Friday, January 18, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - The Puppet and 12-Step Screenwriting

After this blog had been established for a few years, a friend suggested to me that I should find a way to expand my audience to YouTube. At the time, it was enough of a novelty that it wasn't unreasonable for someone with an existing following to have a shot at reaping some extra coin vial ad revenues.

There was just one problem - having been concerned from the start that such blunt criticism could hurt my employability (remember kids, the internet is written in pen), I wasn't keen on throwing all that away so soon and subjecting the internet to my face. In pondering this dilemma, the solution arose initially as a joke - what if I used a puppet and HE became the face of The Bitter Script Reader?

If I thought merely being anonymous added a level of mystique to my writing, speaking through a puppet only inflated that novelty. I don't think anyone would have sat for screenwriting lessons delivered by the "real" me on video - but put that stuff in a puppet's mouth and it becomes almost surreal enough to get the audience more engaged.

We first introduced the puppet in "Shit Script Readers Say," figuring it couldn't hurt to tie into a then-popular internet meme. Alas, I learned very quickly I was no Jim Henson and there was quite a learning curve involved in making the puppet come alive. It's a very subtle thing, giving a puppet life on screen and I came out of the experience with a new respect for real puppeteers.



After that video, we soon transitioned to basic screenwriting lessons. I tried to offer my own sort of MasterClass (before there even WAS such a thing as MasterClass) via 12-Step Screenwriting. It was a weekly series that took you through the broad basics of writing a screenplay, act by act.


I tried hard for this series to be a guide rather than a list of "rules" and mandates that things MUST happen by particular page numbers. Hopefully it was taken in that spirit. I try to be a guide more than a guru. People have told me that this helped them understand some of the basic concepts of screenwriting and I'm always flattered to hear people got something out of this.

For now, the puppet is retired. A big factor was that it was a lot of effort for very little reward. I found it limiting to always have to stick the puppet behind a desk and I feared the audience would become similarly bored too. We considered a couple sketches, more elaborate pieces that would have the Bitter puppet interacting with people and other puppets, but the simple fact was that the effort of producing those videos on a weekly basis was greater than what we were getting out of it.

This reminded me of something that occasionally slipped my mind - my goal was to be a professional writer, with blogging being sort of my side hustle. The more I put into YouTube, the more I was working harder at being The Bitter Script Reader than actually writing screenplays and spec episodes. When I've got something to say, I can dash off a blog post pretty quickly, but a video? That's at least an entire afternoon of shooting and then editing.

If you consider Bitter self-promotion, then then lesson I learned here was to not let self-promotion eclipse the product. As important as it is to market yourself and network with others in pursuit of work, all of it is meaningless without product to show for it.

That's the screenwriting lesson no one ever gives you - you only get to spend each moment once, so make sure you're putting enough of those moments into your pages.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Why SCREAM is one of the best films ever made

One of my all-time favorite movies is SCREAM and so it's little shock that over the years I've found opportunities to blog about it. It's one of the best horror films ever made and I honestly think probably ranks among the best spec scripts ever written. I feel like there's a lot to be learned from it, and these posts cover quite a bit of ground:

Lessons from Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson's SCREAM

Why I like Wes Craven's characters and what I fear from SCREAM 4

This is where so many horror specs I read fail. I see a lot of scripts that are clearly trying to be franchises, to the point where all they've done is work out the gimmick that will drive the series. So much time is invested in giving the killer a cool look, or a gruesome gimmick to his kills. Where they fail is in coming up with a strong dramatic arc to sustain the story. Too often the cast of characters is treated as little more than a future body count: a dead asshole jock here, a slutty girl with nice breasts there. 

And sure, there are plenty of bad B-movies made every year. There's a long list of produced slashers that never dug deep. 

But the horror thrillers that endure? The ones that future filmmakers grow up wanting to emulate? Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream - they all have an important element in common: strong character arcs for their protagonists. Your hero isn't the guy wielding the blade and drawing blood. Never forget that.

Scream's Sidney Prescott: Horror's Greatest Heroine:

Without hesitation I picked Sidney Prescott, who was not only horror's greatest heroine, but possibly one of the strongest modern teen females ever created. She's perhaps the best-realized version of the girl-next-door turned heroine. When she takes on the killer, she doesn't have the advantage of super powers, cool weapons or military training (ala Buffy, Ripley, or Sydney Bristow.) She's also got her shit together a lot better than some of the WB female leads of the day, who tended towards mopeyness, martyrdom, and wallowing in their own baggage.

Yes, like most heroines, she's got some issues from a dead parent, but unlike say Lana Lang or Joey Potter, those issues don't DEFINE her. The wound is there, but it's not stopping her from interacting normally with her friends and it doesn't feel like she uses every conversation as an excuse to pick at that scab. She has friends, she's well-adjusted and she's generally likable. You get the sense you could carry on a conversation with young Sidney, and not once get the urge to smack her, or feel like she's making it all about herself.

I'm aware she's a descendant of Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy and Halloween's Laurie, but I feel she is a successor that improves on the original. They're both icons in their own right, but Sidney is a better-realized character in my opinion.

The opening of SCREAM 4 - expectations and misdirection:

The opening scene initially left me disappointed, until I got what the creators were going for. We open with two teens - played by Pretty Little Liars' Lucy Hale and 90210's Shenae Grimes - who pretty much embody everything the original Scream characters weren't. One is dumb enough to keep talking to a Facebook stalker, and another one when faced with a threatening phone call from the killer, first hangs up, and then later passes the phone to her friend. (Grimes by the way, makes ZERO effort to distinguish this character from her 90210 role, right down to the same acting ticks.) Moments later, these girls are dumb enough to actually open the front door when it might as well be flashing "KILLER ON THE OTHER SIDE."

So it's no shock when these two are swiftly dispatched, and just as I'm thinking "Wow, that was oddly tensionless for a Scream opening," the title card for Stab 5 comes up and I realize the joke is on me. It puts a clever spin on what we just saw. After all, in a world where Stab 5 is supposed to be of questionable quality, Shenae Grimes WOULD be its Drew Barrymore. Consider that a point for the casting people. (This is probably the best place to note that Scream 4 continues the series tradition of strong casting, not just for the genre, but for a feature in general.)

I have too much affection for most of the SCREAM characters to want to see them actually killed off, but after the latest film, my relief at their survival made me realize that sometimes what I wanted doesn't always lead to the best story. And so I wrote this: Scream 4 - when a core character needs to die:

Sometimes in order to make these stakes real, you've got to sacrifice a beloved character. The thinking is that if the audience sees you gun down an audience favorite, you've proven that affection for the characters alone won't save them and everyone is fair game. Supposedly, when Return of the Jedi was being developed, screenwriter Lawrence Kasden was a major proponent for killing off one of the core characters at some point in the story. He felt it would have been more powerful for the Rebel victory to come at some cost, and he was a major advocate for killing a character early in Act Three, so that the audience would worry that they were just the first of several.

And finally, check out my three-part interview with SCREAM 4 co-producer Carly Feingold, starting here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

10 Years of Bitter - "Black Swan" from script to screen

As you know, one of the great joys of being a reader is that sometimes scripts cross your desk years before they're made - and often with different talent attached. There are times you'll read something and be asked to evaluate it for Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Pratt, or Anne Hathaway. That knowledge results in examining the script with a completely different eye. "Can I see these actors doing this?" "Does knowing the director's style inform how I visualize this script?"

Remember the Anne Hathaway/Robert DeNiro comedy THE INTERN? I read it when it was going to be Tina Fey and Michael Caine! As you can probably imagine, with two actors like that, their screen personas are so defined that it instantly gave you a feel for the characters. Change that to Hathaway and DeNiro and you get a different kind of energy - but it still works! It doesn't always happen that way, and sometimes the intel you have at the time impacts the coverage. It's one reason why you might hear that such-and-such script was passed on all over town before someone took a chance and it ended up a huge hit.

The other obvious reason this happens is that screenplays are constantly rewritten, often deep into production. Then, the editing of the final film can also dramatically transform the film from what a reader, producer or agent had to imagine years earlier. One of the most interesting instances of this happening in my career was when I read BLACK SWAN years before it was released. I was given Mark Heyman's June 2009 draft and I'm pretty sure that at the time, no actors were attached. Darren Aronofsky was attached, but I don't remember being given this information specifically before my read.

Around the time BLACK SWAN was making the awards rounds, I wrote up a four-part series breaking down some of the major differences between the script and the film. In Part 1, I talk about the character of Lily, played by Mila Kunis in the final film. In the released film, there's no doubt that Lily is a real person, but to those who read the early draft, there was a pretty heavy suggestion that Lily was something... different.

There's a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the script is very heavy-handed with the resemblance between the two. There are several scenes where the reader is shown again and again that they look exactly alike. Part of this is that the script is describing something that will be more elegantly seen than read, but it also feels like there was an attempt in the final film to simplify the doubling moments.

Clearly, we can understand why the script would play up that subtext. After all, this is about a dancer who has to play essentially two roles in Swan Lake, so the duality theme is already an organic part of the story. The problem sets in when the script doesn't know when to quit. It bludgeons the reader with the symbolism to such an extent that I recall wondering if the same actress was going to play both roles. After all, the writing makes the distinction only between "looks exactly like Nina" and "looks a lot like Nina" so it seemed like they could have gone with casting Portman in both parts and merely giving her a slightly edgier look for Lily - except when she had to be EXACTLY the same as Nina.

Why did I think Portman might play both parts? Because this draft has moments that strongly imply that Lily might not be real at all - that she's just a figment of Nina's imagination. We see Lily interact with other characters, simultaneous to Nina being there, but those who've seen Fight Club know that isn't always a guarantee that both characters are real.

In Part II, I discuss Nina's character, including how changing one moment completely informs her character in a different way:

In the script, she goes home and dances in her room until she completes the difficult coda, eventually beaming with satisfaction when she nails it. The next morning, she dolls herself up and reports her accomplishment to the director. He's unimpressed and then forces a kiss on her. It's her aggressive reaction to that which convinces him she's got what it takes to be the Swan Queen.

If you've seen the film, you'll know that all of that is pretty much how it plays out on-screen - with one crucial difference. In the movie, Nina doesn't complete the coda, but lies that she did. Again, I think this is a more interesting character choice. It's an even better example of how fragile and desperate she is for the part - it's the first sign of just how she'll sell out her integrity to get the part. In the script, she's coming from the perspective that she earned it and is capable of it. In the movie, she's more like a student begging their teacher to change their B to an A because they have to have an A! It gives Nina an interesting flaw.

In Part III, I address how another rewrite added tension to a sequence by adding the character of Beth into a scene she wasn't a part of before:

In the film, there's a sequence where the director presents Nina to the ballet's patrons, while attempting to make it appear that Beth is retiring gracefully. During this gathering, a drunken Beth confronts Nina outside, flat-out accusing her of sleeping with the director to get the part. (As we've already discussed, Nina doesn't sleep with the director to get the part, but she does sleep with him after getting it. She loses a little of the high ground there.) It's after this heated scene that Nina and the director go back to his place and he starts asking her about her sex life. (He claims it's important for the role.) The next morning, Nina is with the other dancers when the company gets the news that Beth was struck by a car and is hospitalized. The director thinks she did it on purpose.

In the script, the same plot points occur, but they are arranged differently. After a few scenes that make it clear that Beth's "retirement" is not by choice, Nina and the others get word of Beth's accident. The gala for the patrons is just a few scenes after that, and for the most part, it serves the same purpose as the scene in the film.

But the scene is much more engaging in the movie. Putting Beth in that scene adds an additional level of tension. Will she make a scene? Will she confront Nina and the director in public?

Part IV deals with one of the most talked-about scenes in the film - the Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis sex scene:

I'll be honest, this is one of those scenes where the writing confused the hell out of me on a first read. I just couldn't see how they were going to commit this to film and not have it come out like a chaotic mess.

The scene starts off with the two of them pawing each other and Lily throwing Nina onto the bed and straddling her. Lily takes off her top and kisses Nina and when Nina opens her eyes "Lily now looks identical. Her DOUBLE. (She goes in and out of looking like her double and like Lily as they continue to make love.)"

Then we're told "Nina flips Lily over, becomes the dominant one (though who is whom becomes very confused.)" After a few aggressive moves, there's a brief moment where Nina is alone in bed, masturbating. Then suddenly, Lily is back. Nina climaxes and then two kiss lying side by side, "almost like Nina is kissing a mirror" the script says.

This was a fun series to write and I'm a little disappointed I never did anything quite like this again. I might have to put something like this on the to-do list.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts: The Same Old Three Acts - a comparison of several gurus' structural philosophies

I'm humble enough to admit that one of the most interesting posts in the entire history of my site wasn't even written by me. My friend J.J. Patrow once took an intriguing look at the way multiple experts in story and drama looked at the three-act structure and came back with some fascinating conclusions. You can find the original version of this post here:


THE SAME OLD THREE ACTS
By J.J. Patrow

Although good screenwriting isn’t easy, it can be learned through study and practice. That’s what we’re taught to believe. And we must believe it because thousands of people have been inspired to learn the craft, generating a huge market for screenwriting lectures, classes, workshops, instructional videos, and how-to books. It has also generated just as many reader opinions about which screenwriting guru offers the best advice.

Some authors champion a paint-by-the-numbers approach. The “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder comes to mind. Other authors counter that step-by-step guides are misguided. In the introduction to The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay, by David Howard and Edward Mabley, Frank Daniel states that ”…the worst thing a book on screenwriting can do is to instill in the mind of the beginner writer a set of rules, regulations, formulas, prescriptions, and recipes.” (xix) And yet others choose the middle of the road. Andrew Horton writes in his book, Writing the Character Centers Screenplay, that writers should blaze new paths, but still “…pay attention to story and structure and other elements.” (2)
If there’s one reality that all how-to authors seem to agree on, however, it is that there is a saturation of screenplay books, but their work is worth your time and money. It’s special. Maybe this is true. But one should question if new screenwriting books are really fresh, seeing as most of them visit – or rather, revisit – how to construct the same old three-act story.

The generic construction of the “Hollywood Three-Part Screenplay” is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t require too much discussion. I don’t mean to imply that the nuances of screenplay writing are simple, but learning to recognize the essential building blocks of the Hollywood screenplay and their proper order is fairly basic. And this basic knowledge is what most screenplay books seek to impart. The result is that they end up parroting each other. Sure, the average author may bring a more accessible voice, a particular emphasis on character or genre, a unique set of details, or even a set of fresh terms for pre-existing structural components, but the meat of the subject goes unchanged.

Most authors of popular screenwriting books spend a lot of time discussing the three-act structure, which was thoroughly explored by Syd Field in the 1970s. Odds are he inspired them to write a how-to screenwriting book in the first place. And prior to Field there was already a well-documented tradition of the workings of three-act stories, which originated in mythology. These had been discussed for centuries and can be found in the writings of Aristotle to Joseph Campbell. So it is not a stretch to imagine that a lot of what screenwriting books offer is partly a review of earlier works.

To better explore this, it is helpful to visually demonstrate the way certain authors instruct their readers to write screenplays. Each offers an interesting take on storytelling and has plenty to offer, but they are clearly dipping into the same source. Indeed, before someone declares that the “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” is revolutionary, they should read Field or Campbell. Even Snyder suggests this in his introduction.

Aristotle presented the basic three-act structure in Poetics. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.



Joseph Campbell, having spent a lifetime studying mythology, noted similarities in the story structure of the classic hero journey in A Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. He found that in most mythological stories there was a beginning (the Call to Adventure), a middle (the Road of Trials), and an end (The Return). George Lucas made great use of Campbell’s insights when writing Star Wars. And Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythical Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, outlined how the components of Campbell’s hero journey applied neatly into many Hollywood films.



Writing in the 1970s, Syd Field defined the essential components of the three-act screenplay as consisting of a set up, followed by a confrontation, and then a resolution. He also added additional story landmarks, such as the inciting incident. Whether he realized it or not, these landmarks fit quite neatly into Campbell’s model.



Blake Snyder, a fan of Campbell and Field, created a “Beat Sheet” that parrots those who came before him, though he uses his own terms. His placement of story landmarks, such as when to “show what needs to be changed,” is a variation on Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” and Field’s introduction points for the story’s “Situation” and “Premise.”



Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot, explores the character arc between the key three-act points, which he calls The Beginning: “Life As It Was,” The Middle: “Life Torn Apart,” and the end “Life as it Now.” Although quite detailed, these emotional markers are also in keeping with Campbell.



In his book, The 3rd Act, Drew Yanno explores the end of the film and how it relates to a question posed in the beginning, further complementing the works of his processors. He defines the three acts as the Question, the Debate, and the Answer.



When all the graphs are overlaid there are clearly similarities between each book. Unfortunately, following this chart will not guarantee a blockbuster, but it will illustrate a point. Each of these how-to authors is not as different from each other as some might expect. Consider this the next time you read a new screenplay book and, when you sit down to write, remember the words of Robert McKee: “Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.” (Story, 3)

J.J. Patrow is also the artist behind The Bitter Script Reader's new logo.

Monday, January 14, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Looking at Time-Travel movies and Sex Comedies

I had forgotten about some of my early attempts at theme weeks on this blog. In addition to deep dives on specific movies and TV shows, I also occasionally did weeklong looks at particular genres of films.

Time-travel films were the first to get this feature, starting with Lessons from The Terminator, and contrasted it with Lessons from Back to the Future. Using these two movies, I explained the difference between closed-loop time-travel and multiple timelines time-travel. A closed loop is when the movie reveals that the time-travel only made possible the history that was always meant to happen. The multiple timelines version of this is when the characters can actually alter history.

Then, to make everyone's head explode, I explored how parallel and alternate timelines worked, using J.J. Abrams's STAR TREK. If you're writing a time-travel movie, you MSUT be consistent about which type of time travel you're operating under, otherwise the audience will end up more confused than you want. (And yes, the Terminator film series doesn't stay consistent film-to-film on this, though each film is internally consistent on its own.

Sex Comedy Week took a lot of cues from bad scripts I'd seen over the years. In Furries Aren't Funny, I groaned at the overuse of the furry fetish to get a shocking laugh out of the audience. There are so many odd kinks and fetishes out there that it felt lazy to go for the same "Ohmigod! He/She is a Furry!" joke. Be creative about this - or better yet, make up a fetish whole cloth.

Along the same lines, I ranted against cheap titillation and gross-out sex gags. If you guessed this means I'm not a fan of AMERICAN PIE, reward yourself with a cookie right now. I'd seen so many gags about bodily fluids in scripts that I had to devote an entire post to it.

I kinda feel like I should go back and cover some of these topics in greater depth, but the way I blog now, I'll probably wait until the subjects are relevant to a movie or show I've just seen and go in on a deep dive.


Friday, January 11, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - The Worst Query Submission I Read

I haven't been reading scripts professionally for over five years - astoundingly half the life of this blog. Early in my first year of blogging I wrote about the worst query submission I ever receieved. To date, this has yet to be beaten in its awfulness.  

My original post of this is available here.

Over the years, I've read thousands of scripts and I can tell you where most of them have ended up - in the circular file. However, every now and then I get a script so hilariously, unbelievably bad that I have to save it for posterity. There's one such script that I have held onto for most of my career. To be honest, I'm not sure how it made its way into the company I was working for at the time. It has all the earmarks of a "slush pile" script, and yet, somehow it got to an assistant who didn't take this sort of thing.

My theory has always been that she requested the script so she could use it to torture me.

It's hard to know where to begin with this abomination, so I'll just describe it the way a professional reader would see it. The first thing you'd notice is that the script is significantly thicker than most other screenplays. A quick flip to the back page will confirm that it is just shy of 160 pages in length - about 40 pages and 33% longer than the accepted norm!

You would also notice that the first fifteen or so pages bound in the script are not actually part of the script. Beneath the cover page is a Table of Contents, that helpfully explains that there is an Introduction, an Overview, and a section on "marketing considerations." These marketing considerations include "observations" on the particular cultural subset depicted in the film, as well as the "Author's Commitment to Marketing."

I'll say this now - as the screenwriter, it's not your job to tell the producers and marketing department how to market their film. Yes, you need to give them something marketable, but then shut up and let them do their jobs.

Oh, and the writer also included several pages of reviews from their last book. (Self-published, of course.)

The page and a half cover letter helpfully informs the executive that the film was inspired by a true story, and then leads into a long uninteresting anecdote about a conversation the writer had which inspired the film. The second paragraph details how this screenplay was first written as a novel and then adapted by the author. The author suggests that "This is a perfect vehicle for Halle Berry, and we already know what she looks like in tight, black latex... though there are others who work as well." In case you don't know this, NEVER offer casting suggestions in a cover letter. Let the casting people do their job.

The next paragraph says that though the script is a little long, that's mostly because of the long descriptions of the settings and actions, and the writer estimates that the film will be more than two hours and fifteen minutes. This is also the point where the writer casually mentions that several scenes are a direct riff on an existing and well-known novel - to the point that several characters assume the identities of the other author's characters.

Oh, and as we get to page two of the cover letter, the author says that all her friends have responded well to the script and again she mentions the research on marketing that they themselves gathered.

But the author still hasn't shut up - there's yet another page! An addendum to the cover letter. It starts with "I forgot to mention how much research went into this script," and then spends three paragraphs singling out specific scenes and essentially saying little more than, "Someone told me this stuff in an interview."

So finally, after I've stopped laughing so hard that my throat is sore, I peel back the real cover page. I'm not greeted with "FADE IN" as I should be. No, I still have to get past a one-page list suggesting possible cast members for the eight lead roles.

Seriously, days like that don't just make me hate my job. They make me hate writers.

Now I'm going to tell you the first two words in the first two paragraphs of the script:

1) "CAMERA PANS"
2) "CAMERA MOVES"

Never, ever, EVER, NEVER direct in the screenplay! At this point I pretty much know all I should need to know. It's utter amateur hour. Not only can I be assured that the writer has no clue what they're doing, I can already tell from the pitch that this is not something that my bosses would ever go for. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times when I had the luxury of simply going back to my bosses and telling them what I told you. It had been made clear to me that I had to read the whole thing.

This script was wretched. There was excessive voice-over narration throughout, insanely overly detailed description, including a healthy serving of "unfilmables." (For those not in the know, "unfilmables" are what we call information in the description that cannot possibly be shown visually. For instance, if the description tells us that Bobby has been emotionally crippled ever since his mom died in his arms when he was 8, that's bad writing. If we need to know that, it should come out through dialogue or action. Putting it in the description means that the only people who will know this are those reading the script.)

There were also a number of graphic sex scenes that, if filmed as described, would have earned the movie an NC-17 easily.

This thing is utter garbage. It's not the most offensive spec script I've ever read, but it's definitely in my Top 5 Worst, if not THE worst. I keep it as a reminder to never make the mistakes that writer did. Plus, every now and then it's good for a laugh.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - The Ron Moore Story

One of my favorite stories to tell is the time back in college where I had an actual communication with a showrunner I admired and was completely inept in knowing how to capitalize on it. I'm often hard on overeager writers who jump the gun in pushing their script on someone, trying to get somewhere before they're ready. We've ALL made that mistake, and today I'm going to tell you about mine.

Back in school, I had long wanted to be a screenwriter and a director, but hadn't given much thought to TV writing. All of that changed when I - being a fan of Deep Space Nine - came across a bulletin board one of the show's co-executive producers/writers, Ronald D. Moore, frequented. He regularly answered questions submitted by fans, often dealing with the production process and the evolution of storylines and character development. It was my first real in-depth look inside the process of creating a television show. I learned a lot about writing just by reading his posts.

These days, Moore is probably best known for being the executive producer of the Battlestar Galactica reboot and the showrunner of Outlander, among other achievements.

After Ron left the Trek franchise, he also gave a very interesting five-part interview on his time working on those series. This interview is notable because he talks often of finding the "truth" in writing, and how a writer has to respect his audience. Interestingly, a lot of the criticisms he lobs at Star Trek: Voyager presage creative decisions he would later make in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

I was in college at the time of this interview and roughly a year later, I found myself with the opportunity to create a TV show for a student-run cable network that we were attempting to get off the ground. I immediately latched on the idea of doing a teen-drama type series set on a college campus, and soon went mad with delusions of writing episodes with the same character complexity and compelling stories as on my favorite shows Homicide and Buffy, among others.

It's a bit ironic looking back on my ambitions now. The first season was a bit looser and less grounded. In the second season I exercised more control over the storylines and wanted to do more dramatic, serious storytelling. Homicide episodes like "Crosetti," dealing with the loss of one of the squad to suicide, and "Have a Conscience," where Detective Kellerman considers taking his own life were huge influences. Years later it took me a little too long to realize that 13 Reasons Why was probably the closest a TV show ever came to being the kind of series that I was shooting for tonally and in terms of some of the leads.

This endeavor was a total grass roots effort. There was a dedicated group of students trying to make this work, but the school administration wasn't exactly behind us and none of the media-related departments wanted to get saddled with us either. That meant that all of our work ended up being done on our own time and we were responsible for finding our own equipment - including cameras and editing facilities, and all of this had to be done on our own time. This was no mean feat, as DV was just on the verge of breaking through AND Final Cut Pro was still a relatively new and expensive program that wasn't yet owned by every wannabe filmmaker. Had we been working on this three years later, it would have been twice as easy. At the time, we were shooting on VHS and sneaking into editing labs during late nights and weekends. In one semester, we shot and edited about ten half-hour episodes of our little college drama. Considering the restrictions on our time and the limitations we had, that was pretty impressive.

I say all of this mainly so you can appreciate how unusual this was at the time. This preceded YouTube by at least three years, so we were nowhere near the time where every aspiring filmmaker essentially had his own laptop studio, with easy distribution via video sites like Break.com, YouTube or Funny Or Die. Three years later, it probably would have been a lot easier to produce the show, but also would have been much less impressive to anyone "in the biz." However, I'd have made that trade in an instant. I'd have killed for greater access to Final Cut and it would be nice to watch the episodes and not cringe at the shitty VHS quality. (Yes, I said VHS. Feel free to shudder.)

As long as I'm on this tangent, I might as well say that while some of my writing in that show was of questionable quality, the experience was invaluable. I learned a lot about staging scenes, shooting coverage efficiently and writing tighter dialogue. When you're forced to hear poor dialogue many, many takes in a row and realize that it's not poor acting, but your overwritten verbiage that's causing the problem, you're motivated to overcome your weaknesses.

So feeling proud of myself, I finally got up the nerve to write Ron Moore a letter telling him all about what I was doing in college and how I had learned more about character writing and TV production from him than I had from any professor. (This wasn't smoke - many times that season I found myself drawing inspiration from his writings and interviews.)

Eight weeks later I had nearly forgotten all about this letter - until I returned home one summer afternoon to find a message from Ron's assistant on Roswell, where he worked at the time. She said that Ron had been very touched by my letter and asked me to call her back so that he might thank me himself.

Considering I hadn't included my phone number in the letter, I was rather impressed that this message had found its way to me. I assumed that this assistant had spent the morning tracking me down. Thanks to a journal I kept at the time, I have a pretty detailed account of how this went. In all its embarrassing glory.

So after I pick my jaw up from the floor, I dial the number and get transferred to Ron. He actually sounded excited to be talking to me! "I wanted to thank you for the very nice letter you sent," he said. I reply with something like "well, I have been a big admirer of your work for a long time."

Then he says to me, "So tell me about this show you're doing. I want to hear all about it." (My mind at this point is screaming "My idol just asked me to tell him about *my show!* This has got to be a dream!")

So I give him a Cliff Notes version of what we're doing, how many eps, and all that wonderful stuff. He sounds genuinely impressed. "Wow, I've never heard of anyone doing anything like that!" he finally says.

Then he says, "Hey, I'd love to see an episode sometime if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to send a tape." Excitedly, I assure him that there'll be a package arriving at his office soon. (I sent it priority mail on Saturday. I sent him a copy of episodes 5 through 9, with the tape cued to ep 9. In an enclosed letter, I told him that ep 5 is the place to start if he is more interested in following the story, but ep 9 is the one he should look at to get an idea of the level of acting and production values we achieved in the end, and what we hope to maintain next season.)

All told, we chat for about 15-20 minutes. As the phone call concludes, he tells me "Stay in touch."


For an embarrassing insight into my naivete, take a look at this excerpt from an email I sent to my fellow writers about this phone call:

How cool is this? A Hollywood producer has a copy of our show! Now, the likelihood is that he'll probably watch it and maybe be entertained. But imagine if he's impressed...either by the acting or the writing or the directing. What if he shows it to other Hollywood types and they like something in it? Sure, it's unlikely, but this could be how we get our foot in the door in LA. Think about that for a few minutes.

I should also mention that Ron's very friendly assistant had also sent me an email that same day, and I spoke to her again after talking to Ron so that I could get a more efficient mailing address, sending the tape directly to their production offices on the lot as opposed to the general network address. And this, dear readers is where in retrospect, I totally dropped the ball.

A few weeks go by. No word from Ron. But I figure he's a busy guy and he probably hasn't had time to watch the tape yet. After about three months, I'm starting to wonder if he saw it and he didn't like it. Or maybe I dropped the ball by not following up with him sooner. What if he's completely forgotten me? I didn't want to be the kind of pest who bugged him a week after sending it, but he did say to "stay in touch." Eventually, I start trying to figure out a non-desperate-sounding pretense for contacting him again.

Fortune smiles upon me when a throwaway mention in an early episode that season seems like it could have been a shout-out to my show. I decide to send him another letter. Within a week, I have my answer, an email from his assistant:

"I just wanted to write and let you know that we received your letter, and the tape you sent earlier of your campus television show. Ron has been unable to view the tape, at this point... (due to the CRAZY hectic producing schedule I keep him on-- balancing his time between writing, story-developing, and post-production.) As you know with making a television show, it can be quite busy!

Ron extends his best wishes to you in your television-writing ventures.
Take care."


So... the brush-off. But hey, I still think that was pretty cool of Ron to track me down in the first place and chat with me on the phone. I might not have gotten everything I hoped out of it, but it gave me a pretty cool story and left me secure in the belief that Ron Moore was a pretty cool guy. Anyway, after that last email, I took the hint and decided to leave with some of my dignity intact.

Now class, can anyone tell me what I did wrong, and how I overlooked another opportunity that was right under my nose?

That's right - the assistant. I totally overlooked the opportunity to cultivate some kind of relationship there. Here's a secret about the industry - while everyone naturally resents being used, most people are only too happy to lend other up-and-comers the benefit of their experience. To put it another way - there are few people who don't enjoy talking about themselves. Use that to your advantage. If you ask the right questions, you might learn something.

So what I should have done is sent that tape, then emailed the assistant to not only thank her for making that contact possible, but also to ask her for advice. I could have said that I was considering moving out to LA in a little over a year, just after graduation, and asked if she had any advice about making that move. I could have asked about what areas are good areas to live in, how much an apartment costs, how hard it is to find a job, how she got hooked up with her job, when's the best time to move to LA, and so on.

There are probably about a hundred different things I could have asked this assistant that not only would have made her feel like an expert, but would have benefited me in the long run. As a bonus, it would have maintained that relationship. Who knows? Maybe when I moved out to LA, I could have used that to meet with her for lunch, perhaps finding a way to approach Ron eventually. Or she might have been able to submit my resume for any open PA positions on the show.

The point is, I overlooked an opportunity to ingrain myself with someone who might have been lower in the ranks than I wanted, but who still could have taught me a lot. Today's writer's assistants are tomorrow's writers - and had I thought of it like that, I'd have realized it might not be a bad idea to make friends with someone who was climbing the same ranks I wanted to.

I eventually reached out to her several months after I moved to L.A. and had a job. By that point, she'd left the business and had moved elsewhere.

As for Ron, it took many, many years but we finally crossed paths at San Diego Comic-Con. Ron was a guest on a writing panel and as the program concluded I managed to maneuver myself into walking past him as he got off-stage. I reintroduced myself, explaining about the letter I wrote all those years ago. "Oh yeah! I think I remember that!" he said. This might be true, or he was just being polite.

Either way he indulged me in a brief chat and I posed for a picture with him. This coincided with a brief high in my career where it seemed like I might have a project that could go, so at the time, I took it as an omen. It would have been a nice "full circle" kind of act if that encounter with Ron preceded a career boost. Even without that, it was nice to get that closure.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Dan Callahan and Robert Levine interviews

Over the years I've done a number of interviews (all of them conveniently linked on the side of the blog,) but the first two deep-dive interviews I did will always remain closest to my heart. Part of this is because it was nice to have these interview subjects indulge me for what often came out to an hour and a half chat. The result of that longer talk was an ability to go further in depth about topics that often get skimmed past in shorter interviews.

With Dan Callahan, I knew I had a compelling opportunity. In 2008, Dan saw his first produced feature script hit theaters, a late summer arrival entitled COLLEGE. If you remember this movie you might not remember it fondly - it only scored a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and opened at #15 in the box office. Its entire domestic gross was less than $5M.

I spoke to Dan nearly a year after this, so he was under no illusions about the film or its reputation. One pre-interview request I had was that I wanted to read the draft that sold so that I could compare it to the film. Would it be possible to see where this film went so wrong? Or was it a case of every failing of the film already being deep in its DNA?

To spare you the suspense, the script - written with Dan's co-writer Adam Ellison - was quite a bit better. Had it been shot as is, it probably would have been a decent film. Not a monster hit, but one that its target audience would probably remember fondly. And so with Dan, I tried to trace all the ways that bad choices turned his earnest teen comedy into... something less.

Part 1 - The Writing Process
Part 2 - Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Part 3 - Notes, Rewriting, Casting, and SUPERBAD
Part 4 - More Rewrites
Part 5 - Release and Reaction

Some time after that, I interviewed Robert Levine, then an Executive Story Editor and writer on HUMAN TARGET. Since our interview, Robert has become the creator and showrunner of the successful Starz series BLACK SAILS. At the time, I was interested in talking to Robert because he was a writer who came up through the assistant ranks.

There are a lot of writers who break into TV via means that seem less achievable - they had a couple unproduced feature sales and then someone bought their pilot, they sold their novel for adaptation, they had a career as a doctor and became a writer/consultant on a medical show. Robert's path seemed more achievable - get in as an assistant and figure out how to make yourself valuable to the show. In our chat we covered that, as well as some specific questions about JERICHO, which was his first show as a staff writer.

Part 1 - Climbing the ladder as a writers' assistant
Part 2 - Working on JERICHO's first season
Part 3 - Writing season two of JERICHO
Part 4 - Writing the JERICHO comic book and getting an agent
Part 5 - Writing for HUMAN TARGET

Please give these a look. I sometimes worry that since they're so far back in the archives, newer readers haven't seen them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - ER week and TV deep dives

Working my way through my old posts, I see it only took me a couple months to do my first deep-dive theme week on a TV show. It was March 2009 and ER was just about to finish a 15 year run on the air. Having watched the series pretty much since the beginning - and with the morning TNT reruns a staple of my viewing while I started my day - I saw an opportunity to use the show as a teaching tool.

It was the first time I felt like I really went in-depth on a topic, and probably one of the first times I strayed so far from my direct experience as a script reader. A lot more work went into these posts, but it was more satisfying because I always enjoyed talking about what I loved than bitching about what I hated.

When you're putting so much energy into communicating your opinion, you're more easily fueled by an appreciation for the topic rather than distain. This is not to say I don't enjoy the occasional "Oh, fuck THIS" post, because I do, but I have far more enthusiasm for a series of posts that go "Oh my god! This is so awesome! Let me count the ways so you can take it in and see how this is awesome too!"

This might be how I ended up writing a thirteen part-series on 13 REASONS WHY. It's DEFINITELY how I ended up writing an love letter to the 16 Great TV Shows that made me the writer I am today.

But my blog's virginity for that approach was lost to ER, almost ten years ago.

Part 1 is an examination of the pilot script and the main characters:

I recently rewatched the pilot for the first time in several years and several things struck me. First, at the time it premiered, I remember all the hype about how ER moved too fast, the camera never slowed down, the editing was too quick and MTV-like. It just goes to show you how things change in 15 years of TV because the pace was a bit more leisurely than on most ER episodes today, and the moving camera wasn’t nearly the breakneck pace it was made out to be. The lighting was also more diffused and “natural,” along with a more muted color palate. It’s as if they were making an effort to be “real.” If I wanted to be glib, I’d say that the current incarnation of the show is like the TV-version of the original series. 

But never mind much of that because we’re here to talk about writing. There are five regular characters introduced in the pilot: Doctors Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Doug Ross (George Clooney), Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), med student John Carter (Noah Wyle) and surgeon Peter Benton (Eriq la Salle). (Nurse Hathaway is in the pilot as well, but at the time of production she was not intended as a regular character and was in fact, supposed to be killed off in the episode, but more on that later this week.) The premise is simple – we’re a fly-on-the-wall for 24 hours in the life of Chicago’s Cook County General emergency room.

Part 2 takes a look at a two-character scene where one of the doctors has to break it to a patient that they have terminal cancer.

Part 3 examines another pivotal scene, the doctors reacting to Hathaway's suicide attempt.

Part 4 is a deep-dive into one of my favorite episodes, "All in the Family," aka the one where the ER staff fights to save Carter and Lucy after a stabbing.




Monday, January 7, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - I'm gonna keep talking about sexism and misogyny until you stop writing it

There are some topics that I've covered from the start of this blog and have kept returning to over the years. You'd think I'd have run out of things to say about it, or at least that an issue of such magnitude would have seen some progress over the years, which only makes a lack of progress even more disheartening. I'm speaking, of course, about misogyny and sexism in scripts.

There are a lot of things I've seen recur in bad scripts. When you've read a lot of these, you almost start to get desensitized to it because you notice there are certain mistakes that every first-time writer is going to make. Dialogue will be too on the nose, scenes will take too long to play out, characters will give long speeches about meaningless pop culture because the writer really wants to pontificate about Bob Dylan... and every female character will have ample breasts.

Let's say I was reading 10 scripts a week. I would bet that AT LEAST two of those scripts described the size, shape and/or condition of the breasts of a female character. It's almost always gratuitous too. Even if the script organically got to a moment where the female character strips down to a bikini or lingerie, there's rarely a need for leering scene description. (Too few writers think about the fact that the actresses are going to READ that description too.)

You might be inclined to consider this as benign sexism, but it's dangerous to objectify your characters like this - and when it's systemic across a lot of scripts, you start to realize the problem is bigger and uglier than a screenwriter who is typing while horny.

I don't think this casual sexism is unrelated to an uglier brand of misogyny I often encountered in scripts. Rape and sexual assault are often badly mishandled and one of the biggest red flags is when the writer objectifies the victim of sexual assault. A rape scene should not feel sexual - it should feel like a violation. It is not a power fantasy - it is an act of violence and degradation. Emotionally, we should NOT be relating to the perpetrator (unless the entire point of the script is to implicate the audience along with your assailant, but that's a rare situation and a tricky needle to thread to boot.)

Just over a month into the life of this blog, I wrote "Misogynistic Violence against women."

After more than five years as a reader, I now know far too many ways to mutilate, subjugate and sexually degrade a woman. I’m by no means a feminist, and there are plenty of instances where I’ve read an act of violence committed upon a female character and haven’t raised an eyebrow at it. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you should never hurt, injure or kill your female characters. That would be equally sexist. The problem sets in when it feels like the victimizer in the scene is a stand-in for the writer’s own sick desires.

This is one of those subliminal things that’s hard to point out without using specific examples, and unfortunately, to show the worst/best examples of such writing would likely get me sued. As blurry as the line gets, it most frequently gets crossed when some sort of sexual element is added to it. A scene where a woman is stabbed and her throat is slashed probably wouldn’t set of any alarms – but a scene where a woman is stabbed, then raped as the attacker takes obvious glee in her pain is going to be more repulsive.

I returned to the topic in a later post, "The script that made me want to recommend psychiatric help for the writer."

And then there was one of the most vile, misogynistic pieces of violent writing I had ever read.  It was perverted, disgusting and disturbing to such a level that the only reason I ended up with the script was that the (female) reader who had to cover the first submission of this script refused to read it again due to being the product of a sick mind.

She was right. I googled the writer.  He was a studio exec.

As much as that deserved a rimshot THAT WAS NOT A JOKE!

The coverage that script provoked was some of the most unvarnished coverage I ever had submitted to these bosses.  Some of my employers enjoy it when I take a more Simon Cowell-like approach to shredding the truly terrible scripts, others have preferred a more measured, even take on it.  The bosses for this submission were among the more buttoned-up, but in my write-up, I only barely restrained myself from suggesting psychiatric help for the submitter.

A few months later, the script was resubmitted.  I had to read it again.  The fucker barely had changed anything - and he certainly hadn't toned down the misogyny or the violence.  Or the misogynistic violence.  I made sure when I wrote the synopsis that I included every last instance of such.

I'll put it this way.  He made I Spit on Your Grave look like Mary Poppins.  So I tore him a new one, then emailed my boss's assistant and said, "Look, this concept is NEVER ever going to get a Consider from anyone.  If we take it again, we're wasting our time and the company's money."  As I understand it, the message was conveyed.  In spades.

A few weeks later, the writer attempted to submit again.  He was unsuccessful.

I've probably written other scripts that were just as bad or worse, but few made me as violently angry at the writer as that.  Rarely have I ever felt I was looking into the mind of such a sick individual.

I'm still angry about this one. I felt violated just having been forced to read it and spend three hours of my day immersed in this and then writing it up.

Granted, that's an extreme example. And almost every time I get going on this topic, there'll usually be at least one person responding with an attitude about how I shouldn't tell writers what to write, or that I'm advocating censorship, or listing rape scenes in acclaimed films as if that disproves my argument.

So here's my concession right here - YES, it's possible to write a rape scene that is integral to the story, makes a point, isn't exploitative and doesn't objectify the victim. I'm not saying never write about sexual violence. Hell, I think 13 Reasons Why did a very solid job of depicting sexual violence and doing it in a way that wasn't sleazy or crass. (I hasten to add that I'm speaking of Season 1 here, NOT the controversial sexual assault in Season 2.)

So if your takeaway here is that I'm saying "NEVER write about rape," you're misunderstanding me. All I'm asking for is some responsibility. A checklist like this wouldn't hurt:
  • Is it essential to the story?
  • If yes, are steps taken to depict the victim as more than just a victim?
  • If yes, are you writing the scene in a way that isn't designed to excite and arouse?
  • If you had to remove the rape from the story, how much would it change? Is it substantial?
  • Whose arc is altered the greatest by the inclusion of the rape: The male character's or the female characters?
Many of these questions relate to issues I raised in this post, "Let's talk about rape scenes." Though it's more than five years old, it's worth a read. At one point it was one of my most popular posts. It also lead to one of my favorite reader emails, where a reader named Diana really hit the nail on the head:

I remember a foreign film way back when about the brutality of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and its affects on women. (can't remember the title). It showed the lawlessness during that time, and the resulting roaming gangs of men. And the violence that was regularly perpetrated against women. It showed a brutal gang rape scene (that must have lasted at least a full 5 minutes of film time!) of two women in their home. It included the act of anal rape. It was riveting. Horrifying. Visceral. And realistic. It was not sexy in the least. And it was not done for shock value, though it most certainly left most of us in the audience in shock. 

And as it turns out, no superhero guy (or hubby/boyfriend) appeared in a fit of rage in that film to avenge the violence against these two women. After the rapists left, the women were simply left alone with their physical injuries and their shattered psyches. And their own rage. Of which they had plenty. 

And I think therein touches on another part (I think actually it's the crux) of the (inherent) problem with these many rape scenes of women penned by men: It is that the man (boyfriend/husband/superhero guy) gets to feel the resulting rage for the violation. And to act on that rage. Not the woman who was violated. 

Rape happens to women. A lot. So not ever showing rape of women would be sort of a denial of this horrible reality. And aside from the reality that some male writers might write such scenes a little too (disturbingly) gleefully,i t's not even (just) the fact that the aftermath of the rape on the female victim is never really shown-- such as, say, the woman/girl sobbing and stuff. Or being an emotional/psychological wreck. Or even being terrified in the aftermath--maybe of men, maybe of just going outside. Whatever. No, it's not even just about those things. What's it's also about, maybe even more so about, is THE RAGE. And who gets to have it. 

THE RAGE. It would be a great term for the last year and a half, as sexual harassment and misogyny have been called out with much greater frequency and we have seen women push back against abuse, saying "No more!"

Feel that rage - and understand that rage belongs to every female character abused and mistreated. If your writing isn't reflecting that, you need to go back to the drawing board.

Dare I hope that the next five years of rape in spec scripts will look and feel different from the five or ten years that proceeded it?



Friday, January 4, 2019

10 years of Bitter Posts - Structure

In today's installment of our month-long retrospective, I tackle a post that I feel less enthused about a decade later. Even then, I was careful to couch most of what I said as general advice, not as any kind of iron-clad "rule." This was because the instant you call something a "rule," even half-jokingly, you'll attract the attention of someone who'll shout "There are no rules in writing!" and then suddenly the debate is about "How DARE you tell someone what to write!" than it is about the actual issue you were writing about in the first place.

That usually then spins out to the fire-breathing attack that "if this guy was any good, HE'D have sold a script!" The argument turns into pro-vs-amateur, which is never a good look for either side and nothing productive comes of it. 

(I want to point out that 99% of my interactions with professional writers has been positive, but every now and then you find one who seems resistant to the idea that someone without a script sale to their name could POSSIBLY understand when a script makes a bad choice. If you're writing scripts ONLY for an audience of screenwriters, then sure, shut out everything else. OR if you're faced with a snake oil guru who makes a living by slapping bullshit terminology on top of more commonly-understood jargon and then charging you through the roof for it, by all means, go after him.)

This older post was about structure. While I still stand by the spirit of the post, I wince a little at how I used page numbers as a signpost, even though I made a point of saying not to use those page numbers as exact markers. CAN you have twenty pages until you hit the inciting incident? Sure. But it doesn't happen often and when it does happen, you'll find that those first twenty pages are some of the most compelling you've ever read.

But as someone who's a stickler for structure, particularly in my own writing, I want to find a way to give the novice a way to understand how Three-Act Structure works. Save the Cat has a brilliant breakdown, but is almost two specific in two different ways: I think it seems to mandate too many specific plot points AND it's pretty specific about where the pages fall.

So how would I handle it today? I'd probably write the post without the page numbers first, describing the act breaks and turning points entirely in terms of what their function was.

To wit:
  • The inciting incident is the change in the status quo that instigates the story. It's Casey Becker being murdered by Ghostface, Vincent getting into Max's cab, Chief Brody finding the body of a half-eaten swimmer and realizing he's got a shark on his hands. It's the starter's gun for your story and your protagonist. Everything else is setting the stage for that and laying out the world.
  • The first act turning point is the major shift in the story trajectory. It's Marty McFly realizing he's in 1955 and accidentally messing up his parents' first meeting. Something MAJOR happens and it defines how the protagonist is going to spend the rest of the movie reacting to it or fixing it.
  • The midpoint is an equal raising of the stakes. Then the second act climax is usually where we hit the do-or-die moment. The character is at their lowest point and usually needs to rally for the endgame. If there's a plan, here's where it goes off the rails. In Back to the Future, it's probably the moment where George shows up for his rehearsed fight with Marty, only to find that Biff is about to sexually assault Lorraine. In Batman Begins, it's when Ra's burns down Wayne Manor and Bruce is left for dead, even as the League of Shadows puts into play their plan for Gotham's demise.
  • The third act then becomes a ticking clock down to the climax. What are our heroes trying to stop or achieve? This is hero vs villain, or the big game where our characters face their opponents.
(Though to be honest, Back to the Future is a dangerous script to use for these purposes because nearly EVERY scene is so propulsive that you can make a case for it as a turning point. Marty still needs to play at the dance, George still needs to kiss Lorraine AND then Marty has to get home even as the clock tower plan falls apart piece by piece.)

But those are usually the five structural questions I need to have answered before I start writing:
  • What opens up the world?
  • What is the change or escalation that will define the second act of the story? What's the "oh shit" decision that gets made there? (Better if it comes from something the protagonist does.)
  • What's the new challenge or threat that shows itself after the characters are starting to feel comfortable?
  • What is their lowest point?
  • What is the final test they face? What are they trying to stop/achieve ultimately?

There! Did it all without citing page numbers.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Cliches I'm tired of seeing and Quick Tips

Another early feature on the blog was "Clichés I'm Tired of Seeing." When you're reading 15 scripts a week for five years, you start becoming nauseous at the signs that always accompany the least satisfying scripts to read. Most of these could be easily evaded, but too many writers fell into the most unimaginative ways of using them.

The first cliché I targeted was a resolution I'd seen in many rom-coms and dramas - where the "surprise" visual reveal of a woman's new baby bump at the climax was used as shorthand for "and they lived happily ever after." I started with that because it's not a BAD way to communicate the strength of the relationship, it's just a technique that's been done so many times that the impact it carries is usually outweighed by the audience feeling it coming.

I also took writers to task who ended their scripts with "To Be Continued." This was less common then and hopefully is non-existent now. I detested this the most when I could feel writers holding back from giving a story proper resolution solely so they could justify a sequel.

Later posts addressed:
- a struggle between two people for a gun that ends with a BANG while the gun itself is off-screen. After a moment of "suspense," one of the two combatants falls, revealing the other to be the winner.

- the old "start with the climax to get the audience hooked and then flashback to reveal how they got there" trick.

- racing to the airport to stop the love of your life from leaving.

- "It was all a dream!"

- The newscaster as an exposition delivery system.

- The use of "Get me a beer" as a universal indicator that a male character is an asshole.

- Using a bet as the catalyst for a premise that would never happen otherwise.

Looking at this list, I can see why I moved away from this series. The clichés it called out were becoming so cliché that even pointing them out was tired. It was a little like a stand-up comedian with a Jack Nicholson impression or a tight five on how white people and black people dance differently.

Somewhat concurrently, I started a series of posts I called "Quick Tips." In all candor, this was so I could get away with putting up shorter posts just to build up content. The practice ended mostly because I'm so goddamn wordy that my attempts to be "quick" soon dragged out too long.

1. First Impressions
2. Brainstorming by imagining your movie's trailer
3. Knowing your title should be catchy
4. Character names
5. Don't try to solve a note about "this character seems thin" with a one-scene dumb of emotion and backstory.

Reading these early posts, I'm very aware that I was still clearly trying to find my voice. While all of these tips come from experience, they seem somewhat generic to me. They don't even come from the affected voice of a weary, bitter reader. I figured out early on that writing every post from the point of view of someone bitching would be exhausting. I mean, I love Lewis Black, but there's a reason The Daily Show didn't need him on every night.

It's all basic, 101 level blogging. Today, I wouldn't write some of these because I don't think I'd have any new way to say them. Part of why my presence has been less and less over the years is that I realized it shouldn't feel like an obligation to have an opinion about a particular facet of writing. I can just blog when I have something to say.

But I know people found these early posts useful, and so I try to remember that I have a lot of readers who might still be contemplating writing their very first script. For them, these early posts will always be there.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

10 years of Bitter posts - When Good Scripts Go Bad

When I started the blog, one feature I thought I'd get more milage out of was "When Good Scripts Go Bad." It seemed like an interesting way to pick movies that turned out less than good, but that read so much better when I saw them in script form. It sounded like a good idea in concept, but in practice, writing those posts was less fun.

I don't shy away from writing dissections of TV and film that I felt fell short. Studying those mistakes can be instructive, and there is plenty you can learn from failures. I think what I discovered was that in framing the reviews in the way I did, it made the post too much about ME and less about the work. Also, every post was determined to have the same punchline - "I read it, it was great, but I was wrong and the movie sucked."

That doesn't mean it wasn't instructive in helping demonstrate the difference between a great script and a great movie. That disparity absolutely exists. The problem was that in most of these cases I experienced, the reason for my bosses passes almost ALWAYS came down to business reasons. After I've told you once or twice that, "this script came with Tony Scott attached and there's no way in hell these guys wanted to work with him" or "they didn't get it, but it was more that they saw no commercial potential because later that year they developed two scripts that clearly they didn't get either."

That's why this was an experiment I did only twice and when I was halfway through a third post following the same pattern, I could already sense I was repeating myself. I found I enjoyed dissecting failed films much more just as a straight review rather than forensically looking back at the original script and using conjuncture to presume how it ended up going from A to B.

One of my earliest mistakes in getting a script wrong was DOMINO, a Richard Kelley script directed by Tony Scott.

I had the then-rare distinction of reading a really clever and engaging script for my bosses at the time. It had a complex plot, a clever non-linear structure, some funny showbiz cameos, and some really well-executed twists. In short, it was one of the most original scripts I’d seen and also one that I would have been willing to stake my reputation on. The script in question? Richard Kelly’s Domino, the story of a former model-turned-bounty-hunter, based on a true story (sort of.)

Unfortunately there was not shortage of reasons why my boss felt that the script was an inappropriate fit for us at the time, and there were factors I wasn’t expected to know about, so the company quietly passed. I spent the next year lamenting the fact that my bosses had let such a sure-fire hit movie get away. During that time, whenever someone asked me if I’d read anything good lately, I was quick to reply that Domino was one of the best scripts I’d ever seen and that it was sure to be a hit when it came out. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but in hindsight it certainly feels like I was staking all my script-reading credibility on this movie, at least as far as my rep among my friends was concerned.

Long story short - the movie that was released was not the movie in my brain. But it took YEARS for me to see the final film, which was plenty of time for Richard Kelley to become cemented in my brain as a writer who was vividly creative and clever. It meant he started ahead of the game the next time a script of his crossed my desk...

Here's what I had to say about my enthusiastic coverage for SOUTHLAND TALES.

There was some incredibly clever writing in that script, as well as a truly unique premise. But it wasn't realized exceptionally well. Isolated pockets of it worked so well that as a reader you really wanted the whole thing to come together and be more than the sum of its parts. I got this just before a weekend and it was such a priority that I was going to be reading it alongside the VP of Development, the SVP of Development, the assistant to the President of Development and the President of Development himself.

After my first read, I could never have explained half of what went on in that script. It was just all over the place and full of complex, scientific concepts and technobabble about the nature of time and reality. There were enough ideas in there for three completely different films. But the one-third of it that I really understood, I really liked.

I read it a second time, and understood it only marginally better.

I read the script FOUR times over the weekend, taking notes each time until I felt I had puzzled out most of the narrative. Then read it a FIFTH time as I wrote up the synopsis and tried to bring some order to a very chaotic script. I gave it a consider, citing its imagination, even as I knew it only worked about 50% and that was with immense effort on the part of the audience. To bulletproof myself, I mentioned the commercial viability of all of the talent attached.

I probably should have known better when it was taking that much effort to decode the script, but in my defense, the parts of the script I immediately liked were so good that they MADE me want to put in that time.

Of course, if you read that post, you'll see that I also was envisioning those scenes in an ENTIRELY different tone than they ended up being done in the movie. I supposes that exposes the limitations of coverage - sometimes your own imagination can steer you wrong, unless it's the fault of unclear writing.

I was early in realizing this, but sometimes the posts focused on the day-to-day work of being a reader were rarely fascinating to those who weren't readers themselves. It made me realize I'd need a different approach in discussing the script problems of completed works.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Preparing to celebrate 10 years as The Bitter Script Reader

For most of us, the dawn of a new year is the impetuous to look forward. The next twelve months are a blank page waiting to be filled with story that - hopefully - will be better than the 12 that proceeded it. This year, the start of 2019 is provoking me to look backwards and reflect, for it brings us closer to the 10th anniversary of this blog.

My first post appeared in this space on January 29, 2009, in a post laying out the mission statement of this blog. At the time, there were few resources available from the perspective of a script reader and I wanted to contribute to the screenwriting community from the perspective of the guy who says "no" to a lot of writers for many of the same reasons. My still-evolving vision of this site was that it would be a repository of "Don't do this" or "I'm sick of this" and the occasional gossipy detail about films I'd seen go through the development process.

Because there seemed to be a risk in slinging some dirt about how a few agencies dealt with the coverage process, I opted to hide behind a pseudonym. Since the definition of my job was to be a gatekeeper, I settled on... Zuul the Gatekeeper in what I'm sure was an obvious attempt to invoke the pen names of those who wrote for sites like Ain't It Cool News. The blog was titled "The Bitter Script Reader" because I sought something immediately reflective of what the site was about, even as I made ironic use of the retort many writers used when presented with unfavorable coverage. 

Because "Bitter Script Reader" seemed like such a mouthful, I doubted anyone would take to using it as my name, hence the brief adoption of "Zuul," stolen from GHOSTBUSTERS. For some reason it escape my imagination that people could just call me "Bitter." Before long, that became the preferred moniker, though, and so if  you ever wondered why my email was "ZuulTheReader at Gmail" now you know.

As I look at my first few months of posts, I see a lot of things I would be unlikely to do today. After having spent a number of years reading scripts where the formatting alone was a warning that the next hour was unpleasant. As I soon discovered, even just advising people on formatting leads to people complaining you're being a "formatting Nazi." This isn't helped by the complaints of pros who loudly argue against any "rules" and act as if anyone giving guidance is some kind of flim-flam man.

"No one ever passed on a script because it was in the wrong font! No one ever passed on a script because their action paragraphs had seven lines instead of three!" Yes, that's true. But good writers often forget there are a lot of things they do innately BECAUSE they are good writers. They're not consciously following rules because they have internalized so many facets of writing in a way that keeps them from making these kinds of mistakes on instinct.

In other words, they think they're rule-breakers, but the truth is that they're operating on such a higher level that they've forgotten how those at the very start of the race still need guard rails. So when I say, "Don't turn in a script written in Times New Roman. It tells me you don't know what you're doing!" a retort of "CHINATOWN would still be CHINATOWN in Times New Roman" is kind of missing the point. I often look at a script as a job interview for a film and when I go to a job interview, I dress the part.

I wish I'd found a better way to express that at the start of posts on formatting rules. It would have saved me a lot of emails over the years from people taking exception to the idea of a writing rule rather than looking for the "note behind the note" of this DON'T.

But if you want a look back on how I addressed formatting in the early days of the blog, jump into the Wayback Machine and take in these posts:


For the rest of this month, we'll be taking a look back together. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.