Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joe Webb on "Books" - from pilot to webseries

Yesterday we talked to director Tyler Gillett about his work on the webseries Books.  Writer Joe Webb was also kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the project.

Are more episodes planned?

We hope so; but, probably not in the current webisode format. The scope of Books is so damn big, and the execution was so complex, that it's hard to justify the cost per episode without better distribution. So, realistically, if we're gonna have a life after this, it'll be as a half-hour show - but that's not at all out of the realm of possibility. The current plan is to shop the project to Hulu, smaller cable outlets like IFC, and potentially even a few Canadian networks (Fremantle's had success there before) in the spring of 2012, and to shoot for deficit financing in the 150-200 range per ep for six episodes. If that happens, we've got a Season One story arc ready to rock.

From the start, did you shoot this as a half-hour pilot or as a web-series? 

A little of both, which made writing the script a painstakingly long process. The awesome part about digital production is that it's like the Wild West, and if you're aggressive and ambitious, you can make something that looks like, I don't know, Shameless, with a low-five figure budget if you don't have to pay people to work. So we decided early on that our primary goal was to make a Showtime-like pilot, that we could then take out and sell (and it would hopefully be a product that would also, indirectly, sell ourselves).

But...we also had a responsibility to Fremantle to try to make it playable as a web-series, since they kicked in some money for the rights to distribute it via their small internet TV portal. To what extent we succeeded I'm still not sure. We feel like it plays great in sequence, and we've pieced it back together into it's full pilot form for sales purposes and a few big TV festivals in 2012; but I don't think a random viewer could stumble upon one of the middle chapters in the web format and have much idea what's going on.

You mentioned Fremantle covered some of the costs.  How did you fund the whole thing? 

At the end of the day, we ended up splitting the cost about 50/50 with FremantleMedia. So like 3 seconds of one Ford advertisement from American Idol were devoted to paying half our production budget. The other half came from months of Tyler shooting extra NatGeo stuff at his day rate and me teaching kids how to get into business school.

Do you have any future projects on the horizon? 

We just talked about getting the whole team back together to shoot something logistically simpler this spring while we figure out the future of Books (it'll be My Dinner with Andre, featuring Josh Beren and Peter Douglas), but we're also both working on other things. This fall, Tyler directed a horror-anthology that got into Sundance and a cool new digital show with Chad, Matt, & Baron Davis. I'm pitching in early January on a couple features and have 2 TV projects in development for the 2012 pitch season.

That being said, there's that old business adage about it being 10 times easier to keep an existing client than to attract a new one; and, somehow, I think that applies as a parallel to Books. So much of the groundwork has already been laid on the show, and I've spent so much of the last year living it day in and day out, that if I got the opportunity to continue working on it, I'd jump at it, even if the money proved barely enough to cover the monthly bills.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tyler Gillett on "Books" - from TV pilot to webseries

Some of you might remember Tyler Gillett from my interview with Chad, Matt & Rob.  The team formerly known as CMR has recently become Radio Silence.  Their first project under the new moniker was a segment of the Bloody Disgusting anthology film "V/H/S." The movie, Bloody Disgusting's first, will be screening out of competition next year at Sundance as part of their Midnight Movies program.  The film's already been given some good press, in articles like this one and this one, and I'm hoping to get all of Radio Silence to sit down for an interview in the very near future.

In the meantime, I caught up with Tyler to discuss another recent project of his, Books.  Tyler directed this pilot-turned-webseries produced by Fremantle Media.  With webseries being produced with increasingly higher production values, I thought it would be good to take a look at how Books traveled from script to screen.

Tyler, on how he became attached to the project:

I was approached by Fremantle Media who, when I started collaborating with them, had just started soliciting original scripts from writers. I was busy with some other projects and wasn't able to really dive into the writing process myself but was anxious to develop something with them - when I asked if they had anything they were interested in creating that was already penned, they gave me a copy of Joe's story bible for Books. I loved it. It was tight, full of character, had a dark sense of humor, and was really a departure, at least how I viewed it stylistically, from a lot of the web content that I had worked on in the past. It really read to me like a serialized TV show - a mashup of Californication and Breaking Bad. 

When Joe and I first met up to talk more about what the scripts would feel like, the conventional cinematic/tv style is something we both instantly agreed on. We knew producing the show with this style instead of what is commonly seen on the web might get us in to trouble as far as view count goes but the end game for Joe and I and for Books has always been TV. The model that Fremantle approached us with was "make a show that looks and feels ready for TV." To us, that meant we were being tasked with making some very specific and polished aesthetic choices and high concept character/story choices. 

On repurposing the show into a webseries:

The first edit of the project was actually strung out into one long 33 minute episode - our "pilot" - that was then parsed down into smaller, more digestible web-friendly pieces. Breaking it up was a hard choice to make - it felt like we were betraying the style the show was produced in and I still think that what we created works better as a single piece of media. The cliffhangers that punctuate the end of each of the 6 episodes don't quite resonate with the right tone because, with this type of show, it's hard to get an audience to invest enough in the characters in such a short amount of time for those stakes to really feel significant. The significance of the Frost brothers' predicament lands more squarely when the show is played out in one long episode.

Tomorrow: We hear from the writer of Books, Joe Webb.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Happy Festivus!

It's December 23rd, which means it's Festivus, created by Frank Costanza.

Seinfeld writer Dan O'Keefe based the Costanza version of Festivus on a holiday his father invented.  As depicted in Seinfeld, the holiday begins with the display of an aluminum pole.  Then come the Feats of Strength, and most importantly, the Airing of Grievances.  During this ceremony, you are to gather your family around and tell them the ways in which they have disappointed you in the last year.

For more about Festivus, go here.

And please feel welcome to participate in the Airing of Grievances in the comment section.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday Throwback: Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Three

This post first appeared on Thursday, April 16, 2009.

This week's cliche alert is a public service to every writer who thinks they're being clever when they stage a dramatic gunpoint confrontation between their protagonist and their antagonist. One of the most overused tropes plays out as follows:

Two combatants, one gun. Usually one character draws and the other one lunges at them, setting off the attack.

A brief hand-to-hand struggle ensues. The characters wrestle, each one trying to get the upper hand and the gun.

Two shot. The characters inevitably end up framed in a profile shot towards the climax of this fight.

BANG! The gun goes off. Both men look shocked.

DRAMATIC PAUSE. OMG?!!!! Who took the bullet?

Fake out. the hero seems to wince.

Victory. the bad guy falls down dead. The hero breathes a sigh of relief.

At that point, I groan and roll my eyes at the hundredth use of this cliche, wondering how anyone found it original to begin with. Take note, it's no longer clever to use the dramatic device of the gun going off with the actual victim being unclear initially.

An alternate version of the same trope has the bad guy getting the draw on the good guy and just about to pull the trigger. If this happens with the bad guy moving closer to the foreground, thus blocking out a decent section of the background, get ready. It means that the hero is about to be saved when his buddy (who will be revealed when the villain falls down) gets off a fatal shot from behind the bad guy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Guest Post: Alan Trustman on MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

After his first guest post, I gave BULLITT screenwriter Alan Trustman an open invitation to submit a guest blog post whenever the mood struck.  Much to my delight, it didn't take Alan long to capitalize on that open door with a piece on his feelings about the Oscar prospects for MY WEEK WITH MARILYN.

As always, the views expressed by Mr. Trustman are Mr. Trustman's views.

Once upon a time the Academy members were largely old timers who knew the business inside out, including the selection process and the campaigning and credit games, and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN would have won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The recent influx of leftists, revolutionaries and gays have made such predictions impossible but the movie is, unquestionably, one of this year’s greatest even if it never does the business it should.

Michelle Williams has captured Marilyn exactly, uncannily,—I say, having met Marilyn once for an hour plus when my Boston law office represented the seller of the Connecticut house to her and Miller,—a sweet, loveable, friendly, funny, frail, tormented, exploited, drugged and doomed little girl.

The movie is also, unintentionally, one of the truly great Hollywood movies in the sense that is demonstrates, almost clinically, how the industry powers have controlled one great beauty after another with pills and a never-ending diet of power-hungry studio executives, vicious celebrities, empty and self-loathing super-rich, and solipsistic studs. If any girl you know is dreaming of Hollywood stardom, take her to see MY WEEK WITH MARILYN twice.

Missing from the movie also is the greatest Monroe tragedy, the fact she spent her entire life longing for a man who truly loved her for what she really was underneath it all, and when she finally found that man, it didn’t work. Is it true that DiMaggio barred from the funeral any Kennedy or anyone from the rat pack?

HUGO is delicious although much too long. My French god-son, mon fileul, looked a lot like Asa Butterfield was he was young. His name is also Hugo.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Most pleasant surprise of the film year

As we wind down the year, we'll be hit with an endless parade of "Best and Worst of 2011."  In the interests of standing out from the flock, how about we discuss which films were our most pleasant surprises this year?  Were there any films that really surprised you by surpassing your expectations?

My pick would probably be Bridesmaids.  As the advance press began for this one, I was expecting to loathe it.  Not only had constant reuse of her weakest characters on SNL gone a long way towards wearing out Kristin Wiig's welcome with me, but it had an amazingly unfunny trailer.  The "grassroots" support for the film didn't take long to prime me for a backlash either.  I get there were noble intentions behind it, but the "See Bridesmaids to support female talent" was a really, deeply obnoxious campaign.  How about "See Bridesmaids because it's funny?"  Or "See Bridesmaids because it's original?"

The fact that the main creatives had vaginas meant squat to me as a viewer.  The way that campaign was framed, it was as if the quality of the product was secondary to the gender of its makers.  It's also the kind of thinking that promotes support for sub-par work.  Anyone who went to something like What's Your Number? only out of a misguided obligation to feminism deserved to lose $15 and two hours of their life.

So with all of this in mind, I went to see Bridesmaids with the lingering expectation that I'd walk out unsatisfied, but with enough material to fill a column or two on this blog.  Much to my surprise, I enjoyed most of it.  I didn't love every minute of it - the bridal shop scene had me saying a silent prayer that this would be the film's only foray into gross-out humor.  There are also a few scenes that fell victim to "improv-itis," where you're painfully aware that the actors are riffing and driving the scene in circles so that they can cram in as many punchlines to the same set-up as possible.  (I should probably call it "The Vince Vaughn Rule.")

Still, I though Kristin Wiig reminded me of what I liked about her when she first joined SNL and in smaller parts in movies like Knocked Up.  The supporting cast was strong, but most of all, the script understood its characters.  It's so rare to see a character-driven script done right - particularly in a movie that's so broad in its humor, and filled with actors who seem primed to steal a scene at the slightest opportunity.

I'm glad Bridesmaids did so well, but most of all, I'm glad that it was riding on a generally strong script and strong characters.

So what was your pleasant surprise?

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Golf Ball" - building to a Seinfeld-like payoff

While getting notes on a pilot script last week, my friends coined a new term I'm going to do my best to get into the screenwriting lexicon: "The Golf Ball."

Basically, this came about because one of the members of my writing group expressed disappointment that my story lacked the complexity of, say, a strong Larry David-developed episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  He said I had several plot lines set up over the course of the script and he was expecting them all to collide in the end for maximum comic effect.  Most of all, he pointed out one element in particular that had been established in an earlier scene, then neglected when it came time to fashion the climax.

"Give us 'the golf ball,'" said another member of the group.  It's a measure of how in sync we are that I knew EXACTLY what he was referring to.  In a classic episode of Seinfeld called "The Marine Biologist," an early scene reveals Kramer's plans for the day.  He's bought a bunch of new Titleist golf balls and he invites Jerry and George to drive out to the beach with him "and hit 'em into the ocean!"  The others decline, but Kramer follows through on his plan.

Later in the same episode, George gets embroiled in a lie where he's trying to pass himself off as a marine biologist to a woman he's attempting to date.  It's his bad luck that he takes her for a walk on the beach just as whale in distress is discovered.  As George and the woman happen upon the scene, one bystander cries out, "Is anyone here a marine biologist?"

Wonderful, now George has to either save the whale (which he has no idea how to do) or blow the lid on his lie (which he REALLY doesn't want to do.)  He marches towards the water, and then we fade into George sitting at the diner, telling his friends what he did.  It's one of the classic Seinfeld monologues.

George reveals that he was in a position to see that the whale's breathing was being impeded, and so he reached in the blowhole and pulled out the obstruction - a golf ball!  A Titleist, to be precise.  The detail that the audience has all but forgotten about is revived as the punchline and the cause of the climax.  Thus, "The Golf Ball" is my term for the comedic plot device that unites two or more unrelated story threads.

I grant this is similar to an existing screenwriting term: Chekhov's Gun.  If one insists on a distinction between the two, I see The Golf Ball being more of a comedic device.  That, and I'd bet that more aspiring writers these days are likely quite familiar with Seinfeld, while to them, Chekhov is that Russian guy from Star Trek.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thursday Throwback: Including extra materials

This post first appeared on Monday, April 6, 2009.

So you’ve just finished your awesome script and are ready to send it off to an agent. It took several dozen query letters but finally someone requested the script and you just know that once they read it, they’ll be bowled over with your brilliance. However, you happen to have written a sci-fi film with lots of weird-looking aliens and ships, and you want to make sure they visualize everything properly. In that instance, there’s no harm in including a little conceptual art to give the agent something to work from, right?


This falls into the category of one of those seemingly arbitrary no-nos that everyone in the biz knows about, but no one is sure where the rule came from. Including supplementary materials is usually seen as the mistake of an amateur, and as we’ve often discussed, the last thing you want is for your audience to think they’re dealing with an amateur. It gets you off on the wrong foot with your reader.

Now, I’m sure that no one ever got a PASS just because they dared include a few conceptual drawings. I can say that over the years I’ve gotten more than a few scripts with such supplements, and the corollary usually holds that the greater the quantity of the supplements, the worse the quality of the script.

On the other side of the fence, I read an interview with Kate Beckinsale years ago and she said that when her agent sent her the script for Underworld, Len Wiseman’s had included a drawing of the character Selene. Apparently it got her attention and the look of the character helped sell her on the idea of doing the movie.

The worst supplement I ever got with a submission was a 20 minute CD presentation that I was instructed to play on my computer. The notes suggested that I might find it more engaging if I turned off the lights in my room and had a strong speaker set-up, so before I even put the disc in, I was rolling my eyes. Then, it refused to work on either of the two PCs put it into first attempted on, and only ran on my roommate’s MacBook.

What followed was one of the most laughable efforts at self-promotion that I have ever seen. Not only was the music akin to what one might hear in a planetarium, but the narrator’s voice was narcolepsy-inducing. The images themselves were an odd and inconsistent mix of actual photographs taken in space, and draw clip-art that were clearly cobbled from several different sources. Not only did this make for an inconsistent patchwork of art design, but I recognized the sources of many of the drawings. A few seemed to have been taken from technical books inspired by the Star Wars trilogy, while images of other creatures like bears and dragons appeared to have been scanned in from drawings in children’s books.

On top of that, this 22-minute presentation wasn’t just an introduction to the story – it told the whole story! All 140 pages of it. Have you ever listened to someone give a 22 minute verbal description of a screenplay? For most people, five minutes would be testing their limits and a few might check out at three. If it takes this much explaining for someone to understand a story, no one will want to buy it. When it comes time to sell this movie to an audience, the concept will need to be explainable within the time allotted to a movie trailer – three minutes tops.

Then, just to top off the experience, the writer included a timeline of historical events (this film took place in the far future and involved some time travel.) Guess what? The written timeline didn’t match the timeline of the events on the CD.

So in this case, I hadn’t even read one word of the screenplay, hadn’t even turned back the cover page, and I already knew it was going to be bad. That’s not a fun feeling.

Don’t waste your time making these supplements. Most of the time, this material will never be read if it’s submitted to a production company or an agency. Having worked in those places during both internships and paid jobs, this reader can state that the supplementary materials are immediately cast aside 99 times out of a hundred. Furthermore, that remaining 1% of the time, it’s likely that your material will be an annoyance rather than an asset.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's "Fuck you Money?" Matt Damon's GQ profile suggests Tony Gilroy knows

A GQ profile of Matt Damon had some interesting details about the writing of the Bourne movies.  I don't get to focus on the business of screenwriting - at least as it pertains to this kind of work - so I decided to reprint a few paragraphs here.

Writer Tony Gilroy basically wrote the first movie under duress, and he was never happy with the experience for various reasons.  When asked back for the sequels, he made sure the studio made it worth his while.  I'm curious how some of you assess the ethics of what he did, though.

Later, though, Damon will wonder if maybe he has become a little too relaxed. Because suddenly, as we sit on a bench in the afternoon sunshine, he takes a major swing at Gilroy. Damon says that back in 2001, when the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, was still in postproduction, Gilroy saw a rough cut and got worried. "The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey," Damon says. "It's very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it's good. So Tony Gilroy arbitrated against himself to not be the writer with sole credit." 

Typically screenwriters use the Writers Guild's arbitration process when they feel they've been denied credit unfairly. This time, Gilroy wanted to share the credit (and the blame), Damon says, "to have another guy take the bullet with him." And so someone named William Blake Herron is now cashing residual checks on Bourne, just like Gilroy is. (Actually Damon may have gotten his chronology wrong—one source says Herron initiated the credit dispute, but that Gilroy didn't oppose sharing credit.) 

Gilroy wrote Bourne 2 as well: The Bourne Supremacy. Then, Damon says, for The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the franchise, Gilroy struck a deal to write just one draft of the script, take no notes, do no rewrites, and get paid "an exorbitant amount of money." "It's really the studio's fault for putting themselves in that position," Damon says. "I don't blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It's just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay and it would be game over for that dude. It's terrible. It's really embarrassing. He was having a go, basically, and he took his money and left." 

Gilroy's lackluster work left the production in chaos, Damon says. "We had a start date. Like, 'It's coming out August of next year.' We're like, 'Hang on, we've got to figure out what the script is.' " In the end, the shooting script was written under extreme deadline pressure by George Nolfi and Scott Z. Burns, with input from Greengrass, Damon says. And then Gilroy raised another challenge. "Before the movie came out, he arbitrated to get sole credit," Damon says, disgusted. The WGA looked into it and turned Gilroy down. (He shares credit with Nolfi and Burns.) "That was just a little bit of justice, I have to say," Damon says.  

The rest of the profile can be found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: John August's blog comment holiday - bad idea?

I see that over on his site, John August has turned off comments on new posts and has hidden comments on all old posts.  He says he wants to experiment and see if it makes a difference in how the site feels to readers and him.  Already, I feel a difference.  I think one of the great things about the net is the interactions we can have and the discussions that can take place when reasonable people share their insight, knowledge and advice.

Note that I said "reasonable people."  I consider myself pretty lucky that the people who comment here are, by and large, a fairly civil group of people who know how to express themselves maturely.  I've run this blog for nearly three years and only once have I deleted someone's comment.  (And in that case, it was not because of trolling so much as it contained information of a privileged nature that I didn't feel was necessary to post.)  I've not had to censor anyone and on the rare instances that a dickhead or two shows up, they're usually swatted down swiftly.

I understand some other bloggers aren't as fortunate.  I've seen plenty of comments elsewhere that are petty, mean, trolling and go out of their way to be belligerent.  It's nice we don't deal with that here much, and to be honest, it seems rare that August's site gets plagued by those morons either.  I like the conversations that result over on John's site.  To me, it's an asset that there isn't just one point of view and we can see why some people agree or disagree with John.

It's fun for me to watch you guys comment on my posts and either agree with me or challenge the views.  It's even more fun to watch you talk amongst yourselves, spurred on by something I said.  Even when I don't contribute in the comments, it's really satisfying to see some of you discussing and forming your own opinions in reaction to something I've posted.  This is particularly true when I put something up with the intent of getting a reaction and also getting you to look below the surface and perhaps understanding your own reactions to a particular stimulus.

Basically, blogging is a two-way street.  Or at least that's the way I see it.  Does a blogger even exist if there's no tangible audience reacting to them?  Do they continue to thrive, or do they die like an applause-deprived Tinkerbell?  For now, I think it's our loss that we can't contribute to John's blog and interact with other readers there - but not as much as it's John's loss

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gender issues: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?"

I came across this quote from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable.

THR: And what's been your worst experience as a screenwriter?

Sorkin: My very first movie was A Few Good Men, which was an adaptation of my play. There was an executive on the movie who gave me a note: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?" I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.

It almost makes you want to go "Oh snap!" doesn't it?  But this is where having a near-eidetic memory comes in handy because I immediately thought of this line from Roger Ebert's 1991 review of the movie:

Given decades of Hollywood convention, we might reasonably expect romance to blossom between [Cruise and Moore], providing a few gratuitous love scenes before the courtroom finale, but no: They're strictly business - so much so that it seems a little odd that these two good-looking, unmarried young people don't feel any mutual attraction. I have a friend, indeed, who intuits that the Demi Moore character was originally conceived of as a man, and got changed into a woman for Broadway and Hollywood box office reasons, without ever quite being rewritten into a woman.

Granted, this was 1991, but it's a little strange to think a prominent female character not being written as a sex object was seen as so odd.  That was the same year of Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, one of the strongest female characters of that decade.  Perhaps one would argue that the sexism she faces is specific enough to her gender that it "justifies" making her a woman.

But it's strange because I've never thought of movie characters in those terms.  This is partially because so many of the scripts I read seem to go overboard in making the women into sex objects.  And yet, as I try to come up with a recent film where the lead female character's gender was completely irrelevant to anything else in the script, I seem to be coming up empty.  Oddly enough, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character in The Thing prequel is the only one in recent history that seems to pass that test, at least that I can come up with.

So here's a New Year's resolution for all of you - write a strong female character who's arc doesn't depend on who she's sleeping with, or anything centric to any gender issues.

(Not that writing characters with experiences that are uniquely female is a bad thing, but it would be nice to break the stigma of "Why didn't the lead female sleep with the lead male?")

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Max Weinberg's Greatest Hits

This has long been one of my favorite Conan sketches and I recently found it on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Guest post: BULLITT's Alan Trustman on DRIVE and the potential for Ryan Gosling to be the next McQueen

Over the last few weeks I've been corresponding with BULLITT screenwriter Alan Trustman and in one of his emails, he asked me who I thought the modern day Steve McQueen was.  I mused over the question a bit and even asked some of my friends who they thought measured up.  We had a few candidates, with the best one being Ryan Gosling.

I reported this back to Alan, who mentioned he had several screeners to choose from and that he'd move one featuring Gosling to the top of his list.  Soon enough, Alan sent me the following email with his thoughts on DRIVE and Ryan Gosling's potential to be the next McQueen.  With his permission, I'm reprinting it here.

I loved DRIVE’s trips down my memory lane. 

In BULLITT, we were pushing mass audience taste by blasting two victims with a sawed-off shotgun onscreen, which we didn’t think anyone had ever done before. DRIVE pushes that limit to the edge and beyond with its deliberate onscreen savage butchery. Fortunately we were watching the DRIVE Academy screener so when my wife felt sick, she up and left. 

Question: Will the audience segment with that sort of taste require it of Gosling movies in the future? Will they be disappointed if it isn’t there? And if it is there, what will it do to Gosling’s appeal? 

We thought our BULLITT car chase would be the car chase to end all such chases. Peter Yates bettered his ROBBERY camera-on-the-following-bumper shots, the San Francisco hills were glorious, and my soaring hubcap and ebb-and-flow of tension sequences were kept by Academy Award winning editor Frank Keller. We never dreamed that we were setting a requirement for action flics and that the chase would be copied a hundred times, often in the very same locations. I thought the DRIVE chase was pretty damn good, but L.A. at night can’t match San Francisco by day, and the DRIVE chase fails to match the BULLITT ebb-and-flow of tension standard. 

Another Gosling question: Can he be the new McQueen? The physical resemblance is striking, but nobody has told him to study the facial expressions of Bogart and McQueen and no one has given him the character mantra he needs to say to himself before he shoots each and every scene so that he never seems unsure and lost and the mass audience will see him as a star they love and not just a sexy lookalike wannabe. 

Good luck, Ryan Gosling.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Film School or No Film School

Over two months ago (hey, I fell way behind in emails) I got this email from Stephen Dypiangco.

My friend and I are both independent filmmakers in LA, and we just made this humorous video called Film School or No Film School:

I'm sure this is a question your readers think about, and we'd greatly appreciate it if you could share it on your blog!

We went to film school. Patrick went to San Francisco State, and Stephen went to NYU. Find out why we went and whether the debt was worth it.

Who We Are:
National Film Society
The National Film Society is a new media studio co-founded by filmmakers Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco, who've decided to take their talents to YouTube. They produce original content, showcase amazing works, interview talented creators and make fun of each other as much as possible.

So let's make this today's Tuesday Talkback.  I got an undergraduate degree in film, but never went to graduate level film school.  Frankly, I don't feel like the money I'd have spent on the education would have been worth it in the long run, or gotten me substantially closer to achieving my goals.  I think moving to LA and diving right into the job market was probably the best thing I could have done.

But what do you guys think?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reader question: "Will Hollywood liberals hate my script if it doesn't lean left?"

David writes in with a question:

I know getting my action novel made into a movie is a million-to-one longshot.  In your opinion, given my story's theme doesn't lean left like Hollywood, do those odds decrease to a billion-to-one?  Or are producers progressives at cocktail parties, but capitalists when deciding what to finance?

I've touched a little bit on the risks of writing political material in this post here, so that older post might be worth a look, even though it doesn't directly relate to the question above.

Honestly, I think too much is made of "liberal Hollywood's" supposed bias.  Yes, there are ranting lunitics in the Deadline Hollywood comments who seem to be ready to foam at the mouth at anything they see as a leftist lean, but most of those lowlifes are devoted Drudge readers - and not even the intelligent ones at that.  The only people on the right who really get stirred up by this are the extreme rightists, and they've attempted to create a climate where "you can't trust those people" simply by repeating their lies and outrage enough.  You can recognize these idiots because they'll "defend" Mel Gibson against a liberal Hollywood that wants to punish him for racist slurs, yet attack Morgan Freeman and wish all sorts of ill on him for stating his beliefs about the Tea Party.

I think conservatives are far more aggressive in trying to squash a message that they don't believe in than liberals.  I'm old enough to remember back when the movie Primary Colors was made, and there were all these voices from the right screaming, ranting and raving about it was deplorable that liberal Hollywood was making a love letter, nay, propaganda that was aimed at glorifying President Bill Clinton, who bore something of a resemblance to the main character of that film.  They even pointed to the fact that Clinton buddy John Travolta played the character as evidence this was a pro-Clinton puff piece.

I'll pause for effect before I drop the bomb that the major revelation of the film is that the Clinton character is later revealed to have had sex with an underage black girl during his campaign.  Yes, this is the pro-Clinton message that Hollywood in its liberal bias made.  This is the part that Bill Clinton's good friend took.  If my "friend" took a part that was a clear pastiche of me, and that character was revealed as an adulterous, statutory rapist, I'd never speak to them again.

That's why I was at a loss to understand why the right was so threatened by this, that they thought such an association could ever be positive for Clinton.  Were they upset that the statutory rape was sanitized by not being directly depicted on screen?

Let's go with a more recent example, George Clooney's The Ides of March.  In it, Clooney plays a Democratic governor trying to win his party's nomination for President.  Some might describe him as a liberal's wet dream, but I actually see him more as a moderate's wet dream because he's not an extremist and he doesn't show a particular blind devotion to the more extreme elements in his party.  Having said that, it's clear he's left-leaning and the first third or so of the story is devoted to getting the audience to really like and empathize with this guy.


So naturally, he's revealed as having feet of clay when it turns out he slept with a 19 year-old intern and got her pregnant.  Clooney's campaign manager cleans up the mess, taking the girl for an abortion, but when he's fired from the campaign, she ends up committing suicide.  When Clooney finds out about this and the consequences start to fall, suddenly this "good guy" becomes a lot less admirable.  The principled Democrat is shown to be morally weak and corrupt.


And yet I'm sure there's some conservative blogger out there ranting about how that film too is an example of Hollywood pushing a liberal agenda.  My real point is that Hollywood has never been afraid to make a film that casts the left in an unfavorable light.

My first question about your script would be: is it a good story?  Or is it a bully pulpit wrapped up in a three-act structure?  Is the aim of the story to entertain, or is it an anti-leftist rant?

Here's a good example: a few years ago, there was a glut of Iraq War scripts, all of them sermonizing against the war, the Bush Administration, the dishonest way the American people were "sold" the war, the neo-cons who manipulated the public and the campaign from the begining, and pretty much everything else along those lines that you could imagine.

And I passed on ALL of these.  Including Fair Game and Green Zone, both of which leaned to the left in their politics.  The issue wasn't so much that they were badly written scripts - it was that I didn't see a market for either film or those like it.  The Iraq War was dominating the news most weeks, and the longer it raged, the more polarizing a topic it became, contributing greatly to the extreme political polarization we now face today.

In that climate, who would want to go see a film that's basically a lecture on the corrupt practices of the Bush Administration, the quagmire that Bush's War became, and the living hell that life in Iraq was?  Both scripts were what I called "eat your vegetables" movies - they were more concerned with the message than the entertainment.

(Full disclosure: I've not bothered to see either film, so it's possible those issues were moderated.  All I can say is at the script stage, my reaction was "Great, another anti-Bush piece.  Wonderful.")

So look, if you've got a great, engaging story that's wild entertainment and just happens to be conservative in it's politics, you probably don't have much to worry about.  But if you're going to shove a plate of broccoli and brussel sprouts at me, pry my jaw open and force it down my throat, odds are I'm going to resist swallowing.

Okay, that's a weird analogy.  What I'm getting at is, if the politics are at the forefront of your story, you've made a sale harder because doing so makes the script less marketable.  It's no sinister liberal conspiracy - it's more of a capitalist one, I suppose.  If Hollywood sees money in a property, they'll make it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Cindy Crawford on Muppets Tonight

In all the recent hype over The Muppets (sidebar: if you haven't seen it yet, GO!), it's interesting that most people seem to have forgotten completely about the short-lived ABC revival in the mid-90s called Muppets Tonight.  Most of the articles about the Muppets have focused almost exclusively on the progressively weaker theatrical and made-for-TV movies that were produced after Jim Henson's death.  Muppets Tonight was actually pretty witty, and unfortunately just didn't find its audience.

Below is one of my favorite sketches from the series and a good example of how the Muppet creators were adept at weaving in some humor that is aimed more at the older folk in the crowd than the young kids.  The punchline to this scene is still one of the biggest Muppet-related laughs I've ever had.  (Either click the link in the last sentence or go to 7:08 in the embedded clip below.  For some reason I can't embed a version that goes directly to the sketch in question.)

And as a bonus, here's a little manufactured adult humor from the Muppets.  It's called "The Song of the Count."  I dare you not to laugh hysterically at this.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Using a short film to get your writing out there

Lacy & Kevin asked me this question a while back:

What's your take on making a short film as a means to getting your writing out there?
Even if it's well filmed, are you better off querying, or do you think it's a waste of time?

I think it can be useful, but you're better off if there's a clear hook to the idea.  That might mean that doing the short film version of your feature script might be problematic.  Instead, make sure you choose a premise that makes the best use of the medium.

One of the best examples of this is the short film George Lucas in Love.  Written by Joe Nussbaum, Timothy Dowling & Daniel Shere, and directed by Nussbaum, the film was produced in 1999.  This was right at the time that anticipation was building for the release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and also right around the time that Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture.  The creators saw an opportunity to make something timely that would get them noticed and have a built-in audience.  If you're interested in finding out more about the film, check out this interview.

The film was later released on DVD, along with a behind-the-scenes documentary.  In it, the creators talk about sending the film to all their contacts in Hollywood, only to return home one day to get a call from one of Steven Spielberg's assistants.  It seems that a copy of the film ended up being passed all around Hollywood.  It made its way to Spielberg's office and the assistant recounted how they gave it to Spielberg and heard him laughing as he watched it.  Then the assistant was tasked with putting Spielberg through to George Lucas and heard Spielberg rave about the film to Lucas.

Nussbaum went on to direct the feature films Sleepover, The Naked Mile, Sydney White, Prom and is currently attached to Brad Cutter Ruined My Life... Again.

A more recent example is Kevin Tancharoen, who directed a Mortal Kombat short as sort of a calling card for what he'd like to do with the property.  This was probably a smart move, because his lone feature credit - Fame - probably would have kept him in "Movie Jail" for a while otherwise.  Instead, it landed him a job as the director for the feature version of Mortal Kombat.

Check out an interview with Tancharoen here.

I'm sure those are far from the only examples.  I also have to assume that there are people who have gotten some notice from shorts that have placed in film festivals.  I have to admit that I don't keep much of an eye on that world.  If anyone has further examples, free free to bring them up in comments.

The internet is littered with "calling card short films."  Sometimes they go viral, sometimes they don't.  So long as you're not reaching beyond your means, I'm all for taking a shot at it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Should you include a PDF of your script in your query email?

Driscoll asks:

What's your opinion on attaching your screenplay as a pdf to the query email instead of waiting for them to request it? Is that really bad form? I understand why agents wouldn't want a bunch of physical scripts lying around the office. But with email, it seems like no inconvenience for them. Just don't open the pdf. Also, maybe they're curious enough to want to read the script but not curious enough to respond and risk someone harassing them with emails and calls over whether they read the script.

It's horrible form.  TERRIBLE form!  Do NOT under ANY circumstances send a PDF of a script before getting permission to do so. Looking through the archives, I see I sort of gave this advice almost two years ago, but it's hidden in a post title that doesn't seem to have much to do with queries. 

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you do NOT do this. First, many people will not open any attachments from an unfamiliar source due to the risk of viruses.  Another major thing to be aware of is no one in the business will read your script until you sign a release stating that you will not claim they stole your ideas or sue them should they one day develop a story that is similar to yours. This is why if you shoot CAA, ICM or any other agency an email with an attachment, you'll likely be sent a response that says something to the effect of "Your email was deleted without being read."

Let's say the company you query has a werewolf movie in development and you send them - unsolicited - your brilliant werewolf script. Then, six months later, you open the trades to see that the company you queried to just got Paramount to buy their "Twilight with werewolves" idea for big bucks - and you're certain your concept has been swiped. With luck you find a lawyer ready to sue the pants off that company for "your" money.

Maybe the producers will be lucky and the case gets thrown out, or it goes to court and they win anyway - but they'll still be on the hook for legal fees and will have lost valuable time, to say nothing of the stigma that comes from the accusations of stealing ideas. That's aggravation they simply don't need, and that's exactly the situation a writer creates when they blindly send their script to someone.

You might as well cough on the recipient and say, "Hey, do you want to sample this great strand of Ebloa virus I've got?"

(Not that I'm comparing the quality of your script to the experience of having Ebola, but if you're naive enough to send your script without asking first, the odds of your script being terrible certainly rise.)

The legal reasons are a big part of why this is a bad idea, but also, it's pretty damn presumptuous to send someone a script in your first communication with them.  That's like walking up to a girl at a party and immediately trying to steal second base.  Win your target over, get them excited about reading the script and seduce them into reading the material.

Make this a commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Submit a PDF Until Thou Hast Been Invited."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Anyone looking for a collaborator?

Wes writes in:

I am a dabbler in the waters of writing and working of a couple of personal projects. What I would like to do is tap your brain and see if you know of a way to throw my hat in the ring as a collaborative contributor or even a sounding board for established writers in the industry.

A cursory survey of your blog archive did not reveal this topic – or I missed it. The latter being more possible as scotch is a normal fuel during my internet excursions.

Any information or proverbial nudge would be appreciated.

Any of you have any suggestions for Wes and anyone like him who might be looking for collaborators?  I admit I don't really have any suggestions of my own.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Screenwriter Alan Trustman responds to THE JUDAS PROPHECY review

Screenwriter Alan Trustman has sent in a response to my review of THE JUDAS PROPHECY.  With his permission, I'm reprinting his email below.

Well, it wasn't as bad a review as I expected, but I was surprised that you reviewed it as a novel. It isn't a novel. It is a novelized screenplay, a format that is more readable than a screenplay but less readable than a novel for the reasons you correctly noted and a few others, including the complete absence of any of the delicious wordplay so beloved by the TIMES BOOK REVIEW and PUBLISHER"S WEEKLY. I will send you the screenplay if you wish but you are busy and your comments about the character and structure are applicable to the screenplay as well as the novelized screenplay. 

I still think a JUDAS movie would make a ton of money, and think the revelation of what is going on would carry the second act and the puzzle of how it would end would carry the third act. But what do I know? 

As for the characters, I deliberate underwrite those characters whose characterizations depend on their not talking very much and that is true of most of my characters. 

With McQueen, I communicated the character in person and at great length and since there was minimal dialogue the character was really not in the scripts. I screened 40 hours of film on him and tailored the character according to what he could do, and what made him comfortable, and then explained it to him. He loved it and played that character in both of my pictures. For a couple of years I was his boy. He would tell everybody that he didn't know how, but I understood him, and he was right, I did. Our relationship lasted until I refused to write his racing car picture because he was determined to make it the story of a loser and I insisted that his audience wanted him to be a winner. I lost the argument and lost him, and lost my movie career because Stan Kamen was not pleased by my refusal. Sic transit gloria mea. 

As for my autobiography, I have written it but cannot publish it for reasons personal, legal, and safety-related. How's that for a teaser? 

Mr. Trustman, after reading that paragraph about your working relationship with McQueen, I think it's safe to say that it our loss that you can't publish your autobiography.  Thanks for your communications with me, and through me, my readers.

Review of THE JUDAS PROPHECY, by "Bullitt" Screenwriter Alan Trustman

Some of you may recall this post from a few weeks ago, where Alan Trustman - the screenwriter of Bullitt and the original The Thomas Crown Affair, once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood - invited me to read one of the six screenplays he was offering for sale through  Looking through the list, I selected THE JUDAS CONTRACT, which was teased as "a good Dan Brown style movie."

Mr. Trustman had the book on my doorstep about 24 hours after I expressed my interest, and I promised I'd be fair in my critique.  At the same time, it was hard to miss that there was certainly considerable enthusiasm from many readers about this.  A private email to me called him "a legend," while another commenter said that he'd be interested even if Trustman "wrote a Paris Hilton movie."  Still another called him "a national treasure."  Thus, it's probably fair to say that many of you had high expectations for this script, and I'd be lying if I said that excitement didn't seep into my consciousness as well.

No reader relishes writing a bad review - particularly when the author in question has such a great reputation.  Okay, there might be a few critics who enjoy tearing down those who've enjoyed success, either out of spite or jealousy.  I don't ever approach from that angle for a simple reason - I want to be the guy who impresses my boss.  I want to be the guy who "discovers" that diamond in the rough - the brilliant script that must be made and that all of Hollywood will be talking about.

So put yourself in my shoes - I've been handed an undiscovered possible gem from a screenwriter who left the business after writing two major films.  I had visions of finishing the script, calling all the companies I read for and submitting it to them with high marks.  I saw articles in the trades and Entertainment Weekly heralding the Second Coming of Alan Trustman, chock full of retrospectives on his work and - perhaps most importantly in my ego-driven mind - the fact that it was this blog that lead to his renaissance.

In short, I was looking for any excuse to trumpet this script.

And now I see I'm doing something that I've often complained about when Harry Knowles does it - I've written a multi-paragraph introduction to my review - so let's get on track.

The first thing I should mention about THE JUDAS PROPHECY is that it's a "novelized screenplay."  That turns out to be exactly what it sounds like - it's written in novel format, but given the frequent back-and-forth dialogue in many scenes, it's clear that likely there was little rewriting beyond changing the format of the text and dialogue.  I've noticed that when a writer accustomed to working in novels tries their hand at a screenplay, their work in the other medium is pretty obvious.  Usually their description runs long and is prone to getting inside the heads of the characters - an absolute no-no in screenwriting, where everything must be visual.

THE JUDAS PROPHECY bears indications of the opposite, and that makes it somewhat less enjoyable as a novel-reading experience.  Particularly early on, the visual description is sparse and direct.  That's perfect for a screenplay, but somewhat unengaging for a novel.  Most glaring of all is the fact that the story often is told entirely through the dialogue.  In a screenplay, this makes total sense - exposition must be verbalized.  Unless there's a way to explain something visually, the dialogue has to do all the talking.  Without getting too much into the plot, there's a lot here that requires explanation and exposition, and Trustman always stages these moments as conversations between two or more characters.  There are moments I think it might have been beneficial to let prose paragraphs shoulder that burden.  Perhaps the conversations could be summarized, or the exposition laid out directly for the reader rather than forcing those words into the character's mouths.

So I don't want to belabor this point, but as a novel, this wasn't a particularly smooth read for me.  I don't see this being a neat fit on a shelf with Dan Brown, Stephen King or John Grisham novels.  It feels like it's in an intermediate state between novel and screenplay.  I'd bet that a good editor could guide Trustman through a few rewrites that would help purge the "screenplay-isms" and sharpen this into more of a proper novel.  For now, I can only evaluate what's in front of me.

An introduction informs us that the premise came from producer Roger Coman, a friend of Trustman's at the time.  Trustman was excited by the opportunity to do a Dan Brown movie properly, but unfortunately Corman didn't share his enthusiasm for the resulting script.  As he puts it, "Roger wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I wrote The Da Vinci Code."

The first 100 pages of the story are largely constructed around the murders of four pregnant women, with each murder happening in public in a different city.  In each case, the woman is stalked by a mysterious man who approaches her from behind while in a crowd, then stabs her heart from behind by going through the third and fourth ribs.  NYPD Detective Sarah Caruso catches one of the cases and with her superior (and former lover) Detective Lt. Vince Foster, soon discovers that all of the victims had undergone invitro-fertilization.  Beyond that, it seems that their physicians performed a procedure developed by an Italian doctor - one that basically allowed for the alteration of the fetal DNA by using samples from another donor.

In other words, these women were essentially carrying clone babies, bred from a blood sample. 

As the investigation shifts to Italy, Sarah workw with local police investigator Marco Salvi - who happens to be another former lover.  (Yes, it seems Sarah has enjoyed an active sex life - AND has a particular type.)  Aware of the church's opposition to in vitro fertilization, they question a Cardinal who's a liason to the Vatican.  Though he tries to keep them off the scent, the investigators soon learn of the existence of a cult called the Zealots.  Among other things, they've been responsible for the murders of Messanic pretenders.

Judas was a Zealot and the group deeply believed that there would be a second resurrection of Christ.  Heading to Jerusalem, the investigators question Brother Anselem, who maintains the Zealot Museum, but claims that the order isn't active.  Looking at one of their artifacts from the time of Christ, Sarah notices what could be blood on the artifact.

Soon, their investigation leads them to another doctor who performed the invitro procedure - on the four wives of a Saudi prince.  He admits to altering the fetal DNA with DNA from a blood sample whose origin was unknown to him - but which Sarah believes to have come from Jesus Christ himself.  Soon, the hunt is on, as Sarah and her partners must find the pregnant Saudi wives before the Zealots do.  The Zealots will not allow the Second Coming of Christ to come to term and be raised as a Muslim.

CONCEPT/PREMISE - Fairly solid, I'd say.  I might take issue with some of the execution, but I really like the hook of cloning bringing about the Second Coming.  I can't speak at all to how accurate or plausible the Zealot backstory is, but they make for decent antagonists.  Most of all the Saudi scheme to, well, hijack the Second Coming is a nifty idea.  I can easily see this forming the foundation of a strong thriller.

STRUCTURE - Hard to get a sense of given the novel format.  Basically, it feels to me like the first 100 pages is mostly about enacting the first four murders and raising a lot of questions about what connection is among all of these victims.  The second 100 pages is dominated by exposition about the Order of the Zealots and the medical procedures.  That would probably occupy most of the second act in the screenplay, and unfortunately, I felt like I was reading one of those screenplays where the second act isn't moving the plot forward so much as it's explaining the plot.  There's a lot of exposition and stage-setting here, but little real momentum until we reach the revelation about the Saudi wives.  That kicks the story into motion and intensifies the chase, but it might be too late.  Fair at best.

CHARACTERS - Probably one of the weaker elements, as I didn't connect with any of the main characters.  The novel doesn't make much effort to get inside the characters' heads, and Sarah doesn't really have much of an arc beyond a mostly perfunctory romance that doesn't pick up until well into the final third of the script. Even then, the chemistry doesn't quite leap off the page and the sex scene seems to be there mostly to give the female lead an opportunity to appear in a state of undress.

I didn't see a "star part" here.  Instead, I saw characters being moved through a plot much like a player is moved through a video game and is tasked with consuming the proper information that allows the story to move forward.  I'm not saying The Da Vinci Code is perfect by any means, but it did a better job of providing a lead role than THE JUDAS PROPHECY does.

RESOLUTION - I don't want to say too much about how the story wraps up, but I found the ending unsatisfying and anticlimactic.  The main characters are put on the back burner for much of the final 40 pages, and really are denied the opportunity to be a part of the climax.  It's not an ending that I can see working on film - particularly if the intent is to write a mass blockbuster.

If I was to evaluate the viability of this book as source material for a feature film, I'm sorry to say that I probably would give this a PASS.  There's a good hook and a concept, but the story and the characters didn't grab me.  I can't see giving this to many of my bosses and saying, "You have to read this!  There's a hit in here."

I'm somewhat off the hook when it comes to evaluating Mr. Trustman's screenwriting prowess.  And I admit, I wish I was reading the screenplay version of this so that I might have harvested some insight or screenwriting lessons from the submission.  For all I know, it plays better as a screenplay, and perhaps Trustman handled the piles of exposition more deftly there.

I'll conclude by saying that even after just a few short emails, I know that I would probably find Mr. Trustman's memoirs immensely entertaining.  Given his history with Steve McQueen and the details of his relationship with Roger Corman, alluded to in the book's introduction, I suspect I could listen to Alan tell stories for hours.  When he left the comment on my earlier post, he said, "The fat lady has sung," which appears to be his way of saying he's written his last story.  Should that prove to be inaccurate, I'd hope that everyone reading this blog would snap his memoirs up the instant they came off the presses.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thursday Thanksgiving Throwback: Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Pangs" - PC or not PC?

This post - one of my most popular posts according to my Blogger Stats - first appeared on November 22, 2010.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

With Thanksgiving upon us, I decided it was an appropriate time to revisit one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fourth-season episode called "Pangs." Written by Jane Espenson (whose blog you can find here), it not only boasts a host of great lines, but it's a fine example in character interaction and in tweaking the nose of political correctness.

The action kicks off soon before Thanksgiving, as U.C. Sunnydale hosts a groudbreaking ceremony for a Cultural Partnership Center. The Curator says the timing is appropriate because "that's what the Melting Pot is about, contributions from all cultures making our culture stronger."

In the audience, Buffy's best friend Willow scoffs.

Thanksgiving isn't about blending cultures, it's about one culture wiping out another. Then they make animated specials about the parts with the maize and the big big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene where all the bison die and Squanto takes a musket ball in the stomach.

Thus, Willow's role as the spokesperson for political sensitivity (or over-sensitivity) is kicked off. I'm always impressed that Willow's attitude is played a much for laughs as it is treated like a legitimate point of view. She sounds preachy if you take her speeches totally at face value and assume she's the writer's mouthpiece, but there are plenty of points in the episode where her hypersensitivity is the butt of the joke.

I think this actually gives the episode more complexity. Having Willow voice disgust at what she calls revisionist history is effective at making the audience examine their own views on the subject, but Espenson makes it clear that her perspective is just one among many. To wit, when Buffy and Willow suggest not having a Thanksgiving dinner, reformed vengeance demon Anya has an interesting reaction.

Well I think that's a shame. I love a ritual sacrifice.

It's not really a one of those.

To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

It wouldn't be a Buffy episode without a mystical opponent, and as luck would have it, the groundbreaking ceremony has freed a vengeance spirit representing the Chumash tribe native to the area. Buffy runs across the spirit just after he's killed an innocent, and when she has the upper hand, the spirit shakes her faith, saying, "You slaughtered my people. Now you kill their spirit. This is a great day for you."

Her hesitation allows the demon to escape, and it almost seems that she too is on Willow's side. But even though the hero of the story has some moral problems with what she's tasked with doing doesn't mean that it's necessary the RIGHT thing to do. She reports back to her Watcher Giles, who asks her to recount the attack with the Indian. Striking a blow for PC sensitivity, Buffy dresses him down for his choice of words.

We don't say Indian.

Yes! Right. Always behind on the terms. Still trying not to refer to you lot as 'bloody colonials'.

As Giles' line comes with a dose of sarcasm, it's likely that we're meant to side with him over Buffy, thinking Buffy's being too PC. However, that's not even the point - both characters are taking viewpoints perfectly in line with their personalities. That's why this dilemma works - because no one is wrenched out of character just so the writer can make a political point. It makes sense that a college girl like Buffy would take a more touchy-feely view of the situation than the British Giles.

The thing is, I like my evil like my men: evil. You know, straight up, black hat, tie you to the railroad tracks, soon my electro ray will destroy Metropolis BAD. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture.

This spirit warrior -- Hus, you called him? -- has killed innocent people.

Normally, Buffy wouldn't bat an eye at killing a vengeance demon no matter the cause. That's her job - she kills vampires and demons and it's always been black-and-white for her. The particulars of these circumstances open her up to shades of grey. Notably, Giles doesn't see it the same way and he takes a similar position in an argument with Willow.

The Chumash were peaceful.

Oh, they were peaceful, all right. They were fluffy indigenous kittens! 'Til we came along... How about imprisonment? Forced labor? Herded like animals into a mission full of bad European diseases?... You sure we shouldn't be helping him?

No, I think perhaps we WON'T be helping the angry spirit with his rape and pillage and murder.

Well, okay, no, but we should be helping him redress his wrongs. Bringing the atrocities to light!

Well, if the history books are filled with them, I'd say they already are --

Giving his land back!

Preachy? I've heard some Buffy viewers over the years complain that it is. I've never taken that view. As I said earlier, everyone is pretty firmly in character. Also, I don't think Giles point is undercut in order to make Willow's. If anything Giles is the voice of reason in this scene, and the PC viewpoint is the one being undercut.

A similar argument later would seem to support that thing. A round of bickering among Buffy's gang prompts an outburst from captured vampire Spike (who's currently tied to a chair in Giles' living room.)

Oh, someone put a stake in me!

You got a lot of volunteers in here...

I just can't take this mamby-pamby boo-hooing over the bloody Indians!

The preferred term is --

You won! All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do! That's what Caesar did, he's not going around saying "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it"! The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, you massacred them, end of story!

Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of... not that I don't like Spaniards...

Listen to you! How are you gonna fight anybody with that attitude?

We don't want to fight anybody.

I just want to have Thanksgiving.

Yeah, good luck.

If we could talk to him --

You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.

Maybe it's the syphilis talking, [Xander is infected with "magic syphilis" at this point] but some of that made sense.

(under his breath)
I made several of those points earlier, but that's fine, no one listens...

You might say that Spike is the villain and that his endorsement of a particular viewpoint is intended as an indictment of said viewpoint. However, Spike was also quite frequently used as a "truth-teller," the guy who said things that weren't sugar-coated, but were true.

So is "Pangs" just an hour of PC-preachiness, as some fans claim? I don't think so. I think it uses a divisive issue to promote conflict among the main characters and present Buffy with an interesting moral dilemma.

Is every viewer going to come away from this episode with the same reaction? Hopefully not. Even if Jane Espenson had a point she wanted to make, she seems to be smart enough to know that simply preaching an idea that goes unchallenged isn't the way to win converts to your side. Instead, she presents several sides in a way that doesn't significantly undercut one belief in order to make the other belief look good.

In the end, Buffy does end up slaying the Indian warrior, though it's pretty much in a self-defense situation where if she doesn't kill him, she and her friends will be killed to. Would she have killed him had she not been directly threatened? There's no way to know. Maybe she would have tried to reason with him, or tried to pay him back for the atrocities committed on his people.

Though Buffy does her job out of self-preservation, does that mean she's embraced Giles and Spike's point-of-view, or does it just mean she had no choice? It's something to ponder, along with all the other issues the episode dredges up.

I've always admired Espenson for this episode. It's not easy to take such a divisive topic and make it work as fuel for a strong episode. It's got to be even hard to do that while keeping everyone in character and not only using that conflict for drama, but also finely honed comedy.

So if you find yourself writing something in large part because you want to make a political or social point, make sure the message isn't overpowering the story. For my money "Pangs" is successful because it works as an episode of Buffy first, and an exploration of the Native American plight second.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie quote bonding - Day 2

I know, I know... this is the exact same topic as yesterday.  But it's the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and much like in school, I've already checked out from doing anything mentally strenuous.  So if you've got a problem with me recycling the topic of obscure movie/TV quotes, you could always just click on another blog.

(Bitter's earpiece buzzes with the tone of a rebuke) I'm sorry.  Do NOT click to another blog.

I thought of a few other instances where gratuitous movie quoting has led to some interesting encounters.  The first was an incident about ten years ago when I was hanging out with a few friends and some of their hangers on.  One of those friends was a girl whom I might have been trying to impress. At the very least, two of my other friends were jockeying for her attention so testosterone and simple male competitiveness motived me to one up them.  The problem was she was there with a guy who was "just a friend," but whom I felt was a bit smarmy, arrogant and annoying.

Later, he'd become one of my best friends.  Go figure.

So anyway, this girl mentions she's studying D.H. Lawrence in one of her classes.  Seeing an opporunity, I quote "They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all."

And the twerp/future friend of mine she's with suddenly lights up.  There's a huge flash of recognition on his face and he give me a look that pretty much reads, "I've got your number.  You're not as clever as you think you are."  To confirm that, he quotes (in a Scottish accent) "Admiral! There be whales here!"  For you see, that D.H. Lawrence line is quoted in Star Trek IV by Captain Kirk, and he was letting me know he knew where I learned that from.

This same friend later got off a good one-liner during one of our infrequent Risk games.  My friend Chris was known as a ruthless player and saw an opportunity to eliminate one competitor entirely if he committed all his attack forces at once.  The problem was that would leave his territory vulnerable to his neighbor, Steve.  Chris secured a promise from Steve that he wouldn't attack while Chris went after the other player.

Naturally Steve wasted little time turning on him, crippling Chris's offensive.  "Sorry, Chris," he said.  "I just couldn't resist."

Problem for Steve  - though he screwed over Chris's plan to take the new territories and hold his own, Chris still had more than enough armies to turn them in Steve's direction.  In the duration of one turn, he reduced Steve's forces to about four armies occupying two territories.  This took about half an hour, during which maybe a dozen words were spoken.  It was VERY tense in that room, even as Chris concluded his massacre.

The tension wasn't broken until my friend turned to me and said, "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."  (Quote source: The Empire Strikes Back.  It's what Darth Vader says to a captain who apologizes for failing to capture the Millennium Falcon.)  That at least got the two of us laughing and it soon spread.  It also served to really break the ice between the two of us, and once we realized we had some common interests, it served to cool any hostility between us.  (I would later learn his opinion of me was as unfavorable as mine of him.)

Final one: I use this a lot these days, but the first time I deployed it was after having to sit through a movie for class called WR's Mysteries of the Organism.  I don't wish to detail the torture this film was, but it caused a level of discomfort in that screening room I hadn't seen.  (Hint: Male nudity.  Extreme close-up.  Ten minutes without cutting.)

So as my troupe left the school's theater that evening, I could only say, "So the cops knew internal affairs was setting them up?!"

If you got that without Googling, consider that our secret handshake.

Anyone have any similar anecdotes?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: "Big gulps, huh? Well, see you later!"

Several years ago, I helped out a friend of mine on a short film he was helping to produce.  Early on, I had to sign a release basically clearing the use of my likeness as an extra or in any behind the scenes footage.  As my friend and his fellow producer, Jon, handed me the form to sign, I looked over it and in a mock-puzzled tone asked:

"Why do you need my home address?"  (note: there was no such question on the form.)

My friend rolled his eyes, not understanding why I was being inexplicably difficult.  His companion caught on, though, and without missing a beat said, "We like to send out a mailer."

If you're confused, you probably haven't seen National Lampoon's Vacation, or at least, you haven't seen it as many times as I have.  That's an exchange that happens between Chevy Chase and Bryan Doyle Murray, who plays a motel owner.  I didn't really know Jon at that point, but I knew he was cool.  The trading of obscure quotes was like a secret handshake.

Recently I was at a going away party when some friends arrived with one friend who was... shall we say... WAY in the bag.  His intoxication was a source of amusement and a bit of tension, as no one seemed to be sure of the best way to engage our gregariously inebriated friend.  As you might expect, this lead to some awkward gaps in the conversation.  As it turned out, our drunk friend wasn't so drunk that he couldn't break that awkward silence by saying "Oh, big gulps, huh?  All right! (long pause)  Well, see you later."

We laughed and the tension was broken.  For those of you thinking, "Huh?"  Just check out the clip below.

I've found over the years that all it takes for a stranger to convince me of their coolness is for them to drop in a random quote from a movie I like.  So my question to you is, do you and your friends have a similar kind of short-hand?  Are there movie or TV quotes that have earned a special place among your circle of friends?

Monday, November 21, 2011

"The Shit List" - Agents who don't give a damn

This is half-lark, half-serious.  I just got through a week where I had several sub-par scripts.  These weren't just "PASSES" they were "Ohmigod, you should be embarrassed to waste someone's time by sending these out!"  I've gotten used to seeing these over the years, but they're frequently the product of someone deciding to answer a query or perhaps someone in the company submitting something that a friend gave to them as a favor.

All the scripts I'm speaking of came into the various companies I read for through agents.  That's depressing on two levels.  First, these incredibly shitty writers - and I assure you, the scripts were inept not only in concept, but in basic story construction, dialogue, character depth and development and pacing - actually managed to impress someone with their writing enough that an agent actually took them on as a client.  Secondly, that agent, when confronted with a complete turd of a writing sample then got on the phone and convinced some schmuck at my company that this was worth two hours of their time.

There's a lot one could take from that, but I think two things are at the top of that list.  If this happened repeatedly from the same agent or manager, that person would lose ALL credibility with me.  I wouldn't trust anything they said was awesome because their submissions in the past would have shown they wouldn't know awesome if it walked into their office and stripped down to slinky lingerie.

The second point is one more relevant to writers out there - guys, there are lit agents with clearly ZERO standards or taste.  If those schmucks can get repped, anyone can.

Here's the half-lark: what if I spent the next six months or so keeping track of agents and managers like this?  What if I invited other script readers to do so and at the end of that, we publish the list.  We'll call it "The Shit List."  If you wanted, you could query these guys in the hopes of getting repped.  Now that comes with a fair amount of risk, for even if you could get a rep, would you want one who isn't known as a connoisseur of fine material?

Hmm... perhaps a side project could be for you fine readers to come up with deliberately terrible query letters, which will then be submitted to Shit List honorees.  It'd be interesting to see which, if any, result in script requests.

I can see an argument against this being that it's negative and bound to piss off agents.  I can see that, but if this list gained any credibility, perhaps it would shame some agents into being more discerning about the material they foist upon others.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Michael J. Fox plays Johnny B. Goode

Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies, and surely one of the most iconic moments from that film has to be when Marty McFly plays Johnny B. Goode at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, exposing the teens of 1955 to rock and roll for the first time.  To this day, I can count on getting an appropriate reaction out of many of my friends just by starting off a Rock Band round with "Okay, this is a blues riff in B.  Watch me for the changes and try and keep up, okay?"

Last weekend, Michael J. Fox hosted a charity event for his foundation and the evening was capped off when he donned his guitar and recreated that performance onstage.  As you might expect given Fox's condition, it's not as physically effortless as it was for him 26 years earlier.  In the first half of the clip, you can feel every ounce of his effort, but seriously, how often can we see an actor recreate such a beloved moment?

And consider this: the Michael J. Fox of 2011 still looks amazingly younger than the Marty McFly of 2015, as seen in Back to the Future II.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Internal rules and logic in sci-fi, fantasy and horror stories

My friend Clint sent me a great article from The AV Club about the importance of adhering to internal rules and logic within stories - especially genres like fantasy and sci-fi, where seemingly anything can happen.

In these genres, the fundamental realities of a world can be anything imaginable: There can be wizards, or dragons, or intergalactic spaceships, or time travel, or dragon-wizards in time-traveling intergalactic spaceships. Nothing can be assumed. Which makes it mighty easy for authors to cheat by changing the rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot: “Oh, did I not mention that dragon-wizard time-travel spaceships are sentient and can crossbreed to produce baby spaceships? Well, they can.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing the rules of engagement in the middle of a scene in order to provide an out for a hero in an impossible situation. In fact, here’s an interesting mental exercise when reading or watching the kind of stories where heroes get backed into corners: Note how rarely they think their way out solely with the resources at hand—the ones the audience already knows about—and how often they instead get away because something changes, whether it’s a new person arriving on the scene as a help or a distraction, an outside event that changes the shape of the problem, or just something the audience wasn’t in on, like a hidden weapon or ability.

And changing a story’s rules mid-stream can be an effective way to foster tension. Consider what happens in The Ring when Naomi Watts acts on what she assumes is the correct way to end the threat of Samara, and finds out too late that reality isn’t what she thought it was. Or what happens in Alien when the crew of the Nostromo sets out to capture an alien the size of a rat, and winds up unexpectedly facing something bigger than a human. Or consider the time-honored, annoying, but often-effective Twister cliché: When someone begins a story by saying “None of us has ever seen an F5 tornado! Never! That would be like the finger of God!” there’s a 100-percent chance that the characters are going to be facing that finger by the end of the movie. In all these cases, what makes the rule-change effective is the characters’ sheer terror at facing something outside of their understanding of how the world works. They think they know where they stand, and they act accordingly. Then they find out they’re wrong, and they have to figure out their actual standing in a hurry, with their lives at stake. 

The article is so comprehensive, I'm not sure I have anything to add to it.  Check out the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Bullitt" screenwriter Alan Trustman sells his unproduced specs on

UPDATE: 7:30am PST - That didn't take long!  Alan Trustman replied in comments.  His comment and my reply have been added to this post.

Over the years I've seen a number of strange and desperate ways that people have advertised their screenplays.  Some opt for spamming, some set up websites for their scripts, and other shoot short films promoting their work.  Tuesday's Variety featured a method that surprised even me.  Screenwriter Alan Trustman took out a quarter-page ad which - even considering the hard times that the print industry has fallen on - couldn't have been cheap.

The headline blared "SIX GREAT UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAYS" and a full scan of the ad follows:

Unlimited Free Image and File Hosting at MediaFire

14 paragraphs and 673 words in all.  I'm not retyping all of that.  Frankly, with all that text, the writer is lucky I read all of that.  That's actually a big issue I have with this ad - it's a mountain of text.  There's nothing to really catch the eye or entice someone to read it all.  He even buries the lead, for it takes him until the third paragraph to get to the real point of his message.

"Many years ago, I started at the top, writing two classic movies, thanks to a brilliant agent, a dynamite producer, and a major star who understood that I understtod him.  I had it, really them, all, - and then I didn't.  Thereafter I had a couple of other screenplays produced and left the business.

"In subsequent years, from time to time I wrote an additional nine screenplays, but I never became a participating member of the Hollywood community, and was unable to sell screenplays from a home 3,000 miles away, without an agent, manager producer or star."

Though the ad doesn't name those "classic movies," it's signed "Alan Trustman," who is the 80 year-old screenwriter behind Bullitt and The Thomas Crowne Affair.  According to this NY Post article, Trustman was once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, having sold Bullitt for $1 million in 1968.  He claims to have written that entire script in one day.

There's also an interesting quote from Trustman, "The number of people in the industry who can read a script and picture the movie is very, very small," he says.  I've not met more than ten of them in all my years."

And that's why I struggle to understand what Trustman hopes to achieve with his ad.  As he informs us "I have decided to publish my best six unproduced screenplays on Amazon and advertise them in VARIETY, the NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW, and on the internet."

If I didn't know that Trustman had such a notable career, I would have written this ad off as the work of a rank, naive amateur.  I don't understand why anyone would believe there was any kind of market for an unpublished screenplay.  Trustman himself says that few people can read a script and picture the movie - so why does he believe someone would pay $9.99 for one of his scripts?  I'd wager he probably spent more on the ad than he'll make on those book/screenplay sales.

If he's trying to get attention in the hopes some producer will buy those scripts, the ad is a poor marketing tool.  It's wordy and the six pitches he includes are hardly enticing.  They're not loglines so much as weak teasers like:

"THE JUDAS PROPHECY is a novelized screenplay.  Does anyone want to make a good commercial Dan Brown style movie?"


"TWENTY-TWO LOVERS is the love story of a detective and a talented woman whose lives intersect early but do not meet in person until the very end of the movie.  Again, who has the courage to play the lady?"

With respect to Mr. Trustman, if those loglines were part of a query letter, I can't see many people requesting to read the script for free.  I'm not going to spend 2/3 of the price of a movie ticket on any of those scripts.  And frankly, it seems like Trustman would be smart enough to figure this out too.

If there's one thing that aspiring screenwriters can take from this it's that this business is rough.  A writer with two classic movies and the largest writing paycheck of the time still saw his career fall on hard times.  A man with his experience should probably know better than to expect an ad like this to do anything for his career or his income.  If he was just out to educate, or merely wanted his words to find an audience, he'd probably put his scripts on a website and offer them for free - so that leads me to believe that this is an action taken out of desperation - a last resort.

I wouldn't suggest any screenwriters emulate Trustman's ad if they want to get their scripts read... but then again, he got me to write an entire blog post about it, so maybe he knows what he's doing.

UPDATE: Alan Trustman commented below.  Since some of you don't read comments, I thought it wise to add his to the original post.

Great blog! I loved it!

Why the ad?

Because this fat lady decided to sing.

The scripts are good, probably better than good, and there are people out there looking for money-maker movie movies. If somebody bites, great! If not, I have had the fun of saying what I had to say.

And you’re absolutely right about the pitches. I never could write pitches and I never could pitch.

If you send me your address, I’ll send you the books, and you can then write another blog savaging the scripts! 

My reply:  Thanks for the quick response, sir, and I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.  I know that my free time being what it is, I can't find room to read and review six scripts on the side.  In fact, there's ONE "favor" script that I've managed to not get the time to read across a couple months!

But I am intrigued to check out perhaps one of them.  I'm leaning towards THE JUDAS PROPHECY, as it sounds like the most exciting and marketable of the six based on that logline.  Let's open it up to a little debate.  Readers, which one would you read and why?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Cliches you're sick of

If you come here regularly, you're pretty familiar with this blog being a sounding board for the bad writing cliches that I encounter daily.  What are your least favorite cliches?

Writers who only seem to tell stories to get on their particular hobby horse?

Gratuitious gross-out gags?

Gratuitious sex scenes?

Sex scenes that aren't gratuitious enough?

Protagonists who are irritatingly flawed?

Protagonists who are irritatingly perfect?

Weak female characters?

Strong female characters?

Airhead bimbo characters?

Panelists from Chelsea Lately selling sitcom pilots at an alarming rate?

People who use the comment sections on blogs to either shamelessly plug their 50 unsold scripts or state their personal pet peeves as if something that offends them was put there as a direct attack on their values?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Show, don't tell - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I was thinking yesterday of good examples of "show, don't tell" and one instance that stuck out in my mind comes from the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There's a particular instance where the writers wanted to make a particular point crystal clear to the audience and it feels like an entire two-parter was built around demonstrating that detail.

In the two-parter "Surprise/Innocence," Buffy and her friends are faced with a villain named The Judge, a demon with the power to burn the humanity out of anyone.  Long dismembered, he's reconstituted and prepares to burn the citizens of Sunnydale, forcing Buffy to find a way to take him down.

Concurrent with this, Buffy and Angel have sex.  A consequence of this is that Angel loses his soul and reverts to his evil, demonic personality of Angelus.  It was a rather bold and shocking twist for the show, and likely creator Joss Whedon wanted to leave no doubt that the noble Angel was truly lost and that he wasn't pretending to be Angelus for part of a larger deception.  Thus, fairly soon after Angel's reversion, he confronts The Judge, claiming to want to join forces.  There's some skepticism on the Judge's part, perhaps fearing that Angelus might be a spy for the good guys - so he touches Angelus and the now-soulless vampre doesn't even so much as smoke.

"There's no humanity left in him," The Judge declares - clearly speaking for the writers.  Soon after this, the Judge is summarily disposed of, having served the storytellers' needs.

I've read a lot of spec scripts that would have benefited from a similar approach.  Too often - especially in mystical scripts, important details like "Angel is no longer ensouled.  He's pure evil." might be covered purely in dialogue.  The writer declares one character to be an expert in the mythology and then uses them to lay down all the rules and stakes the writer wants the audience to accept.

Whedon easily could have just shown us Angelus wrecking havoc and killing people, but even then there likely would have been some fans in denial that Angel had really gone over to the darkside.  "Maybe he didn't kill that person.  Maybe he's just putting on a show to convince the bad guys," they might say.  (Believe me, hang out on the message boards for any show and you'll see a lot of this sort of speculation.)

By no means is this the only example of that sort of "showing, not telling," nor do I mean to say that it's the absolutely perfect example of such.  I think it warrents mention because its one of the instances where I can think of a writer creating an entire mini-arc just for the express purpose of hammering home the stakes to an audience. 

What are your favorite examples of such?