Friday, September 30, 2011

Subtext in "Revenge" with Emily VanCamp and Madeline Stowe

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw that Wednesday night I mentioned this scene from ABC's new series Revenge.  This is a perfect example of subtext in dialogue.  Every writer should strive to have subtext, which is the undertone and meaning beneath the dialogue.  It's what the characters aren't saying - but what they mean.  Often a scene with subtext will seem to be about one subject on the surface, but really be conveying a completely different idea or emotion.

Watch the scene and then read below for my explanation of what's going on here.

Okay, the premise of the series is that Emily - played by Emily VanCamp - has returned to the Hamptons fifteen years after her father was betrayed by some of the most powerful people there.  Her father was framed for essentially funding a terrorist act, and everyone who worked at his company testified against him.  Why did they do that you ask?  Because Victoria - played by Madeline Stowe - supposedly masterminded it.

Victoria's the target of Emily's revenge scheme - but before Emily attacks her directly, she aims to destroy everyone around her who was a part of the scheme.  Since "Emily" is actually an identity that Amanda Clarke assumed, Victoria doesn't realize she's having tea with the daughter of the man she destroyed.  However, since "Emily" has taken an interest in her son, she's determined to find out her secrets.

Prior to this scene, Emily had been renting her former childhood home.  In the intervening years, it had passed into the ownership of one of Victoria's close friends.  That woman was Emily's first takedown the week before, which resulted in the house being put on the market.  Emily mentioned to Victoria earlier that she put in an offer - and then later got a call that she was outbid by the tech billionaire/associate who's the only other person who knows who Emily really is.  When Emily confronted him, he revealed that Victoria swooped in and outbid Emily with a cash offer.  Thus, he outbid Victoria with his own offer and then put it in Emily's name.

Victoria doesn't know this at the start of the scene.  She's secure in the belief that she won.  Furthermore, prior to this scene, we saw Emily find out she had the house.  So when she "checks her email" and is excitedly announces her win it's all for Victoria's benefit.  Hence the line, "Thank you so much for tea, Mrs. Grayson.  I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this."

Yeah, I bet you have.  Now with that Cliff Notes set-up of context, do you see the double meaning in many other lines in this scene?

Victoria's subtext is essentially, "You're on my turf, little girl.  Don't think I'm not aware you're hiding something."  Emily's on the other hand is, "Better luck next time, bitch!  I'm gonna enjoy taking you down before you've even realized what's happening."

I should point out that as strong as the writing is, subtext really needs to be in the hands of capable performers who can really sell it.  Here, VanCamp and Stowe play the scene to perfection.  There's just enough awareness of the subtext in their performances without either of them crossing the line and overplaying it.  That's a tricky tightrope to walk.  Lesser actors might have gone slightly broader just to make sure the audience "gets it."  In doing so, it would have compromised the reality that Victoria doesn't realize exactly what Emily's pulling here. 

VanCamp has to sell that she's tossing darts at Victoria without making the attack obvious, and Stowe has to sell that she thinks she's being subtle and that she doesn't notice the additional layer behind Emily's words.  The result is probably my favorite scene of the week, and watching these two actresses spar is like watching two tennis pros in their prime.  If Revenge keeps serving up scenes like this, consider me hooked.

So far Revenge is one of the best new shows this season.  Check it out if you haven't already.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deservedly deleted scenes - Sucker Punch

I'm sure I've talked before about how "Deleted Scenes" can be an excellent learning experience for writers.  If you watch that section of most DVDs you'll often come away thinking "Yeah, I can see why they cut that."  It's a short hop from that realization to understanding how a scene needs to move the story forward.

If you're smart, you can then turn around and apply that insight to your own script.  So let's look at a deleted scene I came across recently.  It's from Sucker Punch, which I lambasted in three separate blog posts.  And true, the theatrical version of the film isn't exactly the model of coherence either - but this scene seems to exist in its own reality.

There are a number of reasons I can surmise that this scene was cut.  First, it's shot and edited like a music video.  Other parts of the film are frentically edited, but this sequence really feels like an MTV video.  It's not really telling a story - it's just a montage.

Related to that, there really isn't a point of view to the sequence.  Everything else in Sucker Punch is essentially from Baby Doll's perspective.  I'm not sure who's perspective this sequence belongs to.

It's also four minutes of screentime that doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.  Yes, we see the girls perform in individual dances, but those dances seem to have nothing to do with the girls' individual personalites or arcs.  If they were going to to the trouble of giving each girl a dance solo, it feels like a missed opportunity not to have the dance or the music reflect something relevent to them specifically.

(There's also the fact that I don't understand why the two characters played by Carla Gallo and Oscar Isaac are performing the song themselves.  They're the people behind the scenes - not the talent.)

So I put it to you, does this scene seem to make any sense on its own?  And to those of you who saw Sucker Punch, does it add anything to the overall experience?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Openings that sold you on the movie immediately

I saw Drive that past weekend after having managed avoid finding out ANYTHING about it beyond the fact that seemingly everyone who saw the film raved about it.  It's rare I get to go into a film that unmolested by spoilers and reviews, and I have to admit, it was kind of fun.

I knew that this was my kind of movie partway through the opening sequence, when it became apparent that we weren't going to see the "getaway" shot or executed in the conventional "chase scene" sense. (I'm being deliberately vague in the hopes that some readers will have their curiosity piqued and be motivated to check it out themselves.)  I didn't care what came next - that opening had me.  It earned my complete faith and trust in the filmmakers.

What opening sequences have accomplished that for you?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Avoid Tunnel Vision

I think one thing that every writer should strive to avoid is tunnel vision.

It's easy to fall in love with a story idea.  In fact, it helps the writing if you love what you're doing.  That passion can carry you far and motivate you to stay up many a late night to work on your script.  The problem can set in when you become so fixated that you forget the larger context in which your script has to exist.

In other words: at the end of this, someone has to buy the script.

The writing needs to have appeal beyond your narrow, "Well I've always wanted to tell this story."  If your passion is 18th century colonial shuffleboard, you might find it hard to attach a backer who's equally passionate.  It might be the best damn colonial shuffleboard script ever written, but what does that matter if there's no market for it - or no one who will even read it?

That's an extreme example, though.  What about a script where some young male writer uses the premise to explore his unusual sexual fetishes?  I've read more of those than I care to know.  The same with stories from people treating their own lives as fan-fiction.  In these, the lead characters lives are full of misery.  Their parents hate them, people are mean to them for no reason, their boss tries to rape them, their landlord robs them blind, their kids hate them - or have a terminal illness - and society seems out to get them.  Through it all, any sympathy for this lead is erased by the shrill and obnoxious way they whine about how hard life is and how they need to get through it.

This is usually solved by the character meeting their perfect, too-good-to-be-true mate and then getting a windfall of cash in an unbelievable way.  If you're dealing with a real hack, they'll have their character win the lotto and solve all their problems that way.

Sure, you want to write it, but is that really the kind of movie someone wants to see?  Is that the sort of movie YOU'D go see if given an option?  I've know a few writers who love a particular genre of movie, but then write a completely different kind of film!

It's always great when you can finish a script, but knowing what that script can do for you in the end is also important.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TV Fact Checker: A look at the job of Parks & Recreation's writer's assistant and script coordinator

Wired has a great article about Parks & Recreation's writer's assistant/script coordinator Greg Levine, who also happens to be a regular reader of this blog.  It's worth a read, not only for it's look at a day in the life of a writer's assistant, but also for yet another "how I got the job" story.

How did you come to be the research guy on Parks and Rec?

“When the writer’s strike happened, I wound up in casting…. When it ended I was still there and this company happened to be casting The Office, so I got to know the people there. They said, ‘Hey we’re going to do a new show, do you want to come on board as a writer’s assistant?’… Very early on there were only a few of us on the show. It was just Greg Daniels, Mike Schur, the line producer and myself, really. 

"Mike and Greg would constantly work on stories for the pilot and they would come to me and say, ‘We need to know every step it takes to build a park.’ So, we knew we were going to set the show in Indiana, so I called a few parks-and-rec departments in Indiana and tried to talk to people who were willing to chat. And after talking to several people, I was able to pull together the 30-step process it takes to build a park.” 

What’s your typical day like?

"Myself and the other writer’s assistant are in the writer’s room taking notes, keeping a running log of every joke or story idea pitched in the room. And then at the end of every day we keep them organized by story, so if we want to jump back to Story X we can jump back and I have those notes ready for them. That’s one component. 

"Another is that as script coordinator, we publish every script. We keep a running, fully formatted, production-ready script. The research flows in and out of both of those. Sometimes I’m proofreading a script and catch something. I remember the first time DMV came up. I said, ‘I don’t think DMV is universal across all 50 states.’ So we checked and sure enough it’s BMV in Indiana.”

Check out the rest of the article at

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Life in the trenches as an intern

This one goes out to a relative of mine who's getting her first taste of interning in the entertainment business.  It's an actual entry from my journal from... a few years ago when I was doing an internship at an Oscar-winning production company.....

As it's a little profane in spots even for this blog, I've replaced a certain offensive word with another.  See if you can figure out what it is.


It’s hard being a Smurfing intern in a Smurfing office where they give you Smurfing menial tasks and treat them with the same Smurfing weight as the Smurfing tasks that actually Smurfing matter.  Especially when the Smurfing menial tasks come from the Number 2 person at the Smurfing office and there for carry more Smurfing weight than the more Smurfing relevant tasks from Smurfing people lower on the Smurfing totem pole.

As part of my Smurfing job I’m working the Smurfing reception desk.  This entails answering the Smurfing phone, greeting the guests, helping out with the Smurfing mail, making Smurfing copies and doing whatever Smurfing tasks the Smurfing assistants ask of me.

The Smurfing problem comes in when there is a Smurfing conflict among the Smurfing tasks.

Task 1: An assistant needs several pages copied out of a book.  No Smurfing problem, you say?  The catch: he doesn’t want the dark crease that appears in the spine when you Xerox from a book and he doesn’t want the black lines that outline when the pages ended.  The pages have to be perfectly white, too… no gray colors that often result from copying.

This means each page must be copied once, to obtain a flat “master.”  Then we must use the settings to crop the master as it is Xeroxed and also lighten the pages.  There was a fair amount of trial and error involved in this, especially in making sure that the initial copies weren’t crooked.

That process took some 30 minutes to work out, and two of us were working on it.

Adding to some confusion was that he gave us another copying assignment at the same time and told us that he needed that on 3-hole punched paper.  The other intern assumed this meant that both assignments were to be on 3-holed paper, so we chose that paper tray.

Backing up a little bit, at the height of our confusion, one of the assistants came over to us holding part of a plastic bread sack.  I should specify that this assistant’s job is to handle the personal errands of the Number 2 person at my workplace.  I’ll say it again:  he is paid to handle personal errands.  The interns are not paid, but it’s generally understood that our tasks should be office related, or at the very least, office tasks get priority.

This is complicated by the fact that this person is the assistant for one of the more powerful people.  Therefore, all tasks related to this person, no matter how menial, are to be given priority.  Still, this person has two assistants to handle the tasks.  So in theory, there should be little that trickles down to us.

Yeah, right.
But I’m getting off track… back to the bread sack…

“Uh guys, we need one of you to make some calls to some stores, and find out who carries this kind of bread.  Try [Overrated Store #1] or [Overrated Store #2] and… well… any other place you can think of.  It’s really important.”

Suffice it to say, the place where I work has nothing to do with bread.  This isn’t a business errand.  And, yeah, they don’t pay me, but they also don’t pay me to do that.

I wait three beats, give him the “you have got to be Smurfing joking” look, and say, “It might be a while.”

You see, by this point there were at least five other major requests for copies, and all of them had to be done fast.  Plus the mail needed to be taken down the street and the other intern is the only one permitted to do that.  This left me as the only one to do the final steps of copying “Task 1.” 

Let me explain something about the copiers where I work.  You have to input a code correspondent to the person you are doing the copies for.  If the machine is left idle for a few minutes, it automatically logs out and resets all the settings.  This posed a problem, as we didn’t want to lose the specifications we’d spent half an hour working to figure out.  But the mail was due for pickup soon, and we still had all those other copies to do.  The only option was for me to do those copies while the other intern ran down the street.

Unfortunately, I still had to cover the reception desk and answer the phone, meaning I spent about fifteen minutes constantly running back and forth between the front desk and the copy room like a chicken with my head cut off. 

Somehow I get it done and juggled, and just as the other intern returns, the copies are done.  (Not all of them, just Task 1).  He rushes them upstairs, and I take a breath before figuring out how to accommodate the other requests.

It is in this brief respite that the other assistant for Number 2 walks over and sees the bread wrapping.  She asks, “Did you track this down?”  Patiently, perhaps too patiently, I explain that there are a lot of things we’ve been assigned and we’re nowhere near catching up.  “It could be a while,” I tell her.  She takes it and disappears into her office area.  For a moment, I’m foolish enough to think that I’ve been relieved of that task.

Two minutes later, the other assistant shows up.  “Have you guys called these places yet?”  (You see how it works:  She kicked him, so he has to kick me.)  So I explain it again, stopping just short of saying that this is a prime example of why there should be a real receptionist here rather than assigning an intern to “play receptionist.” 

He seems disappointed, but I’d feel a lot guiltier if I didn’t know the guy has a habit of dumping these tasks and making them sound like a priority when there are more important things to be done.  He walks off again.

The other intern returns.  “Uh, I screwed up.  He didn’t want these three hole punched.  We have to do them again.”

Now this isn’t as simple as just running it through the copier, because the holes will leave black marks on the side of the copies.  I think you can see where this is going.

Yep. We have to start all over again on these copies.  There’s another 20 minutes wasted.

It gets better.  Remember how I said the mail had to go out earlier?  Well, now someone who wasn’t paying attention at mail call needs something sent out, so I have to send the intern out again before the next and final pickup in 30 minutes.

Once more I play the headless chicken.  Cluck, cluck.

And it’s here that the phone starts ringing off the hook.  Usually I just have to transfer people, so it’s not taxing in that sense, but it’s impossible to juggle all these tasks at once.

An hour or so later, we’re finally caught up.  I can almost smell the other assistant coming with the bread bag again when I’m given another office related task.  So I spend an hour on this mind-numbing chore, but at least get to avoid the humiliation of calling around asking for bread.

Maybe, maybe, if I was getting paid I’d have a bit more of a sense of humor about it.  For now I’m telling myself it’ll pay off when I sell this story as a sitcom script.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Which show improved the most from pilot to its eventual heights?

Fall TV premieres are in full swing and that means pilot episodes galore. Shows are under intense pressure to hook audiences immediately. Audiences are fickle and networks have itchy trigger fingers. A weak pilot (that somehow managed to get ordered to series for one reason or another) could spell doom for a series - especially if the show doesn't improve in a hurry.

But some of TV's biggest success stories have been shows that took a while to find their audience. Cheers - despite getting off to a creatively strong start - was dead last in the ratings for all shows in its debut year. Seinfeld not only had low ratings and a very short initial order of four episodes, but it's pilot episode frankly wasn't all that funny. It definately took the show a while to find its voice. In fact, I might say that it ranks as one of the series that improved most from its pilot to its glory days.

So what's your pick for a series that started slow but eventually became awesome?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Making the implausuble plausible - suspension of disbelief

Perhaps some of you have checked out Ringer, the new Sarah Michelle Gellar series featuring a young woman on the run from the mob and the law who is given reason to believe her twin sister is dead. Seeing a chance for a fresh start, she assumes her sister's identity and - at least in the pilot - does a good enough job of replacing her that no one suspects a switch has happened.

The premise is similar to ABC Family's The Lying Game, where two long-lost twin sisters meet after being adopted by different families. The sister raised in privilege has the sister raised in foster homes switch places with her while she continues investigating their past. And again, no one seems to catch on immediately that Foster Sister isn't Privileged Sister.

I've known a set of twins or two and I'd have to say that it's really unlikely that even sisters who grew up together would be able to maintain that sort of ruse for long. Even when they look exactly alike, there are too many subtle differences in manerisms, behavior, and even vocal inflection. So how does the script get around this?

In both cases, the other people in the replaced person's life is unaware that a twin even exists. As silly as it seems, that's enough to clear the basic suspension of disbelief. If my wife suddenly started acting differently, I know my first thought would likely be along the lines of "Is something bothering her? Did I do something to tick her off? Is she under a lot of stress?"

As opposed to, "Holy shit! My wife has clearly been replaced by a twin that I don't even have any way of knowing existed." Some might call it a contrivance, but I think it works because from the POV of everyone in the twins' lives, they have no reason to suspect a switch has taken place.

I also call this the "Marty McFly Rule." A while back, I did a series on Back to the Future and a few people wrote in saying they never bought that Marty's parents didn't recognize their own son as the guy who helped them get together 30 years earlier. I've never questioned this, for the following reasons.

First, it's been 30 years between them meeting "Calvin Klein" and they only knew him a week. My high school days are less than half that distance in the past and I know I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a crystal-clear recollection of someone I only knew briefly then.

Plus, if I encountered that same person 15 or 30 years later - or rather, someone who looked exactly like that person - my first thought wouldn't be "They must be a time traveler!" It would be, "Wow, that guy looks a lot like someone I used to know." You also have to figure that with their son, they've seen him grow up into that face, so it's not as sudden as seeing this guy materialize out of the blue.

So that's what you have to keep in mind with suspension of disbelief. Some times it's about selling an idea to the audience, and other times it's merely about accounting for the characters' own disbelief.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Deep Space Nine's "Plain and Simple Garak" on root beer and crying wolf

I've long been of the opinion that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the best series of the franchise, and one of those reasons is the character of Garak, played by Andrew Robinson. From his first appearance in the second episode of the series, Garak announced himself to be just "plain and simple Garak." In fact, that was far from the truth.

Deep Space Nine was a space station abandoned by the Cardassians, a race in a state of truce with the Federation, after they were finally forced off of the planet Bajor by the revolt of the populace. Basically, think of the Cardassian Military as the SS and Bajor as WWII-era Poland. Thus, the Cardassians weren't too popular on Bajor or Deep Space Nine after the evacuation - making Garak's continued residency an oddity that immediately made one wonder about his history.

Beyond that, Garak was often a good source of the sorts of "outsider" observations and often dark lines that some of the other characters couldn't get away with. There's also the fact that he so often bent the truth that eventually everyone stopped taking anything he says at face value. In this clip from Season 3's "Improbable Cause," Dr. Bashir uses "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" as an analogy for why no one trusts Garak when he seems to be in danger. Garak - in one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue - offers a different interpretation. (The teleplay is credited to Rene Echevarria.)

Another excellent Garak scene is this exchange between him and Quark in Season 4's "The Way of the Warrior." Here, root beer is used as a surprisingly deft metaphor for the Federation. This episode was written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Awkward sex scenes

Okay, I'm totally drained of inspiration, so I'll fall back on the topic that always generates conversation here: sex.

What's your pick for most awkward sex scene in a film? Off the top of my head, I'd have to give the trophy to a scene in Enemy at the Gates where Jude Law and Rachel Weisz have sex in a military camp while trying not to wake up the sleeping soldiers RIGHT NEXT TO LAW!

I'm willing to be few of you made it through the entire scene before closing your browser window in embarrassment.

I'm sure the director thought this would be incredibly tense, beautiful and hot but for me the scene is such a mix of pretension and awkwardness that I can't help but think it sinks the entire film right there. My take on the film has always been that the real story was the cat-and-mouse game between the two snipers, but the story's love triangle takes up an inordinate amount of time. It's so out of tone with the rest of the film that it ruins some really cool stuff.

Your selections?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Drinking age is 21, morons.

It's illegal in America for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase alcohol. That means if you're writing a scene of 18 year-olds toasting to either graduating high school or starting college, you CAN'T SET IT IN A BAR!

That also means that you shouldn't have 18 year old characters openly drinking alcohol at a restaurant - so watch that mistake. Sure, when this thing is cast your "18 year olds" will be played by people far closer to thirty, but try to demonstrate at least a little commitment to plausibility.

Related to this, if you go to the trouble of your characters having fake IDs please spare us the obligatory scene where either the fake name is absurdly lame or the fake picture barely resembles the lead. Superbad got away with "McLovin'" but you're going to have to top that if you don't want it to feel like a retread.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: What new show are you most excited about?

One of the perks of working in the entertainment business and having friends who work in the entertainment business is that you end up seeing a number of pilots well in advance of their airdate. The reactions often range from "I can't wait to see this series!" to "They picked up this crap and passed on the awesome pilot my roommate was a writer's assistant on?!"

If you're lucky, you see some of these pilot soon after the Spring upfronts, well before the hype and the commercials start. This way, you can go into the show fresh and unbiased. I've not seen every new show from this season. I will say that NBC is holding back two of its most interesting and original shows until midseason. Smash, which deals with the staging of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, is nothing short of fantastic. Awake, which is a complicated procedural about a man who finds himself shifting realities after a car accident. In one version, his son is dead and in the other, his wife was killed in the crash. I worry that the pacing is a bit too deliberate and that audiences might struggle with the complex premise, but it's one of the more original shows I've seen.

As far as the fall shows, ABC's Revenge looks to be a lot of fun, featuring Everwood's Emily VanCamp as a young woman returning to the Hamptons to take out the elite who framed her father 15 years ago for a terrorist crime he didn't commit. VanCamp was one of the best things about Everwood and often was the only reason I tuned in to Brothers & Sisters, so I'm excited to see her carrying a show.

If you're a fan of Vampire Diaries, Secret Circle might be right up your alley. This series about a young girl who discovers she's the last member of a coven of witches is from the Vampire Diaries producers, which gives me hope that even though the pilot is heavy on mythology and has to lay a LOT of pipe, it'll soon find a balance. Even Vampire Diaries took about a third of a season to find itself, and with Life Unexpected's Britt Robertson heading up a strong cast, I'm confident it'll earn its spot on my DVR.

And if sitcoms are more your speed, check out NBC's Free Agents and Up All Night. But enough about what I think, what shows are you excited to see?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage - an HBO study in contrasts

The season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the series finale of Entourage on HBO last night made for an interesting study in contrasts. The former was the product of a modern comic maestro, a writer-performer who is constantly pushing himself and only commits to new seasons of his show when he has something to say. His comedy constantly challenges social norms and finds humor in taboos so controversial that half the laughs are motivated by shock at what is unfolding on screen.

The latter was the product of a writer who has admitted in the past that he's shocked when people take anything seriously on his show. Honestly, the last three seasons or so of Entourage have been so aimless and slapdash that I have only myself to blame for expecting more from this final season. I thought that with the foreknowledge that this was the end, the creators might have put in a little effort at investing the last hurrah with some sense of closure.

That wasn't in evidence. Instead we were served up sudden reversals from what would be akin to the "end of Act Two lowpoint" in most of the characters' lives:

- Ari and his wife are having season-long marital issues that send him into the bed of another woman and her running to the divorce lawyer. BAM! Fixed with a sudden over-the-top decision to sell the agency and move abroad. (If I had the strength, I'd detail that Mrs. Ari's issues with Ari fly in the face of years of previous characterization and the resolution honors neither that nor her bi-polar attitude this season.)

- Serial womanizer Vince is suddenly worried that an Vanity Fair article implies he's doesn't respect women. This is such a blow to him that he not only makes it his mission to prove the female writer wrong, but he decides in less than a day that she's the love of his life AND they head to Paris to get married. The formerly-insightful reporter played by Alice Eve is reduced to nothing more than a prop for Vince's 180 in characterization and a plot device for his happy ending.

- E's relationship with the most personality free recurring character on the show is on the rocks. He slept with her stepmother AND screwed over her godfather, but all is forgiven because she's pregnant and his friends went all out. Slone might have zero depth, but even she's too good for E, who didn't deserve this happy ending and really belongs slinging pizza at Sbarro's. Let's not forget the fact that two of E's friends lied to Sloane's face about his indiscretion.

- Oh, and Turtle's a millionaire. Sounds about right.

At the other end of the spectrum, Curb was a brilliant episode that stands alongside this season's "The Palestinian Chicken" and last week's Bill Buckner episode as some of the best half-hours of comedy ever. Michael J. Fox appeared as himself in a storyline that had Larry suspecting that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms so he could have carte blance to "accidentally" bump into him, give him dismissive headshakes, shake up a soda bottle before Larry opens it, and loudly clomp around in the apartment above Larry's. With each confrontation, Fox seemed to passive aggressively attack Larry, only to then play the victim, saying "It's the disease." Larry being Larry, he refused to accept this and his umbrage and frustration only served to make him appear more like the aggressor.

It's somewhat brilliant how Curb doesn't shy away from making "protected classes" the villains in these stories. I recall a blind man a few seasons back who took great advantage of his disability to impose on Larry far beyond what most people would consider reasonable.

I don't doubt some Parkinson's sufferers were offended by this episode, but having Fox play the bad guy in the scenario probably went a long way towards helping audiences see the lighter side.

(Honestly, the only fault I found with the plot was the fact that the "faker" element immediately reminded me of Rush Limbaugh's insane and completely indefensible statements about Fox, and how I hope that when Rush suffers the near-fatal heart attack he's long overdue, that someone may use national media to call him a charlatan. Right, because Parkinson's is SUCH a picnic, you overblown sack of shit.)

Okay, one other fault - the French street in the end was absurdly fake, but Larry getting into a shouting match with a Frenchman about parking etiquette was well worth it. That and Leon's chulupa discussion.

Writers - take a lesson from Larry David: Be bold, write things that sometimes scare you and others. But don't just cross the line for the sake of crossing it. I've seen plenty of specs that try to get by on just being outrageous and shocking - but it takes more than that. Curb didn't succeed because it made fun of Parkinson's. It succeeded because of how that premise created a trap that the protagonist was completely incapable of escaping from. It was a no-win situation and it was done in a way where we assume that Michael J. Fox was probably being an asshole.... but we're never 100% sure.

Better still, if he's not being an asshole, then Larry's reaction is incredibly insensitive and he deserves what he gets for escalating it. If he IS being an asshole, then Larry's still not helping the situation, as his aggressive defense is playing right into the "villain's" hands. If the story was just "Hey, let's make Michael J. Fox a faker," it might not have been as successful. Instead, the brilliance comes from Larry having to deal with the implications of that - in-character - and have his very nature make a bad situation worse. Long-time fans probably could predict many of Larry's reactions in this episode, and yet, that inevitability only made the writing more potent because after eight seasons, we know Larry is incapable of reacting any other way.

The difference between the two shows is that the Curb staff understands story and it knows how to put their characters in situations where their natural reactions cause conflict. Entourage understands neither of these things, so the characters are subject to complete personality reversals at any time in order to service the whims of the creator.

So if you have a choice to emulate Entourage or emulate Curb, choose the latter.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Star Wars Lost Jabba scene

The Star Wars BluRays finally come out next Tuesday and I'm not sure if this special feature will be among the offerings. A very devoted fan went to a lot of trouble to reconstruct the original Jabba scene from the original Star Wars as it was shot. If you've seen the Special Editions, you know that Lucas placed a CG Jabba over the stand-in actor so that this film's Jabba would match the one eventually introduced in Return of the Jedi.

The scene below is reconstructed from the snippets and pieces that have leaked out over the years through various Star Wars specials, DVD features and behind-the-scenes CD-ROMs.

And in case you're curious, here's how the scene appeared on the 2004 DVD release:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An idea is not a story

An idea is not a story.

"A scientist clones dinosaurs" is not a story.

"Cloned dinosaurs run amok when the safeguards of their carefully controlled bio-preserve are sabotaged" is a story.

Don't write an entire script about an idea. Write a story.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bad sex scenes

AAAAARGH!!! I've had it up to here with bad, gratuitous, overwritten, ridiculous sex scenes. The hack writer seems determined to get his characters down and dirty repeatedly in his script. Yet interestingly, expect for cases where the sex is totally integral to the plot, like Disclosure. (And I have NO idea why Disclosure was the first film that leapt to mind there. I haven't even seen that film in something like 15 years), I can't think of too many major studio releases with long, on-screen sex scenes.

Sure, there's plenty of setting up the sex and then showing the aftermath. And yes, this usually involves getting the attractive leads into some state of undress, but are there many movies where we're voyeurs for much of the act? My gut says no.

So hit me with your sexiest moments in film. I'm curious to see how many of you name actual sex scenes versus scenes that are content simply to tease.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Practical tip: Back up often.

A good friend of mine had something happen that will probably make all of you want to vomit when you hear it. His hard drive died... with about 8 years worth of writing on it. Eight years of work - GONE.

I can hear a few of you now - "Why didn't he back up his work?" He did. It was on a flashdrive, the very same flashdrive that was plugged into his computer when it suffered whatever surge claimed the hard drive. Apparently, this surge was enough to render the data on the flashdrive unrecoverable.

Back up everything in multiple ways. My friend was able to recover some of what he was missing thanks to the fact he'd emailed several scripts out to other friends. However, these were only PDFs, which means he has to retype everything into Final Draft. It also means that he lost many, many interim drafts that were not send out for public consumption and he lost any newer rewrites.

My new policy is to email myself a copy of the Final Draft file and the corresponding PDF each time I complete a draft. That way there'll always at least be some sort of back up in cyberspace in my email folder. This isn't a foolproof plan, but between backing up like this, and via flashdrives and shutting material between my two computers, I hope I can reduce the odds of losing my entire creative portfolio in one swoop.

Seriously, don't let this week go by without putting double redundant backups into place. You don't want to end up like my friend.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Star Wars Blu Ray changes

With all the furor this week over the changes George Lucas has made to the Star Wars films yet AGAIN for the upcoming blu-ray release, it seems like a good time to dip into You Tube and remind ourselves that there's much more Lucas could tinker with if he was so inclined.

Take this re-edited scene from Empire Strikes Back for instance.

And I kind of like this re-edited credits scene with Hawaii Five-0 music.