query Letter

It’s not uncommon for me to get a question along the lines of, “I wrote it, now what do I do with it?” It’s a good question, and one with no easy answers. So don’t think of this continuing series AS those easy answers. There are merely points to ponder. This week, I'll kick things off by talking about the death of the query letter.

There's plenty more to cover in subsequent weeks, so make sure you're back here every Wednesday for the latest installment.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's not easy picking a new fall TV lineup - Part II

Yesterday I discussed my favorite pilots of last season and attempted to perform a post-mortum on how many of them turned out.  Especially after watching 30 pilots, you realize how hard it is to make a great pilot.  The other thing you notice is that the vast majority of ordered pilots end up being inoffensive, neither truly terrible nor amazing.  Even if something doesn't set  you on fire, you can sometimes see the few virtues in them that would have lead an executive to roll the dice on the chances that that wet clay could be molded into a masterpiece.

But as with everything, there will be the pilots that can only leave you scratching your head, wondering what on Earth earned this thing a 13-episode order.  So without further adiou, my least favorite pilots of last season:

Beauty & The Beast 
This was pretty much the nadir of my pilot-viewing last year.  Kristin Kreuk seems like a really nice girl, but it's hard to think of a more severe case of miscasting than her role as an NYPD Detective.  Even more ridiculous was the fact that the titular "beast" probably isn't even the least attractive guy on the CW.  Critics found much to mock, teasing that it must be his tiny cosmetic scar that made him "ugly."  The creators attempt to address that criticism head on at the TCAs didn't pass the smell test.

On top of all of that was the fact that when the "Beast" gets angry, he hulks out and becomes violent.  I know I'm reading far too much into this, but in a world where teenage girls are lining up to get beaten up by Chris Brown, I found it worrysome that the subtext could be read as "Sure he gets really violent, but we love each other so it's okay!"

A season later - Shows what I know.  The show not only got picked up for a back-nine, but it's got a strong chance at a second season.  The ratings - aided likely in large part by its lead-in The Vampire Diaries - have been decent for the CW.  And just to drive a nail into the validity of my opinions, I've heard from people in a position to know that Kreuk's fans are more rabid for B&TB than they were for Smallville!  What can I say? I'm humbled.

Emily Owens, M.D.
I quite simply cannot evaluate this pilot any better than the Hollywood Reporter did, which said of the eponymous character, "Give this doctor 500 cc's of Shut Up. Please."  Go read their review. I agree with every word of it. I don't really want to get started on this one, except to note an oddity in the premise.  The basic conceit of the show is that for Emily, being a medical resident is just like being in high school.  Presumably this is to make the young viewers identify with the characters... except that on their shows with actual high schoolers, barely any time is spent in class and half the cast usually has some kind of instant-career that's way too mature for them.

A season later - Ratings sagged.  The CW ran all 13 eps, but not before canceling it.

The Neighbors
This was the critic's favorite whipping boy last season.  It wasn't the worst pilot of the year, but it was rather silly and seemed to go for the obvious jokes too often.  The pilot suggested week-after-week of stories where the aliens do something the humans find weird and the aliens explain it's a mundane part of their culture.  Honestly, it struck me after viewing this pilot that the broader tone might have been better suited to a three-camera sitcom rather than a single-cam.  (Unfortunately, the visual effects involved makes that suggestion easier said than done.)

A season later - It held on all season and it's not inconceivable that it'll get a second year.  Word is that it's improved creatively too.  I don't know if there's any critic who would have predicted that, so we're all eating crow.

I hate to say this, because there are a lot of people connected to this whose work I've enjoyed in the past, but this just didn't work on any level. Will & Grace's David Cohan and Max Mutchnick attempted another show about gay-and-straight best friends, and ended up with an assembly-line sitcom that felt like a parody of something that might have been made by rivals looking to ride the W&G wave in the late 90s. It just wasn't fun to sit through, and it didn't provide any real hook that might have compelled me to tune in on subsequent weeks. Given that there was such competition for CBS's few open slots, one wonders what the pilots they passed on looked like. Or maybe the network had just that much faith that famed director James Burrows would be able to help turn it around.

One season later: It was canceled after six episodes.

Next Caller
This is a bit of a cheat, as the pilot never made it to air and in fact had its six-episode order cut to four before production was suspended.  What was so wrong with it?  Basically it was another case where the show wasn't offering anything new.  It centered on Dane Cook as a chauvinistic radio personality whose new producer is (*gasp*) a woman who isn't gonna take his shit!  Is there sexual tension between them?  Of course there is!

I think the lesson to take from this is that the pilot didn't set up a big enough canvas to generate original stories.  Several networks ordered shows that covered familiar ground and that makes some amount of sense.  Even when an exec wants to take risks, they need to hedge their bets with safer material at the same time.  Next Caller is what happens when they play it too safe and fail to notice there's nothing to work with but a tired will-they-or-won't-they among polar opposites.

Notice anything?  In considering my most extreme reactions to what I watched, in terms of how the TV industry measures success, I was wrong at least as much as I was right.  Shows that looked certain to go the distance ended up dying on the vine, while straight-up losers endured through this season and beyond.

Now pretend that your job for the last several years required you to watch 20 pilots in the span of a few weeks and gamble the health of your network for the next year on your assessment of those pilots.  Not so easy, is it?

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's not easy having to pick a new fall lineup

Most of this season's pilots have wrapped or are in the process of wrapping, and over the next month the networks will be screening the new offerings as they prepare to build their fall line-ups.  I can't say that I envy them because experience has shown it's been harder to predict the winners.  This season alone offers ample evidence that a strong pilot isn't always evidence of a series that will take off.  Conversely, even a pilot that plays like a total loss might overcome its flaws or at least manage to find an audience.

Last season, I managed to get an early look at a vast majority of the pilots that were picked up.  The only ones I failed to screen early were a couple ABC comedies and just about all of CBS's lineup, save for Partners.  I had the advantage of seeing many of these before reviews were available, making most of my reactions untainted.  I thought I had a pretty good handle on the winners and losers - but how does my judgement look with most of the season behind us?  Let's take a look at the pilots I thought were surefire hits.

Last Resort -
I talked this one up in this early review, so there's no hiding from my own words. "It's a solid script from Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, with feature film quality production values and directing from Martin Campbell," I wrote. "The cast, headed by Andre Braugher, is solid. This is efficient storytelling at its best. When this pilot was over, I wanted to see what happened next and I couldn't wait to spend time with these characters."

A season later - I still stand by all of that.  It WAS a great pilot.  And yet the show didn't make it past its initial 13 episode order.  Some of that was the fault of a timeslot pileup. (There are few worse slots for an ABC series than Thursdays at 8pm.) Creatively the show had it's ups and downs, but the real misfire was the implausblity of our heroes not killing island kingpin Surat by the third episode.  This pilot had some strong critical support, so you can't blame that, though perhaps an audience feared the premise would be hard to sustain.  It's also possible they were leery of investing in a serialized show until the network showed more faith in it.  Either way, I backed a horse that didn't finish the race.

The Following -
I loved the pilot (also reviewed in that older post) for its dark tone and willingness to push the limits of what was on TV.  Bacon was compelling and the ending suggested creator Kevin Williamson was interested in examining what drives people to kill and to worship psychopaths.  At the time, I remember opining that while the pilot was incredibly compelling, I had my doubts about if it could appeal to a mainstream audience, considering how dark and brutal it was.

A season later - regular readers of these pages probably recall the two columns where I took The Following to task for its weaker attributes.  Creatively the show has fallen far from the heights of the pilot.  But the ratings? It premiered strong and has remained one of the few successes among new series, so much so that it's already been renewed for a second season.

The Carrie Diaries - 
I wasn't even the audience for this and I really liked this.  I hated every second of Sex & the City that I ever had to endure, but this Josh Schwartz effort was fun, charming and had a likeable heroine in AnnaSophia Raab.  Given the CW's demo, I thought this would be a slam dunk creatively and commercially.

A season later - I've not kept up with the show, so I can't speak to its quality.  However, despite a massive ad campaign, the show's ratings have underwhelmed.  Maybe all the tweens are just watching via online streaming, but the picture painted by conventional metrics suggests viewers are apathetic to the adventures of young Carrie Bradshaw.

Nashville -
Based on the promo trailers, I expected this to basically be Country Strong: The Series.  This might have been the most pleasant surprise of last pilot season.  In some 43 minutes, Callie Khouri created a whole world and a good half-dozen characters who had so much immediately depth that one might assume this episode was from a second or third season.  The only aspect of the pilot I didn't like was the political angle.  The world-building alone makes it clear why this show was ordered.

A season later - Truth be told, I still am not invested in much of the political story.  Avery's story could also disappear without making me weep.  Yet despite a few silly detours, the lead actresses have been given a lot to work with.  It helps paper over the weaker elements and allows the show to really shine when the show nails the personal drama.  Ratings may have been so-so, but it feels like there's a lot more growth potential than most of the other shows that have survived their first seasons.

Four very strong pilots, four very different (and often unexpected) results on the business side.  As an exec, I probably would have ordered all four - and yet, it appears only one of them can be counted as a true success from a ratings standpoint.  It points up the dilemma most execs face - great pilots aren't always synonymous with great series, nor does quality writing or critical praise ensures a fanbase devoted enough to make the show profitable.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about some of last season's pilots that failed to impress me and how their fortunes fared

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Future Filmmakers - an update on some Campus MovieFest winners

Some of you might remember last year when I attended Campus MovieFest and spent several posts spotlighting the work of several of the young filmmakers there.  By sheer coincidence, within the last week, I heard from two of the filmmakers who were featured in that series.

First, Nicholas Saier let me know that he's finishing up his feature film "Ipseity." He sent along a trailer that I'd love to share with all of you.  You might remember Nick's film "The Strong One," which won Best Picture and Best Director at last years Gala.

IPSEITY Theatrical Trailer from Silo 12 Productions on Vimeo.

I also heard from Charlie Myers, whom I interviewed last year when I featured "Man Crush," which was produced by his CMF team at Indiana University. "Man Crush" won for Best Comedy and Best Actor at last year's Campus MovieFest Gala. Charlie has been working on a five-part serial called "The Morning Serial."

It's great to see these guys staying active after college!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bitter embarrasses himself begging Steven Spielberg for a job via YouTube

It's been a while since we had a new video on this site, and what better way to kick things off with a fad that's sweeping the nation - asking celebrities for favors over the internet.  It's hiring season in Hollywood, particularly with regard to television and the Bitter Puppet is aggressively looking for a new job, which lead to.... this...

In all seriousness, I am ready to move on from this business of script reading, folks.  I'm hoping that this is the year I can transition into being a writer's assistant, for as we've discussed a number of times, that's an effective stepping stone on the way towards writing for TV.  Hell, I'm not too proud to go in for a writers' PA gig either.

I'm aware that these gigs are competitive and that the slots that don't go to people the writers have worked with before are quickly reserved for studio or network-mandated favors.  But I'm also a firm believer in the fact that there's always a way in through the door - or a way to make your own door.

So to anyone out there who might be hiring for such a position, I hope to meet with you soon.  Don't worry - I have plenty of references.  (You'd be surprised how many people are willing to vouch for a puppet!)  Feel free to drop me a line at with any leads.  And best of luck to everyone who's waiting to hear about the fate of their pilot!

And for those of you who enjoy these videos, a new stretch of episodes kicks off next week!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reader questions: putting fictional characters into real history and making sure your idea is original

Let's take a few questions.  Doug asks:

I love your blog and wanted to ask a quick question about a specific subject matter: historical fiction. Specifically, incorporating a fictional character into real events over a period of time. Is it too risky to attempt, especially for a first-time screenwriter? Or if risky is not the word, maybe too daunting when maybe something less complex might be a better alternative for a first attempt at screenwriting?

That's a pretty broad question, and as with many concerns - a lot depends on the story you're trying to tell.  For example, Forrest Gump does this sort of thing rather well, but it could be argued that a lot of that has to do with the film's tone.  The movie manages to be dramatic while still having a light enough touch that moments like Forrest meeting President Kennedy don't come across as too silly.  Perhaps mastering that delicate balance is something that's beyond a first-time writer, but then, there are LOT of things beyond the first-time writer.

There's also the Titanic approach, where a fictional character is weaved into established history and even interacting with significant players in the real events.  This is an approach that would demand a lot of research and the writing ability to translate that research into compelling drama.  The degree of difficulty on that is higher than your standard spec, so it's probably fair to say the first-timer may be vexed by it.

I think this comes down to knowing how to walk before you run.  If you've never written a screenplay before, the challenge of knowing when to be true to established events and knowing when to take dramatic license can be a tricky one.  But I think part of pulling off difficult projects is the knowledge that it SHOULDN'T be easy.

If it was me, I'd cut my teeth on something less ambitious first, knowing that other story will always be there for me when I'm ready for it.  But if you're feeling bold and don't have any delusions that it'll be a cakewalk, maybe you want to take the plunge.

Sharup asks:

I have one quick question: Is there a way I can find out that if a logline or concept I've come up with has been already done before or is in current development by someone else? I'm currently working on a couple of screenplays but I'd like to ensure that the storylines behind them are purely original before committing so much time and effort into writing them and then have a reader tell me that it's already been done before. 

Well, you could always try googling your idea. Regularly reading all the entertainment news and trade websites should keep you abreast of a lot of things in the pipeline too.  You also should remember that the story concept is just one part of what makes a script great.  Even if you come up with a concept that's been done before, if your execution is unique, you can overcome that familiarity.  After all, both Armageddon and Deep Impact deal with an asteroid headed for Earth, but the two movies almost couldn't be more differnt.

Perhaps a more relevant example is that of OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN, both of which are built around terrorist attacks on the White House.  I imagine that many a reviewer will enjoy drawing comparisons between the two once the latter opens later this year.

Friday, April 5, 2013

In memoriam of Roger Ebert, my first film professor

I don't remember my first encounter with Roger Ebert's work, which is fitting in a way because at least in the realms of my memory it's as if he's always existed, much like Mickey Mouse, Superman and Mr. Rogers.  It's impossible for me to remember a time when I didn't associate him (and his partner Gene Siskel) with film criticism.  That's one of the biggest reasons that the man's death yesterday at age 70 came as such a blow.

It shouldn't have been a huge shock.  Ebert had spent much of the last decade battling cancer off and on.  It cost him his jaw and his speech, but thanks to his blog, not his voice.  He'd been a prolific blogger and reviewer even since having to retire from his TV show, but just earlier this week announced that he was scaling back his workload due to a recurrence of his cancer.  It was inevitable that cancer would take him, though it was still sad to see it come so quickly.

His passing leaves an undeniable void in the world of film criticism.  It's strange to be mourning the loss of someone I never met, but his voice was so strong in everything he wrote that's it's impossible not to feel like I knew him.  I remember checking one of his Movie Companions out of the library when I was about seven or eight.  At first, I'd merely read the reviews of the films I'd seen.  For some reason it was important to me to know what he thought about Star Wars or Superman.

One detail I recall particularly well is in his review of Return of the Jedi, he singled out a small moment when the Rancor keeper mourns the loss of his beloved pet.  It was a moment I knew, but at that age, I had always felt it was played for laughs.  Roger saw it a different way, as a small moment of humanity and emotion that added a bit of texture to this space fantasy.  I'd never considered those beats from that point of view and I know it opened my eyes to seeing similar grace notes in other films.

I eventually ended up reading nearly every review in his companion books.  To this day, I'm sure there are film whose plots I know exclusively from their coverage in those books.  The thing I loved about Ebert's reviews is that he always made an effort to explain his opinion in a way that you could respect and understand his assessment, even if you disagreed with it.  A lot of critics don't take the time to do that.  The benefit of Ebert's approach is that after you read enough reviews of his, you had a pretty good understanding of the ven diagram that expressed the overlap in your tastes and his. I didn't read Ebert's reviews because I necessarily needed him to agree with me. Often I wanted to see where he and I parted ways and what I could learn from the divergence.

It's fair to say Ebert was my first film professor.  Before there was, Ebert's companions contained his Movie Glossary, which was the first place I ever saw someone point out movie "rules" (or cliches) like "Fallacy of the Talking Killer" (the instance where the bad guy merely has to pull the trigger and kill the hero, but can't resist either gloating or explaining his plan, thus giving the good guy a chance to turn the tables or get rescued by his buddy), or the observation that no chase scene in an exotic local is complete unless a fruit cart is overturned.  One odd "rule" I distinctly remember is "No good movie has ever contained a hot air balloon."  (Roger allowed that The Wizard of Oz was an exception.)  I absorbed all those "rules" and at the age of 10, vowed that when I made a movie, I'd subvert as many of those cliches as possible.  I guess time will tell on that count.

Back in the early days of letterboxed videos, it was Ebert who enlightened my nine year-old self about aspect ratios, and the fact that the black bars on the top of the screen actually meant I was seeing more of the original picture, not less.  In a 1990 essay, Ebert used the widescreen video release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the entry point into this discussion.  At the time, most people hated the black-bars at the top and bottom of their screen.  They preferred the cropped and pan-and-scan transfers even if it completely messed with the composition and meant you were no longer watching the film the way it was originally composed.

The argument that clinched it for me was when he quoted Spielberg's statements about how this argument would be inverted in the future.

"The real irony is going to come when high-def TV arrives," he said. "High-def will have a wide screen. So now, instead of black bands at the top and bottom of wide-screen movies, you'll have black bands at the left and right of the old pre-1953 movies. What will happen then? Will the same people insist on cropping the older movies from the top and bottom, to force them into wide screen? That would be great. You'd have an Astaire and Rogers musical with their feet cut off. The message is always the same: A movie should be seen in the same screen ratio in which it was filmed. Otherwise, you're missing something." 

Quite a prescient statement more than two decades ago, wasn't it?  From that time forward, I was a convert to preserving the original aspect ratio. (In fact, this argument made such an impression on me that I was nearly able to reconstruct Spielberg's quote from memory.  Only after I went to the trouble of paraphrasing it did I decide to see if the original article was out on Google. I assure you, my recall for some of my film professors' lectures isn't nearly as accurate.)

But I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Siskel & Ebert.  There was a point in time where I tried to watch that show every week.  It's easy to forget that at that time, the internet was new enough that there weren't a multiude of online critics.  There was no Rotten Tomatoes to tell us what the mainstream critical consensus was - Siskel and Ebert WERE the critical consensus.

Often they agreed, but the real fun was when they disagreed.  They'd openly mock each other's opinions and force the other to defend their like or dislike of a film.  Gene seemed more likely to give a thumbs down if a film displeased him in any way, while Roger took a broader view.  He'd give a thumbs up to a movie that might have fallen short in some ways, but still managed to succeed on some levels.

However this usually put Roger in the position of defending a thumbs-up on a film that was of questionable quality.  Gene never let him forget that he praised Cop and a Half and Benji The Hunted.  But you know what? I liked that Roger always went with his gut.  He wasn't concerned with looking like a stuffy critic who was afraid to praise more populist films for fear of losing credibility.

That said, he wasn't above ribbing Gene for his reviews, and perhaps my favorite moment of their show was when Gene offered a half-hearted endorsement of Broken Arrow, and then allowed Roger to twist his vote from thumbs up to thumbs down.

I could spend all week linking to Ebert reviews and Siskel & Ebert clips like that.  Those were two guys who loved film and loved discussing film for a living.  Too often I feel that passion is missing from many modern reviewers, or if it's present, it's lacking the insight that Roger Ebert's writing often contained.

No one was better than Roger Ebert at reacting to a film on an emotional level, and knowing how to translate that emotional reaction into an intellectual discussion.  Indeed, he once said, Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you," but he was wise enough to know the emotion was only the beginning of criticism. Too many critics are content to proclaim "It stinks!" and just leave it at that.  Ebert's reviews could be blunt and venomous, but they were funny and well-written as well.  I always got the sense that he went to each new movie with his mind open to the reality it presented.  It never felt like he rooted for a movie to be bad, and that's why on those occasions when a film really insulted his intelligence, he could be brutal.  I do my best to live up to that example.

It saddens me that we've lost that voice, but as numerous eulogies over the last day have shown, Ebert inspired many others.  I count myself among that number.  If it weren't for Ebert's reviews and essays, this blog might be very different today.  If you don't know Ebert's work, do yourself a favor - go to his site and start reading, and then go to YouTube and start watching him argue with Gene Siskel.

I don't think we'll ever have film critics as influential as Siskel and Ebert were, and Roger's passing marks the end of an era that I'm sorry we have to leave so soon.  Farewell, Roger.  I hope a man who railed against film cliches will permit me the obvious indigence of concluding this tribute by saying, "The balcony's closed."

Chicago Sun-Times obituary for Roger Ebert

Statement from Chaz Ebert, Roger's wife

Monday, April 1, 2013

How technical to get when talking about futuristic settings?

I confess... right up until the end, I considered laying an April Fool's prank on you guys.  I even got as far as writing up some of the post until I remembered that three years later, some people STILL stumble across that fake Wonder Woman script review and buy it as legit.  (This, despite the fact that if they read the comments, they'd see people call it out for what it was.)

So today is going to be a serious post.  My apologies to all of you who are now denied my take on BACK TO THE FUTURE PART IV.

Scott asks:

With a story taking place in the not too distant future, how much technical stuff should I be including in the script itself? My script is set in NYC in the year 2026 A.D. I find myself trying to explain technical gadgets and futuristic surroundings. Should I leave these things up to Mr. Cameron when he decides he can’t wait to turn my script into his next Avatar?

My take: I don't know if "technical" is the right word.  My own feeling is that if you're trying to create a futuristic world, your description should actually do everything possible to create that sense of the advanced.  If I read a script that takes place in 2073, that would shouldn't feel like our present.  There needs to be a feel and a texture to everything that makes it evident on every page that when I watch the movie, I will not be seeing the visuals of the present day.

This is a hard thing to do.  I once read a pro script set almost a century in the future, but the writer didn't push himself enough in painting the picture of that world.  Despite my best efforts, my visualization of the script kept defaulting to present day environments.  The trick is, you still can't get caught up in technical details.  If a character gets into a flying car, obviously that needs to be said, but you don't have to spend three paragraphs explaining how the anti-gravity inducers operate.

But think about what it must be like to write a Star Wars film.  If you have characters walking through the halls of Cloud City, there are certain visuals that need to be brought to mind.  We should have a sense of what's being seen through the windows, the sorts of people filling the halls, the ornate doors, perhaps the maintenance workers who are repairing the lifts, and so on.  If you're describing the carbon freezing chamber, don't just say it's a big room with smoke and a platform, really try to give us a sense of what it feels like to be in that room.

Think of any major scene in the Star Wars trilogy, and it's a good bet that it's in a memorable environment, whether it's the cantina of Mos Eisley, the Emperor's throne room, the corridors of the Death Star, or the decadence of Jabba's Palace.  A reader doesn't necessarily need technical details like the exact dimensions of the room, but it sure helps us to have enough information to visualize those settings.

We're not mind-readers, so if you envision a setting that goes beyond run-of-the-mill, make sure the words on the page aid us in that.