Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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

Driscoll asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Anyone looking for a collaborator?

Wes writes in:

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

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

Any information or proverbial nudge would be appreciated.

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Screenwriter Alan Trustman responds to THE JUDAS PROPHECY review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not really a one of those.

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

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

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

We don't say Indian.

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

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

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

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

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

The Chumash were peaceful.

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

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

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

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

Giving his land back!

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

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

Oh, someone put a stake in me!

You got a lot of volunteers in here...

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

The preferred term is --

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

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

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

We don't want to fight anybody.

I just want to have Thanksgiving.

Yeah, good luck.

If we could talk to him --

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie quote bonding - Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone have any similar anecdotes?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, November 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Bullitt" screenwriter Alan Trustman sells his unproduced specs on

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

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

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

Unlimited Free Image and File Hosting at MediaFire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Great blog! I loved it!

Why the ad?

Because this fat lady decided to sing.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Cliches you're sick of

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

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

Gratuitious gross-out gags?

Gratuitious sex scenes?

Sex scenes that aren't gratuitious enough?

Protagonists who are irritatingly flawed?

Protagonists who are irritatingly perfect?

Weak female characters?

Strong female characters?

Airhead bimbo characters?

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

Show, don't tell - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your favorite examples of such?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The difference between coverage and a review

After my post on Monday wherein I expressed that aspiring script readers might find it useful to peruse internet reviews, I got a tweet from someone called "BrainyReviewer":

"So if aspiring script readers should read reviews, that entails reviewers (good ones) can succeed as script readers?"

That's one of those apples = oranges/transitive property tricks that I'm often wary to agree with because it's not a perfect analogy.  Limited to 140 characters in response, I tweeted back "It's possible, assuming they can adapt to the needs of coverage."

To that, BrainyReviewer asked, "Can you please elaborate?"

Certainly.  At the core of this is a simple truth.  A review is not coverage.  What Roger Ebert writes is not coverage.  What AICN publishes is not coverage.  And most any review you read on the internet is not coverage.

Coverage and reviews are similar in that both (presumably) entail looking at a work of art analytically.  A review of a TV show or a movie might examine the deeper themes of the film, note the complexity of the plot or character arcs, or evaluate the merits of the concept.  The difference is that the format of a movie review or a random internet review is almost certainly less rigid than coverage.  When writing coverage, brevity is often important.  You're writing a review for people who are too busy to read the actual script, so the coverage needs to break down the nuts and bolt succinctly in a professional fashion.

In my experience, agencies are the most rigid when it comes to coverage format.  Basic coverage is four paragraps, broken down as follows:

- Introduction
- Characters
- Plot/Structure/Concept
- Conclusion

Most of the time, that's all expected to fit on less than a page.  Depending on the agency, there might be a little give on those numbers, but I'm not aware of any agency that encourages coverage to be two pages or more.  Most of the places I've worked for prefer the coverage notes not go over a page.

Also, as rigid as agency coverage guidelines are (and like everything else associated with agency work, they are indeed needlessly complicated and weighed down with a multitude of arbitrary rules) production companies tend to be a bit looser about coverage structure.  Out of habit, I maintain the four-paragraph format unless specifically directed otherwise - but I have read for companies that have accepted briefer, more superficial coverage.

But I'm drifting.  My point is that reviewers used to just putting their thoughts down on paper might find it a bit of a tricky adjustment fitting into the constraints of coverage. In addition to that structure, coverage is supposed to somewhat objective and analytical in a way that a review often isn't.  If I'm reading a genre that I personally hate, I still need to be able to weigh the script on it's merits.  My own tasted can't be the last word on the script.  It can be a guide, certainly, but I've got to have more to back up my opinion than just "It sucks."

Don't get me wrong - most of what I read sucks.  I just need to be able to "show my work" and do the math to PROVE that it sucks.

I'm sure many reviewers are capable of adapting to this format, but I did feel that it was important to make this distinction.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Longhand or Word Processing?

George Lucas has said in many interviews that he prefers to write his scripts in longhand.  Indeed, there is a behind-the-scenes feature on the Phantom Menace DVD that shows he writes his first drafts in pencil on line-legal paper which is then given to an assistant to type up in the proper format.

I have a similar quirk - when I'm brainstorming, I prefer to work out ideas in my own handwriting on lined paper.  I've tried brainstorming by typing on my laptop and despite the fact that word processing programs allow my work to be intensely more legible than the chicken scratch that passes for my handwriting, it just doesn't work for me.  Somehow I think better while writing in one of my binders.

I also habitually get my best ideas in the shower - so I suppose that means I should start taking legal pads into the bath with me.

Even after producing a typed version of my outline, I have another longhand habit.  Before I begin a day of writing, I hand-write a beat sheet of the scenes I intend to write that day.  Somehow that helps me focus.  Then, after I complete a first draft of the script, I always find it more effective to print out a hard copy and edit from that, making notes with a red pen.

So I'm curious to hear how many of you have longhand habits.  I suspect that the younger among you might be more prone to working completely on the computer.  Are any of you guys like me in that you have to work in long-hand at particular stages of writing?

Monday, November 7, 2011

The last word on "How Can I Become a Script Reader?"

In the nearly three years I've run this blog, one question has been submitted more frequently than any others: "How can I become a script reader?"  I've run several blog posts covering this question from many angles and yet I rarely go long without getting an email that asks this question.  From now on, unless I have a compelling reason to give more of an answer, I'm just going to reply to that question with a link to this page.  

So how can I become a script reader?

I'll direct you to this post where I talk about my history and how I got the job.  As several years have passed, things have doubtlessly changed, but the important detail to understand is that it's rare to get hired right out of college as a script reader.  At the risk of sounding someone pretentious, Script Reader isn't a job you "get," it's a job you "earn."  Get a job that puts you in contact with people who need scripts read, then offer to do coverage on the side for them.  If you want to be a Script Reader, don't be above taking a "lowly" PA job, particularly an Office PA job.

What education should I get in order to be a better reader?

Watch movies, read scripts.  That's essential.  Don't just watch/read good movies, but do the same for bad ones and attempt to understand why they're bad.  I also highly recommend reading reviews.  When I was in college, I visited Roger Ebert's website several times a week and I learned a lot about the art of criticism just from reading his takes on films.  I didn't always agree with him - but it was almost always informative to read why he thought what he thought.

There were also two other reviewers whose work I devoured in those days.  Tim Lynch was a major internet reviewer in the Star Trek world during the late 90s.  Though he'd been mostly retired by the time I stumbled onto his review archive, I found his reviews of Deep Space Nine so insightful about the show and TV writing in general that I made it a point to read the corresponding review before revisiting any of those episodes in syndication or DVD.  It was like a master class in both criticism and TV writing.

Another Trek reviewer who always left me with a lot to think about is Jamahl Epsicokhan aka "Jammer."  He covered most of the modern Trek series and Battlestar Galactica.  If none of those shows floats your boat, that's cool.  The net is full of quality reviewers out there, so find something you're passionate about and see if there's a reviewer who inspires you to think deeper about what you watch.

Are there many jobs out there?  How can I get hired? How much does script reading pay?

If you're looking to be a full-time script reader, completely supporting yourself just on that job, I'm going to tell you it's very difficult. It used to be that some production companies I've worked for had a script reader on salary.  They'd pay a weekly rate and that reader would get a relatively consistent workload.  Those guys had the security of knowing they'd be able to pay their bills each week.

Far more common is an arrangement where the reader is paid per script.  This rate varies.  Most reputable companies should be paying at least $50 a script, but it's not entirely unheard of to get more, like $70 a script for basic coverage.  So if you read ten scripts a week (hardly an impossible task), you could pocket between $500-$700.

That's not too bad.  So what's the problem?

The problem is that for the last three years, companies have been cutting back.  As you can see, a reader who covers 2-3 scripts a day is costing the company about the same amount as a full-time assistant.  When the pennies get pinched, that becomes an unnecessary expense.  Thus, a lot of companies have started farming out work to freelance readers only when absolutely necessary and have forced the assistants to do a lot more of the reading. The reason for this should be obvious - the assistants are already on salary and they aren't paid extra for these additional coverages. Make an assistant take those extra two scripts a day and the company has just saved the cost of an entire person's salary.

Most readers I know have to read for more than one company.  When I got started, I was more than secure just with one company.  I picked up a second gig just for security and that was a perfect arrangement because when one office was light, I knew I had the safety net of another.  As work dwindled, I did my best to pick up other gigs.  At one point I was juggling work from four different companies.  Some weeks they all had enough to keep me busy, but there were times where I found all of those employers to be light on work.

Reader jobs as they were when I got started no longer exist.  If you want to really make it climbing the ladder this way, set your sites on an assistant job and try to climb the ranks in development as a development assistant or a story editor.  Long-term, that's a far wiser strategy.

So how can I be a script-reader without living in NYC or LA?

Are you daft?

Look, I get that the fantasy is that in the age of the internet, everyone can sit on the toilet with their iPads in their laps and do their jobs from anywhere.  There might even be some readers who've managed to move out of LA and continue their jobs - but they almost certainly built relationships in the business first and made a reputation for themselves by actually being in LA.

If you want to work for an agency and a production company, you're almost certainly going to have to physically be here.  The only way I ever see getting past that is if you've got an impressive resume that backs up your coverage skills.  Usually the person asking the question above is someone fresh out of college or someone slightly older who's settled into a "real" job and life and wants to work for Hollywood without uprooting.

I don't see it happening.  I'm sorry to be that blunt, but that's what my experience tells me.

But I saw an ad for Film Festivals and Screenwriting Contests who are looking for readers who can submit coverage over the internet!  You're a liar!

I consider most of those jobs beneath my notice.  Contests really don't pay much at all, and they're seasonal so it's nothing even close to a permanent solution.  At best, you'll get coverage experience you might be able to parlay into another gig.  Most of those places underpay so hideously that I think it undervalues the entire coverage process.  I know of a place that paid $30 for two-pages of synopsis and 2-3 pages of notes.  For that level of work anything less than $50 is taking advantage

There are some competitions where all you have to do is fill out a score sheet and you'll get paid maybe $10-20 a script.  That's not taking advantage quite as much, but still... what are you getting out of that?  Most contest submissions are crap and a real pain to read.  You can always learn something from bad writing, but after a few contest scripts, you'll often cease to see anything of value.

If you had to start all over again, would you pursue being a reader?

As I indicated, I'd make more of an effort to stay on the development track and rise within a company.  It's a really bad time to try to break into reading. The jobs aren't out there, the workload is shrinking and you're competing with guys like me who have a lot more experience. Reader jobs tend to go to people who have already made contacts in the business and guys like me are always looking for additional freelance assignments. If you don't have any contacts in the business yet, it's going to be hard to break into this end of it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Universal head Ron Meyer cops to making "shitty movies."

I'm an audio commentary junkie. For a long time there, if I rented a movie with an audio commentary, I'd have to listen to it. Sure, this means that you're bound to run across a few duds along the way. You'd think the low point was when I found myself listening to the Swimfan commentary, but no one - NO ONE - is a worse commentator than Mel Brooks.  His commentary on Spaceballs might as well be one of those tracks that visually impaired people listen to because he spends the entire 90 minutes describing EXACTLY what is on the screen at that point.

That's not why I listen to commentaries. The best ones are with participants who are willing to be candid and blunt about the process. Interestingly, I feel like we saw more of these back in the early days of the DVD. This probably has something to do with the fact that in the early days of commentaries, the people who'd be cajoled into doing the audio track were people who really felt they had something to say. This is explains why most commentaries I listend to were part-old war stories and part-explanation/apologies for where the film went wrong.

And this is why I now demand that Universal puts out a special edition Blu-Ray of The Wolfman with an audio commentary featuring Ron Meyer, head of Universal Studios and director Joe Johnston. It's guaranteed to be entertaining considering some statements that Meyer made at the Savannah Film Festival:

“We make a lot of shitty movies. Every one of them breaks my heart.

“We set out to make good ones. One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman [produced, coincidentally, by local Savannah resident Stratton Leopold.] Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out, but by the same token we made movies we believe in. We did United 93, which is one of the movies I’m most proud of. It wasn’t a big moneymaker, but it’s a film I believe every American should see and it showed you what people can do in the worst of times and how great the human spirit is and all that, so there are moments that can make up for all the junk that you make.”

He doesn't stop there...

“[The Wolfman is] one of those movies, the moment I saw it I thought, ‘What have we all done here?’ That movie was crappy... We all went wrong. It was one of those things… like I said, we make a lot of bad movies. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. It was wrong. The script never got right… [The cast] was awful. The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.”

This might make you wonder, "what does director Joe Johnston have to say for himself?" I'm glad you asked:

"I had three weeks of prep on WOLFMAN, a ridiculously inadequate amount of time to try to bring together the fractured and scattered pieces of the production. I had taken the job mostly because I had a cash flow problem, the only time in my career I’ve ever let finances enter into the decision process. Money is always the wrong reason for doing something that requires passionate devotion. The production was a leaky, rudderless ship in a perfect storm suffering from bad decisions, infighting, reluctance of the powers-that-be to take responsibility, and too many under-qualified cooks in the kitchen."

I want to get these two guys in a room, force them to watch the film, and let them fight it out. Do you hear me, Universal? I'd buy this on Blu-Ray... And I bet a lot of other people would too.

And don't stop there. The entire Universal catalog should be re-released in special "Ron Meyer 'Shitty movie' Editions." Order now and hear Ron's straight talk on Cowboys & Aliens:

Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough... All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it.”

...Land of the Lost...

Land of the Lost was just crap... I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong. Scott Pilgrim, I think, was actually kind of a good movie. [Addressing a small section of the audience, cheering.] But none of you guys went! And you didn’t tell your friends to go! But, you know, it happens.”

Are we sure this guy doesn't post on AICN under an alias?

Cowboys & Aliens didn’t deserve better. Land of the Lost didn’t deserve better. Scott Pilgrim did deserve better, but it just didn’t capture enough of the imaginations of people, and it was one of those things where it didn’t cost a lot so it wasn’t a big loss. Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens.”

Universal: It Happens.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Tower Heist" - a struggle to execute a high-concept one-liner

It took five years for the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy film Tower Heist to go from concept to screen, and in that time, the one-line hook that got everyone interested went through substantial changes.  The LA Times has the story:

Eddie Murphy had a simple suggestion about six years ago: Why not make an all-black version of "Ocean's Eleven"? 

Director Brett Ratner and producer Brian Grazer loved the comedian's idea, and before long, the trio was throwing around ideas about who could star opposite Murphy: Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Chris Tucker headed the list.

As anyone who's seen the trailer for the film can tell you, the final cast was multi-ethic and predominantly white.  But you have to admit - there should be a market for an all-black Ocean's Eleven.  Heist movies are a pretty popular genre and the novelty of getting the biggest African-American stars all in one film would almost certainly have marketable appeal.

The evolution of "Tower Heist" illustrates how even a seemingly straightforward idea can go through countless iterations from concept to screen. While "Tower Heist" is credited to screenwriters Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven"), Jeff Nathanson (Ratner's last two "Rush Hour" movies) and writing partners Adam Cooper and Bill Collage ("Accepted"), the script also was revised by Russell Gewirtz ("Inside Man"), Rawson Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball"), Leslie Dixon ("The Thomas Crown Affair") and Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale").

What follows is a pretty stardard look at the development hell that many films go through.  It's a good illustration of how just having a good idea isn't enough - it takes talent to execute even the most seemingly-obvious no-brainer.

As the film's racial profile changed, another question loomed over the production: Who are these bandits, and what is their motivation? The earliest plot held that the protagonists worked in a building owned by someone like Trump. "It was a fun movie, a classic underdog story," Ratner said. "But the problem was, you couldn't distinguish the characters apart." Even more knotty, it wasn't clear what provoked their thievery.

After two and a half years of screenplay revisions, Ratner called up Griffin, with whom Ratner collaborated on "Ocean's Eleven" before Steven Soderbergh replaced Ratner as that film's director. 

"I have good news and bad news," Ratner recalled Griffin telling him. "The good news is that I am going to do this. The bad news is that I'm going to throw away your script." 

So what was the fundamental change that Griffin felt was necessary and how did that define the cast?  Check out the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why is Revenge kicking Ringer's ass? A lesson in tonal consistency

As the new fall season approached, there were few shows I was more eager to see than Ringer and Revenge.  Both promised to be the sort of drama that I usually sink my teeth into - more serious than something like Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives, but more escapist than The Sopranos or The Good Wife.  As an added bonus, each one starred one of my favorite "former girls of the WB."  Revenge was headlined by former Everwood ingenue Emily VanCamp, while Ringer was the comeback vehicle for onetime Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Interestingly, both series featured the lead characters passing themselves off as someone they were not.  In Revenge, Amanda Clarke returns to the Hamptons for revenge on the people who destroyed her father's life and reputation 17 years earlier.  Having assumed the name "Emily Thorne," Amanda uses her amassed fortune and insanely detailed plans to take down her father's betrayers one-by-one. 

Ringer, on the other hand, as Gellar playing identical twins.  One has married into wealth, while naturally the other one is a stripper on the run from the mob boss she was meant to testify against.  The wealthy twin Siobhan disappears soon after meeting with her sister - a sister none of her friends know about.  Thus, the poor sister, Bridget, decides to take her place, only to find that her sister's seemingly envious life is full of its own tension and drama.

Now that we're about a half-dozen or so episodes into each series, it's clear that Revenge has pulled way ahead of Ringer, not just in the ratings, but in critical buzz and in fan reaction.  Revenge has been one of the better received new shows this year, while Ringer is viewed mostly as a disappointment.  To be fair, Ringer has shown incremental improvement creatively week-to-week, even if it still clearly has a way to go.

But what is Revenge doing right that Ringer is doing wrong?

One thing that strikes me about the two shows is that Revenge employs a greater variance of tone.  I know I've spoken in the past about the value of tonal consistency, lest your script feels disjointed or unbalanced.  Still, there's something to be said for a little variety in tone.  Think of it like how a counter-harmony compliments the lead singer in a song, or how a song's bridge offers some relief from the main verses of the melody.  (And as I know very little about music, that's how far I'll take that analogy.)

Ringer is so tonally consistent that it's almost a mono-tone.  The show seems to be striving for a noir tone, but it takes itself so damn seriously that it sucks any potential fun out of the premise.  As the concept has the potential to be goofy, I can almost understand why the producers would work so hard to ground it.  The problem is that it leaves the actors with only a few notes they can play.  Gellar, Ioan Gruffudd, and Kristopher Polaha have all shown their range on past projects, and there's ample evidence that they've got a gift for comic timing.  Unfortunately, there's no chance for any of them to have any fun with the morose characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Contrast that with Revenge.  Though Emily's mission of vengeance provides the show with its spine, there's been a bit of levity in pretty much every episode.  Gabriel Mann's Nolan character is an effective sidekick for Emily, being the only one who knows who she is.  He's eager to help out, but at least at first, she resents his butting in.  His snide, sarcastic attitude tends to steal nearly every scene he's in and he's often used to puncture the pretension of some of the other characters.

It doesn't stop there.  Both Revenge and Ringer feature storylines focused on teen characters.  In Ringer, the story of Siobhan's step-daughter so far has ended up being an excuse for greater melodrama.  She's been thrown out of her prep school over drug use and has some trouble fitting in at public school.  Tonally, it's no relief from the melodrama of Bridget's life.

In contrast, Revenge treats its two teenage characters - Charlotte (Krista B. Allen) and Declan (Conor Paolo) - as the two innocents in the next of vipers that is the Hamptons.  She's the rich girl and he's the working class guy from the wrong side of the tracks.  While that's hardly a dynamic dripping with originality, the two actors manage to make the budding romance a bit cute and endearing.  It works because it doesn't feel like everything else in the show - and it rarely takes up a disproportionate part of the episode.

The other difference in tone is that Revenge is often all about how Emily gets the upper hand and takes someone down.  There's a vicarious thrill for the audience in seeing someone get what's coming to them.  Ringer never has that release.  Bridget never gets to win - nothing EVER seems to go right for her.  Week after week, the show seems to be an exercise in making Bridget miserable.

From a dramatic standpoint it makes sense to continually challenge your character.  There's that old saw about the way to write good drama is "Act One - get your character stuck up in a tree.  Act Two - Throw rocks at them."  If the rocks seem to be unrelenting, there's the risk that the audience will become numb to the blows.  Apathy is the real enemy of drama.  Revenge makes excellent use of shifts in momentum by letting Emily win, and then throwing her a few setbacks now and then.

Certainly these aren't the only reasons for the gulf in quality between the two shows.  I don't think it's possible to underestimate the importance of tone, though.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: So how'd you do?

Last week was declared Unofficial Get Your Shit Done week and I had several of you set goals alongside my goal to get an entire act of my pilot written.  Well, I'm pleased to say I kept up my end of the bargain.  How'd the rest of you do on yours?

Even if you didn't chime in on the first post last week, feel free to let us know how much you wrote in the past week and if you're happy with it.