Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Classic horror trailers

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to offer the trailers to three of the greatest horror films of all-time: Home Alone, Mean Girls and Mary Poppins.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Behind the Mask - The Rise of Leslie Vernon

This post first ran last year on Tuesday, October 20, 2009:

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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Need a script reader? Production cos. and agencies - Please Read!

I don't know why this feels any more self-indulgent than long posts on the virtues of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, but for some reason it does. Nevertheless...

The holiday season is approaching and I'd like to make a little extra cash. Don't get me wrong, I love the gigs I'm working for right now. The only real problem is that there just isn't enough work coming in to any of my jobs right now - and for a guy who makes his living freelance, that's a problem.

So consider this my call out to all industry pros who might have need of another reader in their stable. Maybe your last reader got promoted, or maybe he quit after you made him read the latest draft of Piranha 3DD. The reasons don't matter - just that you've got an opening that you need someone to fill. ("That's what she said.")

I've also got some experience in development so if you need a development assistant or story editor, I'm your guy. I've been reading professionally for a while, and if you've read this blog for any length of time, you've probably got a sense of my tastes, insight and professionalism. So if I sound like someone you'd like reading for you, please drop me a line from your work email and lets see if we can get something going.

Just to head off a likely question: I'm not offering my services to readers of this blog for several reasons. First, it's kind of a tax headache if I make more than $600 a year from you guys. Plus, there are some legal steps I have to go through so that you guys would be able to pay me as "The Bitter Script Reader." And at this point, though there maybe be many of you interested in paying for my feedback, I don't know that it's enough to justify that effort on my part.

The other issue is that - at least based on the emails I get asking me to read scripts - I'm afraid that most of my takers would be people on their first or second scripts. I feel a little wary of taking that business. First, in my experience, the writing will be less polished, meaning it's going to take a lot more effort for me to read, analyze and write-up. What I can do in just under three hours with a lean action script submitted to a production company might take five hours with a newbie script, and that means I'd probably set the price point accordingly.

Do you see what that means? To make it worth my while, I'd have to charge a lot more money to read a script that probably isn't that good, and then deliver that scathing criticism to a writer who's probably just starting to develop their voice. I'm not sure I feel good about that.

But if there are some agencies, management or production companies out there seeking new readers, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Worst horror sequels

The only thing more fun that listing your favorite horror movies is listing the worst horror sequels you've ever seen. There's no feeling quite like seeing the fourth or fifth instalment of a once-profitable series and asking yourself, "Did they even try to make a good film this time or did they just assemble this from the scenes cut out of the earlier films?"

There are some movies that never needed sequels. The Exorcist probably ranks at the top of that list, but that certainly didn't stop them from making what is supposed to be one of the worst sequels of all time. Psycho also got an unnecessary sequel, but I have to admit I find Psycho 2 somewhat entertaining, if you can get past the blasphemy of making a sequel to a Hitchcock classic.

And I know I'm probably the only one on the planet who thinks this, but I feel like Blair Witch 2 was an interesting experiment. I think had the studio not butchered it in post, it might have been better received. (Also, I think the movie's biggest mistake was to proceed from the premise that the "found footage" from the first film was false. Had it been treated as "real," the revelation of the sequel's own video footage might have carried more weight.)

There are so many terrible horror sequels that it's hard to peg which one is worse. Is Freddy's Dead really significantly worse than Freddy's Revenge? Is Halloween II worse than Halloween II? (God, I love how reboots screw up the numbering system.

So what say you? What horror sequels rank as your all-time worst?

Monday, October 25, 2010

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

In my bid to have some holiday-specific content on the blog this week, I started writing a post on what it takes to write a good slasher movie. A few paragraphs in, I was bothered by the feeling that I'd written something like this before. Turns out, I had, in a piece last year called "Lessons from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's Scream."

I briefly considered pulling out my DVD of Scream 2 and writing a piece on what makes a good horror sequel. And while I do enjoy Scream 2, it's clearly the anomaly when it comes to sequels. In the horror genre, I'd be hard-pressed to think of many good sequels. (Does Aliens count? Maybe Wes Craven's New Nightmare?)

And here's my problem - Horror sequels frequently turn into mindless rehashes of their predecessors because often the only continuing character is the killer - the antagonist. Most of time, there are few survivors in a horror film and when someone does live into the next sequel, they're disposed of rather quickly. After all, there are only so many times that the same girl can get menaced by the same villain before it starts to feel hackneyed.

Scream somehow manages to make this work by keeping the victim of Sydney as the protagonist while constantly shifting the person under the mask of the killer. Sure, the motive every time is the revenge against Sydney (and the ultimate revenge motive in Scream 3 is a little far-fetched and convoluted. I really can't argue with that.), and she's the axis that the film series turns on. (Again, Scream 3 messes with this somewhat by giving Neve Campbell less screen time, but she's still the prime target.)

And in thinking about this, I realize it's something I really like about Wes Craven's work: he really cares about character. From Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street to Rachel McAdams' character in Red Eye, Craven tries to make his protagonists - his victims - truly fleshed-out characters. It's screenwriting 101 - you can't have a compelling story without a strongly-defined lead. Most of the time, I find that Craven takes a more intellectual approach to his characters and story structure. Listening to his director commentaries backs up that impression.

(I confess I've not been able to see My Soul to Take yet, so I'm unable to incorporate Mr. Craven's latest work into my hypothesis. Also, I don't mean to diminish the contributions of the many screenwriters he's worked with, particularly Scream's Kevin Williamson. However, when you notice particular themes in a director's work across several writers, it's hard not to take that element as something the director is committed to.)

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

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

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

This is why I'm both anticipating and dreading Scream 4 next year. The nostalgist in me loves the idea of getting "the old gang" back together. The massive cast that seems to include every young actor and actress in Hollywood also should make for fun viewing. I'm guessing this is going to make for a high body count, and with so many stars, the "death order" will be less predictable. (Most of the time, the order of the deaths roughly corresponds to the reverse order of the billing in the credits.)

My big fear is that in order to "pass the torch" to younger generation, Sydney will be killed. That makes a lot of dramatic sense... and yet it doesn't. The series is Sydney's story. If she dies, she loses. Yet, if she lives, how can the story possibly continue? How many times can new madmen come after her? How can a genre driven by the teenage audience be sustained with an "older" protagonist like Neve Campbell, as opposed to the more teen-appropriate Emma Roberts?

(Confession: Emma's a cute girl, no doubt... but Neve was my crush in 1996 and she still gets my vote today.)

The place to kill Sydney might well have been in Scream 3. Coming in Scream 4, it might tarnish the construction of the first trilogy. A new story might have been launched at the expense of the old one.

So perhaps Scream 4 will give us the most unexpected ending of all - where ALL the teen protagonists who seem to be groomed as Campbell's replacements are killed and the next chapter of Sydney's life is launched. Dare I hope that Craven's history of commitment to character suggests this, particularly when those characters are developed under Mr. Williamson's pen?

I'm not saying that a good story can't be told with Sydney's death, but it could be a challenge to pull this off in a satisfying manner. Sydney's death could be an appropriate tragedy, but the challenge beyond that would be convincing the audience that a larger story will still continue beyond Sydney's death.

Is it possible? I don't know, but come this April, I'll be there opening day to find out. (Or more likely, I'll be there at midnight the evening before opening day.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Go see Chad, Matt & Rob's new interactive adventure "The Treasure Hunt" premiere this Sunday at the Anaheim Film Festival

This Sunday, my friends Chad, Matt & Rob will debut their new Interactive Adventure Comedy short "The Treasure Hunt" at the first annual Anaheim Film Festival. The screening begins at 6pm, and you can follow this link to purchase tickets for $10 each ($5 for students and seniors).

What starts as an average day at the office for drones Chad and Matt turns into high adventure when coworker Rob barrels into frame with a faded map and tales of vast riches. At first it’s easy to shrug off Rob’s glee at an adventure in the making as nothing more then a flight of fancy, but the arrival of a dangerous tomb raider soon makes one thing clear: this may be one quest they have no choice but to take. While our heroes may have no choice in controlling their fate their audience does in this interactive, choose your own adventure from some of the web’s biggest up and coming stars. In a spectacle that’s part feature film, part video game the fate of this clueless trio rests in your hands!

I've featured Chad, Matt & Rob on the blog before, and I'm planning on featuring an interview with them next month, discussing how they built an audience for their webshorts and how that's lead to other inroads in the industry.

Also, for those interested in New Media, Sunday the Anaheim Film Festival will feature a New Media Expo described as being "focused on exploring the future of new media and what steps content creators and producers need to take now in order to make sure they remain a constant source of entertainment to an ever-evolving audience. The expo itself will be comprised of a number of screenings and panels throughout the day covering everything from web criticism to branded marketing, and will also include the first ever New Media Market, which will give creators the opportunity to present their current shows and projects to those individuals and companies seeking new content."

So if you're in the L.A. area, I encourage you to check out all the festival offers, both on Sunday and this entire weekend.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How long is it? (or, another page-length question)

Igor sent me a rather long email this week:

I've read your comments about the max length for screenplays and agree with you - at least about perceptions and expectations for spec scripts. And yet, I'm puzzled because it seems clear that 1 page-per-minute for comedies is often way off the mark of reality.

The script for Knocked Up that’s available for download directly from Universal is 139 pages. It seems to be a post-production script - i.e., everything in this script, verbatim, was in the 129-minute theatrical version of the movie. (The DVD version has some extra scenes not in this script and it runs 133 minutes.) It's as if this script were a "scriptization" of the movie.

Actually, the count of 139 pages is "nominal". Some pages run 65 lines and most pages run well beyond the typical 53-56 lines. If it were reformatted to 56 lines/page, the page count would be 160 for the 129-minute runtime.

Even 160 pages is a lower-end estimate since the script seems unusually light on Action graffs (which is fine since it is post-production).

Let's stick with 160. If I've done my math correctly, that works out to under 49 seconds per page. Put another way, a 120-page comedy script of this sort would run 97 minutes, which is well within normal limits for this sort of movie. Even a 130-page script would clock in at only 105 minutes. Yet for spec comedy scripts we're told that 90-100 pages is the target.

I'm not trying to suggest in any way that I should be able to submit a 160-page spec script and get the same open reception that Apatow gets.

Rather, I'm making two observations from the flip-side.

First, if I submit a 95-page comedy script, the page length is perceived as perfect. Yet, if I've used the Knocked Up script as a template, the movie produced from my script would clock in at under 78 minutes. Consider a 78-page script landing on your desk.

Second, it's clear that a 120-page comedy script can readily hit the sweet-spot target of a 97-minute comedy movie.

The irony here is that the expected spec-script page-length is shorter for a comedy than for a drama, and yet dialogue pacing in comedies is typically faster and comedies are less likely to have/need extended action-heavy scenes (except, perhaps, to pad them for length).

My take-away from all this math is simply one more indication that we must meet the benchmarks of the marketplace irrespective of their logic. If a customer wants chocolate sauce on his pea soup, so be it.

That said, do you think that the current perception about 1 page-per-minute, even for comedies, is immutable?

It was my understanding that there would be no math.

(Sorry. Kids, if you don't get that reference ask your parents.)

Short answer: yes, I think it's fairly immutable - at least with regards to someone who hasn't broken through. Apatow could probably get away with sending out a script to rival the length of Mario Puzo's works. (Well... maybe not after Funny People, but he certainly could have gotten away with it right after Knocked Up.) I'm sure there are people who will whine that's not fair, but tough. Life isn't fair. This business isn't fair - now put chocolate sauce on my bean soup!

As you point out, what Universal is offering is most likely not any version of the script as it existed while in production. Considering all the ad-libbing that Apatow productions are notorious for, it would not surprise me to learn that the actual shooting script was significantly shorter.

On top of that, when it comes to length I don't know if Apatow would be the guy to emulate. I enjoy many of the guys movies, but my biggest criticism of him is that all of the films he directs feel 15-20 minutes too long. (The exception is Funny People, which is at least an hour too long.) I know I'm hardly alone in this criticism, and I've always felt that the ones he's produced and not directed have felt somewhat tighter and better paced.

There are many great aspects to Apatow's movies, but pacing isn't one of them. I think this is what makes them more fun to watch on DVD or on cable rather than in the theater. It's a lot easier to pop into the film at any point, enjoy a few gags and scenes, and then pop out.

But it's worth noting - Apatow's movies usually have concepts that can be immediately recognized as original and for all the bulk, he usually provides three-dimensional interesting characters. My hunch is that if a script of the quality of Knocked Up landed on someone's desk and it was a little long, it still might get kicked upstairs on the quality of the writing. Still, for a comedy, I wouldn't push it past 120 pages, for the precise perception issues you cite.

After all, a study of ONE film from a director already known for turning out comedies longer than the norm is hardly scientific, no?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Relatable" characters - Superman vs. Batman

Last week, during my post about Zack Snyder's Superman, there was a comment made that I feel deserves further examination. Carlos mentioned that he's never really gotten into the character, saying "I feel much more separated from him because he does things no one else can whereas there is some semblance of reality or connection with Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and Peter Parker." I personally disagree with that, as all of the characters cited above have such extraordinary abilities that it's a little silly to argue that a guy endowed with all the powers of a spider is somehow less ridiculous than a super-strong alien who flies.

But I want to use this to make a point that's a bit adjacent from Carlos' argument. I've heard the argument before from many comic fans that the reason that they find Batman cooler than Superman is that Batman is "more relatable" and "more realistic." That's an argument I've always found quite dumb, particularly from a standpoint of characterization and psychology.

When writing a character, do you define that character solely by their job? If you've never been in a hospital, do you feel that you wouldn't know how to write a character arc for someone who happens to be a doctor? If you've never worked in law enforcement, does that mean you are incapable of writing about a guy who works as a cop? Is his psychology somehow alien to you because of what he does?

Speaking only in terms of character, lets take a look at Superman vs. Batman.


- grows up in middle America on a farm in a rural community

- two parents, middle class to lower-middle class

- spends most of his childhood believing he's a "normal" human. Most tellings don't have him learn of his alien heritage until he's 16-18.

- After exploring his powers, goes to work as a reporter. 9-5 job among the other working class.

- lives in an apartment on par with middle-class status.

- Has a small group of close friends and working relationships who are "normal" civilians.

- Is generally shown to have a healthy romantic relationship with Lois Lane.


- the children of millionaires in a metropolitan city.

- orphaned at age 8-10 when his parents are brutally murdered before him. In most tellings, his childhood is said to have ended at that moment, and that "Bruce" died that night too, to be replaced by "Batman."

- shown to be an obsessive, driven loner.

- raised by the family butler, one of the few strong "civilian" relationships he has.

- through massive physical training he becomes something of a cross between the world's greatest ninja, the world's greatest gymnast and the world's greatest all-around athlete.

- on top of that, he studies criminology to a level that would put him on par with the most highly trained CSI lab techs AND a modern day Sherlock Holmes.

I note the last two because in order to achieve what he does, Batman has to devote a great deal of study to his craft, much like the dedication a concert pianist or a brain surgeon must show. Superman's powers simply turn on, so I see them as less of an element of his actual characterization.

So on a personal level, who do you relate to more? The middle-American guy who works a day job and gets along well with his co-workers, or the antisocial psychotic billionaire/Olympic-level ninja/insanely gifted detective who finds it difficult to connect emotionally to anyone?

I'm not saying Batman isn't an interesting character, but no way in HELL is he "relatable." When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, who do you relate to more? Holmes or Dr. Watson? Looking at DC's stable of characters, I'd be hard-pressed to find a hero less relatable than Bruce Wayne, save for perhaps Wonder Woman.

With everything Batman has achieved to be who he is, he's as much science fiction as a Kryptonian visitor from another planet. The comics have even carried this to even further ridiculous extremes. In the 90s, Grant Morrison had a tendency to write Batman as a cross between a Mary Sue and a deus ex machina. There was seemingly no enemy he couldn't beat by out-thinking. It got to such ridiculous levels that any internet debate about Batman versus another character seemed to end with Bat loyalists arguing that Batman would beat anyone so long as he had enough "planning time."

I recall when a cover depicting Wonder Woman with her booted foot atop a beaten Batman's head was released. Outraged Batfans argued that the idiot writer didn't know what he was doing because there was no way that Wonder Woman (depicted at the time to be second only to Superman in strength and speed, and with fewer weaknesses) could ever beat Batman.

I bring that up mostly to mention that even in comics continuity, Batman is developed in a way that makes him far more than human. The only way he's more human than Superman is physically. But when writing characters, the physical is often the least important aspect. You need to understand how they think, what they feel, what their desires are, what their relationships are.

Batman more relatable than Superman? Only if you don't give the matter an iota of thought. Don't mistake what a character does for who he is. When writing, that's an easy path to a one-dimensional character.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tuesday Talkback - What scares you?

Playing off of yesterday's topic - what sort of everyday things scare you? You might not see a way to translate them into an entire movie, but what occurrences cause you to fear the worst case scenario?

Imagine all the things that could go wrong if you find yourself in gridlocked traffic, never moving for hours at a time.

Or perhaps you fear slipping in the shower, breaking your neck and slowly drowning as the tub fills up with water.

What are your most primal fears? What truly scares you?

If you don't feel comfortable sharing that, let me know which films you feel do a good job of playing off the same sorts of fears that Frozen, Open Water and Awake do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Adam Green's Frozen: The key to good horror is relatability

A couple of weeks ago I caught the movie Frozen on DVD. In a nutshell, the premise is that three college kids manage to bribe their way onto a ski resort without buying lift tickets, only to find themselves stuck on the lift halfway up the mountain when the resort closes early for the week due to an incoming storm. See, since they're not part of the official head count, no one in charge even knows they're missing.

So there they are - stuck on the stopped ski lift, dangling fifty feet from the ground. A major storm is coming in and since this is Sunday night the resort is closed all week until Friday. They have three choices: wait, jump, or try to climb on the wire until they get to a tower and then climb down. Waiting means freezing to death, jumping is sure to cause serious injury, and it's almost impossible to climb on those metal wires, to say nothing of the upper body strength needed.

I really don't want to spoil what happens because this is one of those films that really makes good use of tension. Giving away anything else might spoil some of that for first time viewers and this is a film that really needs to be experienced fresh. Director Adam Green also gets in several vertigo-inducing shots that remind us just how high up these guys are and there are several moments that are very difficult to watch. It's not that the violence is exceptionally graphic, but the situation and the peril are very intense in places.

These are probably my favorite kind of thrillers - the ones that play on everyday fears. These are the stories that spring from the "what if one little thing went wrong?" voice in the back of your mind. "What if I went scuba diving and the boat accidentally left me in the middle of nowhere?" (Open Water) "What if I go in for surgery and the anastetic only paralyzes me but doesn't knock me out?" (Awake) "What if I ran into a shark while swimming near the beach?" (Jaws).

Who hasn't been on a ski lift or a roller coaster and found themselves wondering "What happens if this thing breaks right when we get to the highest point?"

To me, those sort of everyday fears are a thousand times more scarier than demonic possession, alien invasions and deformed slashers who stalk women in their underwear. (The women are the ones in their underwear, obviously. A deformed slasher in his underwear might be almost as scary as being stuck on a ski lift.)

That's the root of all horror: "It could happen to me." Remember that when you craft your own horror/thrillers.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Zack Snyder's Superman

Well, it was confirmed this week that Warner Brothers has selected Zack Snyder to helm their Superman reboot, set for release in 2012. As someone who really enjoyed Bryan Singer's Superman Returns and Brandon Routh in the title role, I'm sorry to see that there is no chance of any sort of follow-up. However, I think Snyder is a solid choice for the director's chair.

I hope that Christopher Nolan has a strong hand in this one as producer, and despite the rumors of the weak state of the current script, I have hope that Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer - the men behind the script for The Dark Knight - will be able to turn out something impressive. It'll be interesting to see how Nolan's guidence meshes with Snyder's style. Nolan has stated a preference for doing as much "practical" effects as opposed to CGI, while Snyder's films are quite heavy on CG graphics and enhancements.

My short wish list for the new film:

1) Don't mess too much with the classic costume. Christopher Reeve's is my favorite, but I liked Routh's too.

2) Don't waste too much time retelling the origin or the Smallville era. We know it, we've seen it a dozen times already. Batman Begins was novel because the Batman origins had never been shown in that kind of depth on screen before.

3) The classic John Williams theme must return. It's like retaining the James Bond theme across all the films, regardless of continuity.

4) It's possible to make an assertive, sexy Lois Lane without making her a bitch, just as it should be possible to make her vulnerable without making her a flighty neurotic (*cough* Teri Hatcher on Lois & Clark).

5) Say it with me - Superman is the disguise, Clark Kent is the real guy.

6) I know Zod's the villain, so take a page from the recent New Krypton storyline in the comics and really make this guy compelling and three-dimensional. I love the Terrence Stamp incarnation, but it would be nuts to try to compete with that take.

7) You need at least one badass fist-pumping moment like this one:

8) A year from now, I want to see a teaser trailer at least as cool as this. Seriously. Whoever cut this together deserves a standing ovation:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Done Deal Pro interviews manager Jewerl Ross of Silent R Management

I came across a really interesting and candid interview with Jewerl Ross of Silent R Management. It covers a lot of topics including how Mr. Ross went from being an agent to a manager, his feelings on the business and what he looks for in a client.

I can also speak from experience that he's open to queries from new writers. He's read one, possibly two of my screenplays. I've been debating sending him my latest, particularly after reading this excerpt:

Is it risky for new writers to send their material out before getting a rep? What if they send it out and get many producers who pass, and then an agent signs them and doesn’t want to spec the script because it is overexposed?

I hear this complaint quite often as well. I think this is the wrong way to think about your material and the wrong way to think about reps. If you have never done anything—never been paid to write, never sold a script, are unrepresented—selling a big spec is the least of your worries, being overexposed is the least of your worries. What you need are advocates—fans—people who love you and love your writing. You don’t just need one of these, but many fans. The only way to get fans is to send your material to people. You can’t be precious with your material and super selective on who reads it. You can’t be worried about people stealing your ideas or fucking you out of money that doesn’t exist. You have to move your career forward and you can’t do that without people reading you.

Another reason people worry about overexposure of a script before it gets to a rep is because this is the only script they have written and they want to do everything perfectly. If this is the only script you have ever written and the only one you will write for a year or two, you are not a real writer and none of this advice is for you. For real writers, it doesn’t matter if one script is overexposed because you are writing two or three scripts a year. I tell people all the time: I don’t represent scripts; I represent writers!

That gives me some measure of hope because my current screenplay is unfortunately in a genre that seems to be oversaturated at the moment. I'm already starting on my next one, so if a lot of managers have the same mindset as Mr. Ross, perhaps my queries won't be in vain - assuming of course, that reps read the material and like the writing.

I don't like pinning all my hopes on a spec being received as a "writing sample." I'd always been told, "Agents are looking for something they can sell." Because of this, I steer clear of anything that has a limited or no market. I ended up stumbling into my current dilemma, but perhaps the screenplay might still do some good.

The rest of the interview is full of good stuff, so I encourage everyone to check it out.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Town: ticking bombs of suspense

I had planned on using a particular scene in The Town as the subject for today's post. Then I read Roger Ebert's review and found that he opened with a several paragraph discussion of that very scene. As there had been a suggestion that both Scott Myers and I would cover The Town in separate posts, I lamented in a discussion thread on Go Into The Story that I might have to go back to the drawing board.

Fortunately, Nate Winslow came to the rescue when he posted this:

"That bit about the tattoo-covering moment with Doug/Claire/Jem? That's a popular moment, apparently: I was planning on using that as an example for MY write-up on the movie haha. In my studying of the various versions of that script that I found, that bit wasn't in any of them. Neither is the moment of seeing Jem's tattoo during the robbery itself. So, whoever stuck that in there on a last minute revision is a genius."

Viola! I had my topic!

For those not in the know, here's the set-up: A gang of four guys in Charlestown have been pulling several robberies. On their latest bank hit, the hot-headed Jem (Jeremy Renner, who will always be Penn from Angel to me) takes along assistant manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage before soon releasing her. Now he's worried that she can identify them once he finds out that she lives in their neigborhood. He's prepared to kill her as a preemptive measure.

The more level-headed Doug (Ben Affleck) offers to check up on her and make sure she isn't a risk. He ends up romancing her and soon Doug is trying to keep his partners from finding out about his new girlfriend even as he's keeping the truth from her. Claire talks to him about the robbery and mentions a detail she didn't tell the FBI - a distinctive tattoo on the back of one of the robber's necks. We - and Doug - know she's talking about Jem's tattoo, and if Doug was truly keeping his agreement with Jem, he'd kill her for that.

The scene that Roger, Nate and I are all over the moon about comes about midway through the script. Jem confronts Doug while he's out with Claire. Though Jem is outwardly polite to Claire, he sends some clear subtext to Doug along the lines of "Why are you dating the one girl who could nail us to the FBI? What else are you hiding?" Worse, Doug knows that the instant Claire sees that tattoo, the pieces are going to fall into place - and then things can only end badly from there.

The tension hits fever pitch and the directing does an excellent job of making us empathize with Doug's tight spot. It's a rare film that can make an audience hold their breath just with one scene of three people talking. This is the perfect example of the sort of suspense I talked about back here. There's a bomb in that scene and we don't know when it's going to go off.

The secret of the tattoo is so critical to the tension among all three characters that it's hard to believe what Nate says above, that it wasn't in an earlier draft. Here's just a quick look at what that tattoo means:

- Claire can identify at least one of the robbers.
- Thus, when Doug finds out what she knows he's actively defying Jem's orders to kill her if she's able to expose them.
- In turn, this means that Doug's ass is on the line and he has to keep Claire from finding out the truth because not only does that put her at risk, but it means she will find out who he is too.

Without that tattoo, there's not much to push it to the boiling point. Sure, Jem might eventually decide that Claire is too great a risk for them to chance, but if she can't identify him, then his motivations for killing her are inaccurate. It works so much better when she actually could figure out who he is. It opens the door to her figuring out Doug's true identity on her own, or perhaps identifying Jem herself and somehow escaping in time to notify the FBI.

Having that secret makes Claire a more active part of the story rather than just a love interest for Doug and a target for Jem. Her actions have a more direct chance to change the game rather than just being a plot device for conflict between the two robbers. It's one of my favorite things about this movie. And it took a rewrite to find that moment.

Let that be a lesson - you can always push an idea further. Find that twist that elevates a character from plot device to player, the moment that makes the stakes that much higher and multiples the ways things can go really wrong.

I have to say, I liked this movie a lot. That's an impressive feat when you consider that I read far too many scripts about Irish guys from "the neighborhood" who think of each other like brothers and fancy themselves master thieves. (The Boondock Saints has a helluva lot to answer for. Remind me to punch Troy Duffy in the face next time I see him.) Done wrong, this could have been like scripts I read several times a month. I'm sick of reading this genre, so if anyone was going to come into this film with their teeth sharpened, it's me.

So here's my plea to all of you: if you liked The Town, please emulate its storytelling rather than its subject. The world doesn't need another script about Irish hoods trying to make the big score unless it's a DAMN good one.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tuesday Talkback - NOW we're cooking

This past summer was one full of malaise for me. If memory serves me correctly, the only films I bothered seeing in the theatre were: Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, Inception, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. There were several that I intended to see, but after missing them on opening weekend, I opted to wait for Netflix. Films that met this fate included Machete, The Expendables, Predators, and Get Him to the Greek. None of those films seemed to offer anything that couldn't wait five months for the DVD.

And yet here in the first week of October, I already find have seen three films in the last five days (The Social Network, The Town and Easy A) and can easily point to Red, Buried, Catfish, My Soul to Take, Paranormal Activity 2 as films I'd probably plunk down cash for in first run. And that's just taking us up through October. November brings Megamind and Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows, along with about four other films I could go either way on.

So am I the only one who feels like the year in movies just got started? Does it seem like the fall's offerings are far more interesting than the summer fare? Weigh in in the comments.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Easy A" - a surprisingly fun movie

I'm working on catching up with the fall releases over the next few weeks and this weekend I saw Easy A and The Town. I rather liked both of them, and oddly enough I found myself with more to say about Easy A. I think perhaps because there's a lot in there that represents the sort of writing that a reader like me is likely to find easy to support. It's a mainstream comedy all the way, and while I picture a few "serious drama" readers unsubscribing as they read that - the fact is, it's a GOOD mainstream script.

The premise is loosely based on The Scarlet Letter. A teenage girl named Olive rather unwittingly blunders into giving her best friend the impression that she lost her virginity over the weekend. Unfortunately this conversation is overheard by classmate Maryanne, the judgmental popular girl who takes joy in calling others out as sinners in order to feel superior. In less time than it takes to tell about it, she has spread the lie all over school and the still-virginal Olive is branded a whore.

Things take a turn when classmate Brandon appeals to Olive to use her bad reputation for good. Specifically, he asks her to pretend to have sex with him so that the (true) rumor about him being gay will be quelled and he'll no longer have to face bullying and harassment from the rest of the student body. Olive's not cool with this until he is practically in tears talking about how hard it is to be made a victim just because he's different. Olive, probably out of annoyance with her own unjust harassment, goes along with it.

Before long, all the guys in the school are coming to Olive and asking her to fake having sex with them. Some just want to stop rumors, some just want to seem cooler. By then, Olive's reputation is so shot that they wouldn't need her cooperation to get people to believe it, and so with that threat, she's persuaded to go along with the gag.

The sharp dialogue probably tops the list of things I liked here. Olive's a witty character without seeming like a QuipTron 3000, and here's a case where writer Bert V. Royal and actress Emma Stone deserve equal credit. It's one thing to write a heroine with a sharp tongue, but it takes a certain actress to convince the audience that said character actually would say those things. Emma spits out Royal's one-liners with ease and manages to come across as a normal teen at the same time. As we've seen with a few examples of Diablo Cody's weaker scenes, that's not an easy thing to do.

The secondary characters are equally sharp, and I have to give extra praise to Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson's characters, Olive's parents. Tucci alone has more quotables that most spec scripts I read these days. (Malcolm McDowell's cameo as a principal is also worth singling out, as he informs Olive, "I'm paid to keep girls off the pole and boys off the pipe. If I do that, I get a bonus.")

What else did I like about Easy A?

It's a female-driven teen comedy that has some bite. Those are RARE, folks. Female-driven movies in general are becoming rare, and when they are made for young audiences, the result is very safe fare like Hannah Montana or Nancy Drew. Their audience is younger girls rather than older teens and college-age kids.

It has several three-dimensional characters. Even better, not only does it pass the Bechdel Test - but in this script, arguably the guys are the ones who fail it, as Olive is at the center of everything. The girls have their own lives, but the guys are the ones relegated to the supporting roles. I don't see that often enough and the movie uses to good effect.

For those not in the know, these three questions are the Bechdel Test: Does the film have at least two women (with names)? Do those two women have dialogue together? Is that dialogue about something other than a man?

This doesn't mean that the guys are one-dimensional. One of the standouts is Dan Byrd's Brandon, who doesn't fit the mold as the typical gay teen. I'm a little tired of the "flaming homosexual" characters because their dialogue tends to be predictable and over-the-top. There are plenty of flamboyant gays, but the needs of the story require a closeted and more-restrained gay. Brandon isn't the sort of character who will ping many people's gaydar. He just wants to be left alone.

I think toning down Brandon's character also has the effect of making it easier for an audience to empathize with him. High school can be a weird time. Everyone wants to fit in, and no one really realizes that few people feel like they do. As the excellent Buffy episode "Earshot" demonstrated, it's very easy to feel alienated or like an outsider in school - just as it's easy for others to deflect their own pain by adding to someone else's. The script manages the tough balancing act of making Brandon's pain real without turning it into an afterschool special on tolerance. If you think that's easy, try it.

I know there are a few who have protested what they see as "Christian-bashing" via the antagonist Maryanne. I think that argument is an example of oversensitivity. You craft the antagonist to fit the hero. Olive's problem is that she's being persecuted by students with extremely Puritanical beliefs, much like The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne. Aside from the fact that making Maryanne Christian fits well with the parallels of the novel, can you name another group that makes it a fairly regular practice to condemn someone for their sexual history? Most decency and morality groups stem from a fairly Christian philosophy, so if you're building a lynch mob to attack a girl for loose morals, that is the most logical place to recruit them. (As anyone in California who saw the truly, truly deplorable pro-Prop 8 ads can attest.)

But I don't see it as "Christian-bashing." It's pretty well demonstrated that Maryanne's group of lemmings follow her because she's the popular girl, not because she's a Christian. There's also the fact that in a time of crisis, Olive actually turns to the church despite not being religious at all. Though this doesn't work out well - first she gives confession in an empty booth and then accidentally seeks counsel from a pastor who turns out to be Maryanne's father - it's enough for me to be satisfied that this film isn't an attack on all Christians, just the hypocritical and judgemental kind whom Maryanne resembles. I've met plenty of Christians who defy the stereotype, as well as a fair number of those who define it.

(And I get that Christians might be tired of being cast as villain in fictional works, but then I'm also pretty sure that gays are tired of being cast by Christians as the ultimate evil in real life.)

Frankly, I think some of those protests could have been avoided with better casting. It's easy to get the sense that there's more to Maryanne, but Amanda Bynes' performance is like pretty much everything else I've seen her in - twitchy, one-note and without much reality. I kept thinking that this girl was scripted as more of a religious Blair Waldorff and halfway through the film I started mentally editing the scenes to put Leighton Meester in the role. If you step back and look at Maryanne along those lines, you get a better sense that the problem isn't that she's a Christian - it's that she's a bitch.

It's self-referential without going too far - The film has a conceit that Olive is "narrating" via her webcam. Most of the time this sort of thing bugs me. Like, on Modern Family I'm forever asking "Who are they talking to in the 'interview scenes?' Is this supposed to be actually happening, or are these confessionals dramatic license?" Here, the film loops back and makes the webcam a part of the story. It also manages some sharp references to John Hughes movies without going too far. (And really, what teen hasn't compared their life to some movie they've seen?)

It's got an interesting timeliness - One of the main points of the story is how fast a rumor, or a lie, can spread in high school. With every student having a cell and Facebook, Twitter, and texting being so popular it takes no time at all for a lie to be spread to the whole student body. It doesn't just feel like everyone knows - everyone in school does know. It's hard to watch that this weekend and not think of those four suicides last week - the four cases where young homosexuals took their lives after being outed and/or humiliated for their sexual orientation over the web.

It's very much about how much damage a lie can do, and just how much modern technology can hurt people. Olive fortunately is an example of someone brave enough to withstand it. When it comes to fitting in in high school, your choices are pretty much "play the game" or "knock over the board and play by your own rules." I can see some girls being inspired by her moxie, perhaps drawing strength from that the next time a lie spreads about them.

It's got a message, but it's not preachy. There are some morals buried in this story if you look for them, but the script doesn't beat you over the head with it. There's a moment where Olive notes that once her bad rep got around, she was inundated with guys willing to pay her for fake-sex, but not one guy ever thought to ask her on a real date. After all, if she's so "easy," wouldn't one date be all it took to get some action? They'd rather pay for the lie than make a real move at achieving the truth. Is it because they consider Olive "damaged goods," not worthy of their respect?

At the end of the two hours, I walked out satisfied. My wife even mentioned she hadn't really enjoyed a movie that much in several months. It's clear Emma Stone's a star in the making, and director Will Gluck knows how to handle comedy. (I admit to having a soft spot for his Fired Up, which I think has been somewhat unfairly maligned.) And I certainly will be on the lookout for Bert Royal's next film, assuming that this theatrical release bears resemblance to the original script he wrote.

UPDATE - Over at Go Into The Story, Scott has a great piece called "Anatomy of a hit movie - Easy A."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch

Detective John Munch is one of my favorite characters in all of TV. Actor/comedian Richard Belzer has the distinction of being the only actor to play the same character across so many shows and networks. The character originated on Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993, and Belzer spent seven seasons on that show. During that run, he appeared on Law & Order in three crossover episodes, and made a cameo as Munch in an episode of The X-Files.

After Homicide was canceled, Dick Wolf moved the Munch character over to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where unfortunately his part seems to have gotten smaller every year. Belzer also made a cameo as Munch on the short-lived UPN series The Beat, and popped up briefly on HBO's The Wire. That's six different shows across four networks. Not too shabby.

(There's also an Arrested Development cameo, though most Munch fans debate the canonocity of that appearance.)

"The Belz," as he is sometimes called, has a new music video - "The Vampire Song."

However, that's not the first time he's sung on camera, as we see in this clip from Homicide, where Munch gives in to karaoke.

And finally, one of my all-time favorite Homicide moments, which I dare not spoil.