Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Collaborative writing project

I got a recent request to update everyone on the Collaborative Writing Project. There aren't too many details, but I'll oblige.

Right now I have three teams going, with each person advancing the story ten pages from where it is when they get it. My original goal was only to put eight people on each team, as once you add in my original ten pages, that would put the script's length at 90 pages. However, I had so many people interested, I decided on 9-person teams, which would give us some leeway in the event anyone dropped out.

As it turned out, that was smart. One of the teams had a person drop out due to unforeseen circumstances. Unfortunately this didn't happen until their deadline, so they fell a week behind the other two teams. This same team experienced another delay when one participant's server problems resulted in a several-day delay in delivering the pages.

At the moment, one team has 50 pages completed, one team has 60 pages done and the third team has 30 pages done. I also have four alternates standing by in the event that any of the teams drop below eight members.

At this point it's been very interesting to see how my early threads have been taken in completely different directions by the subsequent writers. When the project is done, I'll write up a post going page-by-page through my contribution and explain my thinking for the plot strands I was setting up. My goal was to open a lot of doors for people as well as imply connections between seemingly unrelated threads. That ambiguity has given the writers a lot of room to play.

As we're more or less at the midpoint, it's time to start thinking about what to do with these three scripts once they're done. I need a way to make them available for download, so that any interested parties can read and contrast them.

Also, what would make the best use of these as they relate to screenwriting lessons? I thought about trying to stimulate discussion here, but it also occurs to me that it might be a good idea to see if anyone over at the GITS Club was interested in any discussion on the three VERY different scripts that are resulting from the same initial ten pages.

There's also a very wicked side of me that is considering putting one or more of these up on Triggerstreet just to see what sort of reviews we'd get.

So sound off - what do you think we should do with these scripts once they're done?

Monday, August 30, 2010

"We see" - to use or not to use

Last week on Twitter, I expressed my incredulity that a Done Deal Pro thread on whether or not to use "we see" in your screenplay had grown to 8 pages in only about a day or so. I know in the past that both Scott Myers and I have been surprised at just how drawn out and contentious these arguments over formatting minutiae can become. It's almost as if people are more passionate about how they write than they are about writing good material, and that's just sad.

Naturally, this only provoked a dozen or so people to ask me on Twitter what I thought about the use of "we see."

As with a lot of these nuances, the answer tends to be "It's okay if you use it in moderation, preferably sparingly."

When I write, I try not to use it unless absolutely necessary. I know there are a few pros who took such exception to the "NEVER use this" advice that they actually counted how many times they used it in their writing and then noted that such usage surely didn't prohibit the script from being sold.

My feeling is that 90% of the time it's redundant. Your action descriptions are supposed to be all visual, so if you're writing it, the assumption is we're seeing it. After all, you don't write "We hear" before every line of dialogue, do we?

The one clear exception has already been pointed out somewhere in that thread - that "we see" is valuable when we're trying to limit what the audience sees and then replicate that limitation for the viewer. Someone noted that in an Indiana Jones script, there's a "we see" that introduces a character wearing a fedora and leather jacket, though he's only shown from behind. Obviously, the "we see" is used to offer that description and give the impression that the character is Indiana Jones when that is not in fact the case.

So it's definitely useful when limiting the information the reader has. I wouldn't dispute that at all.

However, as with capitalizing and underlining, this "rule" exists because there are always a healthy sampling of newbies who overindulge. I once read a script that started nearly every paragraph with "we see" and after a while it just got to be annoying. It was a pretty clear PASS. However, I hasten to add that the Pass wasn't because of the "we sees," just that the "we sees" were merely symptoms of this writer's lack of skill.

If all the dialogue in a script sucks, the answer is not "Never write dialogue," it's, "learn to write better dialogue." And if all the uses of "we see" in a script reach such an epidemic proportion that it becomes cluttered and annoying to follow, the answer is "learn to use the tool properly."

Just my take. Bring on the pitchforks!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thursday Talkback: your favorite emotional scenes

I've chimed in a lot these last few days with examples of how it can be more effective to use restraint when dealing with charged emotional scenes rather than simply writing a two-page crying breakdown for your main character. What are your favorite scenes?

What scenes made you cry and what can you learn from how the writer and director evoked that response in you? What techniques do you use when you need to show a character going through a very emotional moment?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part II

How to write a crying scene - part I

Picking up from where we left off yesterday, Act II of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Body" picks up with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls room at school, saying she can't believe it. In characteristic Whedon misdirection, we quickly discern that Dawn is actually crying about some petty teenage crisis and still hasn't learned of her mother's death.

Hitchcock used to say that it was much more effective to show an audience that there was a ticking bomb under the table that the lead characters were seated at, rather than merely shock the audience by setting the bomb off without any warning. Basically, his reasoning was that the anticipation of the bang was worse than the bang itself. In the case of this script, that "bang" is the moment where 15 year-old Dawn learns that her mother is dead. It hangs over every single beat in this act, which is filled with a mix of typical teenage drama and a few nods to how Dawn is regarded by her peers.

It takes nearly four minutes until Buffy walks into Dawn's class and says she needs to speak to her. Buffy is wearing a face that really tells the whole story. If your sister interrupted your class looking like this - especially if your mother had been recently treated for a brain tumor - you'd know what was up. And on some level, it's pretty clear that Dawn intuits what Buffy is there to tell her.

Dawn says she's in the middle of class and asks if it can wait. They walk into the hall and Dawn demands to know what's going on. Buffy will only say, "It's bad" and tries to usher Dawn away. Students in the halls stare at them and the classroom Dawn just left has a large glass window that's looking right out on the two of them in the hallway. The whole class watches as Dawn's voice breaks and she asks, "Where's Mom?"

Buffy tries to explain that something happened while Dawn keeps insisting, "But she's okay, right? It's serious, but she's okay?" Buffy interrupts, "Dawn...."

And at this point our perspective shifts to inside the classroom looking out on Buffy and Dawn. Buffy's back is to us, but Dawn is facing in our direction. We don't hear what's said, but we see Dawn's face crumble, then sob. After screaming "No!" a few times (which we only faintly hear through the glass) she falls to her knees, and this act ends.

So here we don't actually hear the moment, or even much of Dawn's anguish, but we see it. We're a witness too it much as we would be if we were there in real life, voyeurs to their private grief. Somehow that makes it more real and more agonizing.

To be fair, this isn't the first time this technique has been done. Heck, it's not even the first time Whedon used it. A similar staging was used in Season Two's "Passion" with Angelus watching through an outside window while Buffy and Willow got a call informing them Angelus killed their teacher and friend Ms. Calendar.

The first time I saw this sort of direction was in a season one episode of ER called "Love's Labor Lost." Dr. Greene spends the entire episode dealing with a pregnant woman whose labor has gone horribly awry. At one point he delivers the child and then sends the father to go be with the baby, promising he'll take care of the mother.

He doesn't. She dies on the table and Dr. Greene has to go upstairs to a nursery room to inform the now-widowed husband that the baby will grow up without a mother. The camera stops outside the room as Greene enters. Through the glass pane of the door, we see the father rocking his new son while sitting in a rocking chair. Green enters and takes a seat across from him. Like Buffy, his back is to us. We don't see his mouth move or hear the dialogue. We just sit and wait. When the moment comes, Bradley Whitford - playing the father - doesn't over do it. He reels back, casting his head up, eyes to the sky.

Restraint can be a lot more powerful for the audience. And as much as writers are told not to direct in the script - this is the sort of staging that a writer can get away with.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part I

After yesterday's post, I decided it would be a good idea to pick another scene featuring a character dealing with high emotions. Because I like punishing myself, I chose one of the most depressing and intense episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Body." This is the season five episode that deals with the death of Buffy's mother, Joyce. I picked it in part because it's available via Netflix Instant Viewing, so many of you should be able to get it. It's on Disc 5 of season 5 and was written and directed by Joss Whedon.

The episode opens as Buffy comes home and finds her mother dead on the couch. Her first reaction is to become very agitated, bordering on hysterical as she shakes her mother, saying "Mom? Mom!" A call to 911 offers little help beyond walking her through CPR and when it has no effect other than the Slayer's strength breaking her mother's breastbone, the dispatcher advises Buffy that the paramedics are on their way. Clearly in shock at this point, she calls Giles and asks him to come immediately.

And again, Buffy's still not crying at this point. Just numb shock.

Then, despite a truly evil tease showing a fantasy where Joyce Summers is miraculously revived (Screw you, Joss), the paramedics can't do anything for her. "I'm sorry," the paramedic says, "But I have to tell you that your mother's dead." (Yes, I know this is completely not the way it would go in real life. Paramedics don't stop until an MD takes over for them.) Worse, they get a call that pulls them away, leaving Buffy alone with her mother. Their last words to her are "Try not to disturb the body."

Through all of this, Buffy doesn't yet cry. This actually has the effect of making the scene even more agonizing for the audience because they - and Buffy - are denied that emotional release. Gellar's portrayal of Buffy in shock is truly unsettling to watch. Buffy wanders down the hall, then drops to her knees and vomits. The ambient sound of wind chimes outside is disturbingly loud, making the whole scene feel eerie.

And still she doesn't cry.

Giles comes in and finds Buffy in shock, muttering about how she should go to school to tell Dawn - her sister - what happened. Unable to make sense of this, Giles casts an eye to the living room and spots Buffy's mother, "Oh my god, Joyce!" He moves to help her as Buffy says, "No, it's too late.... We're not supposed to move the body!" Her voice at last breaks with emotion, and Gellar again proves that she was robbed of at least one Emmy as we see Buffy process how she just referred to her mother.

Now it hits her, and just as it hits us, Giles is across the room in a shot, taking the Slayer in a hug. Eyes wide, Buffy sobs - no tears - and we go into commercial.

That is how you construct an emotional release. That's how you handle a crying scene. Show the character fighting the emotion, denying the emotion, unable to feel the emotion - then really kick them in the gut and go out on that release.

Don't make a scene of someone crying - make a scene of someone about to cry, or trying not to cry.

Tomorrow - another act of "The Body" features a different technique.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hold the tears, trust the audience

I've talked before about how crying scenes in scripts can often come off as overwrought and melodramatic. It's something that crops up a lot in screenplays and I can understand how it happens. Writers are told to show, not tell - so when it comes to someone's emotional state - why wouldn't you have them break down in a crying fit to demonstrate that they're sad?

One reason not to do so is that with film, the audience can be manipulated into a position where they'll project their own emotions onto the character. Thus, the character doesn't need to oversell the emotion - all they have to do is provoke the emotion in the audience.

In re-reading The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, I came across an excellent example of this theory. On p. 149, the scene where Luke returns to his uncle's farm to find his aunt and uncle killed by stormtroopers is discussed. It's noted that Mark Hamil wanted to play the scene with him falling on his knees sobbing in despair upon discovering the corpses. Director George Lucas insisted on a more neutral performance. "Lucas knew that later he would edit the sequence in keeping with the art of montage as explained by early Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, in which the juxtaposition of shots would arouse emotion rather than just the actor's performance."

You can find more about the Soviet montage theory here.

Now, as writers we're not supposed to call out each shot, doing the directors job for them. However, in writing the description you can subtly suggest the imagery and editing. For example, the description for the scene in question might read:

Luke's speeder arrives at the Lars farm. Luke gets out, rushing towards the homestead.

Smoke rises from the enclosure.

Luke runs closer than stops, frozen with surprise.

Two corpses lay sprawled amid the carnage, their skin burned completely off.

As the smoke continues to rise in the sky, Luke casts his gaze downward, processing his loss.

It's easy not to overwrite dialogue, but not overwriting emotion takes a defter touch.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Off topic - Everything mosque go

I'm going to venture off-topic a bit here in this Saturday post. This post has nothing to do with screenwriting, filmmaking or any of the reasons you usually come to this blog. I wonder if a political topic will be anywhere near as volatile as my stand on secondary headings or capitalizing and underlining too many words in your script, but I've go something to say about this whole Mosque mess that's been going on for the past week.

The controversy boils down to the proposal that a mosque be built within a few blocks of Ground Zero. Several voices from the Right, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have argued that that area amounts to hallowed ground and other voices like Dick Morris have raised paranoia that to do so would essentially put a terrorist training facility in the shadow of Ground Zero.

A lot of ink has been spilt on this issue, and I urge everyone to go to Peter David's excellent blog on the subject where he takes Palin to task and essentially calls her position unconstitutional (because it is.) Sleezeball/Republican Newt Gingrich has been making the rounds arguing that no one's saying that they can't build a mosque, just that they can't do it there.

Oh, is that all? Thanks, Newt. I didn't realize that you're actually being pretty reasonab.... HEY! You can't do that, any more than the Jews of the Fairfax district in LA could petition to get all the damn churches out of their sight.

It's really disgusting to see these positions taken by those who are among the first to complain about Christian rights being trampled when the separation of church and state is enforced. It's disgusting to see them equate the entire Muslim religion with Al Queada as if they are the one and the same. That's like saying that there's zero distinction between practicing Christians and active members of the KKK, and if we were to deny Christians their freedom to practice under the defense that rogue elements like the KKK would take advantage, we would be in the wrong.

Worse, we would have destroyed our principles and become the very enemy we claim to fight.

The depths to which the Republican party exploits 9/11 never fails to sicken me. They don't believe in the principles of the Constitution, for if they did, this would not be a debate. They have beliefs that happen to coincide with the Framers, and they hold the Framers words sacred when it comes to things like the Second Amendment. Yet somehow when it comes to Amendments like the First and the Fourteenth Amendment, they manage to find massive amounts of grey areas in the words of the Framers and those who followed in their footsteps.

Those on the right arguing against the establishment of a mosque - be it in the shadow of the former Twin Towers or anywhere else - have no principles. They use fear and rhetoric to inflame the passions of those scared of the terrorist bogeymen and the sad truth is that a lot of people fall for it.

Worse, they're uninformed about the very issues of which they speak - as many pointed out that there has already been a mosque in that very area long before 9/11.

But those pounding on the table are only interested in making more noise and in being more divisive. They're just out to win an argument, even if they don't know what that argument is about. Newt, Sarah, it's not about being right. It's about doing right.

But the real reason I'm writing this is that I want to share this Daily Show segment with all of you. There's a lot of good stuff in there, but for me it was most notable because Jon Stewart draws a comparison between the current cries for sensitivity and the way that many reacted when the NRA was going to hold a rally near Columbine soon after the school shooting there in 1999. He runs clips from a Charlton Heston speech decrying those protests.

In the clip below, the Heston material starts at about 7:20, so if you don't want to sit through all of it, just skip there and watch the rest.

"America must stop this terrible pattern of reaction," Heston says. "When a terrible tragedy occurs, our phones ring, demanding the NRA explain the inexplicable. Why us? Because this story needs a villain. That is not our role in American society and we will not be forced to play it. If you disagree, that's your right. I respect that, but we will not relinquish it, or be silenced about it, or be told 'Do not come here. You are unwelcome in your own land.'"

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Extremist Makeover - Homeland Edition
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Here's the remarkable thing. Jon Stewart admits that in 1999 he probably would have been one of those voices calling for sensitivity. Yet unlike those whom he often demonstrates have changed their positions via old clip demonstrations, he confesses he would have been in the wrong. You never see that from sub-human vermin like Sean Hannity.

"I was wrong and Heston was right!" Stewart mea culpas, "And if you replace 'NRA' with 'Muslim community' and 'Second Amendment' with 'First Amendment,' he's still right."

I too would have been with those shouting at the NRA for sensitivity. And I too would have been wrong. It's a scary thing to realize, but I'm glad that the mirror has been held up this way because I don't to be Sarah Palin, I don't want to be Newt Gingrich and I certainly don't want to be Dick Morris.

The time has come to stop the fear-mongering, and the time has come to stop rewarding those who depend on our worst instincts and prejudices to remain in power.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Most bad-ass Transformers scene

Since I've been talking about effective and ineffective uses of music this week, I figured it was only appropriate that I post the most badass moment EVER in Transformers lore. The music really sells this moment.

And here's how Boogie Nights appropriated that song:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Make sure you're selling the genre they want

Recently I had an opportunity to pass a friend's script onto a contact in the business. I had gotten this particular player interested in reading a few scripts off of pitches and this other friend was now ready with his spec. I knew that the industry player in question was open to all genres, but was really looking for comedy.

As it happens, my friend's script was a comedy with college-age characters. He'd done a recent rewrite on it and I hadn't had a chance to read it so I told him to write up a 1-paragraph pitch which I would then forward to my contact. Easy, right?

Except that the short synopsis my friend wrote emphasized only the dramatic elements of the story - the personal character arc that the hero goes through. It ended up sounding like a drama built around a journey of self-discovery rather than a low-budget comedy about a post-grad house party. My friend got so invested in what his character goes through that he forgot that presentation is half of what gets you through the door.

When trying to sell, the way you pitch your story can make all the difference in the world. A few choice words can take a wacky comedy and seemingly reduce it to a straightforward drama.

If you want a visual representation of what I'm talking about, take a look at this trailer for Dumb & Dumber, with the footage edited so it looks like a melodramatic thriller:

Or how about this trailer that makes Mary Poppins look like a horror film?

And surely you've seen how The Shining has been made to look like a heart-warming comedy?

So how are you going to sell your movie? It's not about your premise. It's about how you tell them your premise.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dos and Don'ts of using music

I know that there are plenty of you who are bound to completely ignore my earlier advice about not putting songs in your spec scripts. Maybe you don't care about looking like an amateur, maybe you don't care that many of those songs are expensive and maybe you don't care about setting off a complicated approval process from whoever holds the rights to those songs.

Come to think of it, if you're going to ignore all those reasons I'm guessing you'll ignore my tips below. And yet I still spit into the wind.

...ever have one character tell another character that a song/band will "change their life." Especially as a bonding/romantic scene between the two.

... use U2 in your musical montage. They seem to be the go-to band for depressing romantic montages ("With or Without You") and moments of ecstasy ("Beautiful Day.") If I'd kept a count on the most used band in the specs I've read, they'd easily top the list. Be original.

... use a song in the exact same way another movie has. And if you're doing this on purpose for parody purposes, the joke had better be DAMN funny.

... use songs that have been overdone by other films, either for comedic or serious purposes. Overused songs include: I Will Survive, YMCA, The Pina Colata Song, Walking on Sunshine

... specify shot-by-shot what happens at each stanza of the song. It's really annoying and makes it hard to go with the whole, "well, I'm sure they can just replace this song if they don't get clearance."

... have a character start to sing a song and then collapse into an overwrought breakdown.

... get carried away with a pretentious music video in the middle of your extremely incomprehensible screenplay.


... use unexpected songs, even from familiar artists. Cameron Crowe is the master of this. In Almost Famous he used two Elton John songs: Tiny Dancer and Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. The former is a decently well-known hit, but wasn't heard regularly on the radio nor had it been used in any movies. The latter is a rather obscure song. In Jerry Maguire, when Crowe used Springsteen, he went for Secret Garden rather than any of his far better known hits.

... know the value of a totally off-beat song choice. Who would have thought that Queen's Don't Stop Me Now would have been so right for Shaun of the Dead's bar fight?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Getting that music number out of your system

I'm pretty sure that I've written before about how in my first screenplay I was determined to use Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight as part of a slasher killer scene. I plead guilty to totally starting with the song and then writing the scene around that. I'm not proud of it, but every writer makes these missteps when the start. I'm just glad I got it out of my system.

And I'm sure every single one of you has THAT song that you've just been dying to put in a script. Maybe you've got the scene but don't have the script. Maybe you've got both but the script was totally written in service of the song. Either way, share with us. Unburden yourself. Get it out of your system.

So share - what musical scene do you need to get out of your system before it ends up in some bitter reader's line of fire?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why you shouldn't include songs in your specs - associations

I can always tell when I've hit my readers where they live because after a blog post that covers some bit of information that's fairly conventional wisdom within the industry, I get hit with several emails from people arguing that their writing is the exception. Usually these emails start with "What about if you do it this way?" or "Suppose it's really important that I...?" or just "Hey, can't I have fun at the spec stage?" After I mocked writers who set up websites promoting their scripts, I got invitations from several writers to check out their sites and discover all the ways that their site should be considered an exception to my advice.

Spoiler alert: none of them were at all exceptions to my advice.

Another big pressure point seems to be music in spec scripts. There's a certain segment of my readership that will go to war over the right to put their iPod playlist as the soundtrack to their spec. And I guess I just can't resist poking them.

If you're not willing to consider the financial and the clearance implications of including copywritten music in your spec, I'm going to try to appeal to you on artistic grounds.

The half of you who are laughing, shut up. The other half heading for the exits, don't bother. I've already boarded up the doors.

A while back, my wife and I were figuring out the music for our wedding ceremony. She really wanted to walk down the aisle to the Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version of Over the Rainbow. (The Hawaiian version, for those who don't know.) I told her - at least twice - "It's a nice song, but I've got such a pre-association with it, I'd rather not." I explained what I associated that song with, she still wanted to do it, so I gave in.

What do I associate that song with? I'm glad you asked.

That's from ER's "On the Beach," an episode from the 8th season that featured the slow, lingering death of star Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene. The background is that he and his daughter have been at odds all season. She's been into drugs and alcohol and he's scared about the choices she's making. He knows he's got very little time before he dies of a brain tumor, but everything he does to reach out to her fails. She pushes back at every turn... until the final night of his life. She goes to him, knowing this is the end. He offers some last advice, and then in a callback to an early attempt on Mark's part to recall the good times they had watching The Wizard of Oz, she says "I remember, Daddy" and puts her walkman on his ears as Over the Rainbow sends Mark to that big ER in the sky.

It's one of the saddest moments of the entire series and I absolutely cannot hear that version of Over the Rainbow without thinking about this scene and hearing Rachel Greene say, "I remember, Daddy," giving Mark peace as he goes off to meet his maker, and then at that point I.... Excuse me....

*sniff* *SOB* *WAAAAA!*

Sorry. I'm good now.

So on that day, she walked down the aisle looking beautiful and I was doing everything humanly possibly to not listen to the music and think of Anthony Edwards dying. No one wants Goose invading their private moment.

I'd held out hope that the emotion of the wedding day would overwrite my previous association with it. No such luck. A few months later my wife and I were watching Glee and they performed the song. Foolishly, I made some remark about always associating that music with something in particular.

"Me in my wedding dress?" she asked with wide eyes.

I'm honest to a fault. Suffice to say, that wasn't the answer I gave. Fortunately, my wife is forgiving to a fault which is why instead of making me spend the night on the couch, she completely let the subject drop two minutes later.

My point is: even though you used a particular song because it means a great deal to you, you cannot assume that it will mean the same thing to the person reading it. Maybe you think James Blunt's You're Beautiful is the most romantic song ever written while those of us with taste and working ears find it to be one of the most obnoxious, annoying douchey love songs ever in heavy rotation.

Seriously, if someone says "I love You're Beautiful," I completely write that person off as a non-entity.

The odds of this happen going up with the popularity of the song you chose. Pick a Top 40 hit from a few years ago and some of us might associate it with a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, a fun trip with friends, that horrible semester of college, anything. If the music really truly fits the moment, maybe it can overcome that.

But if you're just throwing it in for the hell of it, maybe you're doing more harm than good. Maybe you're inviting the audience to project too many of their own emotions onto the film. A good filmmaker knows how to manipulate that effectively and take advantage of it. A bad filmmaker picks completely the wrong song and runs the risk of pulling their audience right out of the film.

Don't put a song in a film because it's your favorite song - do it because it's the right song and no other song would suffice.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Siskel & Ebert fight

I always enjoy going back and watching old Siskel & Ebert reviews just to watch them spar. Those two guys just had such fantastic chemistry and a pathological need to get each other's goats. This is one of my favorite running threads.

First up is their split decision on Cop and a Half. Gene hates it; inexplicably Roger likes it.

This is referenced again in their review for Broken Arrow, where Roger actually gets Gene to change his vote from thumbs up to thumbs down.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Everyone starts somewhere - even "Undressed" has distinguished alumni

Continuing with this week's "Everyone starts somewhere" theme, I'm going to pay tribute to a series that was a major guilty pleasure back when I was in college. Cast your mind back to 2000-ish. We'd survived the Y2K scare and were blissfully ignorant that in a matter of mere months we'd endure a horrible terrorist attack on America soil, which would in turn lead to probably the worst presidential administration since Warren G. Harding.

It was a more innocent era. Sure, O.J. was still a killer and even if he wasn't a molester there clearly wasn't something right with Michael Jackson. Britney was a tease rather than a sleaze, and pop music snobs scoffed that Christina would never lower herself to the depths of Britney's trashy look.

How little we knew.

For those of you too young - or too old - to be aware of this, it was the time when MTV was in transition. Sure, music videos were an ever-shrinking aspect of their programming but it was the Golden Age of TRL. The Real World was on a hot streak too, as we watch Hawaii's Ruthie clearly have issues with alcohol, while fame whore Teck Money attempted to bed half the island. Later still, the New Orleans cast dealt with race issues and featured the future wife of V's Scott Wolf. (Seriously, look it up.)

Look, you're in college, it's late at night and broadcast TV is running either reruns of Becker or reruns of last week's Leno. You've got only about 50 channels to choose from and A&E doesn't get to the next Law & Order rerun until 3am. What do you flip to? MTV, so you can catch their nightly marathons of Undressed.

What? You don't remember Undressed? It was the very definition of a guilty pleasure - a half-hour soap opera/anthology series that mostly focused on the sexual and romantic relationships of teens and college-age characters. Each episode usually had three storylines with different characters and those stories continued across several shows.

It wasn't great writing by any means. In fact, most of the stories were little more than excuses to get attractive young people to strip down to their underwear or bathing suits. There was never any nudity, so it didn't quite qualify for soft-core porn. Think of it as soft-core if it had been produced by the WB.

All you younger readers who just asked "What's the WB?" just get the hell out now.

Bottom line, it was a show you'd watch, but you'd never admit to your friends that you watched.... until, say, one of you makes mention of it in a conversation at the dining hall and all of a sudden not only is your whole table discussing the show, but people passing by from other tables are chiming in to the effect of "You've seen that too! Awesome!"

This is a quote from a writer who worked on the series, "We did 150 half-hours. It was an insane process. It really taught me how to write fast under pressure. In that job, you were always writing... After the first season, it became a lot easier because I lost all artistic sense or anything resembling caring about what I was doing. There are only so many ways you can have people strip down to their underwear. Honest to God, towards the end if I had to write, 'She strips down to her bra and panties' one more goddamn time, I was going to go nuts! It was killing my soul."

Okay, so clearly this guy's a hack, right? Not only did he write sanitized soft-core, but he flat out admitted he took no pride in the work. I'll bet this guy never worked again.

Wrong. That's a quote from Steven S. DeKnight. About a year later, he was writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and quickly earned a spot on staff. After that, he went over to Angel, then Smallville. Now he's the showrunner of Spartacus. Frankly, if you're going to snark about those credits, you clearly don't get TV.

You can't always judge a writer by his resume. Sure, tar the work on its own merits, but never forget that a writer is always going to have to pay their dues, and that might often involve less prestigious work.

And as for actors, here's a quick look at some of the actors who appeared on Undressed:

Christina Hendricks (Mad Men)
Sarah Lancaster (Chuck, Everwood)
Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica)
Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)
Bret Harrison (Reaper)
Autumn Reeser (The O.C., Entourage, No Ordinary Family)
Rachelle Lefevre (Twilight)
J. August Richards (Angel, Raising the Bar)
Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill)
Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

So as I said on Monday, don't come out of the gate with your most important script. If you're good, you'll have a whole career ahead of you to write that passion project. Your first script doesn't define you, so if deep down you have a guilty pleasure concept in mind and you know you can write it well, go for it.

It's bad enough if you're a snob about other people's writing, but if you're such a snob that you won't even let yourself write anything less than serious and dignified, maybe you're in the wrong business.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: They did what?

So this week I'm trying to put the focus on some of the more humble beginnings of many people in the industry. Like I said yesterday, often a writer will be so focused on doing something monumental with their work that they bite off more than they can chew. A lot of writers, directors and actors cut their teeth on less groundbreaking work before delivering something with more substantial impact.

Of course, this means that sometimes if you run across some of these people "on the way up," it's always distracting when they later become acclaimed. For instance, before she was one of the major female box-office draws in the late 90s, Ashley Judd had a recurring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation as an engineering ensign. Even when her career was hot and she was "movie star Ashley Judd," I couldn't keep from thinking "Hey! It's Ensign Lefler!"

So for today's Talkback I was trying to come up with some writer-related examples of the same - an instance where I judged a writer on their early work and was pleasantly surprised by a later creation. The problem is that I'm coming up rather short. It's the advantage writers have of being mostly invisible. When you notice them, it's usually because they're doing something really good (unless you're Akiva Goldsman) and THAT becomes your impression of them - even if you later find inferior works.

But maybe some of you guys are more plugged in than I am. Has there ever been a time that a movie or TV show so blew you away that you were shocked to learn the writer behind it? And please share which early work of theirs set the bar so low.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Everyone starts somewhere, so don't insist on being pretentious right out of the gate

I write fairly often about the moral lows of what I read. In part, that because it's a lot of fun to rail against the idiots who spend their creativity on dreaming up new ways to disembowel people, or find new bodily fluids that haven't been used for comedic purposes. And if they're not doing that, it seems they invest all their efforts in describing the curves of their female characters' asses, or failing that, find as many places as possible to stick in the descriptor "side boob."

But there's a fairly large amount of the submissions that land at the other end of the continuum: the "important" pictures. These are the ones whose writers are determined to show they can write DRAMA, dammit! The problem is that the amateur tends to mistake "dramatic" pictures for "films that leave you depressed and wanting to hang yourself."

Those are the sorts of films where the prom queen not only is in an abusive relationship with the captain of the football team, but he rapes her and leaves her when she turns up pregnant. Then she gets thrown out of her abusive home because her molester of a father doesn't want anyone figuring out he's also had his way with her. She's reduced to living on the streets and turning tricks, where naturally she develops both a drug habit and is infected with HIV. Naturally both cause complications with the birth of her child, who either dies moments after being born or has severe birth defects that weigh on the mother.

Oh, yeah... and these usually end in suicide.

The above might be a generalization, but I think you all get where I'm coming from - the writers who try to write important movies usually end up writing soap opera melodrama.

Or they end up writing pretentious period pieces. Often these are about IMPORTANT ISSUES like slavery, women's rights, or some really obscure corner of history. When these projects are put in the hands of a writer who knows what they're doing, they can be compelling. When one attempts them as their first project, the results are often painful for the reader.

I've been thinking lately about why someone might try to write one of these scripts right out of the gate, and the answer I keep coming back to is that the would-be writers fancy themselves serious screenwriters. They scoff at anything "commercial" and turn their nose up at the suggestions they might want to try writing something in a more marketable genre. They don't want to be hacks - they're artists. They want to be the next Frank Darabount and write The Shawshank Redemption.

But here's the thing: everyone starts somewhere. I recently raved about the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, which covered the production of all the films in the Elm Street series. Guess who co-wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street part III: Dream Warriors? Frank Darabount. You know what else he wrote? The Blob remake, The Fly II and two episodes of Tales From the Crypt - all before he made Shawshank.

For that matter, the Nightmare franchise counts Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette among its alums, two VERY serious actors.

The list goes on and on: James Cameron got his start on Piranha II, David Fincher's first feature film was Alien 3, this year's Oscar-winner for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow directed the Jamie Lee Curtis cop movie Blue Steel and then the Swayze/Reeves vehicle Point Break long before handing weighty material like The Hurt Locker. There's even a rumor that before he became a distinguised blogger and university professor, Scott Myers wrote a Jim Belushi film!

(Let's be clear - I'm not disparaging any of those films. I'm just pointing out that they are exactly the sort of fare that "serious" screenwriters seem to enjoy looking down on. And I'm absolutely not taking a cheap shot at Scott. I read Go into the Story everyday and I think he's a great guy. In fact, I haven't even seen K-9, so please don't take that last bit and spin it as "The Bitter Script Reader's talking shit about Scott Myers!" At worst, I'm giving him a gentle ribbing.)

My point is that you shouldn't make the mistake of believing your first screenplay (or even your second or third) needs to be an important screenplay. Don't try to write the next Oscar-winning epic on cholera, or feel that you need to browbeat the audience with a social issue in order to be taken seriously.

It's less critical that your work is "important" than it is for it to be entertaining.

And if some of you still aren't quite catching on to what I'm saying, go rent Sullivan's Travels.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: The Video Website

A few weeks ago, everyone on the web was buzzing about the trailer for Aaron Sorkin's Facebook movie, The Social Network. With all the hype it was getting, I'm somewhat surprised it took this long for someone to do a YouTube-focused parody called The Video Website.

And on the off-chance you haven't seen the real trailer for The Social Network...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tom Mankiewicz (1942-2010)

For whatever reason, August seems to be the month I end up doing a lot of obituaries on this blog. It was just about a year ago that we lost John Hughes and Blake Snyder. Then, last weekend screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz left us at the age of 68. As I told Twitter, Mankiewicz was the screenwriter who worked most closely with Richard Donner on Superman (and the portions of Superman II that Donner shot during the original phase of production.) Superman just happens to be one of my favorite films and the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker, so this was a sad lost for me and many other Superman fans.

There have been a number of other eulogies for "Mank" over the past few days so you want an overview of his career, go here.

Instead, I'd rather use his life to pass on some knowledge. Mank was brought onto Superman to rewrite a script that began life as a 300-page behemoth penned by Mario Puzo. Even allowing for the fact that this was intended to be two movies, that was an extremely long script. This in turn was rewritten by Robert Benton and David & Leslie Newman. Their efforts reportedly caused the script to swell to a full 500 pages, at least according to one Donner interview.

When Donner was brought on board he appealed to his old friend to make the script more manageable, not only in length but to remove a great deal of silly, campy humor that didn't fit Donner's vision. In interviews, Mank would often recount the story of being awakened by an early morning phone call from Dick Donner, who refused to take no for an answer. When Tom finally gave in and came over to Donner's house, he found the director running across the lawn wearing a Superman costume that had been sent to him with the script.

Superman was not an easy production by any account. Indeed, the behind the scenes clashes are somewhat legendary, as Donner and the producers rarely saw eye-to-eye during the long shoot. After all, they weren't just shooting Superman, but were also in simultaneous production on the sequel. In fact, Donner had shot 75% of the shooting script for Superman II before they decided to concentrate entirely on finishing the first feature. (The released Superman II only featured about 30% Donner footage, as much was rewritten and reshot under the guidance of director Richard Lester.)

If there's one thing that comes across in the many behind the scenes DVD featureettes, commentaries and "making of" books besides the chaotic nature of the production, it's the great friendship that existed between Donner and Mankiewicz. The two men quickly settled on their approach to the material, which ran counter to the vision reflected in the earlier scripts.

Donner explained, "Both (Tom) and I decided that we would treat the picture as reality ... 'larger than life,' but still reality. This was in perfect keeping with the producers' viewpoint. The key to the whole concept of the film is verisimilitude. We've treated it as truth. And the minute you are unfaithful to the truth ... to the dignity of the legend ... the minute you screw around with it or make fun of it or parody and make it into a spoof, then you destroy its innocence and honesty." (http://supermancinema.co.uk/superman1/general/scripts/evolution_of_a_screenplay/s1evol4.htm)
Mankiewicz was Donner's right-hand during production, pretty much acting as a defacto producer. Donner regularly clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkand and their hatchet man, producer Pierre Spangler. Before long, the Salkind camp wasn't speaking to the Donner camp.

Every great filmmaker seems to face a baptism of fire, often during a difficult film that becomes their calling card. Think of Stephen Spielberg on Jaws, or George Lucas on Star Wars. Great films resulted, but not easily, as those films ran over schedule and over budget. Superman was similarly troubled, perhaps more so because the director was dealing with producers who didn't have his back.

Any interview with Tom and Dick can't help but offer a glimpse at the great friendship that must have existed between the two men. On the commentary, they almost sound like two old war buddies who were in a foxhole together and couldn't depend on anyone but each other. "Old war stories" about sums up the content of their two Superman commentaries, recounting anecdotes such as the time their driver said that even he wouldn't have trusted them with $25 million to make a movie.

Without Tom Mankiewicz at his side, who knows if Donner would have had the endurance or the support to keep up the fight for his vision for so long. And who knows what might have resulted if he'd been forced to work with a writer who had a less harmonious interpretation of Donner's vision?

I don't want to take anything away from Richard Donner - as he was the man who truly defined Superman for the silver screen. Without that film, there might not have been any other comic book films. Indeed, even Christopher Nolan cited Donner's Superman as an influence on Batman Begins. At the same time, we can't forget that every general relies on his sergeants to follow through for him, a great director needs to be backed by a good screenwriter and (one hopes) good producers.

So remember this as you try to build your careers in the entertainment industry - you can't do it alone. The auteur theory only works when the auteur in question has backup to help him follow-through. I've never seen a director who's truly a one-man band, have you?

I've been lucky enough to work with some great people on my own projects. I know how much easier it is when you've got a team full of people who can manage their department and give their all to bringing the director's vision to life. It also helps to have the emotional support of friends throughout production. In Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Donner had both.

It's fortunate that before died, Mankiewicz participated in the restoration of Richard Donner's cut of Superman II. He gave creative input to the filmmakers on that project and at last got to see many scenes he wrote for the sequel (including some crucial moments with Marlon Brando as Jor-El) released in this alternate cut.

Farewell Mank. You will be missed and millions of Superman fans mourn your loss.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: How do you get started?

A process question on this Tuesday: When you're working on a new script, how do you get started?

What comes first for you? The plot, the characters or the concept?

Do you write out a full beat sheet or treatment? Do you just dive in and write pages to get a handle on the characters?

Do you write long biographies of your characters?

Tell me about your writing process.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Guest Post: The Same Old Three Acts - a comparison of several guru's structural philosophies

A buddy of mine and a member of my writing group, J.J. Patrow recently decided on a lark to compare the differing philosophies of the best-known screenwriting gurus. As he output his findings as charts, he made some interesting discoveries. I found the charts so intriguing that I invited him to post them here, along with an explanatory article of sorts. 

By J.J. Patrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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