Monday, August 31, 2009

The Hollywood Roaster speaks my language today

Ever wonder what happens if you fail to follow the formatting rules I often warn about? You become fodder for jokes like this one at the Hollywood Roaster.

"1,000th wannabe screenwriter decides to 'break all the rules'"

When Illinois native Fred Durnett vowed to write “an edgy script that wasn’t confined to the tired old three-act structure,” the 24-year-old barista had no idea he was setting a record as the 1,000th newbie to attempt the feat.

He also didn’t realize he was writing a shitty script.

“I’ve never been big on following the rules,” said Durnett. “Plus I’m special, so there’s that. I’m basically so talented that I can break all the usual screenwriting conventions without even knowing them.”

I question if this is a fake story because I'd swear I've read this script. Many, many times.

What makes you see a movie?

A writer trying to sell his screenplay is often asked "Who's the target audience for this?" Now, it's easy to hear that question and fly into a rage over how horribly commercialized Hollywood is, with films not seen as art, but commodities designed to sell stale popcorn and salty pretzels. However, all the statement means is, "Who will see this? Who will want to see this? What viewer will this film reach?"

So with that in mind, I want to start off the week asking my readers two questions:

1) What sort of movies do you like to see?


2) What makes you see a movie? Is it the trailer? The stars? The premise? Nudity? Violence? How do you decide what's worth your $12 each weekend?

Bonus question: What helps you determine whether you'll see a movie in the theatre or if you'll wait for Netflix?

I know from my stats that there are a few hundred of you reading this site each day. I'd love to see massive participation and discussion in the comments below. I don't allow anonymous comments, but don't let that be a hindrance.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Nitpicking District 9

I liked District 9, but it's turning out to be one of those movies with more loose threads the closer you look at it.

- If the Prawn have such awesome weapons, why do they let themselves get pushed around for twenty years?

- Soooo... the spaceship is completely turned off, right? How the hell does it manage to keep hovering? Did the Prawns set cruise control and then forget how to turn the rest of the ship on?

- A great deal of the plot centers on the command module that broke off of the ship. The reasons the CM broke are never explored, but that's a fair thing to chalk up to coincidence. What ISN'T a reasonable coincidence is that the CM crashed in exactly the same area where District 9 is established. Pretty convenient, no?

- Along the same lines, it's a little weird that no one surveying that area for District 9 ever noticed some kind of impact crater from the ship's crash.

- It's implied that the fluid is only necessary to make the Command Module fly, not to turn on the computer. (The young Prawn is ordered to "initiate the start sequence" before the fluid is input, and it appears that the computer is active at that point.) This is significant because when the CM is grounded, the Young Prawn uses the on-board computer to turn on the Mothership remotely and activate a tractor beam. This begs the question - if the fluid isn't necessary to activate the computer, and it's possible to activate the tractor beam remotely, what do the aliens need the fluid for in the first place?

I enjoyed much of the film, don't get me wrong. On top of that, I'm delighted to see the audience embrace a movie that wasn't based on an 80's that was marketed as a cartoon show of questionable quality. Hopefully the success of District 9 will help usher in a trend of studios taking a chance on original ideas over optioning products based on familiar branding.

After all, that trend has to stop before Play-Doh: The Movie.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ebert on movie trailers

Roger Ebert on trailers:

"Trailers use exactly the same principle as supermarket demonstrations that supply a sample of cheese on a toothpick. Once you eat it, you know exactly how the cheese will taste. All you lack is having eaten the whole cheese." Source

Which reminds me of this Robert Zemeckis quote:

"We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It's just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don't. What I relate it to is McDonald's. The reason McDonald's is a tremendous success is that you don't have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu."


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brutallity and rape in The Last House on the Left

24 hours after watching the remake of The Last House on the Left I was still trying to figure out how I felt about it. I'd skipped this one in theatres, but since thrillers and horror movies make up a lot of what I read for work, I try to stay on top of the big movies in that genre. A few years ago, I saw Wes Craven's original version of the film and was left with similarly mixed feelings. The movie was powerful on a gut level in many ways and the raw aesthetic only added to that. On the other hand, there were moments that seemed sadistic merely for its own sake and some oddly placed comic relief.

For those who don't know, the premise is that two teenage girls are brutally attacked after going to a motel room to hang out with a teenage boy. The boy's father, uncle and the father's girlfriend are none too happy about this when they return, as they are all wanted for the murder of two cops while helping the father, Krug, escape from the back of a police car. The girl's put up a fight, but one is killed after attempting to escape and her friend, Mari, is very brutally raped by Krug. She manages to make a run for it and tries to swin out via a nearby lake, only to be shot by Krug and left for dead in the water.

But when Krug and his crew find themselves without transportation, guess where they inadvertently take refuge? Mari's parent's home, with none of the parties initially aware of the connection. When the parents do find out, it's after they've put the foursome in the guesthouse and a storm has knocked out their phones. On top of that, they have no car, as Mari took the only one at the house. They're stuck on their own, with the fear that Krug's gang will figure out who they are.

It could be called a morality play, and a study in how far someone would go to take revenge on people who brutalized someone they loved. I'm fond of these sorts of premises - where an ordinary person is thrown into an extreme situation and how they deal with it becomes a true test of character. Hitchcock was one of the great masters of this, with films like North by Northwest.

It's a great question: if someone who raped and beat up your daughter was in your guest cottage and calling the police wasn't an option - what would you do? Do you hide and gamble that they don't figure out who you are? Do you consider that they might kill you even without knowing who you are? Do you take action out of self-defense? Or do you seize the opportunity for brutal revenge - eye for an eye?

How many times have the survivors of brutal crimes (or their families) said, "Just give me five minutes alone with the SOB responsible." Well, these characters have all night - what do you think they do?

But it wasn't those hard questions that troubled me - it was the fact that after so many years of horror films being an exercise in exploitative violence, Last House essentially hinges on a brutal, disturbing rape. It's not graphic in the sense that any nudity is shown, but the camera angles certainly are suggestive and Sara Paxton gives a more than convincing performance during the brutal scene.

The filmmakers understandably had a bit of a no-win situation here. If they didn't show the rape, or sanitized it, it might undercut just how vicious Krug and his men are supposed to be. It might compromise how much the audience identifies with the parents in the final act. After we bear witness to what Krug does to Mari, we want him dead. D-E-A-D. There's no denying there's a legitimate case to be made for provoking that reaction.

But the other side of it is that it's really hard to sit through the rape scene and regard it as entertainment. I can easily see some viewers - especially parents - transferring some of their disgust for Krug onto the filmmakers themselves. And that's such a gut level reaction that there's no debating the point with people who have it.

So this is the risk a writer takes should they put a graphic rape scene in their script. Sexual violence is bound to be more controversial than straight-up murder or assault. You want proof? Most of us wouldn't bat an eye at James Bond executing a female assassin in cold blood. They might even cheer. Can you imagine that reaction if instead of shooting her, he raped her?

And right about now, I'm guessing several of you are ticked at me for putting that image in your head.

Some of the worst scenes I have ever read were rape scenes; brutal, nasty acts of sexual violence that were ostensibly in the script to tell us what horrible people the villains were. Most of the time, they read like the writer's were getting their rocks off, creating some sort of demented fantasy. One particular scene was so bad that I have refused to read subsequent drafts of that screenplay when offered and the writer in question is the only writer who I refuse to read on principle. And I am NOT a squeamish person.

Ultimately, the rest of The Last House on the Left was so well-produced and the performances were so solid that I decided to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. It seems that they handled a difficult scene as best they could given the requirements of the plot. I read an interview with director Dennis Iliadis where he said he didn't want to cast an overtly sexy young starlet as Mari because he didn't want the rape scene to be enjoyable for the audience at all. I think that was a wise choice. Had he cast Megan Fox in the role, and shot it so she was more exposed, I can see all the hype for the movie boiling down to "See Megan Fox naked!"

Oh, darn. I just put the words "Megan Fox Naked" in a row. I can only imagine that'll really mislead a lot of Google searches. I just feel terrible that people looking for Megan Fox naked will be misdirected here because I happened to type Megan Fox naked. I hope they don't feel ripped off when they don't find Megan Fox naked here, because there is no naked Megan Fox here.

Anyway, as I said, the cast is uniformly excellent. Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter do solid work as the parents, Riki Lindhome is quite creepy as Krug's girlfriend, while Aaron Paul is suitably scuzzy as Krug's brother. But the real reason to see The Last House on the Left is for Garret Dillahunt's performance as Krug, one of the nastiest villains put on screen in some time. You might not know his name, but you'll likely recognize Dillahunt as Russian gangster Roman on Life, the Cromartie/John Henry terminator on The Sarah Conner Chronicles, or as Tommy Lee Jones' deputy in No Country For Old Men. Dillahunt has an incredible range, and he puts it to use here - he's menacing without resorting to the sorts of shouting and over-the-top hysterics that most horror villains thrive on. He's able to turn on the charm when dealing with the parents, even as he laces his words in ways to remind his crew who's in charge. The wrong actor in this role would have destroyed this movie, no question.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't point out how wrong the final scene of the movie felt. Goldwyn has Krug at his mercy after knocking him out and he needs to rush his family to the hospital via boat. Obviously leaving Krug there to wake up and escape isn't an option - he's not going to give the guy who raped his little girl and attacked his family a pass. So he paralyzes Krug from the neck down and places his head in a microwave. After waiting for Krug to wake up and appreciate his fate, the father activates the appliance and exits, leaving Krug screaming as his head explodes.

Much like how I criticized Rachel Nichols' character in P2 killing her captor in cold blood, I had some problems with this last scene. It's a little too calculated for my tastes. It doesn't feel like something the father would do. I believe he'd beat Krug to death with his bare hands. I believe he'd slash his throat. I believe he'd shoot him several times and leave him to bleed to death. I don't doubt he wants to kill Krug and that he wants to make it painful.

But you're telling me that with time being of the essence, he's going to take the time to paralyze Krug, then sit around and wait for him to wake up, just so he can cackle at him and leave him in a semi-creative death trap? I don't quite buy it, and the exploitative image of Krug's head exploding is exactly the wrong note to end this movie on. That final scene forms our impressions as we exit the theatre or turn off our DVD. It's gore for gore's sake, and the problem is that it provokes one to revisit the rape scene in that context. For me, the exploitative violence here cheapens the other violence by association.

Does anyone out there have any thoughts on this topic? I'd love to know if others had the same issue as I did, or if they were less forgiving of the rape scene. Please, comment away.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How a struggling screenwriter lands Ricky Gervais

This is going to be one of those posts that unrealistically raises the hopes of every newbie out there, but I came across this very interesting interview with Matthew Robinson, the co-writer and co-director of The Invention of Lying, starring his writing and directing collaborator, Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras).

Usually you see collaborations like this emerge from a long history between the partners. Maybe they've worked together for a while, or they've been friends, or have just collaborated on a project or two. That's not how these two got together though... I'll just let Matthew explain how he hit the proverbial lottery. I guess the question everyone will ask you is how you first met Ricky? This is your first time working with him and you're co-directing and co-writing so how did you first get involved with this?

Matthew Robinson: Well, I was just a massive Ricky Gervais fan. I wrote a script, never in my wildest dreams thought it would get to Ricky. Producer Lynda Obst went to England to work on something she was doing there and set up a general meeting with him, and he said straight up, "I only want to do things that I wrote." Gets there and she was a very good champion of me and she kept pushing the script. Finally they started talking about the premise behind it at dinner, spent the entire dinner talking about the premise. He went home and read I think the first 20 pages and called me personally on my cell phone, pretty much attached on the spot.

I was just a struggling L.A. screenwriter with a huge love for comedy and for Ricky Gervais in particular, and wrote a script for fun with him in mind with the highest aspirations of maybe using it as a sample to get more work. It happened to get into his hands through the sheer will of Lynda Obst and it just sort of snowballed out of control from there.

Granted, it helps when the guy has the attention of a player like Lynda Obst. I don't know the history of how that happened, but IMDBpro lists Robinson's manager as Oliver Obst of Underground Films and Management, so let's just assume that relationship helped. Still, The Invention of Lying is Robinson's first credit on IMDB, and it's quite a big deal for a self-proclaimed "struggling L.A. screenwriter."

Here's the trailer:

The rest of the interview is good too, so check it out. And who doesn't love Ricky Gervais?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Links about industry humor and the Spec Market

Jason Scoggins over at Life on the Bubble has posted a new Spec Market Scorecard. Check it out. Among his insights:

"Going out wide remains a terrible sales strategy: Just 2 of the 84 scripts that went wide after May 1 have sold. That's 2.4% over the past 15 weeks. Time to assemble a death panel."

And since you'll need a laugh after that, mosey on over to Go into the Story and read Scott's hilarious interview with the man behind the satirical website "The Hollywood Roaster." (It's like the Onion if it made fun of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.)

Bolding your sluglines

Joshua writes in with a question:

I bold my slugs, it's something I've been doing since I went pro about a two years ago ... I got turned onto by another writer and really like it ...

The thing is, when I bold my slugs, then I only use one space before the slug, not two ... the idea is that two spaces is generally there to let the reader know the following is a slug ... if the slug is bolded, there's no need for a double space, the bold lets the eye know it's a change in scene.

I do that and I really dig how it looks and reads, myself. And the producers who've picked up my work have never complained about it (and they've certainly given me a shitload of notes about other things, so if they didn't like it, they would) ... and I've never heard anything else from anyone, and have also seen a few bolded slugs scripts from other writers.

I just wondered, what's your take? I"m not trying to cheat, my scripts all fall into the respectable parameters ... the thing just looks and reads better, in my view.

For me, bolded slugs are a little bit of an annoyance. It's pretty far down on my list of pet peeves, but I've found them distracting in the few scripts I've read. I suppose a part of that could be that I'm so used to the regular way that anything else "looks wrong." I can't really speak to how other readers might perceive it because this has never really come up in any conversations I've had when I've shared pet peeves with colleagues.

If that's the only formatting liberty you're taking, it's probably not too bad. I can see it tripping a reader's mental red flag because it's a pretty conspicuous deviation, but it's relatively minor compared to not including page numbers, having the wrong font, the wrong spacing, having more than four lines in an action paragraph and giving camera direction.

Still, it could be a calculated risk in terms of earning the reader's skepticism off the bat. No good script will get a pass because of some bolded sluglines - but if the result is that they're too distracting I could see it impacting the read on a subliminal level.

To the best of my memory, I haven't seen too many professional scripts that have bolded sluglines, if that makes a difference to you.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When to capitalize and underline

Mark writes in:

Time and time again, I am told not to include CUT TOs, musical artist names, word capitalizations, underlining, and the various other gimmicks professional screenwriters use to make their screenplays more engaging and readable, and yet, time and time again, I see these things used in spec. screenplays that have been optioned or sold or are making their rounds in Hollywood, including those by previously unproduced or unknown writers. What gives? Should these things be in a spec or not?

Hey Mark, good question and a relevant one for me this week actually.

First, I'd dispute the notion that CUT TOs, capitalizations, and underlining makes a screenplay "more engaging and readable." Often it does the exact opposite. "CUT TO" is one of those redundant directions if you think about it. If you're changing scenes, a cut is presumably going to be involved, right? I just read an egrigious misuse of CUT TO just this week. The writer not only had an average of four or five of them a page, he also put them in the left margin instead of the right. By p. 30 just the sight of a CUT TO made my eyes bleed.

The same goes for capitalizations and underlining. If you use them at all, use them sparingly. Here's a good rule of thumb - anything that makes the script harder on the eyes is bad.

WHICH is easier TO READ? A sentence WITH A LOT of capitalizations and LOWER CASE WORDS - plus some UNDERLINING.... (OOPS! Blogger APPARENTLY won't LET me UNDERLINE!)

Or a more conventionally written sentence that rarely employs those gimmicks, if AT ALL, and only for emphasis?

Yeah, I know the old rules used to say to capitalize every sound effect, prop, action, or motion. That's generally not done as much anymore.

As for musical artist names and the names of specific songs, I say don't do it. This is one of those "rules" that is bent on occasion, but writing "As they kiss, Feist's 1234 crescendos" will just make you look like an amateur. Now, I've actually read a few scripts recently that were centered on garage bands, which naturally meant a number of scenes where we were told the band was playing The Ramones, Bon Jovi and a few others. Technically the correct way to do this would be to say, "They play a rock song like Livin' on a Prayer or Born to Run." I'd say that as long as it's clear that this song could be swapped out for another song without affecting the plot, go for it.

What you don't want to do is have a scene where we're told that an Avril Lavigne song comes up on the jukebox at a particular time, and then inform the reader in an aside that this song also inspired your plot. (Yes, I have actually seen this.)

Basically, if it's easy to tell that you've been dying to put this "awesome" song in a movie and wrote the scene just to do that, we'll probably peg you as a clueless newbie. Programming anything more than two songs sets this alarm bell off in a big way.

Before I get a bunch of emails citing exceptions, I'll point out that good writing trumps all. No one ever got a PASS because they capitalized one too many sentences or dared to put "More Than a Feeling" in their spec. (But seriously, are you clueless? That song is nearly a million to license!) But you'd better be a damn good writer, because if you pull that stuff you pretty much burn any goodwill from the reader.

And usually the people who break these "rules" break them frequently. As I said, even though they have their place in screenwriting, they should be used SPARINGLY. The fools who specify outrageously expensive songs tend to list five or six specific songs; those who like to use underlining to draw attention to the point then use it every page, to the point where its value becomes meaningless, and so on.

Yes, guys like Tarantino can turn their work in scribbled in crayon on the back of a placemat and it'll still be treated better than the most perfectly formatted newbie script. But an aspiring screenwriter who commits a major writing no-no and then complains "David Koepp did it, nyah!" is really missing the point.

It's not surprising when some first-timers make these mistakes out of ignorance. They just haven't done their homework - even though some of this stuff is pretty basic. However, if you know that there are certain rules, why fixate on figuring out all the minute exceptions and how to break them?

Bottom line, ideally you won't put them in a spec. If you do, make sure it doesn't pop up enough that your reader goes, "Again? Have they ever read a screenwriting book?"

By the way, as I was typing this, I found a recent post dealing with capitalizations from Scott over at Go Into The Story. I don't agree with him 100%, but it's worth noting what he says about a selling script and a shooting script

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Twitter... Yeah, I gave in

Okay, since several of you have emailed in asking about this, I decided to join Twitter. Look for me @BittrScrptReadr

There. I hope you're all happy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I must protest this shoddy treatment!

Time to dip into the mailbag again...

Your Royal Bitterness,

I've been reading your blog for advice for quite some time, however, I'm curious what kind of advice you have with regards to a well-polished synopsis. This is usually the first exhibition of a writer's story and I've found very little insight online as to what someone in your position looks for when reading a story in summary. It seems like the pitfall I keep running into is that without any sense of tone, a bare-bones description of a story can sound not just absurd, but kind of silly, especially in genres such as horror or science fiction. Anything you could do to point me in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.



Well Kevin, I assume you're asking about treatments, and I'd venture that the reason you've found little online is that treatments usually represent a very small percentage of what script readers read. If you're an established writer looking to get a buyer for your idea, odds are that if your treatment's looked it it's going to be by people at a higher level than me (a producer or director, for instance.) If you're not established in the industry, then querying with a treatment probably isn't going to get you anywhere. Aside from the rare exception now and then, scripts sell - not treatments and pitches.

Sidebar: Anyone out there know of any cases where a first-timer has made his first sale on a pitch rather than a spec?

But on the occasion that I do have to critique a treatment, I find it does often take a little more imagination. Over the years I think I've developed an innate sense of pacing, but reading the treatment gets a lot easier when the writer denotes the act breaks. This way, I can get a feel for how they're trying to pace the story and can say, "Um, I don't know if you'll be able to cram all this early exposition into the first twenty-five pages, and then there's no way that those next eight paragraphs of description will last for the entire second act."

I'm big on getting the structure right before you start writing the actual script, so I tend to hit hard on pacing, plot points, and the relationship between the main plot and the subplot. I also try to keep an eye on the main character arcs, taking note of how the characters are introduced, on how their actions end up pushing the plot forward, on if they lead the plot or if the plot leads them - and most of all, if there is a clear transformation in the character from the start to finish.

There's always the chance that flaws that aren't evident in the treatment will reveal themselves once the first draft is written. It's equally possible that other problems - lets say, some ham-fisted exposition - will feel more organic when woven into a scene rather than laid bare in a treatment.

At the end of the day, the treatment is the first look at the premise, the story and the character arcs. When I read a treatment, I'm looking to see if all of those (or at least most of them) grab my interest. Even though some scripts might be execution dependant, you can usually tell if a particular story will grab your fancy.

Let me put it this way - don't you make decisions about what movies to see based on little more than short reviews, TV commercials, or trailers - all of which represent a very small percentage of the actual film? It's kind of the same thing with treatments.

Keep the questions coming! Anyone else out there have a question they'd like answered?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Subtext in Adventure Comics starring Superboy

For obvious reasons I usually limit my writing tips to screenplays and TV scripts, but today I want to take a short break from that and use a recent comic book to illustrate a point. I've been a comic collector for 20 years and I can say that one of the best superhero writers, past and present is a man named Geoff Johns, currently responsible for Green Lantern, Blackest Night, Superman: Secret Origin, Flash and Adventure Comics. One of these days I'll have to get around to explaining how Geoff's Green Lantern: Rebirth helped me structure a fantasy script I recently wrote, but now I'm going to talk a little about Adventure Comics #1, out this week, and how it illustrates both "showing, not telling" and effective communication of subtext.

Superboy is the lead feature in the title, though he's not a young Clark Kent, but rather a teenager named Conner Kent who was cloned from a mix of Superman and Lex Luthor's DNA. He had been killed back in 2006's Infinite Crisis but was recently resurrected in 2009's Legion of Three Worlds. This issue picks up his story from there, as he moves in with Clark Kent's mother in Smallville.

If you're so inclined, please follow this link to preview pages from the story, featuring the wonderful Norman Rockwellian art of Francis Manapul.

Early in the story we see text that appears to be writing from Conner's diary, opening with the question "What did Superman do?" Item 1 on that list: "Lived with the Kents." We're shown a panel of young Clark with his parents, and then the next panels show Conner moving in with Ma Kent, as another text box shows Conner checking off "1) Lived with the Kents."

Throughout the issue, several other examples follow this pattern, such as "Went to Smallville High," "Joined a team of superheroes," and "Helped anyone who needed it." So I ask you, dear reader, what do you think all of this means? Why is Conner writing this? I'm guessing most of you surmise that Conner is trying to figure out how to follow in Superman's footsteps, to live up to his legacy.

About midway through the story, Conner goes to the dilapidated house where Lex Luthor lived when he was in Smallville. Superman finds him there and wonders why Conner would come here. Superboy asks, "Do you think it would've been different if Lex had grown up with your parents?" Superman says "no," elaborating that he thinks Lex is completely delusional. Conner probes further, "So was he born bad?" Eventually, he admits he just wants to understand him. Superman assures the boy, "You're not him. And you're not me. You're your own person." He asks Conner to steer clear of Luthor, saying he's Superman's problem. Conner promises, "If I EVER see Lex Luthor again, it'll be too soon."

The final page of the issue shows Conner looking at his checklist. Then there's a one panel flashback to that last line of dialgoue. Then we see the second page Conner has written:

"What does Lex Luthor Do?
"1) Lies to Superman"

Final panel - Conner checks that off of his list.

It's a nice bit of showing rather than telling. Conner essentially is trying to figure out how much of each "father" is in him. His checklist isn't just about him trying to be Superman - it's about him figuring out if he already is on the path to being Luthor. That's not only clever writing, but it's handled in a sublte way. Despite the subtext of the scene in Luthor's house being pretty clear in showing Conner wondering if he was born bad, this final scene still was a surprise.

At no point in the story does Conner say, "I am worried I might turn out like Luthor." He talks around the subject, and his actions hint at these motivations, but Johns never stops and puts those words into his mouth. It's also equally clear that Superman senses Conner might be worried about this, and his reassurance to the boy also comes without him being on-the-nose in revealing Conner's feelings. Take note of this - people rarely say exactly what they feel. If your characters do this often, it usually makes their dialogue sound on the nose and false.

The subtext of this whole issue is Conner's identity crisis. His concerns don't even become all that evident until more than halfway through the story and then the ending forces the audience to reevaluate the whole issue in a new context. Conner didn't just happen upon Lex's old house and then that led him to wonder about "nature or nurture?" It's been on his mind the whole time - and hiding from the audience in plain sight.

So check out Adventure Comics if you get a chance. It's a nice single-issue story that doesn't require you to buy 15 different crossovers to get the whole story.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

G.I. Joe and the Apocalypse

Since I started this blog, I've had an unofficial policy about not spoiling recent movies. I'm aware that not everyone sees movies the first weekend they're out, and I do my best not to ruin too many surprises for me readers when describing them. Of course, this sometimes leads to situations like after I saw My Bloody Valentine, where I sat on a column with heavy spoilers for so long that it was no longer relevant.

However in the case of last weekend's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the movie is so utterly terrible that it's impossible to "spoil" it. It would be like saying that it "spoils" the Zapruder film if I warned you ahead of time it featured footage of President Kennedy's murder. No... it's worse than that. It would be like saying I "spoiled" Two Girls, One Cup if I warned you what you'd find by clicking that particular video link.

(Sidebar: Hi Mom! Thanks for reading. Please do NOT Google "Two Girls, One Cup" and definitely make no attempt to seek out the video. And I don't mean this in a joking, "Ha ha, you don't want to see this" kind of way. Trust me, you REALLY don't want to see this.)

I'd revert to popular internet vernacular and call this film an "abortion" but that would be an insult to Dilation & Curettage. This was apparently "written" during the writer's strike and it really, really shows. I'm at a loss where to begin. For me, the utter nadir is when our heroes come across one of the dead bad guys and conduct a rather unusual interrogation. Since they can't question a dead man, they pull out two large probes, stab them (imprecisely, I might add) into the man's cranium and then somehow are able to use this to probe his recent memories. The explanation offered is that the brain takes longer to die than the rest of the body, which... do I really need to go into all the reasons why that's dumb?

It's lazy exposition at its worst. The script needs the characters to get somewhere, but there's no plausible and easy way to do it. This is hack writing designed to take the story from A to B. Nothing more. It's the sort of moronic work that can earn a script a PASS all on its own.

There's virtually no character to speak of, made worse by the fact that cinematic terrorist Stephen Sommers (he has Van Helsing, The Scorpion King AND Deep Rising on his resume, what would you call him?) has stocked the film with some of dinner theatre's finest waiters. Every character is a one-dimensional action figure. Some were cast for their figures, some for their ability to do action, and I'm guessing others like Dennis Quaid and that guy from Oz whose name I can't spell were some how duped into the production by being told it was a PSA for the military. But seeing as how even the good actors in this movie turned in bad performances, I'm going to just blame the director and the script. So Sienna Miller gets a pass from me... this time.

I will say this. The President of the United States is played by Jonathan Pryce. You know, that British guy who used to do the Infiniti commercials? And no, he makes no attempt to put on an American accent. There should have been at least a throwaway line about Faux News demanding to see President Infiniti's birth certificate.

I texted my friend after I saw the film, calling it "Team America without the marionettes and the irony." By coincidence, I had just rewatched Team America last weekend, and I figured that comparison came to mind mostly because of that fact - until I saw at least a half-dozen review that made a similar point. Everything Team America makes fun of is in here. The montages, the ridiculously manufactured "tension" between the new guys on the team and the older members, the ludicrous bad guy who's impossible to take seriously due to his lame outfit and horribly hissed dialogue. Honestly, I've seen serials from the '40s with more credible villains.

The bad guy's motivations are weak and all over the map. Destro essentially wants to sell arms to two sides by developing tech for the America military, then stealing it and using that nanotech to destroy Paris because.... you know... I'm not really sure what his goal is. It has some to do with taking over the world and using that same tech to breed armies of totally loyal soldiers. There's also the fact that by the end of the movie, we're shown that this main attack was all a distraction so that Destro and Cobra could replace the President with a lookalike. All of this could have been interesting, but all these points are thrown into the plot in such a haphazard fashion that there's no coherence to the big picture. Try to explain the plot afterwards and you'll come up with all sorts of loose threads.

Take the Baroness for instance. She's Duke's former fiancee, turned to the bad guys after blaming Duke for getting her brother killed while on a mission. However, as we find out, her brother survived and became Cobra - who then turned around and used his nanoprobes to brainwash her to become the evil Baroness. There's no real justification for why Cobra would want to mess with his own sister's head and turn her evil. It's writer fiat so that Duke can have the angst of going up against an old flame, and so the Baroness can fight through her programming and have a moment of redemption.

I never watched the G.I. Joe cartoon, but given the little information about it I know, I bet that some fans are freaking out about all the liberties taken. Somewhere, I'm sure there's a blog titled "G.I. Joe Raped My Childhood" which might lead one to believe that the bad internet reviews are just coming from unbalanced fans watching the film through nostalgia colored glasses. I'm not one of those, and I'd never say that a movie "raped" my childhood even if I was. I think that's a stupid statement because it's not like the original shows ceased to exist the moment this movie came into being. Also, "jokes" like that tend to trivialize rape, and rape is never funny. Unless it's happening to Rush Limbaugh. Then it's hilarious.

(For those of you keeping score, rape is no laughing matter, but abortion jokes are hilarous. And yes, this is about the point where my trusty assistant Al "What are YOU doing here" Borland would hold up a sign and tell you to address your hate mail to Tim Taylor in care of Tool Time.)

In any event, my point is that this isn't a bad movie because it makes changes to the source material - it's a bad film PERIOD. It's got a lousy script, bad directing and CG so poorly integrated that I thought I was watching unfinished shots at several points. Yet it made $56 million this weekend. Not as huge as some other juggernauts this summer, but still, that's a lot of suckers that got taken for their money. It's big enough that unless this film drops off in a huge way next weekend, nothing will happen to stem the tide of toy, comic book, and game adaptations.

Take Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It's the only movie I've seen this year to rival G.I. Joe for the title of worst film of the year. (And I've already admitted to seeing My Bloody Valentine in this column so chew on that nugget a while.) Terrible writing, terrible acting, a plot that barely holds together, a running time over two and a half hours and a whole lot of explosions - and it's the biggest film of the year! It's made over $800 million worldwide. True, action always travels well because there's less dialogue to be dubbed, but even just domestically it's made nearly $400 million!

How could this be? It can't be ALL teenage boys going to ogle Megan Fox in between explosions. (And besides, with the internet obsessively covering all things Megan Fox, surely these horny boys could find much more provocative pics and video of Miss Fox and, ahem, "enjoy" them in the privacy of their own home.) I have a hunch that when Megan Fox's Jennifer's Body comes out soon, it'll be lucky to do a quarter of Transformers' box office. It can't be the running time - teens have short attention spans and hate long movies. It can't be the story because.... there isn't one. And if visual effects alone drew a crowd, Watchmen would have been a much bigger hit.

What does that leave? Easy - brand recognition. Studios buy projects with pre-awareness in the market, such as comic books, novels, remakes of other films. There's no originality because movie marketing is based on getting people into the theatres by showing them exactly what they will get. Notice how trailers reveal 90% of the movie's plot these days? That's because studies have apparently shown that viewers respond better to trailers that tell them everything. It's all about giving the audience exactly what they know and expect.

Transformers wasn't bought because Paramount and Dreamworks were banking on all the hard-core fans of the toys and cartoons who were now 20 years older. They bought it because people know what Transformers is. This is the same thinking that has led to Candyland and Viewmaster to be developed as projects. Audiences truly are about to get the entertainment they deserve.

At the moment, original ideas are scarce in Hollywood and that has led to a bleak spec market. Take heart, readers, everything happens in cycles. The streak can't last forever, and anyone who thinks that Viewmaster is going to lead to an interesting movie, let alone a hit movie, is seriously delusional. The bubble will burst and the audiences will soon be hungry for fresh ideas, not reheated leftovers. When that happens, the market will pick up again and the smart writers will be ready for that with fresh scripts and bold new ideas.

Here is what we, as writers, need to do to bring about that golden age. First, we have to stop seeing this crap. We need a full-on boycott of all these regurgitated leftovers. Then, we need to push ourselves and write material so original and innovative that it can't NOT be sold. If we're lucky, these projects will find an audience and the pack mentality that drives Hollywood will soon be chasing original ideas and not ghosts from the 80s.

Forgive the rant, but seeing the crap that passes for entertainment (and especially the fact that it's inexplicably popular and profitable) really has me concerned for the future of film.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A touching tribute to John Hughes

This has been making its way around the internet, but for the few of you who haven't seen it, please check out this blog posting from a woman who became a pen pal of John Hughes in her teenage years.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes 1950-2009

My blog is starting to read like an obit column, but I couldn't let the passing of John Hughes go by unremarked upon.

First, I've never actually seen The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink (I know... I know... spare me the outraged emails) but when I was a kid, I must have watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Home Alone several dozen times each. Even today, if I'm channel surfing and I come across Ferris Bueller, I HAVE to stop and watch it. No matter where it is in the film, no matter how many times I've seen it, I will sit there and laugh as Ferris and prank calls his principal; as he "plays" the clarinet ("never had one lesson"); as he claims to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago; and especially as he hijacks a parade to sing "Twist and Shout." It has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. It's such a good movie that I don't want to sit here and dissect the script - I don't want to think about the puppet strings, I just want to enjoy it.

His Planes, Train and Automobiles is another fun one to watch. It's a great little movie about a man trying to get home to his family at Thanksgiving who has to travel with an annoying, but well-meaning salesman in order to make the trek. If you want to learn about writing three-dimensional characters, and creating good interpersonal conflict between people without resorting to much in the way of an external plot, watch this film. It's the late John Candy's best performance by far.

A lesser script would have made his character a total obnoxious boor, a combination of all the worst traits found in characters played by Jack Black and Chris Farley. Hughes knew that the more interesting way to take was to give Candy's Del Griffith a big heart. He has annoying habits, he's a little too eager to please and he's tailor-made to get on the uptight Steve Martin's nerves - but he's not a bad person. He's a lonely guy, a guy whose laughs and outgoing nature hide some deep pain. Even as he's annoying us, we feel bad for that reaction because he's so genuine. When Steve Martin lays into him in one memorable tirade, we almost cheer on the catharsis because we've all known a Del... but then we see how hurt Del is, and witness it all through his eyes.

Del memorably responds:

"You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I'm not changing. I like... I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get."

It's no longer the story of a man having the worst road trip of his life with the worst travel companion imaginable. It's the story of a friendship between two guys connected by circumstance.

And then there's his script for Home Alone, which again excels because of the heart Hughes puts (sorry... "put") into his work. When I was a kid, I watched mainly for Kevin's Rube Goldberg-esque antics against the burglars in the final act. Last Christmas I saw it for the first time in years and it was that heart that stayed with me more. There's the pitch perfect tone to all the family scenes, particularly in Kevin's mother's efforts to get home to her son. The subplot with the old man could have been overly sappy, but Hughes managed to be sentimental without going too far. (Supposedly this subplot was added late in the process, but it never feels tacked on.)

It's a movie about more than hitting burglars with paint cans - it's about a young boy discovering the value of his family. At the start of the film, he wishes they'd all disappear. Like any young boy would, when he gets that wish, he indulges in all those newfound freedoms. He jumps on the bed, he eats junk food, he raids his brother's room - but soon he realizes he misses everyone. And in getting to know the old man, and seeing how he has become estranged from his family, Kevin seems to gain greater appreciation for his loved ones. A lesser movie would have gone overboard with the wish fulfillment aspect of the premise and shown Kevin in hog heaven until his family showed up to ruin everything. Hughes created a story with deeper resonance, and one that's more meaningful than the disposable fluff of many kid movies of the time.

He hadn't directed a movie since 1991, and his last screenplay credit was in 1998 - but he will be missed. John Hughes work will continue to be felt in the generations of filmmakers he helped inspire. Farewell, Mr. Hughes... and thanks for sharing your voice with us.

Reader mail - titles

Figured it was about time I responded to some reader mail about my post a while back about choosing strong titles:

E.C Henry writes:

Isn't "She's Out of My League" ALREADY the title of some teenie bopper's romantic comedy vehicle of a few years past? Why would you want to read a title that SUGGESTS a rehash of that?

Also the title, "You Again" sounds awfully vague to me. This sounds like something saying someone might utter in a return from the grave scenario. But to me this phrase needs more to suggest what tone of movie follows this title: comedy or horror.
Anyways curious to know what about that title pricks your interest, and leads you to want to read it. Perhaps a "buzz" factor that neither I nor your readers are aware of.

As far as I can tell with Google, there is no such earlier movie named "She's Out of My League," and you sort of prove my point by indicating that the title totally suggests a romantic comedy, probably with young leads. As far as the marketing of spec scripts go, that's like hitting a gold mine. Rom-Coms are perennial scripts - they never seem to cool off as a genre. And the young audience is among the most coveted by studios. Given a choice, readers would rather "discover" this one than waste time reading yet another World War II script about the first integrated unit from Iowa.

And if you somehow get the impression from that that I'm advising you NOT to write a WWII script, you're right.

As for "You Again," you're right in the scenario that you set up there. My assumption was that it had to do with two longtime adversaries confronting each other again. I think it does suggest genre, though, as the line itself is self-aware in a way that hints at comedy. Your point that it could be a literal "return from the grave" and thus suggests horror is well-taken, but I'd argue that in that case it would be camp or comedic horror. I can't picture any "serious" horror film titling itself that. (Can you really picture something like "The Unborn" being called "You Again."

My feeling was that it had to be comedy, and that it was a script about a long-time rival coming back. From the brief blurb I saw a while ago, that's essentially correct.

Jasph asks:

Also, how often do you find an interesting title attached to a piece-of-crap script? How about a great title, great first act, and crap the rest of the way through? Since titles can't be trademarked, do they get cherry-picked and used by studios, with the original script in the recycle bin?

As to the first question - there are TONS of interesting titles attached to terrible scripts. I could rattle off several of those right now if it wouldn't get me in trouble with some of the writers.

As to the second question - I've read thousands of scripts over the years and most of them fade into memory, so I can't recall any specifics at the moment, but I'm sure it happens.

As to the third - I doubt it.

He goes on to write:

I know a great movie with a lousy title. No hint of genre or premise, and hardly memorable. But it's one of the best scripts I ever read. More interesting titles might have come from its content ("God of Death" or "Untrue North" or "The Fixer" or "The Bagman" or "The Gamble" or "Realm & Conquest"). Would you be more likely to read one of those than a script called "Michael Clayton"?

I guess you probably would.

Don't misunderstand my point. I'm not saying "Bad title always equals bad script." No one is going to read something like fantastic and go, "This is a great script, but I can't give it a consider because they titled it 'Sofa.'" But, I'm assuming most of you who read this are going to be submitting to agencies and production companies from such a low level that your script is going to be tossed into a low-priority slush pile. I'm just telling you how to get out of that stack faster.

Also, strong titles help a reader remember a script later. I can look through my massive coverage file and find hundreds of generic script titles that I can't remember a single thing about the story. In fact, when I organized the files by date and looked at the list from three months back, I could barely recall the stories attached to most of the scripts because the titles were often so generic.

Once when I was working at one production company, the VP of Development came to speak to me with questions about a script I had covered for him less than a month ago. I guess he'd forgotten to call the agent and needed a few details that he couldn't find in my write-up Well, it had a very generic title and the plot was almost as bland. Embarrassingly, I couldn't recall the script off of the title, or the vague description he gave me. I looked up the coverage and reading my own words jogged my memory enough to give him what he needed, but it was a good lesson in how easily the unmemorable becomes... well, unmemorable.

You know what does stick with me? The clever titles, the unique ones. Sometimes the clever title attached to a bad script ends up helping me remember some of the worst scripts I've ever read. More than half a decade later, I still recall "Mime Cop" as a script with a spectacularly awful premise and execution.

So let's say someone reads your script, gives it a mild consider and the higher-ups pass on it because it's not the sort of film they're making right now. Six months later, the head of development decides he wants to do a movie that's right in that genre. Wouldn't you want the development assistant to instantly perk up in the room and say, "I've got the perfect script for you. It's called 'Terror-forming.' I read it a while back, and I'll send the coverage on to you."

One of the first rules of breaking in to writing has to be "Be memorable."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

RIP Blake Synder

Just read on Go Into the Story that screenwriter and Save the Cat author Blake Snyder died this morning.

One suspects he'll be remembered more for his Save the Cat books than his two produced films, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check. I've found his Save the Cat to be one of the new standards in screenwriting books. I've read a lot of screenwriting books over the years, but Save the Cat is the only one I pull from and cite on a fairly regular basis. It's one of the few books to make me reexamine my own writing process, and even when the book rehashed stuff I already knew, he found a way to make it entertaining.

If you are interested, you can check out his blog here.

I never met the man. My closest connection to him came a while back when I had the opportunity to cover one of his specs. But given that I've made use of his beat sheet templates and his tropes like "Pope in the Pool" at times in my own writing, I felt it appropriate to mark his passing here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pros can break the rules - Funny People

I've talked before on this blog about the importance of keeping your script under 120 pages, and how lately, 105-115 pages is the new maximum range. There are always a lot of amateur writers who get defensive when told about these and other maxims. With an air of both paranoia and indignation, they sharply ask, "So if my script is 121 pages long, some idiot is gonna throw it in the trash without reading it? Bullshit! No one does that to Frank Darabount! And haven't you ever heard of Lord of the Rings! That script was long and it broke your rules about not writing sequels at the same time, so HA!"

Hey dummy, come closer... I wanna whisper something to you. No, that's all right. Just a little closer...


Listen to me... You are not Frank Darabount. Once you've made money for the studio you can bend all the rules you like. But right now, you are Joe Nobody Baby Writer. You are plankton. you are the pre-frosh in the fraternity that is Hollywood. I'm trying to help you out here.

When you're writing on spec, consider that 115 page barrier a line that you cross at your own peril. Most of the time, it'll even force you to write a better script. If you're coming up with 130 pages for your buddy comedy, odds are you haven't yet had to cut out some of your weaker jokes. Or perhaps you've got too many extraneous subplots going on. The fatter your script, the better chance you lack a central focus.

I've had to give many a writer these sorts of notes when they've broken the "unspoken rules" and its uncanny how the more argumentative a writer is to these notes, the worse their writing is. It's a sign of laziness - they're determined to reassure themselves that the note-giver knows nothing because then that means they don't have to rewrite. Usually, bad attitude=bad writer.

This is not to say that there aren't good writers who disagree with these points, but they also understand why this note is given, and accept it's a reality they have to deal with. They work on surviving within those constraints without compromising their script.

Why am I saying all this now? Because I just sat through Funny People - a 146 minute Judd Apatow comedy. I like most of Judd's movies. I think he's got some fun concepts, he knows how to create memorable characters, and usually there's a lot of heart to his work. Still, I usually walk out of his films thinking, "That felt about 20 minutes too long." This time I felt that he ran about 45 minutes long.

It has some nice moments, and there were some strong scenes where I really connected with the characters. Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances in a long time as a comedian who is diagnosed with a terminal disease and given low odds of beating it. The first 90 minutes or so is about how he deals with that - realizing that he isn't close to anyone in his life. The only person he tells is an aspiring comedian played by Seth Rogan, who he hires as his assistant. The movie is strong when it pursues that thru-line.

Then, about an hour and a half into the movie, the story changes gears. Viewers of the trailer won't be shocked by this story turn, but I'll still endeavor to be discreet. It's a fair turn, and the plot continues to follow through on elements set up earlier, but once this happens the film becomes an entirely different movie. It's less about the relationship between Sandler and Rogan, and more about the relationship between Sandler and a now-married old flame played by Mrs. Judd Apatow aka Leslie Mann.

Had this not been the work of a man who wrote and directed the $109 million grossing The 40 Year-Old Virgin and the nearly $150 million Knocked Up, it's fair to say that studio execs would have given this script's wandering narrative and large page-count a bit more scrutiny. Considering that the film's opening was something of a disappointment, it might not be a stretch to say that Apatow might not be given quite so much freedom on his next project. At the very least, I can see execs forcing him to turn in tighter running times, and scapegoating Funny People's length for the poor box office returns.

But remember that you - Joe Nobody Baby Writer - are NOT Judd Apatow. If you're writing a comedy, keep it around 105 pages.