Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Deep Space Nine's wartime morality plays show that good writing is timeless

Pretty much since its inception back in the mid-sixties, Star Trek has often told stories within its far-future setting that are an allegory on events in our own time.  It was Gene Roddenberry's way of telling provocative (and in the context of the time, perhaps subversive) stories under the guise of being simple science-fiction.  In one of the more infamous examples, he tackled the idiocy of racism by showing a race of people with two classes.  Both classes had faces that were white on one profile and black on the other, though those whose right profiles were black despised those who were their mirror images.  Likewise, those whose faces were white on the right side were equally devoted to destroying their alternate cousins.  It's a conflict that comes at a terrible cost.

Of course to the viewer, this war would have seemed stupid.  "Both these aliens have half-black and half-white faces, why would they fight over such a thing?"  Hopefully, that's the point where the light bulb goes off and the viewer realizes "So why exactly should whites and blacks on Earth be at odds."  A trifle clunky, I admit, but it was the sixties.  Throughout its history, Trek has made use of even defter metaphors.

With that in mind, what if I pitched you a Star Trek story like this:  The Federation is facing an enemy that might have infiltrated them at the highest levels.  They've got hidden agents on the Federation's homeworld - Earth.  They can blend into the population and they've recently pulled off an attack on a diplomatic conference on Earth that left psychological damage at least as bad as physical.  With tensions high, Starfleet security demands more authority to implement stricter, more invasive security measures.  The Federation President is reluctant to give the military that authority, but when the planet's entire power grid is taken out - leaving Earth defenseless - he has little choice but to give the Starfleet admiral the authority he wants.

But soon we learn that the destruction of the power grid was actually engineered by the corrupt admiral, intent on manufacturing a crisis so that he could seize power.  Essentially, this admiral will have used the paranoia to pull off an overreach of authority.

I have a feeling that if this episode were produced today - and especially if it had been made during the Bush Administration - there would be a lot of voices on the right decrying liberal Hollywood for such a pointed attack on George W. Bush.  But here's the kicker - that's actually the plot of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that aired in early 1996!  It was a two-parter contained in the episodes "Homeland" and "Paradise Lost," written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe.

(If you're so inclined, these episodes are available on Netflix Instant, in the 4th season.)

The enemy at that point were the shape-shifting Changlings, aliens with the ability to look like anyone.  They had declared their intent to infiltrate the Federation and had already used their powers to lure the Romulans and the Cardassian fleets into a horrible defeat.  Starfleet had never faced an enemy so able to slip within their own ranks. 

"Homeland" focused on the aftermath of the attack on the conference, with Captain Sisko recalled to Earth to help develop new security measures against the Changlings.  In a sneaky bit of plotting, the viewer is actually made to sympathize with Sisko and Admiral Leyton as their proposals are met with resistance from the Federation President.  Because we - the viewers - have seen just how dangerous the Changelings are, we're frustrated when the President pushes back against tests that only seem reasonable.

The President isn't the only opposition.  Captain Sisko's own father is greatly offended and resistant when he's told that as a relative of a Starfleet officer, he must consent to a blood-screening (purportedly the only way to expose a Changling imposter.)  Of course, his refusal to take the test only makes him look suspicious.  After all, why should an innocent man have any reason to oppose this sort of compulsory search-and-seizure?  Surely if he resists, he must have something to hide and be viewed with suspicsion, right?  As it turns out, he isn't an infiltrator - though he offers one of the episodes more resonant lines: "There's no test a smart man can't find his way around." 

The first episode ends with the President finally giving in in the face of a planet-wide power outage.  In fact, it's Captain Sisko who delivers the critical line: "Give us the authority we need, Mr. President, and we will take care of the rest."  It's a line that feels far more chilling than in 1996, just like Mr. Sisko's warning about tests. And yet, it was written in a world where a trip to the airport didn't necessitate full-body scans and invasive searches and pat-downs; A world where the Patriot Act sounded more like something from the mind of George Orwell than anything that would could ever become real.

With a cliffhanger that featured martial law being imposed, most viewers expected that Part II would be a tense action-packed hour of our heroes taking on the Changelings.  But that's not what Trekkers got, as we will explore tomorrow.

Part II

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Worst Product Placement

Upcoming Universal Pictures release The Lorax has over 70 product tie-ins, including the EPA and Whole Foods.  That's pretty impressive and what I can only assume is a bid to exhaust ultra-conservative nutjobs whose paranoid fantasies lead them to attack even childrens' movies for fostering "liberal propeganda."  After all, these attention-seeking publicity whores have a tendency to express their displeasure by calling for boycotts against sponsors of such material.  With 70 partners, that's a hell of a huge writing campaign.

Not that I have a problem with publicity whores - I just prefer it be done to stimulate capitalism rather than stifle it.  It should be done in the name of raising product awareness - not watchdog group awareness.  You know what I'm talking about - the blatant product placement that ensures that when Marty McFly orders a drink, he makes sure we know it's Pepsi.  The sort of product integration that let's us know that when the future becomes a near utopia, all restaurants will become Taco Bell.  We need this sort of jarring, in-film advertisment to remind us now and then "this whole thing is a fantasy, so don't waste valuable brain matter trying to puzzle out the internal logic in a 90s Stallone film.

The more obtrusive a product placement is, the closer it comes to achieving a pure state of the Brechtian alienation effect.  I admit, I don't remember enough of my college film courses to explain what that means, but it sounds pretentious enough to make me seem I know what I'm talking about. Though I can appreciate the irony that Brecht was a Marxist - which means that if he were alive today, he'd be writing me an angry letter for associating him with behavior like this:

So with that in mind - what would you consider to be the worst/most awkward example of product placement in a film?  Bonus points if you can think of a better way to execute it.

"Which coverage service can get my material into the hands of producers?"

A reader named Mike sent me a question that I've gotten in one form or another over the last few months:

Of all the script coverage services, which would you recommend that would include a referral to producers, after of course receiving positive coverage. I've read of a few but which do you recommend?

As I've said before, there are some perfectly good reasons to pay a consultant to do coverage on your script.  However, I don't really have enough experience with those services that I feel comfortable saying, "Yes, give all your money to Company ______."

If it was me, I'd look at the referral as a bonus - nothing more.  Some of those services tout all their many connections, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Most of those sites should have some kind of "Success Story" section.  A quick glance at ScriptPimp's site reveals that they have had a few six-figure sales and a couple produced projects, in addition to the usual boasting about finding their clients representation.  In looking at ScriptShark's site, there are several listings from the past year alone about their clients finding representation, though I don't see any recent sales.

But here's where your own instincts have to come in.  I wouldn't look to these companies to get you a sale.  Look at the agents, managers and producers they seem to be associated with, and then do your own due diligence on those people.  Are the producers the kind of people who would respond to your material?  What can you find out about those reps?  Are they strong sellers or are they small-time?

Remember, getting representation is a step, but it's only the beginning of the journey.  Even a great agent can only do so much.  They can open doors, but your material has to be strong enough to advance further.  Plenty of people get an agent or a manager and then spend years trying to get a sale.

The consulting services primarily exist to give feedback.  Anything beyond that is gravy and I think that's the attitude you have to take when evaluating them.  We all want to sell our material, looking to these services from the perspective of "which one will make that sale happen?" is a little like wondering which type of canvas you should buy so your painting ends up in the Louvre.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Short Film Showcase: Nate Golon's Briefcase

You might remember Nate Golon from my posts ages ago about the webseries Workshop.  Recently, Nate released a new short film called Briefcase.

I have to admit, I sometimes think I'm even more critical of short films than I am of scripts.  This probably owes to the fact that I've seen a lot of bad shorts and I'm always convinced that I would have avoided making such glaring mistakes.  Each of my own shorts made me a better filmmaker and so naturally, my gut reaction is to nitpick shorts that perhaps fall short of what I consider to be my ability.

That why I was surprised when Nate's film held my interest all the way through.  As I told him in an email, I can't claim to completely understand the ending, but the pacing, editing and overall execution was smooth enough to keep my attention until the end.  Nate avoids a trap so many short film directors fall into - over-directing.  Some guys are so determined to show off their "eye" that their composition and editing becomes a liability rather than an asset.  Nate gets some good angles, here, but he's practices restraint.

If you're so inclined, here's the Facebook page for Briefcase.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscar films fail to get box office bump

Patrick Goldstein has an interesting article about this year's box office trends.  Revenues are on the rise this year... so long as you're not up for an Oscar.

This year’s box office is booming, except, gulp, for Oscar movies. The 2012 grosses have been surprisingly strong, up nearly 18% year to date compared with 2011. But if you think any of that is thanks to people rushing out to see the best picture contenders ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards show, think again.

[...] It’s hard to make a strong case that many of the nominated films were helped in any significant way by the Oscar nominations. Even “The Descendants,” which has continued to have a strong showing at the box office, had its biggest grossing weekend at Thanksgiving, not after the nominations were announced. The only films you can argue that have really benefited from Oscar-related box office are “The Artist” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” though both films have spent a healthy chunk of their box office gains in nonstop Oscar advertising.

You might recall I recently did a comparative analysis of how this year's nominees performed at the box office versus the films nominated for 1991's Academy Awards.  As we saw, it wasn't a favorable comparison.

Let's throw this down right now - I don't want to see any "Strawman" arguments that accuse me of saying that box office always equals quality.  It doesn't.  However, it is a good way to get a sense of how many eyes have seen a film.  In studying the long-term trends on the Oscar movies and comparing them to the other releases, we can also see there's an enthusiasm gap.  Even after the nominations raised awareness and acted as a public advertisement of these films' critical acclaim, audiences still haven't rushed to the multiplex.

So what's going on here?  What are Safe House, Chronicle and The Vow doing right that the Oscar films are doing wrong?  Safe House and The Vow both only dropped less than 36% at the box office last weekend.  That's a pretty good hold that suggests not only did the marketing and the concept put assess in the seats, but the word-of-mouth was good enough to draw in a big Week 2 audience as well.

Basically, the studios seem to be releasing a good percentage of films that are not only appealing to audiences, but are also leaving them satisfied.

So why is it that when it comes to the nine Best Picture nominees, the raw numbers make Hollywood look like Gretchen Wiener determined to make "fetch" happen?  You could point to polarizing reviews on Extremely Loud, or some of the backlash of War Horse deflating those returns.  The Help had a healthy run earlier.  Midnight in Paris also performed extremely well for a Woody Allen film prior to the nominations, though it's surprising that it didn't get much of a second wind after the nominees.

But why hasn't Moneyball been a smash despite strong reviews, nominations, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill?  Why is The Descendants still lagging?  Is it simply that seeing these films is akin to "eating one's vegetables?"  Are there simply too many nominees?  Or is it as simple as the fact that the bigger hits this year are largely escapist in nature and audiences are looking to feel good rather than endure drama?

I ask because anyone looking to make a career out of writing needs to know the kind of market that their material exists in.  I rather liked The Descendants and Moneyball.  In particular, I thought the latter was an impressive achievement in taking a concept that could have been dry and non-visual and finding a way into the material through the characters.  So if you were to play in that same screenwriting ballpark, how could you assure a buyer that your script would have more commercial appeal?

If you haven't seen Moneyball, what's stopping you?  It's not silent or in black-and-white.  It's not about death.  It's not by a controversial director.  It's not from a director who's gotten attacked for not making movies as good as he used to.  And it's not a period piece either.  I've run through every cliched excuse that would keep a mainstream audience from a critically acclaimed film and I can't find any reason why Moneyball shouldn't be doing better.  If any of the nominees should have gotten an easy box office bump, it would have been this one.

Or is the problem just that these acclaimed films are speaking to a smaller and smaller percentage of society?  Are they movies for people who don't go to the movies?

Last year's spec market was huge and the start of this year looks promising as well.  A lot of material will probably sell this year - so how will this box office trend dictate what the studios are looking to buy?  I harp on box office from time to time because if you want to be a working writer, you can't pretend that your art exists in a vacuum.  You should study the business as well as the craft, and statistics like this are exactly the sort of thing that a smart writer should be able to find a way to capitalize on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And the Best Picture Oscar goes to... "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"

I've complained before about the relatively unexciting list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture, and going along with that, there's been a clear enthusiasm gap associated with this year's awards.  Surely, every year there are complaints that the Academy has gotten too arty or too snobby.  In fact, most pundits trot out a couple common examples of the Oscars "getting it wrong" in the past, presumably as a way of urging the audience not to get too bent out of shape.

At the top of that list is Annie Hall and Woody Allen beating out Star Wars and George Lucas for "Best Picture" and "Best Director" in 1977.  I know there's going to be a temptation to take a cheap shot at Lucas based on post-prequel hatred, but you have to remember that in the context of 1977, what he did was incredibly revolutionary.  Star Wars changed the face of film and cast a much longer shadow than Annie Hall.  Seemingly the Academy valued intimacy over scope.

And yet, in 1982, E.T. lost to Gandhi.  An epic bio-pic trumped what was then the most popular movie of all time.  E.T. was emotional, it was accepted by a wide audience and it had heart. Gandhi was... "important."  When was the last time you got the urge to watch Gandhi?  How many of you even own it on DVD?

Here's what really irks me about this film snobbery - it values a few aspects of filmmaking while completely discounting the artistry of the others.  It's not "Best Picture due to Most Emotional Performances," "Best Picture that Tackles a Social Issue and Reduces It to a Simplistic, Insulting Thesis or Solution," or "Best Picture due to Most Character Driven Screenplay."  It's "Best Picture." Period.  But I guess if you can make an audience cry or make them feel something "deep" like, "Wow, that was really bold to say that 'racism is bad and hurtful,'" it's enough to negate hours of blood and sweat spent elsewhere.

Popcorn movies.  That's what they call films that never will get Oscars simply because they dared to be popular.  True, often these films have serious deficiencies in story and acting.  (Paging Michael Bay.)  But what about the films that are grand adventures, that take action to new heights, propelled by a structurally strong script?  The performances might not contain some overwrought emotional catharsis, but you know what, sometimes it's just as difficult to keep characters consistent and compelling even without the crutch of letting the actor play a dibilitating mental disease or have to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

Because it's really hard to cry on cue.  Like hard.

You know what else is hard? Dangling a mile high in the air, tethered to a building while a helicopter swoops above you to get vertigo inducing shots.  If that's so easy, you run down the outside of a mile-high glass building - WITHOUT the aid of a stunt double.  Oh, and you have to stay in character completely which in this case means not losing your shit because "HOLY FUCK I'M A MILE ABOVE THE GROUND!"

Yeah, that's just as easy as acting befuddled or drawing on a memory of a childhood pet's death so you can shed a tear.

What Tom Cruise gives in Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a performance no less consistent than Meryl Steep in the Acclaimed Movie I Didn't See or what Gary Oldman did in The Movie I Saw And Thought Was Okay But Probably Never Will Need to See Again.  Cruise says his lines, he stays in character and he makes us believe Ethan Hunt is real.  He does what the script asks of him and he brings some of his own persona to it.  Ditto for all of the supporting cast.

Now you can argue that Cruise didn't deserve a Best Actor nomination.  I admit, it was a very competitive field this year.  Then again, I don't see Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow doing this...

That should have been a full-page ad in Variety with the caption "For Your Consideration, Motherfucker."

But enough about Cruise, let's talk about the movie itself.  It's visually stunning, both in the angles and in the staging of action - so that point goes to the director, Brad Bird.  Oh, and did I mention this was his first live-action picture?  Not bad for a neophyte, eh?

The story moves well, due to the solid structure that motivates the characters and the action scenes.  It's also really well-paced, - credit to the writers and the editors there.

Also with the "visually-stunning" point - the visual and special effects are virtually flawless.  Kudos to all the technical teams involved.

And acting-wise, was there anyone who wasn't convincing in their role?  Down to the last man, they embodied their parts and did what was asked of them.

I look at everything that goes into making a film - particularly a film of this genre - and I struggle to see any glaring flaws.  You might say, "Well, the characters just weren't as deep as The Descendants."  Okay, fair enough...

But The Descendants had far less complex stunt/action scenes.  The story had far fewer turns it had to sell.  So should it get a pass simply because it was technically less ambitions that M:I - GP?  Why can't Ghost Protocol get the same pass for its character arcs being less ambitious?

"Best Picture" means the whole picture - everything.  And if more popcorn films got nominated, I wouldn't bitch about this because, hey, luck of the draw.  This year we gave greater weight to the emotional than the technical.  But that's not how it works.  It seems you can entirely reinvent filmmaking on a technical level, attempt spectacle that's never been seen before, hold an audience at the edge of their seat for 2+ hours and in the end, all some ABC Family actress has to do is cry underwater to make all of that irrelevant.

Are The Artist and The Descendants really the best and most impressive examples of filmmaking this year? Or are they the "safe" choices that one can laud without fearing the loss of some kind of manufactured credibility?  Brad Bird and Tom Cruise delivered a roller-coaster ride of filmmaking where the story was propelled by some solid lead characters and a really strong cast.

No gold statue will ever convince me that is any less of an achievement than any of the nine nominees for Best Picture.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Oscar Fever

I'm hearing a fair amount of talk in the Hollywood bubble about how people just aren't enthusiastic at all about this year's Oscars.  There's a fear that this will translate to lower ratings.  The theory is that if "insiders" are apathetic about the Oscar nominees this year, the "average Joes" must be even less invested.

So I'll put it to you - how much DO you care about the Oscars this year?  Is anyone having Oscar parties?

And what's everyone think about having Billy Crystal back this year?  Are you eager to see what he does, or is his routine too familiar after so many visits?  Heck, does the host make that much of a difference for you as a viewer?

So sound off.  I'd love to hear where everyone stands.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Revenge - when it's okay to show us the climax first

Major spoilers for last night's Revenge in this entry, so if it's still on your DVR, you're going to want to skip this.


Just one week after I run a rerun post about how one should never use the cheap writing device of starting a script with a climax and then flashing back (which I call "Pulling an Abrams"), I'm in the position of praising an episode of Revenge that did just that.  Actually, the entire season did that, as the pilot episode opened with a sequence featuring the events of last night's episode before flashing back 12 weeks to show how the plot arrived at that point.

I have to confess, that was one of the few elements of the pilot that didn't work for me when I saw it the first time.  I found the first few minutes a little jarring and disorienting, but the rest of the pilot was strong enough that I found it easy to ignore that one quirk.  In that opening, we were led to believe that Daniel Grayson was shot dead on the beach as the party celebrating his engagement to Emily Thorne was in full force nearby.  Meanwhile, Jack Porter attempted to hide the body, but was unsuccessful before Daniel's sister spotted the hooded figure dragging what she presumed to be her brother.

A good number of viewers guessed early on that Daniel's death was a fakeout, especially since we never saw the corpse's face.  When the conniving Tyler arrived a few episodes later, it didn't take long for fans to theorize that he would be the one who died on the beach.

Later still, when the real "Emily Thorne" - now posing as Amanda Clarke - arrived in the Hamptons and seduced Jack, a good many fans theorized that Jack's role in hiding the body happens because Amanda was the shooter and he was trying to protect her.  (Though under this theory, it was probably more likely that Daniel would be the one to end up dead, as Amanda seemed to have more motivation to kill Daniel as a way of hurting Emily.)  Amanda had already been shown to kill one person with little provocation and she stirred up trouble for Emily from the beginning.

Last night we finally caught up to the timeframe shown in the opening of the pilot.  In fact, the episode opened by "pulling an Abrams again" by showing Daniel clearly falling face down in the sand, followed by an unseen figure discharging their gun.  With that, the episode flashed back 24 hours and built up to the engagement party.  By episode's end, we'd find there was more to the reveal.

Amanda, attempting to stop Tyler, ended up on the beach around the time of the murder.  Jack followed her there and arrived in time to see her kneeling over the dead body.  Assuming Amanda did this, Jack tries to hide the body.  But as we learn when the crowd is summoned... it's not Daniel's body - it's Tyler!  Daniel arrives as the crowd gathers on the shore, presumably having been knocked out by the real killer... though he has Tyler's blood on his body... hmmm.

I admit that's a lot of explaining on my part just to make a simple point.  Why did "pulling an Abrams" work here?  Because what we thought we were shown wasn't what actually played out.  Better still, even those who were convinced that Tyler was the dead man had to have been shocked with how it all played out.  The misdirection at the start of the episode showing Daniel's body falling to the ground was an effective way to provoke doubt.

I don't see that kind of cleverness in 99% of the scripts I read with this gimmick.  Too often, flashing ahead to a climactic moment is used as a cheap gimmick to get an intense scene in early on as the hook.  It usually is a sign the writer doesn't have faith in their ability to drawn the audience into the story linearly, so they have to resort to the trick of saying "I promise there's cool stuff down the line if you just sit back and bear it."  Then when that moment comes, there's rarely much of a twist. 

I have to give Revenge some credit - they did the flash-forward trick twice and when the reveal eventually arrived, few people could have guessed it ahead of time.  Moreover, along the way, there were other reveals that could have been anticipated, reveals that raise the stakes going into the last stretch of the season.  (These include Tyler telling Daniel there's more to Emily than he knows, Emily's revenge sensi picking up Amanda, and Amanda learning that Emily may have tried to help get her and Jack back together.)

I still think opening your script with a scene from your climax is a cheap trick.  But if you must do it, please be smart about it. Don't show us what you're going to do and then do it.  Show us enough to make us think we know where the script is going- then pull the rug out from under us.  There always has to be more to the climactic moment than what you reveal in the flashforward.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Selling a bad idea - Bill Lawrence on the genesis of Cougar Town

The AV Club has a fantastic interview with Bill Lawrence, co-creator of Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Spin City.  The whole thing is worth a read, but one passage that caught my eye dealt with the genesis of the entire series.

I couldn’t get a passion project of mine sold. With my track record, I couldn’t go to the networks and say, “This is a project I’m passionate about.” Because it wasn’t hooky enough. It was just about a father and a son. So a room bit started where I said, “You know what sucks? I can’t sell my passion project. But if I go to [ABC President] Steve McPherson right now and said”—and this was just off the top of my head—“‘I’ve got a Courteney Cox comedy, she just got divorced, she never had her 20s, and she’s gonna fuck younger guys, and it’s called Cougar Town,’ I could sell that without doing any more work than I just did.” And it became a joke in the writers’ room, where instead of having cuts between scenes, a claw would just rip it. Just rip the image right off the television. We kept joking about it week after week. And then, finally, after three weeks, I was like, “Should I do this?” 

And Kevin Biegel, who was on Scrubs and was a smart young writer, said, “I’ll do that with you. I don’t care. I’m in.” And we convinced ourselves, so it wasn’t totally a sham, that you could to a campy, Ab-Fab type comedy with a woman discovering her 20s for the first time. But I will say that I went into ABC, I said just what I told you, and I sold the show. When I went into networks four months earlier, with a full outline and a good track record, I couldn’t sell it. So Kevin and I, when we get twisty about the title—I don’t know that I could have sold the show by saying, “Hey, it’s about adult friendship, and it’s about people in a cul-de-sac drinking wine, and it’s called Cul-De-Sac Crew.”

I've said stuff like this before - if it's hard even for proven writer/producers to get their passion projects sold, what chance do any of us have when we venture too far outside the box?  In the eyes of the buyer, high concept is almost always going to trump "this is different and therefore it scares me."

Know how you can package your idea so that it sounds "high concept."  It's not enough to come up with a good idea - you have to be able to sell that idea.  Lawrence's story is just further evidence of this.  You can't write the idea and then let it speak for itself.  You have to be a salesman, a pitchman and a cheerleader for it.  Most of all, you have to speak their language.  Lawrence joked about an idea that would trigger all the network's impulses to "buy" and he was right, even if the initial idea struggled to be sustainable.

But then he's also got a point in that while the original concept for Cougar Town is something of an albatross he's spent the better part of the last three seasons apologizing for, had he tried to sell what the show eventually became, there might not have been a buyer for it.

Good ideas don't always make for good sales, but a good writer can make a bad idea into a great sale.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Favorite romantic movie

It's Valentine's Day and that means only one thing... the release of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue!

No, wait... that's not right.  Well, I mean it's right.  The issue comes out today and Kate Upton's on the cover and all.  (Fun fact, I just learned today that Kathy Ireland was the cover girl the year that Kate Upton was born.  As I have very strong memories of when that issue came out, I can't possibly look at Upton's cover in the same way and not feel like I'm putting myself at risk for jail time.)

Where was I?  Oh, Valentine's Day.  All you guys who forgot actually get a bit of a break, as you can claim that since the 14th is in the middle of the week, you might as well put off celebrating until Saturday.  Most struggling writers are, well, struggling, so that means you might find yourself pulling off a thrifty celebration.  Perhaps a homemade dinner, a thoughtful gift and a romantic movie.

So what's everyone's favorite romantic movie?  I'm sure I'll get a bunch of responses that say The Notebook, so let's see if we can get some more unexpected and creative ideas.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Midi-Chlorian: An unnecessary explanation

 Midi-Chlorian: (noun) 

1. intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. When present in sufficient numbers, they could allow their symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. 

2. An unnecessary explanation for something best left ambiguous.

With the re-release of The Phantom Menace, I've seen a lot of people dredging up their old issues with the film.  Jar-Jar Binks, of course, is a popular target, but I think the issue that really rankles people to this day is the fact that George Lucas took something as mystical and spiritual as the Force and reduced it to (as Robot Chicken joked) "tiny bacteria swimming in your bloodstream" aka midi-chlorians.

Even in the original trilogy, there was always assumed to be some kind of biological component to the Force.  It's intimated several times that a big reason Luke has the potential to be strong in the Force is because he's the son of a powerful Jedi.  Return of the Jedi made this even clearer by revealing the significance of Leia being Luke's sister.  In a way, that biological element has always been present.

However... it seems pretty clear to me that Lucas introduced the midi-chlorians to facilitate a particular plot point.  He wanted Qui-Gon Jinn to have conclusive proof that Anakin was not only strong with the Force but had the potential to be greater than all of the Jedi.  Thus, not only does he introduce a prophecy about "the one who will bring balance to the Force" he also makes checking for Force potential as easy and mechanical as checking one's sperm count.  It's so when the Jedi Council says, "We're not taking this boy," Qui-Gon has a case that's hard to rebut and Lucas needs to make the Jedi Council indisputably wrong.

Or to put it in screenwriting terms - Lucas tells and doesn't show.

In the first trilogy, we SAW Luke's potential as a Jedi, proven in that moment where he opens his mind and makes the impossible shot to destroy the Death Star.  The kicker about The Phantom Menace is that young Anakin is already displaying Force-potential through the mere fact he's able to compete in the pod race.  There is the "show, don't tell" of that film - the entire set-piece devoted to showing off what Anakin can do!  I think every audience member would have accepted Anakin's Force potential based on that sequence alone.

That's why the midi-chlorian thing rankles - it's unnecessary.  Lucas already has a way of accomplishing what he needs.  Why do we need proof that Anakin isn't the one?  Sure, the offspring of Jedi could be biologically predisposed to be Force-sensitive, but surely it's not impossible that one might be born into a family like that which remains unaware of their potential?  Making it so iron-clad eliminates the wonder, the hope that all one might need to be a Jedi is to find the way to embrace the Force.  That sense of magic is key to the appeal of the first trilogy.

When you explain something, you rob it of its mystique.  Isn't the Force more powerful when we don't know where it comes from?  Aren't Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers scarier when we don't know their backstories?  Why provide answers when ambiguity is more tantilizing?

Not everything needs to be explained.  Let the audience infer some things.  They need to be able to bring their own magic to the film.  This isn't a pass to leave in inexplicable elements.  The next time you're writing exposition, or crafting a scene to answer a question you think the audience will have, ask yourself...

"Is this necessary, or is this a midi-chlorian?"

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thursday Throwback - Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Four

This post first appeared on Monday, April 20, 2009.

There's a tendency among first-time screenwriters to not have faith in the openings of their scripts. They're told to grab the audience from the start, but often first-time writers have a hard time beginning their story with an strong opening scene. My gut is that a lot of this has to do with early writers placing too much emphasis on backstory and exposition. Usually the audience needs a lot less exposition than the writer assumes.

In any event, it seems like an unwinable paradox to Mr. First Timer. They wonder,"How can I write an opening scene that will get an audience excited if they don't know anything about these characters?" Often, they'll go for a trick that J.J. Abrams both used effectively and beat into the ground - open the script with a scene from the climax, then flashback and tell the story of how things got to this high point.

As a reader, I find this trick usually has the opposite effect. When I see it deployed, I heave a heavy sigh because I now know exactly where this script is going and usually I'm going to have to sit through another 100 pages before the characters catch up to me. A good writer might be able to make the journey to this point interesting... but I think you can guess how often Mr. First Timer makes that work.

I'm sorry to say that even Abrams overindulged in this gag. It was a trick that was really effective once on Alias, during the Super Bowl episode. At the time, the low-rated show was hoping to pull in viewers who felt that the show's plots were often too complicated and inaccessible. So what did they do? They put Jennifer Garner in black lingerie and had her strut in front of the camera. It was a typical set-up for the show. She had to go undercover as a prostitute in order to get access to a crucial agent in the enemy camp. After a scene showcasing Garner in two separate sexy outfits, which lead to an action scene where the plane she's in loses pressure, the episode flashed back 24 hours.

The trick here is that despite the eye candy both Garner and the action provided, there were very few plot twists exposed in this opening scene. The audience didn't know why Garner was on this mission, what she was after, who this guy was, or really anything. As the episode progresses, it's soon exposed that this mission is the key to bringing down the entire enemy agency. However, J.J. didn't give that twist away in the opening. There was still something for the audience to be surprised by later. Jennifer Garner in lingerie was just the bait.

In other words, if you're using a non-chronological structure to get the audience hooked early on, make sure you're just baiting the hook - not dumping your whole supply of worms into the lake. I feel this sort of gimmick is overused anyway, but if you're determined to use it, use it well.

But before you open your film with a scene from late in the story, ask yourself it is absolutely necessary and if it's an asset to the story you're telling.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Do found footage films need to develop their cameraman?

In yesterday's comments about found footage films, this question came up:

And finally, do we even NEED to setup the cameraman as a character for a film like this to work? Is it possible to just not explain why there is a camera rolling or who it is? I watch shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, and there is an implied camera crew around at all times, but never explained, and I never question it as a viewer.

My feeling - in films it is rather necessary because the movie is documenting a particular moment or incident.  Cloverfield wouldn't work if the cameraman was handled in the same way as The Office.  On the other hand, Christopher Guest movies rarely make an issue of their cameraman.  Of course, there's a reason for that.

The difference is that The Office isn't "found footage."  It's presented in edited, documentary form.  The conceit isn't that we're seeing things as they happen, which is the case in Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.  There, the idea is "here is this raw footage presented in unedited form, showing this inexplicable event unfold right before your eyes.

But what say you? Does the cameraman need to be a character in the film?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Finding the secret to found footage films

The first several weeks of 2012 has seen two found footage films at the top of the box office charts, both which look to have substantial returns on their budgets.  The Devil Inside cost $1 million to produce and thus far has made $53 million domestically.  (It doesn't appear to have been widely released abroad yet.)  Even allowing for the fact that marketing that film easily had to cost $35 million, there'll still be a wide profit margin after international and DVD markets.  (Don't worry, I'm sure some Paramount accountant is already cooking the books to "prove" this film is still in the red.)

Chronicle opened this week to an impressive $22 million on a $12 million budget.  It's already made $12 million abroad, so it's likely to be a healthy performer by the end of its life.  When you look at those numbers, it's easy to see the upside.  It cost less than $10 million to produce ALL THREE Paranormal Activity films, which grossed over $575 million.  That's half a billion dollars on an investment of $10 million.

In other words, expect "found footage" to be beaten into the ground.  I wouldn't be surprised if many of you were planning on writing scripts in that genre.  Pretty much since the first Paranormal Activity, I've seen an increase in those kinds of submissions, so here are a few things I'd keep in mind as you develop those ideas.

You'll notice that most "found footage" films tend to be negative pickups.  This is a term for when the producers foot the bill for the film and then sell it to the studio upon completion.  The advantage of this is usually greater creative freedom for the filmmaker.  The advantage on the studio end is that they get to see EXACTLY what they are buying.  (There are other kinds of negative pickups, but this is the scenario for most of the found footage films you've heard of.)  This could be advantageous for the buyer as well, for if you have several studios interested, you can stoke a bidding war and drive up the price.  The Sundance Midnight Movie V/H/S is a good example of a found footage film that had three interested buyers vying for the rights.

But I'm drifting... my point is, I don't know how much success you'll have by writing a found footage film on spec and then selling it to a studio as you would a more typical high concept spec.  (I know there's at least one such found footage spec sale in the past year, but the specific title escapes me at the moment.)  These sort of scripts don't always read well.  The "reality" of the finished product comes from the "real" and mundane nature of some scenes, but on the page some of those moments are "dramatic death."  (Imagine a transcript of most movies in this genre and meditate on how many scenes would feel lifeless and dead on the page without the texture of being seen through the camera lens.)

I'm just one reader, but the dialogue can be a real dealbreaker in this genre.  Too "realistic" and it's a chore to slough through on the page.  Too clever, and the events feel scripted and inauthentic.  A found footage script is less likely to be a spec you sell than it is to be a spec you actually shoot yourself.

The second big thing to remember - you have to justify EVERY moment the camera is running.  The longer this genre's around, the more people are going to become sticklers for this.  In the past, audiences might have gone with the conceit that the guy with the camera "just wants to get a record of this incredible event" but suspension of disbelief is critical to this genre.  You're trying to pass this story off as "real" so you can't use some of the cheats that a conventional film uses.

Never write a scene if you can't answer the question "Why is the person holding the camera shooting this moment?"

Third rule:  Keep it short.  90 minutes or fewer is pretty much the sweet spot for this genre.  If your found footage script is 120 pages long, odds are there's a problem.  Cloverfield, The Devil Inside, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are all under 90 minutes in length.

Fourth rule: Your ending will almost always shape the reaction to your film.  For their occasional deficiencies and logic issues, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have extremely memorable climaxes.  The final scenes are shocking, disturbing and rather unsettling.  That emotion stays with the audience as they leave the theater and it's that reaction which defines the buzz.  In contrast, The Devil Inside had a terrible ending and made the film the target of a lot of critical and audience vitrol.  (Those idiots still lined up to see it, though...)

So if you want to make a name for yourself in found footage, your ending has to be the best thing about your film - and it HAS to stir a reaction in your audience.

If there's a fifth thing to remember, it's that horror - or at least a concept with supernatural elements - is the hot genre for found footage at the moment.  The comedy equivalent is the "mockumentary" but there's a clear distinction in the structure of a Christopher Guest film and something like Paranormal Activity.  (And there's also the fact that most comedy mockumentaries don't usually go the extra step of using a visual asthetic that deliberately apes low-quality video.)

The breakout hits in found footage all have an element of the fantastic.  They're "High Concept, Low Budget."  Comedy mockumentaries often find their humor in the mundane.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it won't have the box office resonance of something that scares the pants off the audience.

That's the way I see it.  Your milage may vary.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Inside 'Dragon Tattoo's' Title Sequence

I've been meaning to post this for a few weeks now.  The Wrap ran a cool article a while back talking about the making of the title sequence for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Getting the distinctive look right required the latest in computer technology. The effects in the credit sequence were achieved electronically using 3D scans of the film’s stars Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist) and Rooney Mara (Salander). These computer graphics were designed so that they could be viewed from multiple camera angles throughout the editing process.

The most challenging element, Miller said, was getting the black ooze that seeps throughout the title sequence to look realistic. To that end, Blur tapped fluid special effects specialists Spatial Harmonics and Fusion CIS to help execute the inky liquid.

In all, there are a total of 252 shots in the clip with each cut lasting for roughly 24 frames a second, giving the whole thing a hyper-adrenalized and spastic feeling that matches the troubled title character’s disturbed state of mind.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Modern teens wouldn't worship Michael Jackson, Glee!

I don't want to spend too long talking about this, but Glee did a "tribute" episode featuring the music of Michael Jackson this week and my suspension of disbelief kept being popped.  Can you guess why?

Was it the sudden musical interludes that bore no resemblance to reality? The fact that a spiked slushee was enough to send one character to the hospital? The completely unrealistic engagement between two high school seniors? No. (Though seriously writers, what the fuck? Why is every teen show obsessed with having their characters contemplate nuptials before they even get a diploma?)

No, it was the fact that throughout the show, the teen characters only speak of Michael Jackson in the most glowing of terms.  I can't stomach a rewatch to get direct quotes but they basically call him "amazing," "incredible" and other terms more befitting a demi-god.


Most of those characters are high school seniors.  That makes them 18 at the oldest.  So let's do the math. That means they were born in... where is that calculator ap? Ah! 1993 or 94.  Hmmm... 1993.  It seems I remember something important about Michael that year.  Oh yeah... THIS!

So none of these kids would have grown up in a world where Michael Jackson wasn't an accused child molester.  Much like I never lived in a world where Dick Nixon wasn't a corrupt SOB who resigned in disgrace rather than be tossed from office.  Now, whether or not you believe Jackson actually sexually molested those kids, there's no way that's not something they wouldn't think of when his name is mentioned. By the time these kids had memories, Jackson was a tarnished star whose best days were further behind him than Stephen Hawking racing the Flash.  I don't see where the worship and adoration would come from.

I mean, these are high school kids - making tasteless jokes is what they do.  It's weird that they speak of Michael with greater reverence than most people did even during his glory days.  Then there's also the issue of them being so enthralled with Jackson's whole catalog.  I grew up with a love of classic rock and 50s and 60s pop, so I can totally see high school kids being into music older than they are.  It's a little strange that everyone is completely into all of Michael's ouvre, though.  Even when I was in high school, I'm sure there were at least one or two people who thought the Beatles sucked, or who at least didn't know every major song of theirs.

So the character writing felt false on a lot of levels.  The characters felt like mouthpieces for writers in their mid-to-late 30s.  Writers who probably were also kissing some ass to get song clearances that would net them lots of money on iTunes.  So watch out for this when you write.  If your characters are significantly younger than you, do the math and make sure that their views and attitudes are appropriate for their generation... and not yours.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Take me to the Pilot Season - Louis CK's master class

Pilot season is underway here in Hollywood and for those who work in television, that means two or three of the most nerve-wracking months of the year.  Scripts are purchased, pilots are cast, directors are hired.  All the while, writers tear out what remains of their hair while trying to accommodate network notes and do their best to restrain themselves when the exec covering their show says they have to meet with Katherine Heigl for the female lead.  And that doesn't even begin to describe the stress of knowing that odds are only half - if not fewer - of the pilots ordered will actually get picked up as a series.

For a slightly dramatized look at the pilot process, rent the little-seen film The TV Set, written and directed by Jake Kasdan.  David Duchovny plays a writer who struggles to keep his artistic vision for a serious dramatic show intact in the face of miscasting and clueless notes from the network president, played by Sigourney Weaver.  I once asked writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Andromeda, Alphas) if he'd seen the movie and his response was, "The TV Set is the most terrifyingly real movie ever made."  I have several friends who work in television, and much of what the film depicts is in line with their experience.  One friend even found the film too painful to laugh at because it was so true.

For a more first-hand look at the process of developing and selling a show, check out this excellent article from Third Beat, which reproduces an archived Usenet post written years ago by Louis CK.  In it, he goes step-by-step through the process of going from idea to network pickup.  Here's a taste.

So you are trying to get the best actors, director and writer in the world at the same time that everyone else in town is trying… Okay, so casting. First you have to hire a casting director. There are only a few good ones and everybody wants them. you have to meet with a lot of people who tell you some ideas of who they might cast in your show. If you click with someone you hire them (if you can) and start casting. You see thousands of horrible actors and hear your pilot script read over and over and over and over again. 

At the same time, offers are going out to very big named actors, none of which you think fit the parts at all, but you are told they will help your show get on the air. (In my case, HBO doesn’t give a shit about that, so we were able to cast people according to their funninness and acting. Hooray for me) At one point you’re told that your pilot is going to star Brendan Frazier and Jody Foster. At the last minute they both pass and you end up with Kirk Cameron and Shelly Biglachnataps. The way the casting works is that you make usually three top picks for every part in the show. You now take these people to the studio and they decide if they like your choices. If they do, you take those three folks now to network. THey sign what is called a test deal, which means they make their acting deal before the network even sees them.

So yo uhave to negotiate a deal with three actors per part, even though only one of them will be hired. So the three actors (per part) go to the network and audition for LEs moonves or whoever. He/she/they pick one person and you are cast. OR (and usually) they don’t like any of them and you have to start all over again and now time is fucking running out and every good actor is already on a show. 

Then, if you want a hint of the work that awaits each week once your show gets picked up, check out this fascinating article from Simpsons writer Bill Oakley about the process of writing what would become the Simpsons' 100th episode. It's called "The Lost Jokes and Story Arcs of "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song"

This episode, from Season Five, had more changes than our normal episode. It changed a lot because there are some story problems which I think are still in the final episode. And you see through the different incarnations of the script, from the pitch, to the outline, to the script, to what aired — the story changes somewhat in each version. And I don't necessarily think it ever quite got there. I think the story really should have been a 45 minute story, and cutting it to 22 minutes caused it to suffer a little bit. 

In retrospect, I think we should have tried to figure out some way to prune out some of the complicated things in the story to make it cleaner. Because what the story really was, in this pitch, was a funny and very clean first act and two subsequent acts that never quite approached the level of the first one. I think the jokes in every version of this are pretty solid, but what happens with Skinner and what he does when he's gone changes in each draft. And what the repercussions of that are, was that the Flanders and Homer B story got cut entirely in the broadcast version.

 Enjoy folks!