Monday, October 31, 2011

Broad villains in comedies

Derek asks:

Hi Zuul, 

First, thanks for all of the knowledge you've passed down via the site. I've picked up a lot of stuff from it and I appreciate your efforts.

I'm writing a comedy, and the antagonist is an aggressive, serious, overconfident man, kind of like Bradley Cooper's character in Wedding Crashers. A typical d-bag, if you will. I can't help wondering if the script would be funnier if the bad guy was more over-the-top, the way the bad guys Will Ferrell plays are (Zoolander's Mugato is a good example). Seems like it's more meaningful if the bad guy really is just a terrible human being, someone we hate, someone we want to see defeated by the good guy. At the same time, lots of comedies these days go with the over-the-top, likable bad guy to cash in on as many laughs as possible, often at the expense of meaningful conflict. What do you think?

It's funny you should bring this up because I was recently thinking about villains in 80s comedies and how often they were treated much more seriously than modern comedy villains.  In fact, if you made some of those comedies today, they might not even have their "serious" bad guys and instead focus more on the high concept premise.

Consider Three Men & A Baby.  In that film, three bachelor roommates are saddled with an infant fathered by one of the men.  The comedy comes from the men awkwardly embracing fatherhood, only to bond with the infant and then be faced with losing her when the mother comes back into the picture.

Oh, and there's also a subplot about a couple drug dealers trying to get their hands on a package of drugs that was sent to one of the main characters on the same day that the baby was left on the doorstep.

Wait, what?

And then there's Twins.  Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito are twin brothers engineered in an experiement who find each other in adulthood.  Not only are the two of different physiques, but also different temperments and lifestyles.  There's instant comedy conflict.

Oh, and in the middle of this film there's a subplot about the brothers having crossed a contract delivery man/killer who murders in cold blood anyone who sees his face.  (I'm vastly oversimplifying, but I don't want to get too much into that unnecessarily convoluted plot.)

I don't know exactly when the shift happened, but my point is that there was a time when even the most fluffy and escapist of premises seemed obligated to include bad guys willing to shoot our heroes dead if needed.  And then thing is, I wouldn't call the antagonists of either of those films "pretty well-developed."  It's not as if the gun-toting killers brought meaningful conflict.  The best I can figure is that those movies were a product of the times.

With regard to your specific question, I think that today, there's a stronger sense of matching the bad guy to the tone of the film.  You bring up Mugatu from Zoolander as an example of the over-the-top bad guy as contrasted with Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers.  First, I thought Cooper was pretty much one-dimensional in that film (but that might be because I've never, ever warmed to that actor).  But I think the more cogent point is, you couldn't put Mugatu into Wedding Crashers and have that movie work in the same way.  He doesn't fit in that reality at all.

Yet the other examples I cited would suggest that you can put a "serious" bad guy into an inherently light premise and not disrupt reality as much.  For your specific story, I think the answer probably lies in how elastic your reality is.  In a film like There's Something About Mary, there's enough latitude to go relatively broad with the antagonists without either making them cartoons or threatening the integrity of the film.

But this is probably a topic that could generate a lot of discussion, so what do you say, folks?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Villains Laughing Maniacally

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday Throwback: Lessons from Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson's Scream

This post originally ran on Wednesday, October 28, 2009.   


When it comes to slasher films, I only have a few favorites. I've seem dozens of them and I don't boycott the genre by any means (I save that venom for torture porn and Saw ripoffs. If you like that shit, don't try to defend it. I don't want to hear it.), but there are many, many more bad slasher films than good ones. Among the best, is 1996's Scream, written by Kevin Williamson, and directed by horror legend Wes Craven - whose A Nightmare on Elm Street is also on my "favorite slasher movies" list.

Scream pretty much single-handedly revived the teen horror genres after years when it was well out of favor. For the first time in a long time, horror was smart, scary and funny again. If it wasn't for that resurgence, you have to wonder what sort of movies the teen stars of the WB and CW would have ended up making during their hiatuses. I've read a lot of bad horror scripts that were trying to be like Scream, but few of them seem to have really deconstructed the film and made note of what really made it work. Here's what Scream really gets right:

A killer opening sequence: Granted, Craven's directing has a lot to do with this, and having a director that skilled isn't something a writer can always count on. Putting that aside, there's a lot here that's on target. A lot of horror scripts start with a three or four page kill scene that doesn't do much beyond setting up a victim and killing them off immediately. It's usually treated as a disposable scene that's just there to grab the audience and then give the writer license to spend the following 25-30 pages slowly killing time until the killer jumps out of the shadows and guts the next lowest billed character (who nine times out of ten will be the female character whom the script introduces at least a full two lines after her breasts.)

Scream's opening is a bit longer than that, and it doesn't just give us a victim and a killer. It has them interact via phone and we see the killer's MO established with clever dialogue. He asks his victims to name their favorite scary movie, setting an important tone for the killer and the movie in general - this is a movie about people who have actually seen scary movies and know all the conventions and cliches. It's a way of announcing to the audience "This isn't a film that's going to just cynically recycle the cliches - it's gonna subvert them!" (Now, whether this sort of meta humor is always a good thing is probably a topic for another column.)

As many, many reviews have been written about Scream's self-aware tone, I won't waste much more time on it. My point is that the opening sequence isn't a throwaway kill. It's crucial to the fabric of the movie beyond being a scene that shows a killer is out there.

Sharp dialogue - Here's where you probably either love Williamson or hate him. I'm firmly in the former category. The characters - especially Jamie Kennedy's Randy - are constantly referencing movies, both in terms of the horror setting and in other scenes. (In one example, a character laments that his relationship with his girlfriend is like a horror movie "edited for television" - all the good parts have come out. Every character has a distinct voice. A Randy line doesn't sound like a Billy line. Nor does a Sydney line sound like a Tatum line. I've suffered through many a horror script where Jack's lines seemed interchangeable with Ryan's, or even Jennifer's. I've also read a lot of scripts that try to imitate the Williamson (or Joss Whedon) penchant for pop culture references and you know what? Every character talks exactly the same. It's not enough to make your characters witty - they need to be distinctively witty.

(Now, sometimes the actors will make this harder for you. I remember loving Scream's dialogue, but feeling that some of Williamson's dialogue in early Dawson's Creek sounded rather clunky. Revisiting Scream post-Dawson's actually left me feeling that there wasn't THAT much difference in the dialogue, stylistically. If you listen to some of the lines in Scream, you can clearly pick up on cadences and rhythms that turn up on the TV series. So why does Dawson's sound more forced? To be blunt, the actors seem a lot less comfortable with it - especially early on. Neve Campbell and company took Williamson's words and were able to deliver them organically. In contrast, James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes appeared to have memorized their dialogue phonetically at times.)

Great use of red herrings - Scream is a solid example of using the audiences expectations against them. From the moment it's clear that this is a whodunit, the audience is naturally going to try to outguess the film. Thus, Williamson is smart enough to not just thrown in red herrings, but use those as red herrings for further red herrings.

For example, boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is virtually the only suspect the film points a finger at early on. Thus Mr. Smarter-Than-Everyone-Else Moviegoer is going to say, "They want me to think he's the killer, but since it's still the first half-hour of the movie, he's clearly not going to turn out to be the killer. It would be too obvious... unless that's what they want me to think. So, when Billy is arrested and then seemingly cleared, it can't be taken at face value... unless they want us to think that he's still the most likely suspect so that we won't notice it's someone else...."

That was basically my internal monologue during the entire film the first time I saw it, "It's so obvious that it can't be true, unless they're counting on me NOT to suspect the most obvious suspect!"

And don't even get me started on the debate about which glass had the iocane powder....

Anyway, I kept vacillating about the killer's identity - still casting a suspicious eye towards Billy right up until the point he got gutted in the bedroom. At that point, the audience's reaction is probably something along the lines of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!" as they try to outguess the movie again. Even later, when Billy turned up still alive, I remember not suspecting him. After all, we saw him and the killer at the same time, right? Which leads to...

Using the audience's knowledge of the genre against them - I'm sure there are obscure counterexamples, but I can't recall a slasher film with two killers working together. Williamson knew that the audience would assume that there's only one killer to be unmasked, and because the script doesn't tip it's hand on this until the very end, certain characters seem to be accounted for at the same time the killer is shown. We're used to getting one psycho with one convoluted motivation - so most viewers were likely totally blindsided when the ending hinged on two killers working in concert with each other.

I'm not even sure if this counts as misdirection so much as it is knowing how the audience is going to interpret the unspoken clues. The best mysteries hide their solutions in plain sight. They rely not so much on deception as the audience putting themselves and their logic in a box. In this case, the "box" is "There is only one killer." We were never told this - the movie just gambled we'd assume it. Thus, Craven and Williamson haven't deceived us so much as WE have deceived ourselves. That's a lot more subtle than simply cheating by lying to the audience about what they were shown, and that's the sort of twist that keeps people talking. (See also The Sixth Sense.) A weak mystery plays out exactly how you'd expect, in the precise manner you'd expect.

So if you have never seen Scream, slip it into your movie marathons this weekend. You won't be disappointed. Yeah, I kinda blew the ending for you, but there's more than enough to keep you entertained even with that.

Plus after that, you can watch Scream 2 completely fresh. (Scream 3 isn't as strong a script, in part because Williamson is replaced by Ehren Kruger. I'd love to know what Williamson's original plan for the trilogy closer was.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Screenwriter: "I Just Don't Want to Answer Phones at a Place I used to pitch."

The Wrap has an excellent article focusing on a screenwriter who's been so hard up for work, he's had to turn to temp assignments to pay the bills.  It's a sad tale of how the industry has changed to make it difficult for even B-list writers to cultivate their careers the way they used to.  This particular writer saw his first film gross $80 million dollars and he sold a second script.  Yet that money runs out quickly in today's world.

"I was doing fine for a while, and then it seemed like after the writers strike, studios and production companies used that as an excuse to cut in-house deals and use that as an excuse not to pay writers for anything."

He suddenly found himself competing with A-list writers for B-list jobs. 

"A lot of the jobs I used to go up for, A-list, like super A-list writers are going for those jobs right now," he said. "In the past, they wouldn't have. There was enough of every level to go around." 

Now, he said, with studios cutting back on the number of movies they make, it's a tougher world. "They used to make films in the 5-to-10 million dollar range," he said. "Now everybody wants to do either the super micro-budget stuff, they want to make remakes or sequels, or they want to make tentpoles. A lot of those middle-ground movies that filled the marketplace, those assignments are gone now."

He goes on to say that studios used to develop projects more - but now it's expected that you'll have the project ready to go - developed and packaged - before they'll pick it up.

And he said studios have used the economy as a justifaction for their own greed. "The studios aren't hurting," he said. "They're just trying to keep as much money as possible." In addition, he said, "Studios used to buy and develop projects a lot more. Now, you almost have to have the project developed and packaged to get it picked up."

Though he's turned to temp work, he says he won't take an assignment in an entertainment company.

"You don't want to answer phones in an office you've pitched to in the past," he said. "It's a little humiliating."

Agreed.  You can read the whole article here.

Tuesday Talkback: Greatest Horror Sequels

It's Halloween week, and usually I ask some variation of "What's your favorite scary movie?"  This year, I'll mix it up a bit.  If you were to program a horror movie marathon made up ONLY of horror sequels, what would you choose?

For the purposes of this discussion, assume "so bad they're good" movies are perfectly acceptable.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unofficial Get Your Shit Done Week begins now

I had a choice today.  I could write a few blog posts for this week, or I could make serious headway in the Act I have to write for my latest pilot spec.  Since too often I've used the blog as an excuse to procrastinate, this time I decided that blogging would take a backseat until I got at least ten pages written.

This sparked an idea.  I'm trying to finish Act Two of a pilot, reconvene with my writing partner on Saturday and then finish Act Three with him over the weekend.  I want to use this week to motivate everyone to make some headway on their writing  Think of this as a support group.  Seven days, people.  The clock starts now.  In comments, put your writing goals for this week.  Then, come back next Monday and tell us how far you got.  Let's keep each other honest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Yom Kippur at WME

Twitter is a funny thing.  Recently in one fell swoop I got to interact with childhood crush Danica McKellar AND make a frenemy-for-life of screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe ("Going the Distance").  This occured when I beat him to the correct answer of one of Danica's regular anagram tests, prompting him to say, "I can't wait to hit you in the mouth."

Bring it, Geoff.

Frankly, I'm not scared of him, but in the interests of detente, I'd like to feature his new short "Yom Kippur at WME," starring the incomparable J.B Smoove.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Great concepts: Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's Superman: Secret Identity

I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite comic books, which just so happens to be getting a reprint this week.  Superman: Secret Identity is one of the greatest Superman stories - nay, greatest comic stories - ever told... and it doesn't even feature the real Superman.  Perhaps I should explain.

Secret Identity is a wonderful example of a writer taking a familiar property and finding a completely different spin on it.  Were Superman in the public domain like all the fairy tales that seem to be in production these days, we might even see a writer develop this brilliant concept as a screenplay, as it offers the chance to reinvent Superman in a way that might make him more accessible to a modern audience.

The graphic novel is set in the "real world," that is to say - our world.  It's a world where Superman is a fictional character, and our hero is a young man born to the Kent family - and who was tagged with the unfortunate first name of "Clark."  As you might expect, this ensured a nearly-daily ritual of taunting and teasing. 

Then during one night of camping, Clark wakes up and he can fly...  and in short order he figures out he has all of Superman's powers.  He starts doing good deeds in secret, but superpowered feats like that don't go unnoticed, even if the local "Superboy" can't be proven to be more than an urban myth.  At Halloween, Clark dons a Superboy costume, hiding in plain sight as his abilities are called upon to end a catastrophe.

The incident convinces Clark to continue being a hero in secret.  The story was released in four chapters, with each chapter covering a different installment of Clark's life.  We watch him grow from boy into man, fall in love, start a family, and even work in secret for the government.  The artwork by Stuart Immonen is gorgeous, having almost a painted quality to it.

But all that art would be just pretty pictures without Kurt Busiek's wonderful story behind it.  It's more than just a cool concept - it's a very well-developed portrait of a young man who becomes a hero.  Character comes first in Secret Identity and though the story takes some turns, the comic's appeal is less about what Superman does, and more in who Clark Kent is.  There's more depth and development given to this Clark than just about any character who's headlined a superhero film in the last decade.

The story really explores what it might be like for a Superman to exist in "our" world.  But this isn't the story of Superman so much as it's the story of Clark Kent.  If you removed every reference to Superman, you'd still be left with a very strong, three-dimensional character in Clark.  Busiek's Clark has real depth and it's wonderful to watch him mature over these issues.  Clark's arc is the backbone of Secret Identity, and as the story heads into its final pages, it has one of my favorite lines in all of comicdom.  (I won't reveal it, as it doesn't quite have the same power out of context.  It's a sentimental line, I'll say that much.)

The story had been collected in a trade paperback that has long since fallen out of print.  DC Comics had decided to reprint the four-issue miniseries in two volumes.  The first volume was released this week, and for a mere $7.99, you can get the first 96 pages of the story.  Run to your comic store and ask for this.  You'll see how even the most familiar of heroes can be reinvented in a way that makes him accessible to people who probably aren't usually attracted to superhero comics.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Very Special Episodes: Ham-fisted writing at its finest

If you're part of my generation, you'll likely have a certain association with the words "Jesse Spano" and "caffeine pills."  Yes, I'm sure the Pointer Sisters haven't sounded the same to you since.

Anyway, I don't envy writers stuck with an assignment to impart a message or life lesson to their audience.  I think that it's possible to use drama and comedy to put forth certain messages or ideas.  The problem is that when the message is the raison d'etre for the entire story, writers tend not to trust an audience to get any subtlety or nuance.  Thus, the result is the "Very Special Episode."  Sitcoms of the 80s and early 90s were crawling with these.  For one week, the escapism you got from your favorite show would be replaced with the future Chandler Bing dying in a car crash to teach us all a lesson about drunk driving, or Alex Keaton having an emotional breakdown from survivor's guilt.

But those are only scratching the tip of the iceberg.  Check out this salute to the Very Special Episode.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Scarring the minds of today's youth

I was talking to some friends of mine who work in casting and they told me about a fun little girl they met on the job.  This eight year-old girl spoke of how her favorite movie was The Dark Knight, and when questioned further about this, she said she was very impressed with the cinematography and then apparently went into a long discussion of what she had learned from the Blu-Ray special features about how they shot and edited the film.

My first thought: Wow, an 8 year-old who actually knows and appreciates what cinematography is.

My second thought: An 8 year-old was allowed to see The Dark Knight?!?!?!  How was a second-grader allowed to see something that violent?

I was appalled by this.... until I remembered that when Tim Burton's Batman came out, my parents took me to see it in the theaters.  I was nine.  My brother was seven.  And as violent as that film was, I don't recall being scared or scared by it.  My parents, on the other hand, probably are still reeling from the scars caused by having to listen to the Prince soundtrack to Batman on every long car trip for the following year or so.  (Look, I'm sorry.  I'd take that back if I could.  Besides, I'm pretty sure your selections of the Les Miz soundtrack were punishment enough for my younger incarnation.)

Also, my parents were smart in that they recognized that the emotional damage a Tim Burton film could do to a nine year-old was nothing compared to the sheer hell that a nine year-old would make of your life if you stand between him and said Batman film.

So how about you guys?  What films did your parents let you see at an early age that now make you go "Wow, I don't know if I'd put that in front of a ten year-old?"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lesson: When pushing your work, think outside the box

It's probably not any secret that when it comes to breaking in, writing a great script is often only part of the equation.  Your brilliant writing still needs to get noticed by people who can do something with it.  The problem - everyone in town is trying to get noticed to.  Anyone who's reading scripts already has more scripts than they can deal with - so getting someone to agree your writing is a major favor.

Nobody owes you a read.  And a young writer just starting out, if they're lucky enough to get representation, is likely to find themselves a low priority for that agent.  I came across this article about how Boardwalk Empire creator Terry Winter executed some unusual tactics to get his script into the right hands.  After getting his hands on a list of agents who accepted unsolicited submissions, he recognized the name of a guy he went to school with.  Problem: when he called up this guy, he found out the guy had become a real-estate attorney and didn't really know anything about being an agent.

Most writers probably would have said, "Crap" and bemoaned the lousy luck of their networking.  Winter instead had a great idea.

So we made a deal where I would create basically a phony agency with his name. I did this out of the Mail Boxes Etc. on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I got a voice-mail system and letterhead printed up. I said I’m gonna submit my work under your name, and if I get anything, I’ll give you ten percent like a real agent. 

I took a day off from work and hit like every sitcom office in L.A., which at the time, there were like 26 sitcoms on the air. And I just walked in wearing a baseball cap and said, Yeah, hi, I’m the messenger from this agency and here are the scripts you wanted. And I thought, all right, at least my scripts are in the building where people theoretically could hire me. 

A couple of weeks went by and I got a call on a Friday from Winifred Hervey Stallworth, who at the time was the showrunner for “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and she was calling for Doug, who was my agent. And she said, Yeah, Doug, it’s Win Hervey from “Fresh Prince.” I read Terry Winter’s scripts and really think they’re great. We’d love to maybe talk to you about having him come in to pitch. 

So I called Doug in New York. At this point it was like 4 in the afternoon in L.A. and 7 in New York, and he was already gone for the weekend. So I thought, Oh, God, I’ve gotta wait until Monday now. And then it occurred to me that Doug didn’t really know anything about being an agent, so I thought, you know what, I can just call and say I’m Doug and it’ll be easier to cut out the middleman. 

I called her and she said, Oh, great, Doug. Oh, you know, “Fresh Prince” is sort of a teenage-oriented show. Does he have like one more teenage kind of script? And I said, Yeah, he just finished a “Wonder Years” spec that’s really terrific -- which was a lie. I didn’t have anything else at that point; she had everything I wrote. 

I said, Terry’s out of town for the weekend, but I could probably get this to you by Tuesday. And she said, Yeah great, Tuesday’s fine. I hung up the phone, and from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon, I cranked out a “Wonder Years” script, and then I threw the baseball hat back on, went as a messenger again and showed up at the office, flung it in the door, made sure nobody saw me, because at this point I was like the messenger, the agent, the client …

So there you have it.  You've got to be your own biggest advocate.  You can read the rest of Winter's story here.

Here's what I like about this story - Winter used his resouces in a way that took advantage of the system, but wasn't arrogant or obnoxious about it.  Too many aspirings think that being their own biggest cheerleader means they have to be obnoxiously arrogant and overconfident.  I get emails now and then that read something like, "I am the greatest writer who ever lived!  I know this is the best script you'll ever read and if you turn it down, years from now you'll be sorry that you weren't the one who found me!"

Confidence is good.  Overconfidence is off-putting.  Sending me multiple emails also isn't a good idea to get my attention.  And a good way to REALLY piss me off is send me an arrogant email, then write by in a few days getting angry that I haven't replied one way or another.

Let me put it this way: have you seen those auditioners on The X-Factor who come in saying they're the next Mariah, Whitney, or whoever?  How often do those guys really blow you away when they sing?  More often than not they sound worse than a drunk Linda McCartney on karaoke night.  Then, when told they aren't making the cut - notice how many of them become combative.  Notice how many of them invite Simon to have sex with himself and then rant to the cameras how the competition sucks anyway and the show is full of people who don't know what they're doing - or they had to get rid of this person because they were just too damn good.

The screenwriting world is full of those types too, people who mistake their own arrogance as a virtue.  Don't be the guy who tells Simon to fuck himself.  Be the guy who walks his script into the office, takes the call that follows up and then leverages that into another submission.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wanted! Puppetmaker!

I've got a project I'm about to start and I'm looking for someone who could make a custom puppet for me.  I need something in the vein of a Bert & Ernie or an Avenue Q type of hand puppet.  I've got some designs for what I want, but I don't have the artistic talent to execute it.

If anyone out there is more artistic than me and would be interested in doing this, please shoot me an email at  If possible, include examples of your work and an estimate of what your prices would be.

Thanks all! I hope one of you out there can help.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Every screenwriter has his limits

No matter how good you get as a writer, you can't expect to write everything.  There are certain styles, subjects and tones that a particular writer might be excellent at, while being completely inept in others.  In fact, the best screenwriters are probably those who understand not just what they're capable of, but also what they're NOT capable of.

Take Aaron Sorkin, for example.  In this Daily Beast article, he talks about a conversation he once had with Steve Jobs:

[Jobs] wanted me to write a Pixar movie. I told him I loved Pixar movies, I’d seen all of them at least twice and felt they were small miracles, but that I didn’t think I’d be good at it. 

STEVE: Why not? 

ME: I just—I don’t think I can make inanimate objects talk. 

STEVE: Once you make them talk they won’t be inanimate. 

ME: The truth is I don’t know how to tell those stories. I have a young kid who loves Pixar movies and she’ll turn cartwheels if I tell her I’m writing one and I don’t want to disappoint her by writing the only bad movie in the history of Pixar.

 Most writers would kill for Aaron Sorkin's talent... and yet, there are still things he's afraid of.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: How do I get started?

 Wes writes in with a question that I imagine a lot of new writers struggle with:

I am not a writer!  Never formally trained in the art of crafting a story or grabbing a reader (audience) and letting them journey to a place or thought or mood I want them to go.

I have an idea for a story.  I feel it’s a good one.  The problem is I know how I want my story to end.  It is a vivid image that I have actually pre-visualized from final twist to end credits in my mind.   I know the meaning I want the reader to explore.  What I am having problems with is getting there and getting there in a format that will attract, engross, and satisfy a “gate keeper”.

I have been watching TV episodics more closely.  I have become critical of easy and convenient exposition.  I have read a few working scripts and screenplays to familiarize myself with the format and cues of dialog and scene.

What more should I do to get me from a critical viewer to a critical crafter?

I am possessed by the daemon of the blank page with ideas running frenzied in my head and nothing fish-boned or outlined.  I need something more than sit down, shut up, and write! 

"Sit down and write" probably would have been the start of my advice.  There are amateur mistakes that every writer is going to make when they get started, so I'm a big believer in buckling down and getting them out of the way.  No matter how much you prepare, odds are that the first draft of your first script will be ridden with mistakes. 

If you've gotten to the point where you can critically study someone else's work and learn from it, you're probably ready to apply that to your own work.  So crank out a first draft and then go to town on it.

What advice do all of you have for Wes?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mailbag: Don't send me this email! also Length and locations

I've really been lax in dipping into the mailbag, so I'm going to try to clear out a few questions that have been sitting around for months.  Sorry guys!

First, I'm going to withold the writer's name so as to not embarrass them.  This landed in my Inbox with the Subject line "Ill give you 50% rights if u like my script."

If u read n like my slap stick comedy script n gets sold give u 50% of what iget 4 it trust its nt a bad script 

Look, you can't even compose a one (well, technically two, but you forgot a period) sentence email without demonstrating you have no capacity for writing a coherent phrase.  Why would I subject myself to 120 pages of that?

Also, never promise a reader half of your take.  It's just tacky.

From Clint:

You read a lot about screenplays being too long, but when is a screenplay too short?

If you flip to the last page and see "131" you have one impression. What do you think when you flip to the last page and see "91"?

Um, "Yippie?"

At one of my old gigs, the readers would come into the office and take the scripts off of a stack that had be left out for us.  The first thing I'd do before even considering signing a script out would be to look at the page length.  Anything near 90 pages got grabbed first... unless it flunked my second test - opening the cover page and seeing a period date at the start.

I didn't always leave the longer scripts.  A clever title always got me to pick up something closer to 120.  The only time I'd take anything over 120 was when I recognized the writers name, or it had been passed over so many times by others that I was the unlucky fool who had to get it done before the deadline.

Having a 91 page script MIGHT indicate that you're a little light on content, but that's an issue unique to the script.  As far as it repelling a reader - it's not likely to happen.  If you're at 85 pages, that's probably when I start to think the script is likely to be light on story and/or plot twists.

Chris asks:

I had a question that I had not really found touched upon in your blog. It has to do with the naming conventions of slug lines. I have noticed that some screenplays use the same name throughout, while others use a generic term (i.e. SUBURBAN HOME), then once they introduce whose house it is, from that point forward it is referenced as that character's house. 

If you look at the February 19th version of "Crazy, Stupid, Love" by Dan Fogelman, he starts off the house as being "SUBURBAN HOUSE", then once it is stated whose house it is, the house is referenced as "TRACY AND CAL'S HOUSE", then finally, "THE WEAVER HOUSE". While I understand that there really are not any hard and fast rules governing the formatting and other naming conventions, I just wanted to see what someone, in your position, considered the norm. 

Lastly, I understand that an error as minor as this might not play any part into the rejection of a screenplay, I'm trying my best to remove any sort of amateur mistakes as possible. 

I think for clarity, it's usually best to keep the same name throughout.  Sometimes that might not be possible, as when you need to identify a location, but stating it as "Steve's House" might give something away for some reason.  Also, this is one of those things that might affect a script report.  If you're trying to figure out how many scenes take place in a particular location, having inconsistent names for the locations can throw off that count.

So it's probably a good habit to get into, but as you note, it's not something that's likely to affect the Consider/Pass rating on your script.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Free-for-All: Sean Young begs for an audition... again

This has to be one of the more awkward things I've seen this week.  Back in 1991, Sean Young mounted a rather... enthusiastic campaign to play Catwoman in Batman Returns.  She'd been cast as Vicki Vale in the original Tim Burton Batman, but had to bow out after an injury.  So when the sequel came around a few years later, she decided she should let it be known that she was willing to play the part.

Unfortunately, this included going on The Joan Rivers Show in full Catwoman regalia, basically begging/demanding an audition.  As if that wasn't bad enough, she made her way onto the Warner Bros. lot and attempted to confront Tim Burton directly.

Now, when something like this becomes what you're known for in Hollywood, you'll find that doors aren't just closed in your face, but locked and deadbolted as well.  So Sean Young's actor career soon dwindled.  Two decades later, if you mention her name to someone in Hollywood, the Catwoman campaigning is probably one of the first things that springs to mind.

So Ms. Young decided the time had come to try to put to rest some of those old demons.  And what better way to do that than by going onto a talk show and begging for an audition?

Sigh... the more things change...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The "And Then" Problem - as explained by South Park's creators.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone recently crashed an NYU Film class on its first day and imparted some wisdom to the students that is simple, but essential when crafting a story.  I'll let Trey Parker explain  (around the 4:00 mark).  In the event the embed doesn't work for you, go here:

"We found out this really simple rule... we can take... the beats of your outline, and if the words "and then' belong between those beats, you're f**ked, basically.  You've got something pretty boring.  What should happen between every beat you've written down is the word 'therefore' or 'but.'  

"So you come up with an idea and it's like 'this happens... and then, this happens.'  No, no, no!  It should be 'this happens... and therefore, this happens.'  [or] 'this happens... but this happens.'"

In transcript form, that probably reads more confusing than it plays.  I recognized this advice immediately, though, because it's something I term the "And Then Problem" when writing up coverage.  As most of you know, writing up coverage usually involves producing a story synopsis.  Nothing makes you aware of the weaknesses in story construction more than trying to boil down 120 pages to a page and a half or two pages of description that covers all the important moments while still flowing effectively.

A well-constructed script often makes for an easily written synopsis because there's that domino effect that Trey is essentially describing.  One scene clearly connects to the next and has an impact. Bad scripts jump all over the place before settling on a direction - or they pick a direction only to sputter and allow intermediate beats to drop the ball.

If it helps, describe your script to someone and see how often you find yourself resorting to "And Then" in your descriptions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

People can't tell you they want things they can't imagine - words of wisdom from a network president

Proving that not all TV executives are as foolish as their reputations, Fox Television entertainment president Kevin Reilly gave an incredible keynote speech at MIPCOM earlier this week.  One segment in particular really spoke to me:

Many successes are the result of happy accidents. I’ve come to be as respectful of that, as I am of clear vision. In fact, I think one important aspect of clear vision is setting up the possibility for a happy accident. Like any executive, I put a high value on analysis and strategic thinking. However, I’ve also seen over-thinking squeeze out innovation and grind down alternative points of view.
We often look to research to guide our decision. I’ve certainly found research to be a helpful tool, and we do a fair amount of it on both programming and marketing materials.  I’ve seen it accurately identify a break-out show like ER for example, that many executives didn’t understand at first.


The fact is, if I had relied solely on research results, I would never have gone forward with some of the shows that I am most proud of and that marked some of my biggest successes. The Office was a horrifically testing pilot, even though a very small base of young people loved it. American fans of the British original were disappointed and the new audience thought Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, was mean spirited and the show depressing and boring. We tested Glee four times, all with the same negative result: it was a show that nobody liked. It didn’t fit neatly into any reference bucket: comedy, drama or musical. As a result, it seemed to be rejected. Therein lies the trap — when you poll people about what they want, they don’t know how to tell you they want or like things they can’t yet imagine.

Steve Jobs made products that people didn’t know they couldn’t live without. When Jim Cameron was making Avatar, few could have imagined that tall blue people was something the world wanted to see. Far more movies and television shows have failed for being bland than being bold.

Unfortunately when a bold bet fails it’s met with the question, “what were you thinking?” So more often than not, we stick to the formula. Yet I’ve rarely heard asked, “What were you thinking putting on a derivative, boring show that looked like everything else?” I don’t understand that. I think now, more than ever, the audience simply won’t indulge it.

Be bold.  Give your audience something they didn't know they needed.  That is something every creative type should aspire to.

You can find the transcript of the entire speech here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Fantasy Network Executive

Okay, it's been a few weeks into the new TV season.  That means we've been able to see at least two episodes of the new shows.  If you could cancel one show, what would it be?  If you could retool one show what would it be? And if you could give one show a full-season pickup, what would it be?

As I've got several friends working on shows competing for renewal, I'll avoid choosing sides by answering that question.  For cancellation, it's a dead heat between Whitney and The Playboy Club.

For retooling, I think Ringer is fixable, but it might require ditching some of the noir feeling and make it a full out guilty pleasure on the order of Revenge.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The era of the female screenwriter is over for good... until the next breakout hit "shocks" everyone

Earlier this summer, a new era in female-driven movies was declared when Bridesmaids had a strong showing at the summer box office to the tune of $169 million domestically, and $286 million worldwide.  I can't count how many articles I saw touting this as a victory for female screenwriters and womens' movies in general.  Again and again, executives were quoted as being invigorated to discover that the female audience *gasp* buys tickets to films featuring female protagonists.

In fact, so great was the return on Bridesmaids, it made everyone forget how incredibly annoying most of Kristen Wiig's original characters have been on Saturday Night Live and it even won Melissa McCarthy an Emmy.  (I know, the Emmy was ostensibly for the sitcom Mike & Molly, but I ask you - do YOU know anyone who watches that show?)

I couldn't help but chuckle at all of these "rah rah sisterhood!" articles - not because I have anything against female writers, mind you.  It's just that I've seen ALL of those articles and their thesis before.  It happened after Sex & The City, it happened after The First Wives Club, and I'd be willing to bet that there were similar articles after Thelma & Louise came out.

The routine: a movie targeted at a minority demographic makes a big splash - usually on a somewhat conservative budget.  The stars of the film are splashed all over the industry press for a few weeks, along with analysis that there's a vastly under-served audience out there that could yield.  Thinly-veiled ripoffs of this film are announced - begining  a trend that lasts until a solitary inferior film in that genre tanks.  This insures that when another film in that genre "inexplicably" is a hit a year or two down the line, the analysits are shocked anew.

So what I'm saying is - pretty much every female screenwriter in town is pissed at What's Your Number? for opening in eighth place this past weekend.  This is solid proof that when it comes to selling tickets for shitty concepts and poorer execution - it's a lot easier to dupe male audiences than female audiences.

This phenomena isn't limited to just female-driven films.  Tyler Perry has made a career out of going just long enough between movies for people to forget that black people go to the movies too.  Thus, every film he makes is not only a profitable hit - but it reasserts his position as a filmmaker whose works are basically a license to print money.  Amazingly no other filmmaker or studio has really taken advantage of the audience that Perry has shown time and again is there.

Furrthermore, the success of Bridesmaids was in part because it appealed to women AND men.  If you have something that speaks to a passionate audience that isn't often catered to and still draws in the men who go to, say, Adam Sandler comedies, that's where the money lies.  Similarly, consider why Will Smith is one of the biggest stars in the world - because he draws the African-American audience - and is beloved by the mainstream (read: "white") ticketbuyers.  If studio heads had any sense, they'd invest serious money in creating another black superstar capable of headlining movies that would have been once led by Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson.

And if I had any sense, I'd be writing a film with an ensemble African-American cast, with a few funny ladies thrown in for fun.

Screw it, I'm making that my next project - a comedy about maturing African American "playas" who get a new perspective on romance as they woo a bunch of comedicly gifted Caucasian ladies.  I think I'll call it Where All the White Women At?

So what can you, the writer, take from this?  Easy - every trend is cyclical.  It's always the Year of the Woman until a bomb comes out.  But even when the trend goes fallow it ALWAYS comes back.  So if you're halfway through a female driven ensemble comedy - finish it!  If you've got a great script that just so happens to be predominantly African-American in cast, don't worry, its day will come.  If it was hot before, it will be hot again.

So hang in there, ladies.  If your script's any good, it'll have its day.