Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: The Blair Witch Project

It's Halloween so let's party like it's 1999. You know what that means - Blair Witch Project parodies!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lessons from Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson's Scream

When it comes to slasher films, I only have a few favorites. I've seem dozens of them and I don't boycott the genre by any means (I save that venom for torture porn and Saw ripoffs. If you like that shit, don't try to defend it. I don't want to hear it.), but there are many, many more bad slasher films than good ones. Among the best, is 1996's Scream, written by Kevin Williamson, and directed by horror legend Wes Craven - whose A Nightmare on Elm Street is also on my "favorite slasher movies" list.

Scream pretty much single-handedly revived the teen horror genres after years when it was well out of favor. For the first time in a long time, horror was smart, scary and funny again. If it wasn't for that resurgence, you have to wonder what sort of movies the teen stars of the WB and CW would have ended up making during their hiatuses. I've read a lot of bad horror scripts that were trying to be like Scream, but few of them seem to have really deconstructed the film and made note of what really made it work. Here's what Scream really gets right:

A killer opening sequence: Granted, Craven's directing has a lot to do with this, and having a director that skilled isn't something a writer can always count on. Putting that aside, there's a lot here that's on target. A lot of horror scripts start with a three or four page kill scene that doesn't do much beyond setting up a victim and killing them off immediately. It's usually treated as a disposable scene that's just there to grab the audience and then give the writer license to spend the following 25-30 pages slowly killing time until the killer jumps out of the shadows and guts the next lowest billed character (who nine times out of ten will be the female character whom the script introduces at least a full two lines after her breasts.)

Scream's opening is a bit longer than that, and it doesn't just give us a victim and a killer. It has them interact via phone and we see the killer's MO established with clever dialogue. He asks his victims to name their favorite scary movie, setting an important tone for the killer and the movie in general - this is a movie about people who have actually seen scary movies and know all the conventions and cliches. It's a way of announcing to the audience "This isn't a film that's going to just cynically recycle the cliches - it's gonna subvert them!" (Now, whether this sort of meta humor is always a good thing is probably a topic for another column.)

As many, many reviews have been written about Scream's self-aware tone, I won't waste much more time on it. My point is that the opening sequence isn't a throwaway kill. It's crucial to the fabric of the movie beyond being a scene that shows a killer is out there.

Sharp dialogue - Here's where you probably either love Williamson or hate him. I'm firmly in the former category. The characters - especially Jamie Kennedy's Randy - are constantly referencing movies, both in terms of the horror setting and in other scenes. (In one example, a character laments that his relationship with his girlfriend is like a horror movie "edited for television" - all the good parts have come out. Every character has a distinct voice. A Randy line doesn't sound like a Billy line. Nor does a Sydney line sound like a Tatum line. I've suffered through many a horror script where Jack's lines seemed interchangeable with Ryan's, or even Jennifer's. I've also read a lot of scripts that try to imitate the Williamson (or Joss Whedon) penchant for pop culture references and you know what? Every character talks exactly the same. It's not enough to make your characters witty - they need to be distinctively witty.

(Now, sometimes the actors will make this harder for you. I remember loving Scream's dialogue, but feeling that some of Williamson's dialogue in early Dawson's Creek sounded rather clunky. Revisiting Scream post-Dawson's actually left me feeling that there wasn't THAT much difference in the dialogue, stylistically. If you listen to some of the lines in Scream, you can clearly pick up on cadences and rhythms that turn up on the TV series. So why does Dawson's sound more forced? To be blunt, the actors seem a lot less comfortable with it - especially early on. Neve Campbell and company took Williamson's words and were able to deliver them organically. In contrast, James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes appeared to have memorized their dialogue phonetically at times.)

Great use of red herrings - Scream is a solid example of using the audiences expectations against them. From the moment it's clear that this is a whodunit, the audience is naturally going to try to outguess the film. Thus, Williamson is smart enough to not just thrown in red herrings, but use those as red herrings for further red herrings.

For example, boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is virtually the only suspect the film points a finger at early on. Thus Mr. Smarter-Than-Everyone-Else Moviegoer is going to say, "They want me to think he's the killer, but since it's still the first half-hour of the movie, he's clearly not going to turn out to be the killer. It would be too obvious... unless that's what they want me to think. So, when Billy is arrested and then seemingly cleared, it can't be taken at face value... unless they want us to think that he's still the most likely suspect so that we won't notice it's someone else...."

That was basically my internal monologue during the entire film the first time I saw it, "It's so obvious that it can't be true, unless they're counting on me NOT to suspect the most obvious suspect!"

And don't even get me started on the debate about which glass had the iocane powder....

Anyway, I kept vacillating about the killer's identity - still casting a suspicious eye towards Billy right up until the point he got gutted in the bedroom. At that point, the audience's reaction is probably something along the lines of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!" as they try to outguess the movie again. Even later, when Billy turned up still alive, I remember not suspecting him. After all, we saw him and the killer at the same time, right? Which leads to...

Using the audience's knowledge of the genre against them - I'm sure there are obscure counterexamples, but I can't recall a slasher film with two killers working together. Williamson knew that the audience would assume that there's only one killer to be unmasked, and because the script doesn't tip it's hand on this until the very end, certain characters seem to be accounted for at the same time the killer is shown. We're used to getting one psycho with one convoluted motivation - so most viewers were likely totally blindsided when the ending hinged on two killers working in concert with each other.

I'm not even sure if this counts as misdirection so much as it is knowing how the audience is going to interpret the unspoken clues. The best mysteries hide their solutions in plain sight. They rely not so much on deception as the audience putting themselves and their logic in a box. In this case, the "box" is "There is only one killer." We were never told this - the movie just gambled we'd assume it. Thus, Craven and Williamson haven't deceived us so much as WE have deceived ourselves. That's a lot more subtle than simply cheating by lying to the audience about what they were shown, and that's the sort of twist that keeps people talking. (See also The Sixth Sense.) A weak mystery plays out exactly how you'd expect, in the precise manner you'd expect.

So if you have never seen Scream, slip it into your movie marathons this weekend. You won't be disappointed. Yeah, I kinda blew the ending for you, but there's more than enough to keep you entertained even with that.

Plus after that, you can watch Scream 2 completely fresh. (Scream 3 isn't as strong a script, in part because Williamson is replaced by Ehren Kruger. I'd love to know what Williamson's original plan for the trilogy closer was.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Halloween

This week being Halloween, I have only one - albeit obvious - question for all my readers, admittedly stolen from Scream.

What's your favorite scary movie?

(Anyone who lists any of the "SCARY MOVIE" series as a favorite is too stupid to live. The only thing scary about those movies is the fact that people find them funny.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sex and the Screenwriter - Learning from Barbarella

A while back I cautioned against using some skeevy language in your screenplays when describing things like your lead female character's cleavage and revealing outfits. The thrust of that last post was that it'll seem gratuitous and creepy. There was another reason in there that I didn't really address - suppose you send a script to Jessica Alba, or Rachel McAdams, or Natalie Portman, and every other line of description is fixated on explaining just how tight her ass is, or how much of her bra is peaking out from her blouse. Don't you think it might repulse her a little - or at least make her uncomfortable about the role?

There's no reason to go into deep detail about how much flesh is exposed or how revealing a character's outfit is. Yes, if it's important that a character is in her underwear, just write "underwear" or "lingerie." If for some reason it's vitally important that we see her breasts, feel free to write "low cut," and if it's a beach scene and we need to know that the character is in a bikini, write "bikini." But that's really as far as you need to go.

As a point of comparison, I looked up a draft of the planned BARBARELLA remake. This particular draft is dated 10-12-07 and is credited to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. I picked this script for a very specific reason - anyone familiar with the 1968 film (adapted from a French comic book of the same name) is well aware that the main attraction of the film was to put Jane Fonda in as many revealing outfits and sexual situations as possible. It comes very close to being sci-fi soft-core porn.

Among the more memorable moments of the film are a zero gravity striptease that opens the film, performed by Fonda and in particular, a sequence in which she's captured and subjected to torture in a machine that... oh man, how do I put this delicately... is designed to... pleasure her to death.

I swear I am not making this up.

In any event, we're all clear about what kind of movie this is, right? So any modern update would probably have the screenplay slobbering all over the costume changes that the lead actress would be making in the course of the film, right?

Wrong. The first time the title character stands revealed, this is EXACTLY how she and her clothing are described: "She is barely dressed in a stunning, skimpy gold outfit. No visible weapons other than her hypnotic presence."

See what's missing? No discussions of her breast size. No notation that her breasts are exposed right up to the nipple. No mention of how skimpy her thong is or her curves, or how she's on the verge of bursting out of her bra. The word cleavage isn't even invoked. In fact, that word doesn't appear once in the script. "Breast" only appears four times, three of those in reference to Barbarella's breastplate, and none of those references are particularly skeevy.

Later, when she changes into another outfit, this is the extent of the description: "in her almost transparent costume (notable for its plastic breastplate)." Even further into the script, she's offered an outfit that is repeatedly described with the adjective "amazing," and when she finally puts it on, this is as far as Purvis and Wade take it: "Barbarella in her most iconic outfit yet... stepping out in her full glory."

The sex scenes are also fairly sparse in their description and the nude scenes do little more than mention the fact that the character is naked. There is no prose that lingers on painting a picture of the naked character.

I think that's more than enough to make my point. If the BARBARELLA remake writers find it's acceptable to be coy in writing about their lead character's skimpy outfits, there should be no reason to get overly sexual in your standard dramas, comedies, thrillers, or any other genre.

If you find your writing fixating on those details, do your script and your reader a favor and take a cold shower.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: Creed Shreds

This video has been making its way through my friends all week and it's too funny not to share with the world. As one of my friends says, it only gets funnier with multiple viewings.

Happy Friday everyone!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Teach Lion's Gate a lesson this weekend

I don't advocate sneaking into theatres or theatre hopping, but if for some insane reason you HAVE to see Saw VI this weekend, please buy a ticket for a different movie and sneak in to the Saw screening. I mean it. This isn't a joke. The only way this blight on human decency and entertainment is going to die is if we kill it.

Buy a ticket to ANY other movie out there, even that Vampire's Assistant film that looks like utter shit. Hell, I promise not to judge even if you go see The Stepfather. But if you help Saw VI earn money in any way this weekend, you might as well have just shanked every aspiring screenwriter with a thriller/horror premise. Why would any studio make a new movie when they can just Xerox the last big horror film - and Lion's Gate has proven that nothing, NOTHING will stop the Saw franchise. Not the departure of the creators. Not killing off the main villain. Not even the increasingly ludicrous plotlines.

Come Monday I want to read lots of box office reports about how it opened soft and sank like a stone. I want to see panic in the faces of every torture-porn producer out there. I want the kind of doomsaying "collapse of the horror genre?" articles that crop up when filmgoers are no longer willing to pay money to watch creative new ways to sadistically torture people. Make it happen.

Sorry there's no thought-provoking lesson today. I'll try to be more insightful next week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Playing fair in a whodunit

With the Halloween season approaching, it seems to be the right time to learn some lessons from horror films. Most horror/slasher movies end up employing a whodunit mystery - there's a killer on the loose and he could very well be one of the main characters... but who? It's a familiar source of tension, and more often than not, the resolution of that mystery is unsatisfying.

One thing that really annoys me in any whodunit - whether it's a horror film or just a standard mystery - is when the writer/s don't play fair. I hate when a writer cheats in order to get a shocking ending. It's fair to give the audience clues that are misleading, it's fair to drop red herrings that have a decent explanation and it's fair to give the audience clues that they innocently misread or misinterpret. But when you show the audience something and then say - "Psych! That didn't happen!" that's when I get annoyed.

Earlier this year, I saw My Bloody Valentine 3-D, a slasher film that had really only one main attraction - the 3D visuals. The slasher in question is a masked character disguised as a miner. We never see his face, only the mask, and early on that hints are dropped that it's one of the main characters - in particularly, Jensen Ackles' character, who has returned to town for the first time in ten years, and might have reason for flying off the handle in a rage, considering the woman he loved is now with someone else.

So after enough suspicion has been thrown on Ackles' character, the film reaches a point where he has to head down to the mine. While there, the killer shows up and traps him inside a metal cage. Ackles' is forced to watch helplessly as the killer slaughters a few miner. When other miners come to investigate, the killer flees and the others find Ackles trapped in the cage. Though the others start to suspect him, we - the audience - clearly saw that he was trapped in there by the real killer and that he was immobilized during the murders. Thus, the killer has to be someone else, right?


In the third act, it's revealed that Tom has in fact been the killer all along and hasn't realized it. He's delusional and is suffering from some kind of split personality. We're shown the mine killings again and this time, we see Tom commit the murder and trap himself in the cage so he can be found prisoner when the others arrive. It's a blatant rewrite of what we saw on screen as it happened! It's an utter lie to the audience and the worst kind of cheating in writing.

You can't show your audience something and then say "It didn't happen that way." You can go back and show them that something else was going on at the same time as the events they saw, but it's cheating to go back and rewrite history. If I had been hired to rewrite My Bloody Valentine, my solution would have been to not show the initial murder scene from Ackles' character's point of view. I'd have shown him going into the mine, found a legitimate reason to follow another character, and then have that character be the one to discover Ackles trapped in the cage near the bodies. Then, I'd have Ackles' character describe the murders as he believed them to have happened, in flashback. Thus, we know what he thinks happened and that version isn't shown to the audience from the seemingly objective and omniscient perspective as in the earlier version.

The reason why The Sixth Sense is such a brilliant example of a twist ending is that all the clues are right in front of the audience and are just presented in a way where they are overlooked. There's never a moment where Bruce Willis actually talks to an adult and gets a response. If there had been, and the movie then tried to explain that this conversation only took place in Willis' head - that would be an example of cheating.

Don't cheat in a whodunit. Even if the audience can't articulate exactly why that cheating bothers them, they'll sense it on a subliminal level. Such bad writing can bring down an entire movie.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon," My greatest discovery

It's always really rewarding when my trips to Blockbuster, or my skimming through Netflix reveal an undiscovered gem of a movie. There's so much crap out there, that finding a good movie within the major releases is tricky - to say nothing of finding an excellent original film that's been left to wallow in obscurity. Finding good movies in this "slush pile" can often be like panning for gold.

There are probably hundreds of great films made each year that for one reason or another never find the audience they deserve. Usually the reason has something to do with a lack of distribution. There are only so many films that the studios and DVD distributors can put their weight behind, and the rest are often consigned to oblivion. Even then, once a film gets DVD distribution, it can still be a struggle to capture audience awareness.

A friend and I used to have a semi-regular weekend ritual. We'd go to Blockbuster and try to pick a winner of a "so bad it's good" movie based only on the box art and the synopsis. If the key art and the title made us laugh - it usually got snagged. And yes, there probably we probably grabbed more than one exploitation flick on the basis of cleavage.

Oh, and the other thing that guaranteed we'd take the movie home was the presence of a B, C or D-list actor slumming it. This sort of thinking led us to rent American Vampire, staring Carmen Electra and Adam West as an aging hippie vampire slayer living in a trailer off of Venice Beach.

Another great find? Santa's Slay - a holiday slasher starring wrestler Goldberg as an evil Santa now free to go on a killing spree after a curse forced him to be nice for 1000 years. Seriously, how can you say no to this box art?

But all of those pale compared to my one truly brilliant discovery - a part-mockumentary/part slasher horror thriller called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. As it happens, I didn't come across this one at Blockbuster. I had rented another "so bad it's good" film through Netflix. Unfortunately, this film only qualified for the "so bad" descriptor. In fact, it was terrible enough that I don't even recall what movie it was. What I DO remember is that had the following trailer before the movie. (I always watch DVD trailers when renting a bad movie - it's a great way to find other bad movies)

I almost feel like that's all I should tell you about this film. By the time the opening credits had rolled on the movie I rented, I had already added Behind the Mask to my Netflix queue and kicked it to the top. This was the sort of movie that my friend and I couldn't stop quoting for days after we saw it. In fact, that night he immediately went to and bought the DVD so we could make all of our friends watch it.

This is the sort of film that is so clever, you HAVE to share it with everyone you know. It's one of those movies that compels you to pull out the DVD mid-party and say, "You haven't seen this? Well that settles it, we're all gonna watch this right now." This is bar-none, the BEST self-aware horror film since the original Scream. Whether you like horror films or you roll your eyes at how stupid they are, you WILL enjoy this. My girlfriend hates violent movies and she loved this one.

The film is directed by Scott Glosserman, who manages to ablely pull off the two distinct styles the storytelling calls for - from a script by Glosserman and David J. Stieve. Glosserman's IMDB resume is limited, but based on this film, I'd be first in line for whatever he comes out with next,

The cast is rock solid. I don't know why Nathan Baesel isn't a bigger star, but for the sake of this film I'm glad he isn't because the movie works so much better with an unknown star. Trust me, though... this guy is gonna be well-known someday. He's absolutely on my list of actors I want to work with. Angela Goethals also does good work as the student documentarian hunting around slasher Leslie Vernon as he prepares to make his legacy legend. Horror fans will also enjoy cameos from icons Robert Englund aka Freddy Kruger and Poltergeist's Zelda Rubinstein.

It is nothing short of a crime that, according to, the film grossed a mere $38,500. This is a story that deserved to be a wide release, pushed to the limit. With all the horror crap Lions Gate puts out (seriously, their motto should be "We'll release anything") you'd think they'd have snapped this up and pumped it hard. Hell, I'm shocked that no major distributor saw this and didn't see it as an instant win. Instead, it landed at Anchor Bay, which really screwed up if they couldn't make this one a hit.

I'm telling you all about this one now so you can rush out and get the DVD in anticipation of your Halloween scary movie marathons. You'll thank me later.

Now, this at last brings me to my Tuesday Talkback question for you - what movie do you count as your "greatest discovery?"

Monday, October 19, 2009

The perils of sci-fi technobabble

If there's one thing I really dislike about sci-fi and fantasy it's that often writers take too many liberties with the fact that those genres give their creators a lot of latitude to make up the rules on the spot. I really hate "magic" solutions to story problems. In a fantasy script, you might have a character solve their way out of a tight spot simply by having them produce a magic spell that negates the danger. In sci-fi, essentially the same cheat is used, except instead of magic incantations, the characters offer a lot of gobbledegook about "remodulating the main deflector dish to produce an inverse tacheyon pulse and an interplexing beacon."

Naturally, in something like Star Trek, it makes sense to come up with a certain amount of explanation for the "magic" properties of the space ship. As long as the writer doesn't abuse the basic premise too much, the audience will follow and it's fair to mine that science for drama. For instance, we accept that warp drive is what propells the Enterprise through space, and that the nacelles are what makes this possible. It's also fair to say that the engines somehow operate through the use of special crystals and a mix of matter and anti-matter to produce the needed energy to move the ship. Thus, if you're writing for Star Trek, and you decide to do a story about one of the nacelles being disabled in battle, or the engine crystals running, few people would probably call foul. Presumably, the drama is going to come from how the characters react to that situation.

My beef is when the problems are both created and then solved by the magic tech. You know the situation - when the Enterprise has become trapped in an anomoly and can't get out under it's own power. Captain Picard calls down to the engine room, where LaForge suggests they try energizing the main defector dish and produce a beam to get them out. He tries it. It fails. Then Data pipes up, offering that they could "remodulate" (everything on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager can be solved by "remodulating") shield mutations to produce a static warp shell, thus separating the "time particles" of the anomoly from the "anti-time" particles which should cause the anomoly to collapse upon itself. Loo and behold, they try it and it works! Problem solved.

As a climax, that's pretty weak - and they might as well have had Data say "abracadabra" and make everything go away. And in fact, the writer's have all but admitted as such. But (as Mr. LaForge might have once said in a different life) "don't take my word for it." Watch this video of former Trek writer Ron Moore explaining how the technobabble scenes were written on the show.

I see the same sorts of problems now and then in sci-fi and fantasy specs written by first-time writers. Magic and magic-like advanced technology should only be the means for telling an interesting story - they shouldn't become the story themselves. Yes, every now and then a writer is going to have to fall back on using technobabble to get out of a problem, but if there's some solid character work, or that cheating is in service to a deeper story that develops the main characters, it will feel a lot less like a cheap gimmick.

Take a look at Star Wars. The climax hinges on the main character using a mystical power to shoot a torpedo into a small gap in a space-station's defenses. In the wrong hands, this easily could have turned into one of those TNG moments I decried above. However, in this case, Luke's use of the Force isn't just about the magic solving the big plot problem - it's the resolution of Luke's internal arc. He embraces Obi-Wan's teachings and let's go of his conscious mind. He reaches out and accepts that there are things greater than him. In doing so, he's able to perform a task that should be impossible. Thus, all that technobabble about the "thermal exhaust port" being only two meters wide and vulnerable only to proton torpedos that can't be targeted that precisely is all just to set the stage for Luke using this ability to accomplish what shouldn't be possible.

Good writing comes from the characters. It's easy to lose sight of that when you get into writing big epic space battles, or massive fantasy quests where a handy wizard is able to accomplish plotting miracles.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror

Halloween is upon us and that means a new edition of The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" will air this Sunday at 8pm on Fox. So many of my favorite episodes are Treehouse of Horror eps, though I've felt the quality dip in recent years. YouTube doesn't have too many clips of a high quality but these are some of my favorites:

From the Shining parody. Homer goes crazy ala Jack Nicholson:

Another classic moment - Homer sells his soul for a donut:

Homer time travels:

When Mr. Burns proves to be a vampire, Homer attempts to live out the American dream:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Memorable movies, memorable visuals - writing for imagery

Sometimes when writing a screenplay you can get so caught up in telling the story through words and dialogue that you can completely forget to craft the movie with interesting visuals. This occurred to me when I was watching Paranormal Activity a few days ago and realized that the moment of the film that left the most indelible impression on me was the final shot. (If you saw it, you know what I'm talking about.) In fact, I'd be willing to be that if you polled a hundred audience members and asked them to boil the movie down to a single shot, it would be that one.

For an older example of the same thing, you could look at The Blair Witch Project - another horror film with an unforgettable final shot - the POV of Heather's camera as she comes into the basement and sees Mike standing in the corner...

Think about it - how many films have iconic single shots? When you hear the title of a movie, what's the first image that pops into your head?

Raiders of the Lost Ark - Indiana Jones running away from the giant rolling rock.

Psycho - Janet Leigh getting stabbed in the shower.

Star Wars - tons of them, but I'd probably pick the opening shot of the Star Destroyer and the explosion of the Death Star.

The Wizard of Oz - Dorothy and her friends skipping up the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

E.T. - Elliott and E.T. flying in front of the moon on the bicycle.

Titanic - The boat goes down; Honorable mention - "King of the World!"

Yes, I cherry-picked all the easy classic so as to make my point with much less effort. The point still stands - think visually.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Brand names and franchises

Two weeks ago, Scott at Go Into The Story tipped his readers off to this LA Times article about how studio films are increasingly brand-driven, to the point that filmmakers are not only looking to adapt more TV shows ala Transformers and G.I. Joe, but also Battleship. As I think I've ranted about before, Viewmaster, Candyland, and Monopoly are also among the board games being readied for the big screen, with big names like Ridley Scott at the helm.

So today's Tuesday Talkback topic is: what existing property would you like to revive, re-adapt, or re-invent for the big or small screen?

For me, I'd love to revive ALF. His furry little face has been absent from the small screen for too long. I'd put him in a single-camera sitcom like Scrubs or Arrested Development and surround him with a new cast of characters. Put Bill Lawrence or Chuck Lorre at the helm and it can't miss.

HA! I kill me!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Are these parts castable?

I've noticed in a few spec scripts I've gotten recently that some writers aren't giving enough thought to casting when writing their scripts. Now before you say, "Wait a minute! Aren't you always telling us to not offer casting suggestions?" let me explain what I mean.

Not long ago, I read a script that had no fewer than four major roles for characters under 12 - and two of those roles were under six years of age. It was a very weighty drama with a lot of the emotion depending on the ability of some very young actors. I have to admit, years of enduring bad writing has made me very wary of spec scripts with young protagonists just on principle. It's hard to write young kids without being cloying, and too often, it feels like green writers fall into the trap of concocting "cute" things for their supporting kids to do.

Generally, if I read a spec with one child actor in it, it doesn't usually trip my alert. I figure that there must be at least one child who can be found that can fit the bill. Also, if the film has a lot of adults in major roles, there's the expectation that their acting might compensate for any weaknesses with the younger actors. Plus, every now and then filmmakers get lucky and stumble on the next Jonathan Lipnicki (you know, from Jerry Maguire) or Dakota Fanning. Odds are you can find at least one talented kid. Last season, I was very impressed with a young actress named Ariel Winter, who appeared in a multi-episode ER arc as the daughter of a woman in need of a heart transplant. (She's currently on Modern Family.)

But the rub was that this script was about as heavy a drama as they come, and I'd wager that a good 70%-80% of it was based on the interactions of these kids. With two of them being between the ages of 5-7, that had me concerned that finding the right child actors could be a hassle.

Oh and all of these kids were siblings - so in addition to all of that, you had to believe they were related too. (I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there were also lines remarking on just how alike the kids looked - which probably would have been cut if the script got any further.)

I'm not saying that casting this film would be impossible, but the success of the project would be resting on some very small shoulders. My advice might have been to cut the five year-old and age the seven year-old up to being nine or ten. Given the restraints of the premise, it would have required some rethinking, but it would have kept me from thinking, "How are we going to find a five year old who can say and emote this convincingly?"

I'm less worried about the other end of the spectrum. If you can't find a 90 year-old actor, you just age-up a 70 year-old one. However, I do seem to recall reading once that M. Night Shyamalan wrote himself into a corner with Lady in the Water, when he insisted on finding a particular ethnicity for a role, despite being told that there were few choices in that demographic. (I think he was looking for an overweight half-Asian woman, but I'm unable to locate a copy of the book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, which covers this in detail.)

So while this isn't a major issue, and casting people sometimes work near miracles, give it some thought the next time you write a five year-old half-Asian/half-Samoan set of fraternal twins who are crucial to the plot.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: Christopher Reeve & Superman

This Friday Free-for-All is going to be a little different than prior editions. Usually I'm content to just dash off a quick intro, link to some video clips and call it a weekend. However, today I feel like doing a little more of a tribute. Tomorrow, October 10, is the five-year anniversary of Christopher Reeve's death. As someone who grew up idolizing Superman, this was a black day indeed.

We've seen a lot of celebrities pass this year, icons even. Patrick Swayze. Farrah Fawcett. Michael Jackson. Each time - but particularly with MJ - we were treated to the odd spectacles of massive media coverage and distraught fans shedding tears for men and women whom they never knew personally. Naturally that led to an inevitable backlash - "What's the big deal? Big whup! A singer died. There's a war on! People die every day. Who cares?"

We care.

We don't mourn the celebrities so much as we mourn for what they brought into our lives. The movies that inspired us, that made us laugh. The movies we shared with friends, family and and significant others. The movies that shaped who we are, to the point that they are as much a part of ourselves as the lessons we learned in school and the time spent with loved ones. We mourn the loss of a voice who gave us the soundtrack of our lives. The music that played as we went to our first school dance, on our first car trips, during our first kiss. The reaction to Michael Jackson's death was less about him than it was about us. We had forgotten what his body of work meant to us - and on that dark day of his death, we reflected and remembered.

Every generation has such a day. For some, it might be the murder of John Lennon. For those older, perhaps the "day the music died" stirred such emotion. Others still might remember exactly where they were when they heard Tupac died.

For me, October 10, 2004 was such a dark day. I just remember being stunned silent by the simple headline on the Associated Press. "Christopher Reeve dead at 52" The man who was my generation's Superman, and in my mind, the ONLY Superman - was gone. I felt one of the most fitting tributes was this political cartoon.

If you knew me, you'd understand what a big deal this was. Though most kids my age felt that Star Wars or Indiana Jones were the greatest movies ever made, for me, Reeve's first two Superman efforts held that spot. It was the first Superman film that made me want to be a director at the age of five. I watched all of those movies too many times to count, to the point where I could probably recite the entire movie from heart. I've collected Superman comics for over twenty years and have a complete run going all the way back to the John Byrne Man of Steel relaunch in 1986. I'm probably one of the few people who could best Jerry Seinfeld in a fan-off.

From an early age, Superman instilled in me a strong sense of right and wrong. Don't get me wrong, I read plenty of comics featuring the "darker" heroes. I can appreciate them for what they are. They're interesting characters and they all have their place - but there's only one Superman.

In a lot of ways, for me, Reeve and Superman are practically synonymous. Reeve looked so much like Superman that he could have been cut straight from the comic book. It's hard to think of more perfect casting when it comes to filling the boots of an icon like that. Not only that, but in my mind, he's the only Superman actor who ever fully sold the distinction between Clark Kent and Superman, to the point where you could believe that someone wouldn't guess they were the same person.

One of my favorite moments in the first film is the scene embedded below. Clark shows up to pick Lois up for a date and as he fiddles with his glasses, considers telling her who he is. With the glasses now off, his posture straightens, seeming to grow several inches. His voice drops an octave as he starts to reveal the truth, only to chicken out, immediately hunch over and reassume the nerdy Kent persona. It's a wonderfully done on-screen transformation achieved not with any special effects, but pure thespian skill. (And I'll give Brandon Routh credit for coming close to the same effect in Superman Returns. He's definitely my #2 Superman - but the script didn't offer him the same opportunities to really define his separate personas)

Incidentally, the first three or four times I saw this on ABC as a very young kid, this was essentially where the movie ended for me, as it always led into the commercial break before my bedtime.

I tend to prefer the first Superman movie. Superman II is quite good, though I tend to favor the recently released Richard Donner Cut to the theatrical in many ways. It's not a perfect version of the film, and instead is more of a hint of what could have been had Donner not been fired and replaced after shooting 75% of the sequel. Had he remained on the project, the ending clearly would have been different, so I can forgive that. Donner's cut removes much of the dumber moments with the supervillains and restores Marlon Brando's performance. That alone makes it better.

For instance, in the theatrical cut, we are left to guess at precisely how Superman gets his powers back, a plot hole that bugged me even at the age of five. When he gives them up, he's told in no uncertain terms that the process is irreversible. Yet, all we see is him returning to the Fortress and finding the green crystal. The scene cuts and the next we see of Superman, he's flying through Metropolis like nothing happened.

Not so in Donner's Cut. Observe.

Much more emotionally resonant, no? Superman gets back his powers at the cost of his father's life, essentially. That's missing in the other version, a sacrifice. What's more, it brings full circle the father/son themes that run through the first two films. (And Singer's Superman Returns for that matter.)

I won't bash Richard Lester's theatrical cut entirely, because it gave us what I consider the greatest moment in the history of cinema, bar none, no argument.

Now, I understand being tied so closely to Superman wasn't always a picnic for Reeve. It limited the roles people were willing to accept him in, and like many icons, he fought against being typecast. And then, came that horrible day in 1995 when he was thrown from a horse and paralyzed from the neck down. The narrative that story took wasn't surprising: "Superman paralyzed!" the headlines blared. The frequent news magazine segments on his recovery often introduced their stories with some variation on "He played Superman, and now he's become Superman - having endured a great struggle to give inspiration to many."

What he did in that time was remarkable. He lost all personal privacy, as he relied on a ventilator to breathe - and should it have failed while he was alone, he would have asphyxiated. It's impossible to imagine the hell that results when your body becomes a prison. But he didn't wallow in that. He became an advocate for further research into treatments for paralysis, campaigning tirelessly for stem cell research. He gave a louder voice to people who could not be heard, just as Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster intended their creation to do back in 1938.

And during that period, he even found time to make a few appearances on the Superman TV series Smallville. I couldn't find the scene online, but this DVD segment on his guest shot is an even more fitting tribute to him in some ways.

Some time after Reeve died, his son released a documentary called Christopher Reeve: Hope in Motion, which featured a trip the two Reeves visiting Israel, which is at the forefront of research into spinal injuries. During that trip, he's taken to meet a young woman at one of the centers. She takes steps towards Reeve under her own power, and remarks that she too had been fully paralyzed, naming her specific injury. (C-2, I believe, but don't quote me.) Reeve is shown saying, with perhaps a hint of wonder in his voice, "That's what I am."

When Superman: The Movie was released, the tagline was "You will believe a man can fly." As a four year-old, I watched Christopher Reeve take to the skies and I believed. In watching that moment in the documentary, I believed that had he lived - he would have walked.

After his death, I donated $10 to the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and received two Superman dog tags as a thank you. Emblazoned with the Superman emblem, the tags also carry a simple message: "Go Forward."

If you're still reading this rambling indulgence, I thank you. Every now and then, I like doing an entry that's just for me. I imagine that tomorrow I'll crack open my DVDs and find the time to watch Superman for the millionth time. It will be my way of paying tribute to the man who embodied a hero we can all look up to, figuratively and literally, and a hero who has been a very significant part of my life. It's as much about mourning Reeve as it is reflecting on what his work contributed to my life.

As Superman's father Jor-El says, "They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good... I have sent them you: my only son." Superman and Christopher Reeve both were here for a reason, and I can tell you this - it's not just to sell movie tickets.

I'll leave you with this one last clip - Superman's first appearance saving Lois Lane.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Woody sent me this email last week:

The idea of writing log lines is not a problem to me- I get it. But I have never found a good resource for what Hollywood wants to see. Most log lines seem too vague or read as generic, recycled sentences that could describe anything. I don't know if I am reading industry standards or amateur hour sentences. Wondering if you have any advice on what catches your eye:...Should they be one sentence or is two OK?...Do you need details on the plot or something that generally piques your interest?...etc. Here is one I am working with as an example.

EXPOSURE- The iconic artist of the previous decade, photographer David Ansell laments the erosion of his reputation to simply being famous for being famous. The entire world is nearly turned inside out as his search for a new muse reveals a violent, ancient force and one woman's insidious plot to control it.

There are slightly different schools of thought on this, so I wouldn't be surprised if people weigh in with different opinions in the comments. To cover your first questions, I'd say to shoot for one sentence, but don't sweat it if you need two sentences to cover everything. It's also not a bad idea to include some plot details - or at least the main hook of the story and how it relates to the main character. A good trick is the TV Guide technique - write the logline the way you imagine that TV Guide would summarize the story.

Take Die Hard for example: "A New York cop tries to save his estranged wife from terrorists who have taken an L.A. office building hostage on Christmas Eve." Bam! One sentence and I know the protagonist, the antagonist, the hooks and the stakes.

The other trick is to keep it simple. Your logline is a little wordy and uses words that could come off as pretentious. Some people also say that the loglines shouldn't have character names. Given that, I might rewrite your logline as follows:

"An iconic photographer seeks a new muse in his struggle to become relevant again, but the entire world is nearly turned inside out when his search reveals a violent, ancient force and one woman's insidious plot to control it."

Right there you've got the protagonist, the antagonist, the protagonist's quest and the main conflict of the story. This also suggest that the genre of the script is a supernatural thriller of sorts - is that assumption accurate? Giving your reader an idea of exactly what genre you're playing in is another good idea, some would say an essential one. If I know my boss is looking for a female-driven romantic comedy with a sports element, you don't want me mistaking your pitch for a male driven baseball drama.

I hope this was helpful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Roman Polanski - art vs. artist

I've been going back and forth about if the whole "Roman Polanski finally arrested for sodomizing a thirteen year-old girl after weakening her resistance with drugs and alcohol and ignoring her protests of 'no, no, no'" was worth commenting on in this blog. After all, it's a complicated issue, and as Whoopi told us last week, we don't have all the facts so maybe it's best not to take a side yet. After careful thought, I've decided that it wasn't worth devoting a whole blog post to hashing out how guilt is a complicated thing when discussing the anal rape of an inebriated tween. So if you're looking for someone to take a hard stand for or against Roman, you won't find it here.

By the way, a great blog I've been meaning to recommend is writer Peter David's. He's a novelist and a comic book writer who's probably best known for his work on The Incredible Hulk and several successful Star Trek novels. He's often quite insightful.

Annnnyway... the reason I bring up Polanski in a completely non-partisan way is that this whole situation has got me wondering if one's personal indiscretions should taint their work, and conversely, if one's extraordinary artistic achievements should excuse any wrongdoing. After all, despite the serious nature of the charges, several Hollywood luminaries have rushed to Roman's defense, arguing that this rapist has suffered enough by being forced to live in exile in his extravagant French mansion. But really, it feels like they're defending him because he's the filmmaker responsible for such great films like Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby.

So if you make a movie as good as Chinatown, does that mean you can have sex with an unwilling seventh grader? If so, how many Hannah Montana fans could Steven Spielberg violate before he'd face a hundred or so hours of community service?

But let's say that you feel Roman deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail, with each day bearing an ironic resemblance to that one night he spent at Jack Nicholson's villa. (I assume... everything I know about prison comes from Oz. And not the one with Scarecrow and Tin Man.) Does that mean you will now boycott Chinatown on purely moral grounds? Does it mean that you won't even acknowledge the many merits of that film?

Maybe I'm not being fair. Let's look at this another way. Suppose O.J. Simpson somehow gets early release and directs a movie. Would you even consider seeing it? Would it even matter to you what it's about? Suppose it's a ground-breaking summer movie that is hailed as "the next Star Wars." What if it's a film that changes the way an entire generation thinks about movie-making? Will you see it - or do you boycott it on principle because it was directed by a double murderer? Allegedly. (The murder part, I mean. In this hypothetical, there's nothing alleged about O.J's directing) Is a brilliant movie suddenly less brilliant simply because a killer was at the helm?

If you boycott O.J.'s movie because you object to him personally, is that any more hypocritical than arguing that Roman's film earns him a Get Out of Jail Free card? And in that situation, which is the right choice?

If we find out tomorrow that Paul McCartney doped up a 13 year-old and ran through the Kama Sutra with her, does "Penny Lane" instantly go from being a fun little ditty to a song that should never be played again? Is "Yesterday" now a song that I have to erase from my iPod and petition my local DJs to ban from the airwaves permanently?

And that's today's Tuesday Talkback question: Should we allow the personal actions of an artist to taint their art? And does artistic brilliance pardon personal bad behavior?

Where do you draw the line?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pros can break the rules - Zombieland

I saw Zombieland this weekend without knowing much more than was revealed in the commercials, and if at all possible, I urge all of my readers to see the film in the same fashion. This is a movie that's greatly enhanced by not knowing about certain surprises along the way. Trust me.

The cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin were all fantastic in their roles as the last few humans left to fend for themselves in a zombie apocalypse. It was a rare time I didn't think of Eisenberg as a poor man's Michael Cera. However, as I was watching it, I couldn't help but chuckle at the fact that the filmmakers did several things that are usually on the list of "DON'Ts" offered up to aspiring screenwriters. Now, the difference between those filmmakers and the aspiring writers is that they used these indulgences carefully enough that they didn't (usually) feel like hack-writer gimmicks. Like they say, you have to know the rules before you can break them.

So what are the "screenwriting sins" in Zombieland?

1) voiceover narration. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes a little when the film started with a long expository voiceover from Jesse Eisenberg's character Columbus. It's basically a major exposition dump about how the status quo of "Zombieland" came to be, complete with the "rules" for surviving ZOMBIELAND. It's the sort of thing that works better in the film than it probaby did on the page, and the filmmakers managed to avoid the traps that first-timers usually fall into with this.

For starters, the narration is that of a main character and it immediately establishes not only backstory, but that character's particular voice. I've read a lot of spec scripts where the writer clearly had no idea how to set up his complicated world and its backstory, so he resorted to an anonymous narrator. If your narrator isn't a character in the story, and he speaks in a dry voice, my HACK ALARM is going to go off by page 2. While first-time writers are often advised not to use narration, there are several films in recent years that have used narration well - such as Sin City and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. Notice what they have in common - they're narrated by characters and not anonymous narrators. (They also happen to be in genres where narration doesn't stand out - pulply, noirish type stories.)

I suppose someone might throw the TV series Pushing Daisies as a counterexample of narration by a non-character. To that, I'd say it' s the exception that proves the rule and I'd point out that that narrator is a character in his own right with a voice as distinct as any of the flesh-and-blood players.

But getting back to Zombieland, it helps that the narration is genuinely funny. People will forgive a lot if you can make them laugh, and the voiceover is complimented well by the visuals. It's Filmmaking 101 - don't just have us listening to some guy prattle on - engage all the senses.

In spite of those virtues, the use of voiceover isn't flawless. For one thing, there's a major imbalance. Columbus gasses on a lot at the start of the film, especially in the first ten minutes and then the narration becomes a lot sparser. This is usually something that trips a HACK ALERT because it becomes apparent the VO was just there to get the exposition in. In scripts that badly use narration, you'll often notice that the voiceover will disappear for much of the second act. My solution might have been to tighten up some of the exposition at the start so that the lesser VO later wouldn't be as noticeable.

2) Gratuitous celebrity cameo - First, fear not. I shall not reveal the name of the actor or actress who make an appearance as himself or herself. I had no idea this cameo was coming when I saw the film and it made the joke much, MUCH funnier.

The celebrity cameo is something that usually makes my eyes roll in a spec script, mostly because my first thought is "What happens to this scene if Alan Thicke says 'no?'" This sort of gimmick got popular after Neil Patrick Harris popped up as himself in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and stole the movie. Now, you could say that if NPH had turned down the cameo, they just would have offered it to Fred Savage or Jaleel White. As true as that is, I think it's a risk when you put something like this in your spec.

The way I see it, throwing in a celebrity is a lot like specifically naming an expensive song for your musical montage. Suddenly, you're mandating elements that could back the producers into a corner. If your joke is crucial to the second act climax, and it only works if Dean Cain shows up in Superman tights and reveals he really can fly... well, you might be setting up a difficult problem to solve if Dean decides he doesn't want to play ball - or he will, but only if he gets paid through the nose.

On top of that, a lot of celebrity cameos usually feel like weak attempts to just get a laugh out of how out of context the appearance is. I'll admit, I enjoyed when William Shatner played himself (or at least a version of himself) in Free Enterprise, but Bruce Willis' cameo in Ocean's Twelve was just painful to watch. You could literally feel the filmmakers elbowing the audience in the ribs saying, "Well? Well? Aren't we clever?"

Zombieland pulls their cameo off well. In part because the tone of the movie is so heightened that this departure doesn't feel like too much of a tangent. Plus, it's not a star who does a lot of these cameos, so the appearance felt fresh. On top of that, this character's final line might be the best one in the movie - and like I said, a lot can be forgiven if it's funny.

3) Characters do stupid things solely to advance the plot. Watch out, I'm gonna have to blow some of the ending here, folks.

It's been established that our merry band of survivors has managed to last about three or four weeks, I believe. That suggests these people have been generally smart about how they operate in this world - which is why I cannot believe the idiocy that happens when two characters end up in a theme park.

I refuse to believe that they'd not realize that turning on all the lights would be like a beacon to the zombies.

I refuse to believe that they wouldn't even at least try to block the gates to impede zombie entry.

I refuse to believe that once they realized the zombies were coming, that their brilliant escape involves getting onto one of those Tower Power rides from which there is no escape. They shoot into the air - but all that can happen after that is they come down after the zombies have had an even greater chance to increase their numbers.

I refuse to believe that another character has enough ammo to take out the zombies who descend on his (much better fortified) position.

Yet as each of these details popped up and those moments caused me to (inwardly) say "Oh come on!" I found it in my heart to forgive the plot turns. In part, this is because the movie is goofy enough fun that it's the rare case where "It's just a movie" doesn't feel like a huge band-aid to a very good logistical question.

Maybe I could rationalize them turning on all the lights as them getting caught up in the moment after weeks under siege. I might even excuse the second mistake for the same reasons. The next bad choice could be written off as panic, even though that's hard to believe at this point. However, the thing that really convinced me to let this go is that I really felt like this was the kind of movie where it could have ended with one or all of the characters getting killed. I didn't immediately see an implausible survival as the only option, so I remained emotionally engaged in the characters' fates right up until the end. Had the movie not been so gruesome in other places, I would have known that there's no way any of the characters were in any real danger, and thus, I probably would have called bullshit from the start of that sequence.

Characters are human - they're just as capable of making bad choices as real people are. If it can be helped, either don't have too many of these contrivances in succession - or have a character make a really dumb choice that throws them off their game and show them making reckless mistakes as they attempt to fix that first mistake. That's part of the reason I didn't come down too hard on the movie.

But the real reason I didn't let it ruin the movie for me was this - the rest of the film was so well done that I was thoroughly engaged with the story at that point. Had something pulled me out of the movie sooner, had there been some ridiculous contrivance that could not be ignored, I probably would have seen the amusement park scene as the last straw. So take this as a lesson - if your logic gets sloppy in the third act, make sure the first two acts are near-airtight.

There's a famous story about Jaws novelist Peter Benchley telling Steven Spielberg that the ending of Jaws was ridiculous - that it was impossible to blow up a shark in that fashion. Spielberg supposedly said, "If I have them in the palm of my hand for two hours, I'll be able to do whatever I want in the last five minutes." And he was right. Audiences still cheer today when the shark meets its fate.

However, the key to that is... you have to have the audience firmly for the entire film up to that point. Never forget that if you sense you're cheating in your own writing. If you're gonna blow up a shark with a scuba tank, make damn sure I'm invested in the characters and heard them sing "Show me the way to go home."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart - UPDATED

5:40 pm update - New video below: "Fox News: The New Liberals." Thanks kgmadman!

This week's theme for Friday Free-for-All is one of my favorite shows - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The first clip actually aired back in 2005, but seems even more timely now considering the way the puppet minions of Glenn Beck and Fox News recently stooped to "Hitler" references as a substitute for intelligent public discouse. It has to be one of my all-time favorite editorials.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
A Relatively Closer Look - Hitler Reference
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

This one is from earlier this week. The fun really starts when Glenn Beck pops up around the 3:30 mark, protesting the "indocrination" of our children by unpatriotic Democrats. Note how a particular news network tries to stoke the flames of outrage.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
America: Target America
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

And no tribute to Stewart and TDS would be complete without this series of videos he did last March taking on CNBC and Jim Cramer. Again, brilliant editorial writing and a very effective use of impeaching someone with their own words - something TDS does artfully on a regular basis.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
CNBC Financial Advice
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
In Cramer We Trust
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

UPDATE - Kgmadman reminded me of this wonderful one from August. If you take your political cues from Fox News coverage, take a look at this before-and-after.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Fox News: The New Liberals
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview