Friday, June 29, 2012

Future Filmmaker Friday: "The Strong One" - CMF Best Picture & Best Director Winner

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Campus MovieFest red carpet gala on the Universal lot.  CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week.  Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood.

That's right - one week to make a film that can be no more than five minutes.  Back when I was taking film classes, there are students who would spend an entire semester making a five minute film on 16mm.  I would have killed for the opportunity that CMF offers.  Even better is that CMF goes to many campuses that don't have film programs.  I saw a couple of shorts from those schools and if I may speak frankly, some of them were better than many projects I've seen come out of film school festivals.

I was so impressed with the talent I saw there that I've decided to start a new feature on the blog: Future Filmmaker Friday.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to showcase several of the best CMF shorts on my blog.  This is where I plead with each of you to take five minutes out of your Friday and give some attention to the work of some promising young filmmakers.  If you like the work, leave comments here or on their YouTube page.  Filmmakers thrive on feedback and I know it would mean a lot for the filmmakers I feature if you lent some support.

Even though I featured this next film on my blog a while back, I can't possibly overlook a short that walked away with the Best Picture and Best Director awards last week.  From North Carolina State University, this is THE STRONG ONE, directed by Nicholas Sailer.  Scroll down for an interview with him.

So tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in film?

I've always had a passion for stories and storytelling, and that was probably due to my parents reading novels, short stories, and good literature to me all throughout my childhood. I wrote and directed my first short film when I was 16. I have made at least one film every year since then, and it has been fun to watch the quality slowly improve. I don't think I would show you the first film that I made- maybe it will be an easter egg on a dvd of mine in the future- Who knows?

Where are you in your school career? 

I am currently a senior at the College of Design at NC State University. There are lots of people that are surprised to find that I'm not in a film program or at a film school. I chose design as my course of study because I see it as the easiest way to study creativity. The craft of filmmaking is something that I am living and learning outside of my academics. I never want my creativity to be constricted to one medium, but I will always be making films.

How did THE STRONG ONE come together? 

THE STRONG ONE came together in a really unique way. Josh Bielick (the cinematographer of THE STRONG ONE) and I both entered films into CMF the previous year- I won Best Picture and he won Best Drama. At the time, I saw his work and reacted in a competitive way- I recognized that his work was very good and that his film was very well done.

Several months later, last fall, we met randomly at an entrepreneur event- We exchanged business cards, and because the team that I worked with previously had all graduated, I made the effort to start talking about a collaboration. At the same time, Josh had been talking with Tim Reavis (Writer of the poem "Jurassic Parking Lot", on which THE STRONG ONE is based). Tim was actually a mutual friend of mine, and I had heard some of his poems, but never thought to adapt one into film. I sent Josh a script that I wrote, and Josh sort of indicated that he really wanted to use some of Tim's poems as source material. He sent me a text that said "I know a guy that writes damn good poetry" and from then on we decided on adapting one of Tim's poems. Josh and I met up and looked over 5 of Tim's poems. We settled on "Jurassic Parking Lot", and slowly things began to come together. During shooting we titled the film, "THE STRONG ONE".

How did the limitations of one-week to shoot and edit it play into how you developed your idea?

Shooting THE STRONG ONE in a week was not extremely difficult- There were late nights and early mornings, for sure, but the latest we stayed up was around 4 am during editing. We had to pay special attention to scheduling some of our shoots due to the sunrise shots, and ended up seeing the sunrise 3 days in a row.

What - in your opinion - makes for a good short film?

There are so many different rules and principles that I try and bring into a good story and film, these are just a few of them. I think the same things that make a good feature film apply, just in a smaller context:

1) The audience must have a reason to like or relate to the main character. So many people have come up to me and said that they went through something like the story that THE STRONG ONE depicts, and because of that, it hits home for them.

2) There should always be a journey of change or transition that the audience goes through- In the case of THE STRONG ONE, the child begins the story dependent on the dinosaur, and in the end, we sort of understand that the child has gone through this journey and is now independent, but revisits the dinosaur to remember how he got to where he is now.

3) Not all films have this, but one thing that puts a film at another level is a reversal of expectation: A good end to a story should be unexpected, but inevitable. In other words, like a good joke: You don't expect the ending, but when you look back and think about it, there is no other way that it could have ended better. THE STRONG ONE does this at the end when it's established that the dinosaur is 'The Strong One', and in the final scene, the dinosaur reveals to the child that the child himself is 'The Strong One'.

Was there anything you wanted to do, but couldn't, due to time restrictions?

I can't think of anything in particular that we tried to do that we couldn't because of time restrictions. There were a couple of shots that we had initially envisioned differently, but we ended up getting shots that were similar or maybe even better in some respects.

What have you taken from the CMF experience? What were your impressions of CMFHollywood?

The CMF experience has been a great networking tool, as well as an amazing platform for screening and sharing work publicly. CMF Hollywood was an exciting way of meeting so many different student filmmakers, and I hope to see some collaboration through that.

If you are interested, you can view more of my work at my websites, below: 

AND my blog at 

Congrats again Nicholas!  And we'll be featuring another CMF film next week.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Any chance they just want to buy my idea and have someone else rewrite it?"

A writer calling themselves "Inconsolable Cat" sent me the following question:

How likely are you to pass up the line a script that has a great concept, but which is merely competently executed? Have you ever written, "The only good thing here is the idea. But what a great idea!"? How likely is a studio to buy a script just to own the concept, opting to send it to an established pro for a re-write?

I've been asked variations on this question before, and usually with a specific subtext to the query.  I'm not saying "Inconsolable" is guilty of this motivation, but this seems like a good opportunity to address those who are.

When I'm asked, "If the idea is great, would the studio buy that and get someone else to rewrite it?" my first thought is that I'm dealing with a writer who doesn't have confidence that their writing is up to the level of other professionals.  But somehow, they're convinced their idea is wildly original, so original that they can cash in by selling that and banking on someone else to get hired to do all the hard work.

I hate this sort of attitude.

It smacks of the laziest sort of writer, the kind of writer who's just in it to "cash in."  A real writer with a brilliant idea shouldn't want to give it up.  A true writer resists someone else coming in to work on his baby.

If you want to be a writer and you have an idea you believe in, they should have to pry that script out of your cold dead hands.  The only reason you should ask the question above is out of the fear that you won't get to complete the project on your own.

If  you welcome the idea of someone just tossing a nominal fee at you to buy the idea and then do what they want with it, just get the fuck out right now.

I mean it.  This isn't a profession for dilettantes.  When you treat screenwriting in that manner, it's disrespectful to the people who work hard to develop their craft and better their product.  If you don't show respect to the profession, I'm under no obligation to show respect to you.

As I said, Inconsolable Cat might not be coming at the question from the motivations I ascribe above, but I know that there are people out there who DO think like that.

To cover the rest of the questions, yes, there have been plenty of coverages where I've said, "Good concept, terrible execution."  It's somewhat rare to find an EXCELLENT concept and terrible execution, only because the work of a weak writer might end up undermining anything good about the script.

A weak writer also is less likely to conceive with an entirely unique concept.  If it's an idea they came up with, odds are someone ELSE has thought of something similar, and they might have done it even better.  So while readers like me can always champion the concept while slamming the script, a sub-par writing sample does no one any favors.

The decisions about that kind of purchase are made above my paygrade.  While it might happen now and then that a concept is SO impressive that it merits immediate purchase, I can't say I've ever seen that scenario happen at any of the companies I've worked for.  In other words, don't bank on it.

I'd say it's more likely that a script would sell if it's by written by a writer just short of professional level.  That writer would then get their guild-obligated rewrite and then the script would get passed on to another pro only after it was decided the original writer couldn't get the script to where it needed to be.  That kind of thing is probably more common than the concept being bought and the original writer being immediately removed.

Your goal should to sell that script, and be strong enough to be hired on even after the requisite rewrite.  Strive to be a writer, not a concept farmer.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 5 - Mid-point

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the fifth chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video covers the importance of a strong mid-point.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

I hope that in two months time, a lot of you will be reporting back with completed screenplays.  Has anyone been keeping up so far?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Your biggest pet peeve... with yourself?

I get asked all the time what things annoy me about the scripts I read, so it seems only fair to turn that question back on you guys.  What about your own writing annoys you?

C'mon!  Be honest.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Using original songs in a spec

If you sent in a question recently I need to apologize because I've been incredibly lax in answering those.  Let's see if we can do something about that now.  This one comes from Damiano:

I have a story revolving around a soul singer. In one scene a musician on stage sings one of his songs in front of him. The song I want to use is a song I co-wrote myself with a friend of mine. How would this fly? Would this be problematic? Any thoughts or opinions you can offer me on this? 

It's a tricky spot to be in.  I know the conventional wisdom is to warn writers away from using copy written music in their scripts due to the expensive of licensing rights.  By that logic, writing original songs should be smooth sailing, right?

Well, maybe not entirely. 

The biggest problem I can see is that since your song isn't known, the reader won't have a good idea of what it would sound like.  In the grand scheme of things, that's probably not a fatal error, though.  The story and the writing of your spec are going to need to be strong enough to move up the ladder on their own.

If you were writing a full-on musical, this probably WOULD be a bigger issue - so those of you in that situation, proceed with caution.

But if I understand Damiano right, we're talking about one song in one scene.  I don't see it making or breaking your script either way under those circumstances.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Soldiers of Fortune" - a decade in the making

One of the first friends I made out in L.A. was a guy named Alex Coscas and once we realized both of us were writers, naturally we swapped scripts and gave each other feedback.  Thus began a friendship that has lasted the better part of a decade.

The script Alex gave me was then entitled "Billionaire Boys," a straight-up, no apologies Bruckheimer-esque film.  It was somewhat in the mold of Armageddon, where there's a rag-tag group of colorful characters thrown into a high-octane situation. In this case, the idea was that a group of mercenaries would more or less sell spots on their missions to extremely wealthy celebrities looking to live out the life of an action hero.  Basically, it was Action Hero Fantasy Camp.  So you've got the Chris Tucker comedian character, the N'Sync/Backstreet Boy analog, and so on.... all shelling out cash to make like Stallone in The Expendables.

And then on one mission, all of the "real" soldiers are killed and it falls to the "Billionaire Boys" to complete the mission and get back in one piece.

Pretty cool, huh?

(I have to chuckle at the few articles I've seen that draw comparisons between this and City Slickers, The Expendables & Tropic Thunder... because only ONE of those scripts even existed back when I read Alex and his writing partner's first draft.)

Well, despite what seemed like a pretty marketable premise, it would actually take the better part of a decade and a great deal of Alex's own initiative to put this project together.  Don't get me wrong, Alex and his writing partner Joe Kelbley wrote several other scripts, but he never gave up on this one.  It's going to see the light of day under the title Soldiers of Fortune, and features the talents of Christian Slater, Ving Rhames, Sean Bean, Colm Meany, Dominic Monaghan and James Cromwell.

As I understand it, the film will get a brief theatrical run starting August 3, concurrent with a VOD release, before going to DVD.  Alex is an incredibly busy guy, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to do an interview with him around the time the film comes out.  If that's something you guys would be interested in seeing, please chime in in the comments.

I don't think I've ever been prouder to feature a video on here... I give you, the trailer for Soldiers of Fortune.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pilot sneak peeks: A great premise is no excuse to cut corners on characters

After you've been in L.A. for a few years, you come to anticipate one of the perks of working in the business: getting to see all the network pilots months before they premiere.  For some actors and writers, this is a process marked by envy.  (i.e. "How could they order this script/cast THIS actor and not order/cast mine/me?!")  I've vowed to make this tour as much of a learning experience as possible.

Because it's not unusual for pilots to be retooled, partially reshot or even recast after they're ordered, I'm not going to offer any in-depth thoughts, nor am I going to name any of the pilots that suc---  I mean, that aren't going to find themselves on my DVR this fall.

I will offer that the two efforts I've given A's to are ABC's Last Resort and FOX's The FollowingLast Resort is the story of a submarine crew that defies orders to open fire on Pakistan and then takes over a neutral island, declaring themselves a nuclear power.  It's a solid script from Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, with feature film quality production values and directing from Martin Campbell.  The cast, headed by Andre Braugher, is solid.  This is efficient storytelling at it's best.  When this pilot was over, I wanted to see what happened next and I couldn't wait to spend time with these characters.

Important lesson here: as plot driven as this first hour is, the characters all have depth and strong dynamics with each other.  All of the actors slip into these roles as if they've been inhabiting those characters for years and it's a reminder that a truly great show isn't just about a great hook or premise; it's about populating it with characters who make the most of that premise.

In other words, being plot-driven isn't an excuse to be lazy.

The Following also has a killer hook.  A notorious serial killer escapes from prison and the retired FBI Agent who brought him in many years ago is recruited as a consultant.  Before long, it's clear that the killer has help from a full cult of followers who've admired his work for years.  Kevin Williamson's script is slick, and frankly, probably more along the lines of what networks expected him to pitch back in 1997 instead of Dawson's Creek.

Williamson's ace-in-the-hole is Kevin Bacon as the lead FBI Agent.  But one doesn't get a movie star like that unless he's got a compelling character to play.  I don't want to say too much, but Bacon's character is haunted by his past mistakes and the pilot makes it clear that while the manhunt for the killer is the show's engine, it's Bacon who'll lure back an audience week-after-week.  There are probably a half-dozen shows featuring FBI agents and/or cops hunting psychopaths, but The Following is no procedural.

Most of the stronger pilots I've watched are all driven by strong characters.  No matter how high the concept, a television series needs distinct residents populating that world week after week once the initial rush of the premise wears off.  The Office thrived because of Michael Scott and his ensemble, The Vampire Diaries gets much of its dramatic tension from the Stefan/Damon dichotomy and the Stefan/Elena/Damon triangle; and where would Revenge be without the damaged Emily Thorne driving events?

When you write a movie, sometimes you can use high concept as a crutch.  TV is less forgiving, and nothing makes you more aware of the importance of strong characters than watching 15 pilots in a short span.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 4 - First Act Turning point

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the fourth chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video covers the most important elements to have in the second half of your first act, up to the first act turning point.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, Subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

I hope that in three months time, a lot of you will be reporting back with completed screenplays.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Frank Grimes - commenting on characters

The A.V. Club has a great article on TV characters whom the writers use to comment on the oddities of the show's fictional universe.  Their template for this is "Frank Grimes," a guest character on the Simpsons introduced in the episode "Homer's Enemy"

TV fans who watch a series week to week will inevitably start to think of the characters in that series in somewhat intimate terms—as people they might be friends with if those people existed in real life. Yet most TV characters are extremely heightened versions of real-life types, and usually, they’re heightened in ways that would be incredibly irritating to encounter in real life. Enter the hapless guest star, forced to contend with the series regular, whose buffoonery becomes especially outsized for that episode. 

See: Frank “Grimey” Grimes, a work-a-day schlub who’s forced to share workspace with Homer Simpson in the classic Simpsons episode “Homer’s Enemy.” Homer’s lackadaisical approach to life and his extreme string of good luck drive ol’ Grimey off the deep end, with tragic results. It’s as if a realistically drawn character with constantly defeated hopes and dreams wandered into a cartoon universe and was punished for doing so, through absolutely no fault of his own. Episodes like this skew toward the dark, but “Homer’s Enemy” is one of the darkest. 

I love characters like this because they force the audience to look at their favorite characters with fresh eyes.  The A.V. Club article identifies 20 such characters. Do you have a favorite "Frank Grimes?"

Monday, June 18, 2012

Peter David on why writers are hard to entertain

I've long been a fan of writer Peter David, whose work spans Star Trek novels, many comic book franchises, episodes of several TV shows, including Babylon 5, Ben 10, Young Justice and Space Cases.  A regular feature on his blog is the reprinting of old columns of his, and more often than not, the archives feel incredibly timely, despite being 15 years old.

In this particular column, Peter responds to a reader who thinks he's too hard on the movies he occasionally dissects:

Is it possible that when you watch a movie for the second time on television, you are simply less obsessed with finding fault? Under such circumstances, you just might sit back, watch and enjoy. I suspect that you feel that you get a more entertaining column out of trashing a movie–something I’ve found disconcerting when it’s a movie I’ve seen and enjoyed. In fact, I can remember only one movie that you actually enjoyed although I believe you lamented its obvious failure at the box office.

Dare I suggest that you are overly critical of any piece of writing that is not your own?

I don’t think that a script needs to be technically perfect to be entertaining, an opinion you don’t seem to share; and I think it sad that you spend so much time fining fault that you can’t really let yourself enjoy any movie the first time you view it.

I don't often get emails like this, but now and then I've gotten similar reactions from critiques I've written.  As much as I understand where that reader is coming from, I usually find that point of view collapses under scrutiny.  Leave it to Peter David to come up with a better response than I could:

In point of fact, no one is harder to entertain than a writer. Why? Because, like a roomful of magicians watching a David Copperfield performance, we already know how the trick is done, or we’re busy trying to figure it out. Seeing a magician requires the audience to suspend disbelief.

“Look! The woman is floating in the air!” No, she’s not. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible. People just can’t float unaided. But you marvel at the illusion. Same thing with telling a story, and the storyteller has to work that much hard to bamboozle a fellow writer, just as the magician does to snow his peers.

Meaning that if a writer producers a screenplay that can entertain me, I applaud his talent and eagerly look forward to what else he has to produce.

So when Michael says, “I think; it is sad that you spend so much time finding fault; you can’t really let yourself enjoy any movie the first time you view it,” I humbly submit that it is his interpretation… to say nothing of being a sweeping and wholly inaccurate conclusion.

Yes!  Precisely!  Why are readers (and writers) so critical?  Because we know all the tricks!  We know what makes that woman float and we can tell when the illusion is poorly disguised.  If someone took short-cuts in your line of work, I'm sure you'd spot it too.  If you sell furniture for a living, you'll spot sub-standard sofas and coffee tables a mile away.  A professional plumber might notice a hasty patch job, and so on, and so on.

So when a writer earns the respect of fellow writers, it means one thing - he or she is doing something very, very right.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thursday Throwback: Lessons from bad movies - "The Spirit"

This post first appeared on Monday, May 4, 2009


This weekend I Netflixed a film I knew better than to spend $12 on when it was in wide release - Frank Miller's The Spirit. I'd seen the presentation for this film at last year's Comic Con, where one previewed scene played so horribly to the audience that the producer was practically apologizing for it after running the clip. I knew I shouldn't spend theatre prices on this turkey, but it immediately earned a place in my Netflix queue.

Most of the major critics took their shots at this one back when it first came out, so I'm not going to waste time with a broad review. Also, I've never really followed the Will Eisner comic upon which this is based, so I can't speak too deeply to the film's fidelity to the source material. Still even with the limited exposure I've had to the comics, I can tell that visually, the film looks nothing like Eisner's vision. It looks more like... well... Sin City, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez.

In comparing the two, you can get a sense of where Miller went wrong here. For all of its demerits - and there are many - The Spirit is a very visually strong film. There are the usual Miller motifs, and he certainly knows how to compose a shot. (Not surprising since Miller's been working in the visual medium of comic books for about thirty years.) This is one of the best-looking bad movies I've seen. I know a lot of people derided the style as a Sin City rip-off, but Miller really is just ripping off himself - and a few Eisner visuals shown in the DVD supplements suggest that Eisner worked in a similar style on some of his later projects.

What's wrong in The Spirit? Just about everything else - starting with the script. I'll give a brief mea culpa here. Back in the summer of '04, a development exec I read for got a copy of the Sin City script and allowed me to read it. At the time I hadn't read the comics, but I was well aware of the creator's reputation. I peeled back the cover page, eager to see how the story had been adapted.

I got about ten pages in before I tossed the script aside and wrote it off as a dud. It felt like the vast majority of those ten pages were made up of over-written visual description and especially over-written voiceover narration. I figured there was no way it would work. About ten months later, when the film came out, I had a healthy serving of crow. The two directors made the narration work - incorporating it in a way that really complimented the noir style they were emulating.

Given that, I can understand why no one immediately cried foul when The Spirit proved to have an equally prolific inner monologue. The problem: his inner monologue isn't always inner. There are scenes that start with The Spirit's narration, only to then shift to him talking to himself out loud. This was one of the early slips that pulled me out of the film. Narration might be intrusive, but if you can get the audience to accept it as a part of the style, don't change horses in mid-stream. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why The Spirit voices some thoughts out loud and ruminates internally in others. Given a choice between the two, I'd argue it's less intrusive to go with voiceover. That way there isn't the strangeness of a character talking just so the audience can hear him.

The script also suffers from a plot so dull it's not even worth recounting. There's a fairly mundane set-up early on that ends up pitting two antagonists against each other, with The Spirit conflicted because one antagonist is his former love and the other has a hidden connection to his own immortality. This is one of those movies where the characters end up stopping frequently to explain the plot and motivations to each other - and here's where Miller exposes his limitations as a writer and director. Exposition scenes are overwritten, some set-ups are awkwardly paced only so the story can advance, and the blocking in these talky scenes is often reminiscent of a bad high school play.

Which brings us to the element that truly brings this film down - the acting. I'd argue that only two actors escape this debacle unscathed - Dan Lauria and Samuel L. Jackson. Lauria does the impossible - he somehow finds the exact right note between camp and serious in the cliched role of the hard-boiled police commissioner. It's over the top in all the right ways, even as virtually every other actor stumbles badly when Miller directs them to be broad. Jackson escapes only by virtue of being Jackson.

Again I draw a comparison to Sin City, where Miller and Rodriguez had the advantage of having strong actors like Mickey Rourke, Benicio del Toro, and Bruce Willis in their corner. However, for me, the real shock was how they got solid performances out of actors who generally aren't that good. Jessica Alba might be considered one of the sexiest women alive, but her acting has never been all that impressive - yet amazingly, she turned in a surprisingly vulnerable and likable performance. Brittany Murphy is one of the most annoying actresses alive, so bad that she'll make your eyes and ears bleed - and somehow she totally blended into Sin City's style. Even Rosario Dawson stood out, despite having given few notable performances prior to that. At least one of the directors knew how to get through to these often-uneven players... and from The Spirit, I think it's safe to say that was Rodriguez.

Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega and especially Stana Katic all give performances so bad that they would be career-ending if it wasn't for their sex appeal and the fact it's clear that all of this is Miller's fault. I don't know if there are enough adjectives to adequately convey just how terrible their acting is. The amazing thing is you can completely see what they're going for, even as it's obvious just how badly they missed the target.

Let this be a lesson to all writers - great actors can sometimes save even your weak material. The right material can even elevate your actors... but when an actor tanks a performance that's all the audience will see. Few people watch an awkward scene and think, "Wow that was well-written, the actor just blew it." More likely, they'll think "This movie sucks, this actor sucks," or "this script sucks." Like I said earlier, the script certainly didn't do the actors any favors here, but the dialogue was stylized enough that the right actors might have been able to minimize the damage - had they found the right note in their performances. That's the risk you take when you write highly-stylized dialogue.

Granted, the film suffers from further problems, where logic seems to take a total vacation. My favorite example of this comes with the Spirit is captured by the Octopus. Our hero wakes up in a room decorated with Nazi motifs, and his captors are soon revealed in Nazi uniforms - except for his torturer - a woman dressed as an Arabian belly dancer, though she turns out to be a French woman named "Plaster of Paris." Then, just as you're trying to make sense of this odd cultural melting pot, it dawns on you that this "French" woman is played by Spanish actress Paz Vega.

Blame the visuals all you want for that one, but every one of those odd choices was probably made at the script level - save for the casting of Paz Vega. And even if it wasn't, Miller wrote and directed the film, meaning that all of this HAD to be his vision. It plays like a weird exercise in multiculturalism.

I can't offer any one macro lesson from this turkey, but there are plenty of little lessons to be gleaned. Some problems might be visible at the script level, and others might not become evident until actors actually say their lines out loud.

To recap:
1) Don't switch between narration and having a character talk to himself. If you're gonna go for the narration cheat, embrace it whole-hog.

2) Don't overcomplicate the plot solely through dialogue.

3) Keep exposition efficient. In the cases where you can't, don't just have the characters pace back-and-forth. Give them something visually interesting to do.

4) With the right direction, even bad actors can find the proper tone for your stylized story. Make sure the script isn't so stylized that it strands them with one-note characters.

5) Make sure there's a logic to the set design and wardrobe you specify. If your villain wears a Nazi uniform for kicks, make sure we know what that's supposed to say about his character - especially when there's no consistency between that and the rest of his wardrobe.

I'll conclude with this - it feels like several decisions could have been made at the script stage that would have minimized the damage in the execution... but then we would have had merely a boring film instead of an awesomely bad one.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 3 - Inciting Incident

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the third chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video covers the most important elements to have in your first ten pages, leading up to the inciting incident.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, Subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

I hope that in three months time, a lot of you will be reporting back with completed screenplays.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: What's worse - negative reaction or no reaction?

So as you might remember, I walked out of Prometheus this weekend generally apathetic.  I didn't hate the film, but I didn't particularly like it either.  Until I found that bizarre crucifixion theory, I had little interest in giving any further thought to what happened on screen there.

This was kind of funny to me.  I'm the guy who can write angry rants about what I hate about both CW shows I can't stop watching and ABC Family shows that I only give half my attention while my wife watches.  I can spend three days talking about everything that Sucker Punch did wrong.  Conversely, I'm fully capable of giving the same attention to stuff I like, whether it's sticking up for an underrated CW series, or writing a three part series on everything the ER pilot did right.

But when it came to Prometheus, I just didn't give a damn.

So let me ask you, as an artist, would you rather inspire a bad reaction in your audience, or NO reaction?  Which is ultimately more insulting?  If someone walks out of your film fired up and angry, at least that suggests they had some level of connection or engagement.  If they walk out saying "Meh," it points to a lack of the same.

Monday, June 11, 2012

So who had a reaction to Prometheus? This might help

For at least a solid week, I've been hearing about how Prometheus was going to either be the Second Coming of filmmaking, or the biggest disappointment since Greedo fired first.  With that kind of build-up, I figured that I'd absolutely walk out of the film with at least some kind of fodder for today's blog post.

And I've got nothing, folks.

The movie was pretty to look at, but other than that, it left me completely apathetic.  I've seen worse movies that inspired enough passionate hate for two or three posts.  I've seen better movies that have had me talking for days.

And with Prometheus, my only reaction is that it's stupid to waste so much hate on Damon Lindelof, because it's clear Ridley Scott made the movie he wanted to make.  Love it or hate it, this is Scott's vision.

The movie seems to want to inspire big questions, profound questions, but despite that deliberate ambiguity, I walked out completely indifferent to the answers.

But in surfing the web, I heard an... interesting theory that's only vaguely hinted at by the movie itself.  I don't know if it really counts as a spoiler because it comes from something Ridley Scott said at a press conference.  (Which is a whole separate issue - if one has to go to outside sources to get this major a clue about what the film means, there's something wrong.)

In the film, we learn that a race of aliens that seemingly seeded the Earth and other worlds thousands of years ago.  When the expedition follows clues that lead them to one of those alien installations, they find that most of the beings there were killed about 2000 years ago by.... something.  Later clues indicate that "something" is the result of some bioweapons engineering.

Later still, we learn that these "bio-weapons" were going to be sent to Earth.  And when the Engineer Aliens come face to face with the human team, they do NOT react well to their presence.  It is one of the movie's unanswered mysteries as to why the Engineers would make humanity and then try to destroy it.

Did I mention the film is explicitly set at Christmas?  Because that's a clue to what is being called "The Crucifixion Theory."  The basic idea is that 2000 years ago, humans angered the aliens by killing Christ, so the Engineer aliens created a biological weapon that would eventually evolve into the Aliens we know from the rest of the series.


Some ideas are just way too goofy to work in a movie.  That's one of them.  Honestly, if they'd made THAT more explicit, I might have walked out of the film with more of a reaction.  (A BAD one, but still, a reaction.)

Still, I can't ignore that many people had much more of a reaction than I did.  Drew McWeeny over at Hit-Fix has put together an interesting article addressing a lot of points that people have left the movie wondering about.  Check it out here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Kevin Spacey helps cultivate new directing talent

My friend Erin Cahill recently appeared in a short film called "The Ventriloquist" starring Kevin Spacey.  The film was produced as part of Jameson's First Shot competition to find new directing talent.

Spacey will appear in three shorts, and this one is directed by Benjamin Leavitt.  You can find a little more information here and here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Still drinking the Amazon Studios Kool-Aid? Time for some sobering realities

I feel I should respond to some statements made by Antony on yesterday's post.  In comments he  quotes me:

Finally, " let's not forget that the terms of the Amazon Contest make this 100% legal. As much as this behavior might disgust you or I, this is Amazon Studios working the way it was designed to work. Allow THAT to send a cold chill up your spine."

 -- umm, so writers submit work to a company, and the company abides by the terms of the agreement and there is absolutely NOTHING to suggest they are going to rip off the writers in monetary terms, but that is somehow chilling?

Yes, it's chilling. Just because it's legal doesn't mean that it's not a bad idea for writers to participate. And as I pointed out in the portion you quoted, it's entirely possible under the terms of the original agreement for a writer who submitted back in December 2010 to have had their work held hostage up until now with nothing more than $10,000 paid out.

Admittedly, I don't know how the grandfather clause might work for materials submitted under the new agreement, but renewed under the new one. However, either way, it's clear the writers are legally entitled to remuneration for Amazon to hold their script, and Amazon's own blog confirms they received $10,000 as part of the development slate.

The chilling part is that Amazon Studios pitched themselves to all of the aspiring screenwriters who were desperate to break in. Everyone who put their script up there had dreams of their script, THEIR vision being made into a movie. I don't think anyone signed up to have their script held in limbo for two year, their underlying premise bought at a fraction of the prize money dangled for a "winning script," have the project announced without their names associated with it in any way, and then see industry veterans brought in to claim all the credit.

That's not the dream that had AS devotees drinking the Kool-Aid for the last 18 months. But it's not at all a violation of the rules either. And that's what I mean by "chilling."  That Amazon is totally within their rights to pull a Lucy Van Pelt - spiking the football for Charlie Brown to kick, and then pull it away at the last second.

The other thing about Amazon Studios that concerns me is how there was a lot of hype about their first test film THE NEVSKY PROSPECT while it was in production, only to have it vanish into thin air.  As I indicated yesterday, it seems like the sort of thing that could have really embarassed the shingle if anyone who mattered was paying attention.

I'm going to lay out the timeline of events as bluntly as possible, and I invite any intrepid reporters to take this background information and run with it.  Much of this information comes either directly from Amazon Studios, or the production blog of the test film itself.

Fact: In April 2011, THE NEVSKY PROSPECT is one of the winning entries in the monthly contest.  As such, the screenwriting team collects $20,000.

Fact: In September 2011, Amazon Studios announces they are "working with established filmmakers, animators and others to produce three additional test movies," including THE NEVSKY PROSPECT.

Fact: Amazon announces key production personnel for THE NEVSKY PROSPECT. The director was USC grad Rajeev Dassani.

Fact: Professional actors were hired under a SAG New Media agreement. 

Fact: Under the SAG New Media rules, eligible projects are "Independently produced original, made for new media (MFNM) entertainment productions that will initially be exhibited via the Internet, mobile devices or any other platform known or which may be adopted but excluding motion pictures, commercials, and video games covered by the Basic Agreement, Television Agreement, the SAG Industrial/Educational Agreement, the SAG Infomercials Agreement, SAG Interactive Agreement or the SAG Commercials Contract."  (emphasis added.)

Fact: The film was greenlit on August 9.

Fact: the film began shooting in mid-October. Day 3 in Latvia was Wednesday October 19.

Fact: Mid-November, the film finishes on schedule after 22 days of production.

Fact: Upon returning to L.A., there was one week to edit prior to first test screening.

Fact: Director tweets on November 29th that first assembly is complete.

Fact: Post-Production is completed on January 10.

Fact: Film was delivered to Amazon on time.

Fact: In Late January, the Movie goes online at

Fact: At some point after the movie goes live, it is removed from Amazon's site. A message at the link reads: Video currently unavailable. Due to our licensing agreements this video is currently not available for purchase or rental."

Fact: February 7 - Deadline article is posted containing details of THE NEVSKY PROSPECT's production.

Fact: Screening planned for Latvia after mid-April.

My questions:
In order to qualify for the SAG New Media Agreement, the project couldn't be a motion picture.  Also, if it was a motion picture, Amazon would then owe the script's writer the $200,000 purchase price.  Having outlined the each step of this production, does it seem right to you that Amazon can just declare this film to be a "test film" and thus, sidestep numerous obligations it would otherwise have to pay?  What determines when a project stops being a "test film" and becomes a real film?

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.  So why isn't THE NEVSKY PROSPECT a film?  Why can I find no announcement that the script was purchased for $200,000?

Why is THE NEVSKY PROSPECT "test film" no longer available online?

And though I don't wish to delve into the specifics of the writer's complaints, why is the original writer of THE NEVSKY PROSPECT so bitter and disgruntled with Amazon Studios?

Folks, do me a favor.  Link to this article.  Tweet it and discuss it on your own blogs.  I want this post high in Google searches for Amazon Studios so that when the time comes, journalists doing background work on the shingle will find this easily organized account of THE NEVSKY PROSPECT.

All of this is out there, but no one's drawing attention to it.  Should Amazon Studios ever have reason to trumpet the accomplishment of completing Zombies v. Gladiators, I'd like to see these valid questions cling to them like a wet T-shirt.

Taking all of this in total, I don't understand anyone who believes that Amazon Studios is or has ever been a great venue for screenwriters to get discovered and launch their careers.  Is there anyone who isn't the least bit wary of this history?  These first few writers are the guinea pigs, and where Amazon should be making a spectacle of how awesome it is for them, all they seem to provoke is a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 2 - Three-Act Structure

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the second chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video covers the basics of the three-act structure, something every writer should know.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, Subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

I hope that in three months time, a lot of you will be reporting back with completed screenplays.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why the Zombies v. Gladiators announcement should make every writer wary of Amazon Studios

As I tweeted yesterday, Amazon Studios has announced that horror writer/director Clive Barker has signed on to rewrite and direct Zombies v. Gladiators.  A script that has been festering in what passes for "development" over there for quite some time.

There are a number of things with this release that concern me.  I and a few other screenwriters have noted that Amazon Studios' press release does not ONCE mention the writers who originated the project Gregg Ostrin & Michael Weiss.  (Their names are equally absent in stories running in each of the four major industry trade sites.  So much for "reporting.")  In fact, I can't find any sort of press release from Amazon Studios that announces they've actually purchased the script from the writers!

I read this script for work in late 2010 (and it was NOT suitable for consideration at the company where I read at the time.) The AS page for the script shows that it was uploaded to the site in December of that year.  This means that the script is outside the 18-month "free option" period.  However, the old rules did allow Amazon to renew that option at the price or $10,000 and retain the script for another 18-months.  I'm going to assume that's what happened here.

The script never won the monthly or yearly contest, so under Amazon's rules, they didn't have to pay out the $200,000 figure they named as the purchase price for the screenplay.

I reiterate, these are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

A reader calling himself "Dr. Nevsky" has kept a close watch on the contest and sent me a helpful email that, if nothing else, should provoke some thoughts.

The two original authors submitted the ZvG script out to all of the studios in 2009, as at least one of them is repped. All the studios passed. They entered it into the Amazon Studios contest where it never won any prize. Then, all of a sudden Amazon announces that they want the unwashed masses to take a crack at a rewrite of the script and they announced that the script was in development at Comic Con last year. 

Amazon gave vague ideas of what they wanted, and several writers did a full, page one rewrite, which was needed, and Amazon ignored those rewrites and awareded the prize to the writer Lauri who's ZvG revision involved curing the zombies of their, umm, being dead, with arrows dipped in human tears, or some shit like that. 

It was said that Amazon themselves tried to make a test movie but were having problems with the third act (there wasn't a third act, it sucked.) So apparently Amazon realized that the ZvG project wasn't working in any of its iterations and obviously they decided they liked the ZvG CONCEPT, but not the original script, or any of the rewrites. 

But here's the shitty thing. Lauri got paid at least $10,000 for her rewrite. Clive Barker is probably going to get at least $500,000, if not a million for rewriting ZvG. But the original authors have gotten ZERO DOLLARS. 

So, in the end, if Amazon somehow decides that Clive Barker sucks and they abandon the ZvG project, everyone would have gotten paid EXCEPT the original writers. 

It has been said that the original authors should be happy as they're now going to "get meetings with studios" because their script sucked so much that the thirty odd people who entered the rewrite contest, and even the winning entry couldn't fix the script, and then Clive Barker had to be brought in to rewrite the entire thing. 

Sounds like a great promotion tool for the authors and Amazon. "My script sucked so much that every Hollywood studio passed on it, but then Amazon liked it and hired Clive Barker to rewrite it totally!" 

One could argue that Amazon is simply trying something different and thoroughly testing out an idea before they go forward and spend the big bucks on production. But once again it is also strange that Amazon has hired Oscar-level producers to produce a script that Amazon doesn't even own, but only have an option. 

Sure, lower level productions do this sort of juggle all of the time, but it's usually with a producer optioning a script while they try to go and find money for the movie. But Amazon HAS the money, they just dont want to spend it on the writer. One has to ask if the scripts they currently have "in development" are so worthy of development, then why doesn't Amazon just simply buy the damn things from the writers and then say "C-ya," especially if it's obvious that pro writers are going to be brought in to rewrite the script? 

I also have to wonder what would happen if the produced Zombies v. Gladiators ends up bearing no resemblance to the submitted script beyond the title.  Obviously there's a paper trail a mile long showing that Amazon Studios had access to the original material.  But if nothing of that remains, would the mere inspiration of a broad concept be enough to allow the original writers to sue, should Amazon Studios decide to produce their own version without cooperation?

And what does that mean if someone appropriates the basic idea of another failed Amazon screenplay? It's not like you can copyright an idea, just the particular expression of that idea.

I'm not a lawyer.  I can't answer that for sure, but it does give me pause.  If Disney hears that Dreamworks is making a movie about an asteroid heading to Earth and they decide to make their own asteroid movie, could Dreamworks sue Disney?

This is the kind of thing that gives me pause about Amazon Studios.  I can't find anything to contradict the underlying facts that Dr. Nevsky lays out, and many of the conclusions he draws don't seem that unreasonable to me.

True, the absence of a purchase announcement isn't necessarily proof that Ostrin & Weiss haven't been paid, but I'd think Amazon would have made an announcement.  If nothing else, it would give them a reason to keep their name in the news. They don't have to cut the writers a check until December 2012 - which gives Amazon six months to see if they can get this thing off the ground with Clive Barker.  And if they don't, that $5,000 each will have to satisfy the two writers.

But let's not forget that the terms of the Amazon Contest make this 100% legal.  As much as this behavior might disgust you or I, this is Amazon Studios working the way it was designed to work. 

Allow THAT to send a cold chill up your spine.

Tuesday Talkback: Interview questions

Let's just say I was going to interview a working TV writer/creator this coming week.  What sort of general questions about TV writing would you folks be interested in knowing?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Redundant characters in Snow White and the Huntsman

I saw Snow White and the Huntsman this past weekend and rather liked it.  It's not completely perfect, but I think on balance, the good outweighed the less-successful moments in the film.  (There's a bit of a second act slump, largely due to Charlize Theron's Evil Queen disappearing for much of the middle of the film.)

When writing a script, you want to make sure that you don't have two characters who seem to serve the same function.  I'm sure you can figure out the most important reasons for this, the least of which not being that screen time is too valuable to have two characters crowding each other out by stepping on each others toes, dramatically speaking, that is.  When this happens, usually one character is redundant and should be eliminated in the name of simplification.

So if you didn't see SWATH this weekend, allow me set the stage.  Early on, we meet Snow White as a child, and in an early scene she's shown with a a childhood playmate named William, the son of the Duke.  When Snow White's stepmother marries and then kills Snow's father, the King, it sets the stage for an invasion from the new Queen's army.  The Duke and his son escape, but Snow is captured while William can only watch helplessly.

In true movie form, when we later rejoin these two as adults it's pretty well hammered at us that these two are still carrying pretty big torches for each other.  Putting aside how unrealistic it is, it actually causes some problems for the film.  It feels like that at one point this character was conceived to be the equivalent of Prince Charming.  When word breaks of Snow White's escape, he puts himself at risk to find her, taking on the Evil Queen's brother.  It's eventually Snow's feelings for him that the Queen uses to trick her into taking the poisoned apple.

The problem:  Snow White already has a noble protector, the Huntsman.  Initially brought in to recover the fugitive Snow White for the Queen, he soon becomes her reluctant protector.  Later, after some circumstances I won't get into, he becomes even more devoted to looking after her.  The Snow/William is asserted more than it's shown, but the Huntsman/Snow dynamic actually develops and deepens over the course of the film.

(I can't go any further without a big spoiler, so just know that you've been warned.)

In fact, after Snow White takes a bit of the poisoned apple and dies, it's not William's kiss that revives her - it's the Huntsman's.  This pretty much provokes the question: what does the movie need William for anyway?

I read an interview with screenwriter Evan Doughtery (which I can't find now, so if anyone finds the quote I'm talking about, please send it), where he talks about how one of the big changes from his draft to the final shooting screenplay was that he envisioned being older, with a more paternal vibe to him.  Once they cast the part younger, that led to producers to play up a bit more romantic chemistry between the two.

[Edit: This Slash Film interview probably does the best job of explaining it.

"In my original draft another slight difference was the idea that the huntsman was primarily a mentor figure with some hints of an unrequited love relationship with Snow White. As an example, like the original pitch I would give for this movie back in the old days when I first wrote it was. “It’s Snow White meets Luc Besson’s The Professional” where it’s like the huntsman is like the Jean Reno hitman character teaching Snow White to be this strong warrior and fighter. 

"So he was much more of a mentor in the original and the process of the script evolving and then the casting, they started thinking about older casting for the huntsman character, like Viggo Mortenson, Johnny Depp, guys like that, which would have been more that mentor figure. 

"But when Chris Hemsworth became available and it was right after Thor and he was so good in Thor. I thought Thor was really over the top and crazy, but really fun and I thought he was really good in it. There was no way you could cast Chris Hemsworth and not turn up the volume on the love story between the huntsman and Snow White. 

"So now it’s much more of a 50/50 between huntsman as a mentor and huntsman as a potential love interest and that was a big change, which to be honest I was a little resistant too, but knowing a huge portion of movie goers go to see… I mean it’s just a classic element of any story, a compelling romance or a compelling love story or the hint of a compelling love story. I have since been won over by that, but I was a little resistant to that at first." 

In comments, One Woman Media also found this Film School Rejects interview that covers the same ground.]

In doing so, William had a less unique function to fulfill.  As the Huntsman swelled to fill space he wasn't designed to fill, he crowded out William.  After all, what's more interesting, watching a relationship grow and change from nothing, or being filled in about an already existing relationship?

All things considered, it might have been cleaner to write William out altogether.  Frankly, given the set-up with young William, I was rather surprised when the adult Huntsman didn't turn out to be an older William.  When you get down to it, the only unique function William fulfills is that its his image that the Queen uses to dupe Snow White into biting the apple.  It's a moment that works better when it's one beat in a film-long arc, but with little else to really give it resonance, a rewrite was probably in order.

So in your own work, look out for redundant characters, particularly as you rewrite.  Characters often change throughout the creative process, so it takes a keen eye to make sure they don't impinge on someone else's turf.