Monday, February 28, 2011

Simultaneous development of the same idea

I had a few interesting responses to my post last week about the folly of trying to argue that you came up with an idea first if your script bears too many resemblances to recent sales and releases.

MAO asked:

What about when multiple studios start making their own versions of similar ideas or source material? The most recent example would be the competing Snow White films in development.

Would a production company be interested in a similar-but-different script if it has a broad appeal or built-in market?

Okay, that's probably a fair question. Simultaneous development happens occasionally. I still recall the summer that Dante's Peak went head-to-head with Volcano, and then there was the year of asteroid movies, with Armageddon and Deep Impact. But just because it does happen more often than it should, don't assume that the situation is in any way desirable for those studios attached.

I'm not familiar with the particulars of those developments, but my hunch is that each studio had been developing their tent pole in-house and once one of the studios made the first move and announced their film, the other studio had to decide quickly to fish or cut bait. The way things work in Hollywood, there might have already been so much time and money sunk into pre-production that the studio couldn't afford NOT to make their movie, even though there was a risk of coming in second.

However, the fact that in the examples I cited above the films debuted within a month or two of each other pretty much points to near-simultaneous development cycles. It's not as if Deep Impact was in post-production before Armageddon got off the ground. Would Armageddon have sold if the script circulated around the time of Deep Impact's release? I'd say it's less likely.

So for the purposes of most of you reading this blog, if your script bears a resemblance to something you've seen a trailer for, you've probably lost the battle already. If your script is pretty damn close to something that just sold this week, you're probably not in much of a better position. Note this anecdote from our good buddy Scott Myers:

There are only so many good ideas and writers everywhere are constantly trolling for them. One time Siegel & Myers had a spec script going through one last polish, literally days away before going on the market. The script was based on a comedic premise I had come up with: Couple adopts the child from hell (not literally, just a problem child). Woke up one morning to see the sale of the spec script Problem Child: "A young boy is just short of a monster. He is adopted by a loving man and his wife." We sent the script out anyway and were told by one exec, "If you had gotten this out a month ago, we would have bought it. But because of Problem Child..."

But I still haven't answered the real question - what about studios that are developing their own versions of similar source material, like Snow White?

Pre-sold properties are going to be treated differently from original ideas. I've heard about the Amazon Studios winner "Villain," and how it bears some pretty serious resemblances to aspects of Megamind and Despicable Me. If that's true, this script is dead in the water. It's an original property with an idea that's been done twice. There's no enticement for the audience to see something they've already been sold.

The difference with Snow White is that the popularity of the fairy tale it's based on essentially makes it pre-branded. And this is a RARE exception in that the story is in the public domain. It's not as if two studios can simultaneously develop competing versions of Superman or Spider-Man. However, since no one owns Snow White, the studios have the advantage of free access to characters that everyone already knows and a story that is pre-sold to some extent.

So Universal is soldiering on with Snow White and the Huntsman for December 2012, while Relatively is doing The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, set for July 2012. I wouldn't want to be in the Huntsman's shoes, especially if the Grimm version happens to be a big bomb. And even though technically every other studio in town could also do a Snow White film, I don't think you'll see anyone else looking to throw their hat into that particular ring.

My point is: while this situation happens, it's not desirable, and it's not a way that movies get made, as a rule. There's a very specific set of conditions that have allowed this double-dip.

It's not that I'm not sympathetic to writers who find themselves in this situation. I once wrote what I still think is a pretty cool Wizard of Oz sequel, only to finish it the week that two competing Oz projects were announced at different studios. At present, neither of those has come to fruition yet. Instead, the first Oz project to go into production appears to be the Oz, The Great and Powerful project which just signed James Franco and Mila Kunis. Thus, I wouldn't suggest anyone start writing an Oz spec now.

Look at it from this angle - Alice in Wonderland is also in the public domain. After last year's smash success from Tim Burton, is there anyone out there who wants to make the argument that writing your own Alice in Wonderland spec would be a smart career move?

If you lost the race and someone else is making or has made your movie, you've gotta just let it go.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Bitter Script Reader BANNED from covering the Oscars!

BREAKING... This morning, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences denied The Bitter Script Reader a backstage press credential to cover the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on Sunday. The Academy's PR specifically cited that the reason was "We have no idea who the hell you are."

This is a clear affront to the freedom of the press and a direct assault on The Bitter Script Reader's First Amendment rights. It's just another example of how free speech everywhere is being attacked in these totalitarian times.

(If you live outside the 323 and 310 area codes, this joke is probably lost on you. Go HERE and be sure to read the comments for an extra dose of crazy.)

In defiance of that censorship, The Bitter Script Reader is exposing some dark secrets from the pasts of two notables connected with the Oscar ceremony. A forgotten bit of trivia is that in the 1999-2000 TV season, Oscar host Anne Hathaway and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg appeared in a short-lived FOX series called "Get Real."

The series has long been forgotten, as Nielsen research confirms that the only viewers to see every episode were The Bitter Script Reader himself, and confused members of Michael Cera's family. How forgotten is this show? I could only find ONE clip of it on YouTube.

Hathaway played Megan, an annoyingly self-centered teenager who probably made viewers what to smack her at least one an episode. Still, it was her first role, so we'll cut her some slack. Eisenberg played her brother, who was actually MORE annoying than her due to intrusive voiceover narration that either focused on the wonder with which he viewed bras (not a joke or a fabrication here folks), or such cutting edge 1999 humor like "Why can't I just disappear off the face of the Earth like Alicia Silverstone?" It was Eisenberg's first role too. Prior to that, he'd been most famous as the brother of that creepy girl from the Pepsi commercials.

It is a sad comment on my life that those details take up valuable gray matter in my head, while the education I was receiving concurrent with the airing of the series has largely evaporated from my memory.

In 1999, no one would have believed that this series featured a future Oscar nominee and a future Oscar nominee and host. Hathaway and Eisenberg, you can deny me entry to the Oscars, but you cannot deny your dramady pasts! Release my press pass before I'm forced to find actual footage of your work on this show!

If you support my right to cover the Oscars and want to be part of the rallying cry to uphold free speech and freedom of the press, comment below and let your voice be heard! This is the most significant front on the war against censorship since the Grammys refused to let Frank Sinatra speak the truth back in 1994!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"I thought of it first" is not a defense.

As Scott discussed the other day at Go Into The Story, it happens fairly often that a writer will discover that an idea they've been laboring over has just been written and sold by someone else. Most of the time, this might render that writer's idea useless for the time being. After all, if Paul has just sold, you're probably not going to want to send around your comedy about two geeks who meet and go on a road trip with an actual alien.

However, it's not too unusual for some writers to attempt to get traction on their "dead" scripts, either by entering them into competitions, or by taking advantage of whatever limited connections they have to get them read by people like me. In that case, it often falls to a reader like me to say, "Hey, this reads like a rip-off of [insert movie that beat them to the screen.]"

If that happens to you, here's what NOT to say, "Yeah, but I came up with this idea in 2004 and was working on it WAY before those guys sold their script! I didn't rip them off!"

In the immortal words of Tommy Lee Jones' Lt. Gerard... "I don't care!"

It doesn't matter if you thought of it first. Your script is still useless. Dead. Finito. (Unless you find someone who WANTS to make a rip-off.) All that matters is perception. If I as the reader have seen that this idea has been done before, you have already landed in second place.

My bosses are not going to pay good money just to re-do I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Sorry, bub.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with director Gregg Bishop - Part II: Making Dance of the Dead

Part I: Making a $15,000 feature film

We continue our talk with director Gregg Bishop.

So with The Other Side you had a feature film to your name. Tell us about how you played that calling card to get a producer for Dance of the Dead.

The movie premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and was picked up for a theatrical release. Fox Studios picked up the TV rights where I’ve been developing the movie as a TV series. The great producer Ehud Bleiberg of Bleiberg Entertainment (a foreign sales agency and production company) saw the film and approached me after the screening and told me he wanted two things: He wanted to rep the movie for foreign sales and he wanted to make my next movie.

And again, just so we all understand how long it takes to get a project off the ground, how much time are we talking about between you deciding "I want to make Dance of the Dead" and the commencement of production?

I had been trying to get DANCE OF THE DEAD off the ground for 10 years. But after Bleiberg saw THE OTHER SIDE, he literally greenlit it in about 10 seconds.

Was there any difference in directing your own script versus someone else's?

I’m a huge fan of Joe’s writing so it was actually a lot easier.

I like that you cast kids who were fairly close to high school age, as opposed to mid-twenties like in most Hollywood films. Was actor inexperience at all a concern when you made this decision, or were you convinced that since the characters are all archetypes that you'd find actors capable of giving you what you wanted?

Ask any director: 80% of a director’s job is in who they cast. I told our casting director, Jonathan Spencer, that I wanted to cast REAL kids playing their age, not 25-year-olds playing high-school kids, because that never looks right. I wanted to find kids who were great at improv and that could really bring their personalities to the role. Between LA and Atlanta, we looked at 600 kids and pulled the best of the best. I am very proud of that cast.

Presumably you had more money on Dance of the Dead. Did that allow you to relax a bit, or was the scope of this so much more challenging that it was like a whole new learning curve? Or was it more like, "I squeezed blood from a stone to make the last one work, this is old hat!"

Mo money, mo problems. The only difference this time was that DANCE OF THE DEAD actually had a budget and a crew, which was fantastic, but it presented a new set of challenges. I learned a lot from THE OTHER SIDE because along with writing/directing, I was doing a lot of the jobs myself. One of my goals was to learn as much as I could from that movie, so I could apply that knowledge to future productions, which was definitely helpful making DANCE OF THE DEAD.

(check out the trailer for DANCE OF THE DEAD here.)

I've interviewed some filmmakers who've noted that the producers on their first films exerted their authority and (in their minds at least) compromised the quality of the final product. What was your relationship like with your producers?

I've heard those horror stories too. Working with Ehud felt like a wonderful partnership and never a dictatorship. The team at Bleiberg (Ehud, Shannon, Nick, & Roman) basically gave us great notes on the script and then set us loose to make the movie. They watched dailies and gave comments but never set foot on set. Ehud told me that he saw what I did on THE OTHER SIDE, he trusted me that I'd come back with something good and didn't feel like he needed to be over my shoulder second-guessing every decision I made.

Then once the movie was in the can, they made great notes in the editing process. We were always focused on the same thing: making the best film possible.

Knowing what a pain music licensing can be, I have to ask how difficult it was to get clearance for "Shadows of the Night." Was that always the song in the script, or was it a case where you went through several songs until you found the right song at the right price?

The song was never in the script, our music supervisor Peymon Maskan played it for me as an option and I knew right away that it was perfect, but I was like “can we even get that song?” He said he would make it happen for our budget and somehow he did.

A lot of budding writers and directors have this fantasy that they'll come to Hollywood with their script, be welcomed with open arms, sell that script for a high price and then find themselves in constant demand, never having to do anything other than write to support themselves. Given your experience, just how much of a delusion is that?

I don’t know one successful person here who doesn’t work their ass off. If you want to be a sports star, you stay on the field after everyone else goes home. You want to be a rock star, you play that guitar until your fingers bleed. You have to put in the work. I always believed that if you work hard and do what you love, the money will eventually come.

Given how hard it is to make a movie and "make it" in Hollywood in general, what qualities would you say are most critical for an aspiring filmmaker?

Persistence & hard work. Live life & make movies about it… don’t make movies about other movies.

Dance of the Dead is something of a cult film, so did it open up any new doors for you?

I’ve been totally overwhelmed with the response the film has received. The movie has definitely gotten me into rooms that I wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently writing a sci-fi thriller & gearing up to direct an edge-of-your-seat monster movie that I wrote with Joe Ballarini.

Thanks again to Gregg for all his time! You can find him on Twitter at @GreggBishop and check out his website for Dance of the Dead here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Interview with director Gregg Bishop - Part I: Making a $15,000 feature film

When he was still in film school, director Gregg Bishop found the script he wanted to make as his first feature - a teen-zombie film called Dance of the Dead. There was just one problem - he couldn't find anyone willing to give an untried director the money to make his film. Undeterred, Gregg decided to prove he deserved his shot by making his own action film funded entirely by the $15,000 profit he made on his student film!

Lesson: If everyone tells you "no," you find a way to do it yourself. His story is one that I hope will inspire many of my own readers to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Gregg was awesome enough to take the time to answer my many questions over email regarding his films, and the secrets to making your own "calling card" in this business.

I understand you went to USC. At the time, were your aspirations to be a writer/director or just a director? What made you interested in filmmaking?

I never specifically set out to be a writer, I just always wrote to generate material for myself to direct.

I grew up on movies like E.T., STAR WARS, THE GOONIES, BACK TO THE FUTURE, INDIANA JONES and as I kid, once I realized that movies could affect people’s emotions, I was totally hooked. When I was seven years old, I found my dad’s old Bell & Howell Super 8 film camera and I’ve been making movies ever since. While most kids were playing sports, I was running a mini-studio out of my parent’s basement. I would write, direct & edit movies and then have premieres at my school’s theater and charge admission. When I was seventeen I wrote, produced & directed my first feature (an action-comedy about a teen spy) that premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival. Making that movie was my film school before film school.

A lot of aspiring filmmakers grapple with the question of if film school is really "worth it." Some make the case that it's best to just go out and start shooting your own material and build up that portfolio. Certainly the proliferation of prosumer digital cameras, the accessibility of Final Cut Pro, and the rise of YouTube have made it vastly easier to shoot, edit and distribute your own material. However, proponents of education film school point to the value of a broad film education and the ability to develop friendships with people who share the same interests. As someone who went the educational route and makes independent movies, what's your perspective on this question?

There are several routes you can take to become a professional filmmaker & no one is better than the other. However, I firmly believe that you can read all the books and attend whatever classes you want, but the best way to learn filmmaking is by doing it. Learn by doing. If you want to direct, borrow a camera and direct something. The reason I went to USC was I figured a great way to get better at what I was doing was to surround myself with the best. There was always a friendly competition between the students and I felt we always challenged one another. Also, the program was very hands-on. They shove a camera in your hands on the first day of class and tell you to go make something.

Your USC short film "Voodoo" is included on the Dance of the Dead DVD, and watching it took me back to my own undergrad film school days. It's a simple idea, it's very low-budget, but it's also visually driven rather than dialogue-driven. Can you talk about what you think makes a good short film?

You said it. Keep it as simple and short as possible. Tell a story visually. Don’t spend a lot of money on it. Mine was a dark comedy about a little girl trying to get rid of her mother’s date with a voodoo doll. Very simple. We shot it for under a thousand bucks on black & white 16mm.

(you can watch VOODOO here )

I understand you ran into a little trouble during Voodoo's production when you ran out of film, and you had to bend (or more accurately) break one of USC's strictest rules in order to finish the film. Can I get you to tell my readers about this?

When I was at USC, they would give students an allotment of film stock for each project and we weren't allowed to go over that amount. But, of course, being a film student, I was experimenting during the production and ended up running out of film. So, in order to finish the short, I shot & process extra filmstock from an outside lab and slipped it into the cut… not thinking anyone would notice or anyone would really care.

But when I turned the final film into the USC lab to get our print made, I got a call from the no-nonsense lab technician who told me that I was busted: he found out I shot extra footage and he was going to burn my negative so that no one would ever see this film. Then he hung up on me.

So I freaked out and ran down to the USC lab to go plea for my film… When I stepped inside, I found the lab technician and his assistants watching a film… laughing and cheering. Then I realize that the film that they were watching was mine. After it ended, the lab tech pulled me aside and told me that I was lucky: he loved the movie so he was going to let the problem slide.

The short is now screened at USC film school orientation for incoming film students.

As I said, Voodoo reminded me a lot of the film I and my classmates made in college. I had some very talented classmates with some interesting films, but to my knowledge none of them quite had the success you did with yours. You turned a $15,000 profit on Voodoo, which is quite an achievement for a 5 minute short! Simple question: how did you do it?

It was all timing. When I finished VOODOO, there was a small market for short films. There were a lot of websites popping up that were buying shorts and several cable shows programming shorts. It was also winning several film festivals which carried cash prizes. When I received my first check for VOODOO, I opened up an account and told myself if I gathered up enough money, I’ll make a feature with it.

So sometime later, you get a look at Joe Ballarini's script for Dance of the Dead and decide you want to make that your next film. When was this exactly?

I first read the script for DANCE OF THE DEAD in 1998 while the Joe and I were in film school together and just flipped for it. I told him I thought it was the coolest movie that had never been made and that he HAD to let me direct it. He said, “Hey, find the funding and you can.”

And as I understand it, you found it hard to get someone to hire a director with no feature credits to his name. No one wanted to take a chance on you with this script.

Yeah, no one wanted to take a chance on a first time feature director and also, no one was making zombie movies at the time. So, out of frustration, I decided to take the $15,000 profits from VOODOO and fund my own feature film to prove I had the chops. That film was called THE OTHER SIDE.

(check out THE OTHER SIDE trailer here. The film is also available via Netflix Instant here.)

I have friends who've spent $15,000 on a twenty minute short. When you're trying to stretch your dollar to the maximum, how do you do it? How does it affect the script? Is it hard to find a balance between the story you want to tell, and the limitations imposed on your production?

What I did was I worked backwards. I made a list of everything I had access to that would give the film production value (actors, props, locations, etc) and then I backwards constructed the script to fit those things to make the movie look bigger than it actually was.

Orson Welles once said that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitation”. We embraced our limitations and used them to our advantage to make a movie that Hollywood could never make. I wrote a story that called for a documentary style approach, which allowed us to be more mobile and shoot fast, giving the movie spontaneity and an energy that most big Hollywood movies don’t have.

Conceptually, The Other Side is something of a familiar premise. A dead guy escapes hell, only to be on the run from bounty hunters determined to bring him back, even as he tries to solve the disappearance of his fiancée, a crime he finds himself accused of. What really made it stand apart for me were the action scenes. When the film starts, you're fairly aware that this must have been made low-budget - even if you don't know EXACTLY how "low" it was in this case. The instant the action kicks in, it's like a perfect symphony of choreography, camera work, editing and stunts. I think if you gave most filmmakers $15 grand and told them to go make a movie, they'd come back with a "contained thriller" along the lines of Misery or Hard Candy. Something that's heavy on dialogue with few sets and actors. Did you ever entertain the notion of doing something like that?

That’s the thing-- I didn’t want to make a drama with three dudes in a room talking. I wanted to do a movie in a way that hadn’t been done before…a movie that would challenge me as a filmmaker and a movie that I’d actually go see as a film-goer on a Friday night with all my friends.

These kinds of action movies are usually made with big budgets and long schedules... We had neither so we just had to work ten times harder than the guys who had the luxury of time & money. This was a true guerrilla filmmaking experience.

Do you have a particular method for shooting your action scenes efficiently?

I was the camera operator and the editor, so that made us extremely efficient. Action films are all about coverage. It’s better to get 40 quick shots than 10 beauty shots. Also, most every shot in the movie is one take. I figured we didn’t need to shoot ten takes of a guy running around a corner shooting a gun. It’s about the flow of the overall sequence, not the individual shots. Plus, shooting fast like this gave the movie a raw energy and allowed us to move at a breakneck speed, averaging about 70 – 80 set-ups per day (that isn’t a typo).

Also, since you were directing from your own script, did you give much detail to the action scenes as you wrote them, or did you just hit the major beats and give your stunt choreographer a lot of latitude to work out the particulars?

I wrote them in detail and then continually adjusted them as we scouted locations and as I worked with our stunt coordinator, Nils Onsager.

Without a doubt, Nils and the Black Knight stunt team brought this film to a whole other level. Not only is Nils extremely knowledgeable and experienced in his field, but he also possesses a solid understanding of story and character. He was able to choreograph unique fight scenes that were consistent for each character all while moving the story forward.

How many days did it take to shoot The Other Side? What lessons did you learn from making your first feature? Was it at all like you expected?

We shot the film in about a month. One great lesson I learned is the power of the orange vest. Whenever we needed to shoot in the street or a public area, the crew would just wear orange vest and we could be doing anything and people would just leave us alone since we look like we were supposed to be there.

The other trick is orange cones. Just place them around where ever you’re shooting and people won’t even question what you are doing.

Come back tomorrow for Part II: Making Dance of the Dead.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Triggerstreet review of "The Social Network"

One of the most talked-about movies of the year, and a leading contender for Best Picture is The Social Network. While the script still faces heavy competition from The King's Speech, the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is considered an odds-on favorite for the "Best Adapted Screenplay" Academy Award.

One detail that seems to have been forgotten is that The Social Network was produced by Trigger Street Productions, famous for their site that allows aspiring screenwriters to upload their work and have it rated and reviewed by others of their ilk. It's an extremely little known fact that The Social Network actually was discovered through the Trigger Street review process. And it makes perfect sense - who better to recognize strong writing than other writers who have yet to make a sale?

Through some deep research, I actually uncovered a review of Aaron Sorkin's script, written by a helpful member of the site who goes by the moniker "GuerillaScreenwriter."


Aaron, buddy… look, I see you’re new here and you’ve got a lot of passion for writing. I think you need a few lessons in the reality of the business because NO ONE is gonna read a 163-page script. Seriously, dude… after you’re here for a while, you’ll sigh when you open up an assignment and see the script is 130 pages long!

And you’re telling me that this whole movie is about FACEBOOK??? Way to pick a topic that’ll be totally irrelevant by the time the film hits DVD.

Here’s the bit – at best, this is a TV movie. Maybe not an HBO deal, but Lifetime might be into the history of Facebook… but the script is way too long.

I swear I tried to go into this with an open mind, but right there on p. 1, you’ve already got “unfilmables” - “She has a girl-next-door face that makes her easy to fall for. At this point in the conversation she already knows she’d rather not be there and that her politeness is about to be tested.” TELL, don’t show!

And then you have a nine-page dialogue scene! NINE PAGES? Dude, most pro writers would squeeze three scenes into that space. Morbid curiousity was the only thing that kept me turning the pages just to see how much worse it could get. And this guy, Mark… man is he a dick! In short order he pretty much calls Erica a slut and an idiot, and not only does he do it in a totally assholish “matter-of-fact” way, but she takes it way too much in stride. Do you get women at all? Most chicks would have thrown their drinks in his face the first time he accuses her of having slept with the door guy.

I had a brief glimmer of hope, thinking, “Hey this is a pretty unconventional way to introduce a story about a woman who’s tired of dealing with these kinds of assholes.” Then I go on to your next scene, and I realize Erica’s nowhere to be found. This Mark douchebag is your lead?! He’s so unlikable, I could barely stand him for minutes – let alone two hours. Let alone the two-hours and 45 minutes that this script times out at!!

And it points out another problem. You’re telling the story of how Facebook was founded, and nowhere in your first ten pages are there any hints of the themes or the real plot. It’s a guy being an asshole in a bar. No one reads more than ten pages in Hollywood. (And as long as your script is, it’s unlikely to be read at all!) You have one chance to hook your audience quickly, and this is what you waste it on? A total misogynist who pisses off the audience more and more as the scene goes on. This is your hero?

Cut that opening down to two minutes and get right to him at the keyboard, making this “Hot or Not” site. That at least sets us up for this being a movie about a website… but then, that’s kind of the problem here, isn’t it? You’ve written a whole movie where the most action is some guy typing. Typing aren’t cinematic. Maybe this should be a book.

And do we really need all these specifics about the different security on the computer networks he hacks? Dude, you don’t need to show off ALL your research! My eyes are just glazing over reading this shit. Don’t explain what he does – just show that he does it. Have him sit down, start typing, and dissolve to a few hours later when PRESTO!… the website’s up.

There, in about five pages, I accomplished what took you 17 to do. No wonder this thing is so long. You just need to give this another pass.

Btw, don’t write “CUT TO.” The pros don’t write it.

p. 23 – just when I think this thing can’t get any more dry, you suddenly throw us into a deposition. Lord – not even a trial, with some drama, but a deposition. More talking. Talk, talk, talk. And it’s a little weird because it starts to play like you’re establishing a framing sequence after having started the movie over 20 pages earlier. It’s totally breaking some kind of screenwriting rule. Can you somehow set up the deposition at the beginning? Like what if the story opened with a scene in the deposition room – maybe set us up with the attorneys explaining why they’re all there, and then ask Mark “How did you come up with the idea for Facebook?”

AFTER THAT, you can give us the two-page version of that bar scene, and then move right on to Mark typing. Cut to montage of people rating the girls pictures on the site he built and then you can go into introducing these twins.

There’s not a pro writer alive who couldn’t pull that off in ten pages. Most could do it in less, and what’s more – they’d do it by instinct. This just ain’t up to snuff.

By the by, do you have any idea how hard it’s going to be to find twins who can act? Could you combine them into one guy? Or maybe make them fraternal so they don’t have to look exactly alike? Just a thought.

p. 27 – now we’re in a SECOND deposition? Yikes! I can see this being VERY confusing! But maybe that works. What if you went with a Raushman take on the story, like in the twins’ version, Mark is the asshole we’ve seen him as elsewhere, but in Mark’s version, he’s the victim. That could be the way to soften the problem of Mark being the asshole and make him more likable. This “he-said/they-said” thing might even make it more high concept.”

Just take on the part of a development executive – would you rather read a dry script about depositions related to the creation of Facebook, or are you more interested in a who-dunit courtroom thriller where you don’t know who to trust? Two different stories - with the truth somewhere between! Think like you're the guy who has to write the marketing campaign. That'll help you find the heart of the story. It's the same professionalism I brought to my sex comedy spec "Big Roosters & Soaked Kittens." (Check it out - I've got a blue star!)

Trust me man, you’ll never get better than a workman director and a C-list cast with the concept the way you’ve written it. Harsh but true.

I stopped reading after p. 35 – Tighten up the beginning and apply the same attitude to everything afterwards. You’ll be surprised how much more sellable the script becomes. This is a vomit draft – not a professional level script.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Great Scenes - Homicide: Life on the Street interrogation

This is one of the most pivotal scenes in the pilot of Homicide: Life on the Street. This is the moment that introduces one of the most significant elements in the show - "the box." Scenes in the interrogation room are among the most dramatic in the entire series run, and no one was better in the box that Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton.

In this scene, rookie detective Tim Bayliss sits in on an interrogation and gets his first taste of how Frank operates. It's not only an incredibly well-written sequence, but it's well-acted. (Note actor Kyle Secor's reactions as Bayliss.)

It's probably worth noting that at the time Homicide premiered, there hadn't been many realistic police dramas, and most often, interrogations were scenes where the cops would flatly confront the suspects with what they knew in an effort to intimidate them, or they'd just flat out resort to threats of violence. This is something much more well-crafted. Watch the scene and pay attention to everything we learn about Frank and Tim during this sequence, both as individuals and their dynamic together.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"You can type this shit, but you can't say it."

That quote is from Harrison Ford, and it's something he said to George Lucas with regard to the clunkiness of his dialogue. It's a lesson that writers all too often forget.

One of the cooler aspects of the filmmaking process is getting to see casting sessions. Through my own short films, and the films which the companies I've worked for have made, I've gotten to see several casting sessions. (Obviously in the case of the professional films, I've only seen the auditions on tape, whereas I was actually in the room for my own.) It's interesting to see different actors make wildly different choices, and just as interesting when disparate takes on a character are equally valid.

As writers, sometimes we convince ourselves that there's only one way a line of dialogue could be said. Maybe we assume that there's only one way a line could be delivered, or convince ourselves that a potentially difficult line could make sense if spoken just precisely. But here's the thing, actors will surprise you. They might find subtext you didn't realize was there - or they'll pick up on subtext elsewhere and find a way to bring it out using a line you hadn't intended for that purpose.

On one short film, I'd written a character who was supposed to be rather narcissistic. In my head, she was seeing everything through the lens of how it affected her and what it meant for her. Her interactions with the lead backed that up, but as I saw it, her self-centeredness would be almost naive. No matter what you said to this girl, she'd bring it back to herself because that was how she thought.

Well, the actress who eventually won the role came in and played those lines with more ego than I had imagined. In her interpretation, the character knew she was hot shit and she played her dialogue far more self-aware than I had conceived it to be. It surprised me because I hadn't considered that take on the character, but the more I saw it, the more I liked it because it made for a more interesting conflict with the lead. Though that dynamic wasn't the central conflict in the script, it put the lead more on the defensive and that made for a more interesting short all around. Had I gotten an actress who had given me exactly what I wanted, I think I still would have gotten a good movie about it, but this new spin on that character certainly enhanced the film.

But sometimes actors will take dialogue the other way. You hear it outloud and you realize that it simply doesn't work. There's nothing more punishing than having to endure an actor deliver a terrible line reading as you realize that it's all your fault for writing that insanely terrible dialogue.

Characters should be living, breathing people. They're not like text-to-speech programs that can spit out anything that you type. Make sure your dialogue reinforces that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Hacks Anonymous

I'm sure we've all done it at one time or another - what's the hackiest writing choice you've ever made, either consciously or unconsciously?

Monday, February 14, 2011

James Frey strikes again - why you shouldn't give "I Am Number Four" your money

Perhaps you recall the name James Frey from a controversy that happened five years ago. His "memoir" A Million Little Pieces - sold as the true story of one man's battle with drug addiction - had been a runaway hit, due in no small part to the support of Oprah Winfrey, of all people. Oprah made the memoir her Book Club selection for September 2005. When questions arose in early 2006 about the book's integrity, Oprah initially defended Frey, going so far as to calling into Larry King and citing what an inspiration the book had been to her viewers.

Before long, Frey admitted that many of the allegations leveled against him were true - that large portions of the book were exaggerated or completely fabricated. Feeling her integrity was now on the line, Oprah brought Frey onto her show and took the man apart in a blistering confrontation that was called by some to be nothing less than a flaying. In fact, Oprah in putting on such a strong attack, Oprah did herself a disservice, for there were many viewers who felt it wasn't a fair fight at all that underdog Frey was being beaten up by one of the most powerful in media.

If that's true, then the abused soon became the abuser.

I saw an article in New York Magazine a few months ago, detailing Frey's latest venture Full Fathom Five. It's the sort of publishing house that individuals write entire books about, warning susceptible and desperate writers to keep their distance from these kinds of scams. They specialize in Young Adult novel series, and in recruiting authors, Frey trolls graduate writing programs, peddling his slimy contract in a manner much akin to snake oil salesmen traversing the country.

I Am Number Four was the first book from this "fiction factory," growing from a premise that Frey came up with and developed with a Columbia M.F.A. graduate named Jobie Hughes. The New York Magazine article explains:

Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version.

Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms.

Simonoff began circulating the manuscript as an anonymous collaboration between a New York
Times best-selling author and a young up-and-coming writer. Publishing houses weren’t certain how to respond. Then, in June 2009, a bidding war ignited for the film rights, between J. J. Abrams and a joint proposal from Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Spielberg and Bay won, for a reported high-six-figure deal. This, in turn, sparked publishing interest, and HarperCollins won the book rights. Together, Frey and Hughes signed a four-book deal. Rights to I Am Number Four have since been sold in 44 countries, and, at last count, has been translated into 21 languages.

Frey's game is to sign writers to develop these young adult concepts, hoping to make the projects an attractive package for Hollywood adaption. That in itself isn't too unusual in the young adult publishing world. I have only a casual familiarity with the process and it seems somewhat typical. What isn't typical is the Draconian contract that Frey makes all of his workhorse writers sign:

What's in the contract? I'm glad you asked. Per the article:

This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.

Some writers consulted lawyers; some just signed on the dotted line. “It’s a crappy deal but a great opportunity” is how one writer put it.

To wit:
- You don't own the idea.
- You don't own your name.
- You don't own the pseudonym they make you use.
- If you tell someone you wrote this book, without getting Frey's permission first, he can sue you for $50,000.
- You make a paltry $250 for all your hard work.
- You're promised a share of the profits, but anyone who's dealt with Hollywood accounting knows that no one ever sees "profits." There are accountants who can prove to you that a Harry Potter movie that made nearly a billion dollars still lost money!

And after all that, it's done nothing for your writing career outside this publishing house because you can't even claim a best-selling novel as your own without opening yourself up to legal action. The article details Hughes' frustration with the process and though he eventually did renegotiate and there were threats of lawsuits, the actual terms of the settlement are shrouded. Still, a prolonged legal process can be expensive and draining. It's a nightmare that no writer should want to endure, nor should they sign up for a bad deal with the certainty that they'll be able to challenge it in court later.

Guys like Frey are predators, and they surely exist in every creative field. They thrive because of the ignorance of their victims and the only way to put these guys out of business is to cast a light on their dark deals. New York Magazine did its part in exposing Frey, but as the film adaptation of I Am Number Four nears release on Friday, I see no better time to remind readers that they need to be smart about their business deals.

This film has given us another opportunity to put the spotlight on a James Frey scam - let's not squander it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Follow up to the Development post

A few days ago we had an interesting debate about the effectiveness of the Hollywood development process, sparked by this post.

A poster named Lesqueletterouge argued that my post of that day, contradicted an argument usually expressed with regard to that subject:

So we get it both ways huh? I can't remember if you've ever posted something to this effect on this site but I can't count how many times I've heard the excuse that "a script may go through many changes from page to screen" as a rebuttal to the claim that Hollywood buys a lot of terrible scripts.

But it seems to me that you're agreeing with the claim that Hollywood buys a lot of terrible scripts: "But honestly, most of the time when development seems to make a film worse, it's because the script was built on an untenable premise to begin with."

I replied below that, but as it might have escaped the notice of some, I decided to do what Ken Levine often does and "promote" a comment:

I think there's a fallacy in trying to find an absolute answer here. Yes, there are times when a brilliant script is compromised due to budget, director's vision, post-production, and test marketing. You can start with a daring script and end up with something less than. But sometimes you win with the compromised film and sometimes you don't.

Take Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The writers have been very open about how the process was that director Michael Bay told them the action scenes he wanted to shoot and left it up to them to string those pieces together. so from a writing standpoint, you end up with a square peg in a round hole in places, compounded by the fact the writers' strike left little time for rewriting. But the film had a release date and that meant it had to meet a start date.

Most like me would argue that the film that resulted was a terrible assault on the eyes... but it made a shitload of money. So is it a terrible movie or a huge success? Each one is true... from a certain point of view. And if we do concede that it was a failure, whom do you blame, the writer, the director, the execs who set the start date, the development people who either didn't care or demanded extra robots so they could sell toys?

Let's look at the ending of Se7en. Spoiler: Gwyneth's head ends up in a box at the end, and Brad Pitt shoots Kevin Spacey dead. Producer Arnold Kopelson hated, HATED this ending. He thought they had a nice genre thriller that was going to be ruined by the major downer of an ending. These days, it's hard to imagine that film without that ending, and Director Fincher stuck to his guns.

But what if we'd gotten the happy ending? The Silence of the Lambs ending where the hero saves the girl and captures the person they've been hunting all the film? It could have been a powerful emotional release for the audience, one that left audiences charged up to watch the film again and repeat the thrill-ride.

Could it have worked? I don't know. Maybe the feel-good ending would have felt so false that audiences would have rejected it like a bad organ. Or it could have done 50% more in box office.

And here's the rub - we'll never know. I think that the downer ending feels true to what Fincher wrote... but then I can't say for sure what my reaction would have been to a new ending had I not known the original one. But had they done a feel-good ending that worked, we might be praising the process as finding a more crowd-friendly ending than the original intent.

Then look at Fatal Attraction - its original ending was darker, with Glenn Close committing suicide and framing Michael Douglas for her murder. It tested poorly and the new ending had Anne Archer "kill the bitch." Result: Box office hit. Audiences cheered.

Would it have been a better movie with the suicide? Or did the studio/producers/whomever have the right idea in changing the ending?

The original question assumes that there's a villain in the process and that that same part of the process is ALWAYS the villain. All I'm saying is, that's not always the case. Each film has its own circumstances. Sometimes the writer is the asshole, sometimes it's the director, sometimes it's the producer, sometimes it's the studio and sometimes it's the actor.

At one point or another EVERYONE gets their turn to be the heavy.

Does Hollywood buy some scripts that aren't perfect? Sure, it happens.

Does Hollywood buy flawed scripts and find a way to make them work? Sure, as well.

Does Hollywood buy brilliant scripts and fail to deliver on that promise? It's bound to happen.

Does Hollywood buy brilliant scripts and produce even better films from them? Yes.

So to cry "Fuck Development" or "Fuck the writers" across the board is way oversimplifying it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reader question - Formatting

Shane writes:

So I had a couple questions regarding the aesthetics of formatting. The first concerns my opening: Im doing a cold open with a couple voices having a phone conversation over black, then I do a "fade in" over the opening image I want for the script and to get the story underway, but If I've already started with a cold open, then should I just start the next scene with a basic slugline and get on with it? If I do start with the fade in, should this automatically start on the next page regardless of how long the previous page was? Having a "Fade In" start in the middle of the page looks awkward, but then so does a half blank page.

If I understand you right, the way you probably want to do it is put VOICES OVER BLACK at the top of the scene during the phone conversation. Then at the conclusion of that talk, do FADE IN as opening of the scene.

My other question regards superimpositions: Do I always have to use "superimpose:" or "super:" What about just centering the locale or date or what have you, and being done with it? I feel like the less "script jargon" the better, it keeps the reader in the story and makes it more visual, but I also don't want to confuse my reader... I know these may seem like trivial questions, but if you've got a great handle on your story, structure, and character development (Which of course is always the primary concern) all those little formatting tricks help make a great script stand out from all the other great scripts because it LOOKS as good as it READS; you see and hear the film even better. At least I've noticed that I do.

This is probably one of those "if it feels right, do it" responses. I think it needs to be clear that the text will be superimposed on the screen and the way you say you're going to do it doesn't necessarily make that clear. Putting the date and time in quotes might make it more apparent, but if everything else in your script works, I don't think this can hurt you too much.

Does anyone have a differing view?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In defense of development

Kevin writes:

Often times, it seems to me, that all "development" does is ruin a good script. It seems like good screenplays, when they are good, don't stand a chance after an army of people (who are not writers) have to "fix the story" to justify their jobs.

Is it wrong of me to think this?

Well, yeah... that's kind of an unfair blanket statement to make without citing any facts or specific examples. From my view inside the process I've seen examples of development working both ways. I've seen producers make suggestions and offer guidance that makes a so-so script stronger, and I've seen examples where scripts die the death of a thousand cuts, where small changes bit-by-bit weaken the film.

But honestly, most of the time when development seems to make a film worse, it's because the script was built on an untenable premise to begin with.

Yes, there are plenty of examples where auteurs scream that studio meddling is what destroyed their precious vision - and yes, sometimes that's a fair cry. But let's not forget that there are plenty of instances where a filmmaker went hog-wild once they were big enough to not have to put up with the development process and the result was a weak film.

- Had Judd Apatow not been untouchable, I have faith that the development process would have honed Funny People into a strong two-hour script that told a consistent story, rather than the nearly three-hour film and-a-half that resulted.

- Richard Kelly should BEG people to meddle with his films. The "compromised" version of Donnie Darko is considered by many to be superior to the director's cut. And Southland Tales will stand as the ultimate example of why some directors need to be reigned in from their worst excesses.

- Let's also not forget the Pixar process of writing films, where creative decisions are debated and made by an entire staff that is constantly evaluating the film. This article on Toy Story 3 covers the process in some length.

So while I'm sure there are plenty of stories where some director legitimately complains "studio meddling" ruined a good script, let's not forget that no filmmaker is ever all that forthcoming in crediting "the suits" or the development people with making a decision that improves their film.

On a different note: I once wrote a letter to Oliver Stone, explaining why he should read my script - and everyone, except the teacher, in my screenwriting class laughed at me. They said he would never write me back and that I was crazy. I found humor in their negativity.

They were right. He called me.

Smart lesson, when I was younger, I had similar luck getting a response from Ronald D. Moore, and also got personal letters and email from several other writers I took the time to contact personally.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Introduce yourself

Scott Myers over at Go Into The Story does threads like this now and then to give the blog readers a chance to know each other. I was looking through some of the posts on Project Wilson Phillips this weekend and noticed that a few people lamented that even after that collaborative project, most of the readers/posters here were still strangers.

So let's do something about that. Tell us something about you, what you do, what you're working on and so on. Also, it'd be cool to see who reads this blog and just lurks. Do we have some college students here? High school? Retirees who are taking up screenwriting late in life?

Who are you people?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Interview with Amy Baack, assistant to "V" showrunner Scott Rosenbaum

One of the great things about this blog is that I've had the opportunity to get to know several blog readers who also happen to work in the industry. Aside from the obvious benefit of networking, there's also the fact that many of them can be a great source of information about their positions in the industry and how one goes about those jobs.

One such reader is Amy Baack, whom I came to know last year when she participated in Project Wilson Phillips. Amy's currently the assistant to Scott Rosenbaum, the show-runner on ABC's sci-fi series V this season. As being a writer's assistant is one of the more common stepping stones to becoming a TV writer, I pursued Amy with a few questions via email and she was generous enough to reply.

At the risk of making you the target of voodoo dolls everywhere, I understand you accomplished the rare feat of landing the job of show-runner's assistant right out of college. That's an accomplishment with about the same odds as buying the winning Mega Millions ticket for a $290 million jackpot. How'd you pull this off?

Landing this position was a huge surprise for me; I certainly didn't expect to advance this far up the industry ladder so quickly. During the first couple of weeks after I graduated from college, I experienced a great deal of panic over my future, as I'm sure everyone who has tried to break in to entertainment work has, as well. I went to film school at the University of Southern California, where I had made some amazing friends. One of them went on to work at an agency, and she gave me the heads-up about the open position at V. I submitted my resume, went in for an interview, and landed the job!

It helped that at the time I was interning for Mad Men and my amazing supervisor there was able to give me a good reference. I wish I could offer up a formula for how to get a job like mine, but I'm afraid a lot of it is luck and knowing the right people. Your goal should really be "making friends" instead of "networking," a term that I think implies you're just meeting people to get a job out of them. It's important to prove that you are able to get along with others and have a good work ethic as well, since television is a very collaborative process.

What had you done prior to getting hired as Scott's assistant that made your resume a strong contender?

As I mentioned above, I was interning in the production department on Mad Men when I got the job for V. Before that I'd had a lot of internships in various fields of the entertainment industry; I did one almost every semester and summer during college. I worked at E!, Spyglass Entertainment, and Fox Television Studios, to name a few. I also did well in school and held outside jobs; I made sure to constantly keep busy, do my very best, and meet as many people as I could. I think going to a wonderful film school like USC definitely helped me out, as well, because I learned an incredible amount there that helped prepare me for my future career.

When did your writing aspirations begin? Had you done much writing in college?

My writing aspirations seem to have started when I was fairly young... I actually recently found the beginning of a script I had written when I was maybe 10 years old. It was a fairy-tale movie that contained instructions for camera movements and everything! (It was also incredibly bad.) So as ridiculous as that is, it's proof that screenwriting has always been in my blood. I didn't do a lot of extra writing during college, since I was always pretty busy, but I wrote whenever I could. I wrote the required scripts for classes, including my first spec (30 Rock), and I wrote a couple of short films on the side, as well. I also enjoy writing in other mediums; I was a columnist for the Daily Trojan, USC's school newspaper, for a couple of years.

Since you work in TV what are some of your all-time favorite shows and how have they influenced your writing? Can you point to any specific show or episode that really blew you away?

My all-times favorite shows would probably be Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't know if I can target a specific episode from any of those shows that blew me away - rather, I'm impressed by consistent strong writing. All those shows have interesting, complex characters, which I think is the heart of really good television.

What is a typical day like for a writer's assistant on a network series? And how LONG is the typical day for you?

My job is a little different than the writers assistants'. As the showrunner's assistant, my duties are primarily based on the needs of my boss, though I am involved in many of the creative sides of the show as well. I manage my boss's personal schedule and contacts, transcribe notes calls with our studio and network, edit outlines/scripts, along with a whole bunch of other random tasks. My work hours during the writing period were 9:00AM - 7:00PM (sometimes a little later). The writers' assistants would start their day with the writers at 10:00AM. Their job was in the writers' room: they took detailed notes, got lunch every day, bought groceries, helped write up outlines, and did research. They usually worked until much later than I did, but it depended on how many notes they had to type up and edit, as well as how late the writers stayed that day.

Was there a big learning curve for the job?

There was a huge learning curve for my job! I had never worked on a television show before, so this was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn the ropes in-depth. I was blessed with an excellent boss who would let me sit in the writers’ room whenever I had any down time, so I got to really observe the writing process. I've learned a lot more about writing for television, as well as navigating the entertainment industry in general, in this job than I did in any of my college classes.

Those who've worked in TV often compare it to a freight train that doesn't stop. What would you say is the biggest challenge most writers' assistants have to deal with?

Working in TV is truly a time-intensive career choice, whether you're on the writing, production, or post-production side. You need to be very committed to the job and willing to give up your social/personal life for a good chunk of time. It can be very stressful, both emotionally and physically, to be working on a computer in an office for 12 hours straight, which is a challenge most writers' assistants usually have to tackle. However, because you are so completely absorbed in the writing process, assistants are essentially forced to be at their top level of performance all the time. This work ethic inevitably helps when you get promoted to writing on a staff, where you need to be consistently alert and always thinking creatively. And there's always the relief of knowing that the period of madness won't last forever; either your show will go on hiatus for a couple months, which is like a very nice elementary school summer vacation, or the show will get canceled, in which case you get to sign up for unemployment checks (which is an entirely different world of stress).

Back when I interviewed Rob Levine (Jericho, Human Target) he talked about how he got his first writing credit when he was an assistant on Judging Amy, and then later was hired by that show-runner for the staff of Jericho. Assuming such an opportunity would eventually exist for you, are you preparing for it now? Do you find yourself trying to come up with V pitches in the event that an offer comes your way?

You absolutely have to make yourself known as a valuable asset when you're working as an assistant on a show, since that's probably the easiest way to work your way up to a staff position. I obviously hope to work on staff someday, so I had a conversation with my boss during the middle of the writing season about how I wanted to do more creative work on the show to help prove my writing abilities.

As a result, he let me be in charge of writing a weekly series that's posted on the official V ABC website called "The Fifth Column Journal." I also wrote a few lines of dialogue during post-production, managed the V Twitter feed, and pitched ideas for various directions the show could take during the writing stage. I'd love to be able to work my way up to staff in the near future, but for now I'm just incredibly grateful for having so many opportunities to learn about TV writing by observing some incredibly talented people.

What has working in TV taught you about writing for episodic television and writing in general?

I've learned that the most important part about episodic television writing is the intense collaboration that's involved in putting a season together. A TV writer really has to be able to work well with the other writers on a staff. You quickly become a sort of family, since you spend all day in a room with a small handful of people. You have to learn to build off of other people's ideas and allow the rest of the staff to help strengthen your writing. You can't take anything personally, and you can't hold any of your ideas too close. I've also learned that it's important to keep throwing out ideas, even if you're worried they might sound a little stupid. Sometimes the best stories come out of the worst suggestions. Finally, writing is about making choices. There's always a different route you can take; you just have to choose the one that best suits the story you're trying to tell.

Thanks again to Amy for her time. I'm hoping to get a few more writers' assistant interviews up as I get friends to cooperate and meet new assistants through the blog!

V airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Take criticism

My wife and I have been watching American Idol as it enters this season (sidebar: Steven Tyler is damn entertaining when they can play with his footage in the editing room... but I cannot WAIT to see what happens when you put this duck on live TV with an open mic. Unfortunately anything REALLY good will probably be chopped out by the time the West Coast broadcast begins) and I always empathize with the Idol judges. When you consider the relative quality of what I read, and the relative quality of what the judges contend with, our jobs are very similar.

It also makes me very glad that my coverage is often anonymous, and that I don't have to deliver it face-to-face to the writers in question. There have been situations where I have dealt with the writers through an intermediary, and often, it reinforces my decision not to make myself available to writers.

You know those moments on Idol where someone comes into the audition room talking up their own talents? Then they proceed to butcher a classic song, perhaps rendering it unrecognizable... and yet they're shocked - SHOCKED - when the judges tell them it's not up to snuff. In fact, I've seen it start with the judges trying to let them down easy, let them go with some dignity and the clueless auditioner becomes combative, insults the judges personally and either stomps out or demands a second chance.

And I always wonder "What the FUCK did you think was going to happen?" First, let's leave aside the delusion of being the next Freddy Mercury, because that's a whole 'nother ball of neurosis. On what planet does insulting the people deciding to advance your career sound like a good idea?

More to the point, if someone gives you a bad review, does telling them to go fuck themselves really help you in the long run? In the case of a writer with a script, suppose I send you coverage that says, "Look, this needs some work... the concept is a bit derivative, I didn't feel like your character's motivation was very clear, and it was perhaps a little too slow."

Is your response:

1) Thanks for your time. I'll take your notes under advisement.

2) Well, I'm disappointed, but if it's not your thing, I can't really change that.

3) Fuck you! You clearly didn't read it! The character is scared of water - that's his motivation! Didn't you notice he turned down water in every scene, declined the invitation to go to the pool and was shown to prefer sponge baths! Do you know anything? I'm an AWESOME writer! You're just stuck in the Hollywood mold and you're just trying to keep writers like me out because you know we'll take all your jobs! Well if you knew anything about writing, you wouldn't be reading scripts for a living, asshole! Who are you to tell me what's good writing when you haven't sold anything either? Anyway, I've already deleted your coverage from my computer and shredded the hard copy (after I used it to wipe my ass) so you can suck my dick, you no-talent asshole!

Now, there's a subtle difference among those three, but two of those replies might keep the door open for future submissions, while one of them only ensures that I will never, ever read anything from you again.

Here's the thing, manners aside, you can't argue people out of an opinion. This isn't like debating science or history, where there's an objective truth. If I say, "I didn't like it," you'll never convince me "Yes you did!" You're certainly welcome to ask questions, perhaps find out why my opinion doesn't match up with your perception. But if someone's taken the time to read your work, and you don't get the review you wanted, don't waste your breath fighting them. And if you ever degenerate into personal insults, don't expect them to ever call you back.

(Seriously, do you think that Brenda Hampton or the people at 90210 would ever hire me after the way I've slammed them... and compared to reactions I've seen first-time writers have to a bad review, I've been downright polite.)

So the first thing you should learn as a writer (yes, even before formatting) is how to be respectful when someone says, "I don't think it works."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Chad, Matt & Rob Interview: Part III - Producing web shorts

Part I
Part II

We conclude our talk with comedy team Chad, Matt & Rob.

TBSR: Let’s talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of production – and I know this is going to vary across your whole line there, but about how much do you guys spend on these?

Matt: Well “Alien” cost us two Little Caesar’s Pizzas.

TBSR: How much did, say, “The Time Machine” cost?

Rob: $400? $500?

Chad: It was like $800.

Matt: Yeah, I think it was closer to $700…

Chad: Just because we had all the food for everybody. Food is our #1 cost on every production.

Rob: If we bring 20 people to help us out on the shoot that’s 20 mouths to feed. Usually it’s about 75% of the budget.

TBSR: And you work for free, your camera guy works for free, you own the camera and the editing equipment – and as far as locations, I assume most of the time you figure “Hey we have this set” or “Hey, we can get into this office.”

Matt: We used to literally write around locations.

Chad: Prison Break” came out of “We have this awesome space. What can we use it for…? We can make it a jail!”

Rob: And in “The Time Machine” we had the office, we had the Bronson Cave. On “The Birthday Party…”

Chad: “Birthday Party” we spent money for a location for a half-day, to get the hospital.

TBSR: Which one would you say was your most expensive one prior to “The Treasure Hunt?”

Rob: “The Birthday Party.”

Chad: That was like, $4000.

Rob: A lot of that was the permit---

Matt: ALL of it!

Rob: The LA Film Office was like $3200. Plus the hospital was another $700.

[Post-interview, the guys confirmed that in addition to the LA Film Office costs, the hospital budget was $650, the permit cost $710, and production insurance cost $450.]

Matt: Chad and I went to the Film LA Office – this is probably really boring – and we’re shooting for, what, five hours in this [hospital] location?

Rob: Very controlled. Well, it IS haunted.

Matt: We’re not even on a public road! So we go into Film LA and they’re like, it’s gonna be $700, $800 just to get a permit to shoot in L.A. And while we’re having this conversation, another woman comes out and talks to these three kids and is like, “Okay, so you have the student discount – that’s gonna be $10.” And we’re sitting there like “WHAT?!”…. if someone with a few thousand dollar budget on a film can’t get a break on a permit it just doesn’t make any sense.

Rob: Especially in a town that’s built around the industry. There should be a break.

Matt: They tell you it’s for all of these things like a fire marshal’s gonna come by, and none of that ever happens. No one came. We shot it at Friday morning at 8. No one was there!

Tyler: Even the location owner was apologetic. He said, “I’m sorry guys. I have to do this because of fire code.” And you could tell he was mad at Film L.A. for making him do that.

Chad: You could tell he’d lost business too because they needed to have that. If you had someone filming there without the permit [and they get injured] then he would be in trouble and would not be allowed to use the space anymore. That’s why he was apologetic to us because he knew our shoot wasn’t as intensive as the thing that shot there last, which was Circle of Eight.

Rob: And then [we had to pay] $500 for production insurance.

Chad: That was the first one we shot with production insurance.

TBSR: But when you’re shooting in locations you guys control and public places, it’s very cheap to get these shot, I assume?

Rob: You just need a camera.

Tyler: And we could do it cheaper [still.] Shooting on HD, you have to produce things a little bit more, they have to be lit more specifically. But those are the costs that come with making anything polished which is what we pride ourselves on – giving people a movie experience on YouTube, which doesn’t happen very often.

Matt: We also write budget conscious… For "Treasure Hunt," we had to light two scenes – the first scene and the last scene. Everything else was outside, and we were like “That’ll save us so much time!” Oh, no… we lit the cave too. So three scenes. And the cave was actually lighting a real cave so that was… that was an event.

(all chuckle.)

Tyler: I also think we challenge ourselves with every project. “The Treasure Hunt,” in particular. After “The Birthday Party” such a great experience for all of us [cameraman/visual effects technician] Justin [Martinez], myself, Chad, Matt and Rob working together the first time. It was such a positive collaboration that we knew we wanted the next project to be the next step of what we already had an that was just to get bigger, better and more ambitious.

Rob: And I think we did that.

Matt: And it took us about the same amount of time to shoot.

TBSR: This is about the same time you brought in Justin Martinez to do the visual effects. Did that open your stories up to new things?

Tyler: I actually remember the first conversation I had with you guys. I was on a break from work and was bored and just sent Matt an email saying, “Hey, I love your guys’ stuff. Would love to get together and help you guys out if you have a production in place.”

Matt: We used to work together.

Tyler: And “The Birthday Party” was something they already had a loose story bible for. So I think we met once and it was “This sounds great. I’ve got a visual effects guy” – Justin, who I went to college with and we shot a ton of projects together back in school. Justin is self-taught. He’s spent his own time figuring out these programs and finding creative ways to make great things really fast.

TBSR: He must put in a lot of hours, with the number of effects you guys have.

Matt: Totally. I know for “The Teleporter” we all basically lived in [the office] for 30 days [getting it done.]

Tyler: And I think there are 115 effects shots in that.

Rob: In four weeks.

TBSR: And you said it’s 20 minutes long?

Matt: 25? 23?

TBSR: Wrapping up – what sort of advice would you give someone looking to make a viral video? If someone out there wants to be you guys, what should they know to be you?

Rob: Don’t think about it, just do it!

Tyler: The first thing you make isn’t gonna be that—

Matt: Well it might be if it’s something like run over a car with a truck—

Tyler: It might be, but I think people get hung up, they get afraid of it NOT being that, so they don’t make anything at all.

Matt: Just go make a bunch of stuff. It’s gonna suck, just like all of our stuff sucked. And then it gets better and better and better, and you get more comfortable with it. Every single time we learn so much about whatever it is we want to do.

Rob: All this stuff happens when you’re not thinking about it. We didn’t think for a second the Alien video was gonna be viral. In fact we didn’t think anything was gonna be viral. We just kept making stuff that we liked.

Matt: We never think “Let’s make a viral video.” It’s just “Let’s make a video that’s gonna entertain people.” And it either does or doesn’t. My personal favorite thing from what we do is all the emails we get from teenagers, maybe younger, who are like “I love your stuff. It inspired me and my friends to make our own version. Here’s this” and then they send us these links. Because I remember when I wanted to do this, or do music, I had all of my influences, so that’s really special.

Chad: That and the 7th grade middle school project in Rocco Russo, Ohio. The whole middle school made interactive adventures for their last day of school, and the last day of school they did a special screening of all of them.

TBSR: And you guys gave them some guidance on this?

Matt: Yeah, we Skyped in with the class.

Tyler: So awesome! I love that. It’s always been a dream of mine to be in a textbook or influence the education process, and it’s awesome to think there was a whole school of 7th graders making interactive videos.

TBSR: And I’ll put a link to that up on the blog too so those guys get some eyeballs on all that hard work.

[Here they are: The Chemical Spill, The Alien Invasion, & The Class Field Trip.]

Final question: you guys have done choose-your-own-adventures, you’ve done aliens, you’ve time-traveled, you’ve done some amazing visual effects… so when are we going to get a Chad, Matt & Rob musical? I know that Matt used to be in a band, Link 80. Is a musical the next step?

Tyler: We’ve talked about it! I’ve always wanted to shoot/direct a musical.

Rob: I know our next steps are movie and TV show, and once we get those going, maybe we’ll do a musical for the interwebs. Our goal for 2011 is to focus on what we truly want to do, and that’s film and TV. Like we’ve been saying, if you don’t take a shot, how are you ever gonna score? So we’re gonna take a shot.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Chad, Matt & Rob Interview: Part II - The Interactive Adventures

Part I

We continue our talk with Chad, Matt & Rob.

TBSR: About six months after the Alien video you transitioned into the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of video, and you were the first people to do it – with “The Time Machine.” What triggered that idea?

Rob: This is one of those moments that I really remember. We weren’t sure what we were going to do. And I sent an email out to everyone saying: “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Because YouTube was doing annotations, but nobody was really using them.

TBSR: Annotations being that within the video, you can specifically choose what other videos it links to?

Matt: Yeah. Essentially it’s just embedding a link within a video.

TBSR: So did you say “Let’s do Choose Your Own Adventure" and come up with an idea that works” or did you have an idea you retrofitted into that style?

Matt: What it was was that we were all tired of making little three-and-a-half to five-minute things. We were like, “That’s cool, but we want to do more. But it’s the internet so no one – at least not then – no one’s going to watch a half-hour thing… so it allowed us to tell longer stories. What I remember next was we went down to the Farmer’s Market and I had just downloaded [a diagram of how the Choose Your Own Adventure stories were structured.] So we were just like, “here are these nine boxes. Let’s fill them in.”

TBSR: So you had the structure and…

Matt: It was literally just nine bubbles. And we wrote it in a weekend. Shot it that weekend and the next weekend.

TBSR: And this leads to possibly the most important question I could ask you guys: In the last choice, if Chad, Matt and Rob don’t save their past selves from certain death, how come they don’t cease to exist immediately? I’m sure no one else has ever asked you this.

Rob: Let me ask you this: have you ever been involved in time travel?

Matt: Right, that’s how we rationalize it---

Rob: We have [time-traveled.] We have first hand experience. That’s just what happened. I can’t explain it.

TBSR: All right. That was the one I knew I had to ask.

Rob: Very insightful question.

Matt: The thing about time travel is that there are no rules. And isn’t the idea of time travel that the minute it happens, everything ends?

TBSR: There are so many different theories. The main theory is that it’s impossible because it allows for the possibility of paradox and since paradox can’t exist, anything that allows paradox to exist, can’t exist in and of itself. Ergo, time travel is impossible.

Rob: (awed whisper) Wow. But it’s not impossible, is what you’re saying…

Matt: I saw The Time Traveler’s Wife, okay?

TBSR: For those reading this interview, that question comes up regularly on the YouTube comments for the last video in the story. Usually every other page of comments sets off a debate about the nature of time travel.

Matt: We definitely didn’t think about that when we were writing.

Chad: We just thought it’d be funny to leave ourselves getting our asses kicked.

TBSR: And how would you say “The Time Machine” was received? It was the first of its kind on YouTube, so that must have gotten some notice.

Matt: Everyone seemed to like it. It’s very simple… quick.

Rob: We didn’t know anyone [working] at YouTube, and I remember refreshing my computer at 9pm on a Friday night and I saw “Time Machine” right there on the front page, under “Top Video.” I remember calling these guys right away, super-excited. Got a beer, and stayed up until three in the morning just looking at comments.

(all laugh)

Chad: Hitting refresh.

TBSR: Do you let the comments get to you? Like if they’re saying “Oh! That was awesome!” you’re like “These people are great!” But if they say, “I don’t like Rob because of x, y, z” do you write it off as “what do they know? They’re just people on the internet.”

Rob: I admit, it used to bother me in the early days---

Matt: It doesn’t bother me anymore.

Rob: Not anymore. We’re kind of immune to that.

Matt: I think comments are awesome.

Chad: It’s what you want. Instant feedback.

Tyler: And it’s so democratic, so as a creator, you already know what’s working and not working. And it’s honest feedback because of the anonymity.

Matt: Right, totally unadulterated!

Tyler: When you read movie reviews – with the exception of something that’s unanimously considered bad – you get the sense there’s always politics involved, there’s always a bias involved. And with the web---

Chad: “YOU SUCK!”

Tyler: --and the people who are really intellectual and who use that anonymity to express an honest opinion, that’s an awesome thing that’s super rare. Sure, it sucks to have your thing critiqued, but we’re not making anything to exist in a vacuum. If people don’t see our stuff, then what we do is meaningless. We’re not making it for ourselves. It needs to have an audience. That’s what validates the work and the process.

Rob: And we always have our audience to defend us from those people who come on and bash.

Matt: But they’re also superhonest with us in terms of, like, “I love you guys but this isn’t your best thing.”

Tyler: I think the reaction to “The Teleporter” was really surprising to us because we thought when we were creating it that it was in many ways an example of how far we’d come as creators. And I maintain that there are videos in The Teleporter" that are the best thing that I’ve ever shot. I love them as a viewer and I love them as a creator and I’m super proud of them. And sometimes those sentimentalities you feel as a creator don’t translate to the audience, and I think some of that was lost on the audience – and was shadowed in a lot of ways by us signing with a brand. [AXE Shampoo.]

Matt: The thing we learned from “The Teleporter” was [the audience’s] expectations… it was a lot shorter than our other [interactive adventures]. In all it was about 30 minutes of content but if you watch [just one thread,] it’s short. And that threw people. We got a lot of emails saying, “There wasn’t much to it.” Which is totally right. And also having a sponsor threw a lot of people – and us at first!

Tyler: We fought a lot of battles [with the sponsor] to create something that we would want to create, and the brand was great about letting us do that. It was the product of a lot of smart compromises – we don’t get to defend that, the content has to speak for itself. But one of the dialogues that started in the comment section was about the idea of selling out and branding. We had a lot of people who were upset about the brand integration, and then there was a group of people who understand that nothing that we do is made for free.

Matt: We don’t charge anybody for it.

Tyler: Yeah, we spend our money and our time because we love to do it, but it’s not free for us. It either costs money, time or both – and people were really sticking up for that [in the comments.]

TBSR: And I think the integration wasn’t all that obtrusive either. It’s not like you were doing the Wayne’s World gag of just shoving the product in the camera.

Matt: That was something we were really conscious of. The first thing we agreed on was “We’re alright to not do this,” like if we don’t come up with something we’re happy with, we’re just not gonna do it. [we didn’t want] “Look at the brand integration we’re doing!” because to me that always feels like a cop-out. I get it, but you’re still doing what you’re making fun of, so is it really better? The funny thing about "The Teleporter" is that the biggest brand integration in the whole thing is just [a small bit] at the end of the first video – a freeze-frame of three shampoo bottles. That was not [Axe telling us to do that], that was our choice. That was us telling them, “You need that for the story. You need to see three paths you’re going to take.” Which was something we almost didn’t want to do because it felt so branded, but as far as story went, it was what we needed there. If it was three crayons or three pencils [instead] that’s what we would have done, so why wouldn’t we do that just because it’s branded?

Tyler: We had to do a lot of creative problem solving with the project because we wanted to respect the audience and respect what we’d created in the past. And what people expected of us. With any brand, there’s always a level of expectation. It’s how brands have longevity – a level of expectation from the audience, the consumer, of what you’re gonna get.

Rob: I think it made us really, really more excited now to release “The Treasure Hunt” because I think “The Treasure Hunt” truly represents who we are and what we do.

Matt: It’s the kind of stories we want to tell.

Tyler: It’s kind of our web opus.

TBSR: It’s very cinematic. Now, I say this having seen an early cut months ago in a movie theatre, perhaps under the optimum conditions for it to BE cinematic, but it really feels like “The Chad, Matt & Rob Movie.” But I’ll be interested to see the reaction since each individual segment is a bit longer than your previous ones.

Tyler: And are infused with more story. I think they’re long in the right ways, which is why I think people will respect their length and understand that every second is essential and is true to what the project is, which is what the process we’d been through before taught us – that everything [needs to be] necessary… you can’t have fat!

Matt: Like if it was TV [we’d have to make it fit] 22 minutes. On the internet, there’s no set time-length, so you [can be merciless in what you cut.]

Tyler: We’ve had conversations about how anxious we are to cut a feature because we’ll get to hold on a shot for longer than two and a half seconds. We can’t wait to cut a scene that takes its time and is maybe four shots. And I think what we’ve learned from this process will make those cuts even better.

Rob: But we’ve never really created “for the web.” We’ve created what we wanted to create. I don’t think we ever really worried about time.

Matt: [With The Treasure Hunt] for us, this is the direction we want to go. We want to make longer content. We want to tell bigger stories. We could just make people getting hit in the face over and over – and while we’d still include that kind of thing – it’s just our chance to expand.

TBSR: And you’ve done public screenings so you’ve seen that it plays to an audience.

Tyler: That has fueled these last few editing sessions. I think that we know when something is good and when it’s not, [but] there’s always that point you reach when the amount of time you spent is so significant that you can’t not love it, just because you’ve invested so much of yourself. But you don’t get to defend that process – that exists completely independent from it screening in a theatre in front of however many people. But it’s really encouraging to see this in front of people – it’s like “We’re not crazy! [This works!]”

TBSR: You said that first and foremost you try to make what you guys like, but do you have like a profile of your audience?

Matt: I think what happened with us, which has been kind of serendipitous, is that we made what we liked and it found an audience, so our answer to that is to just keep making what we like and hopefully [our audience] will continue to like it.

Rob: Which is what it should be. I feel like if you force yourself on an audience, you might not hit it in the right way.

Matt: Right, like part of the reason we don’t want to do sketch comedy is because we suck at sketch comedy. It’s not a judgment on sketch comedy in any way; it’s a judgment on us being really bad at it.

Tyler: Why give people a bad version of what they already love, just to fill some niche?

Tomorrow - the nuts and bolts of producing web shorts