Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"If this script is flawed, how did it end up on the Black List?"

Avishai asks:

Every once in a while, a script finishes high on the Black List and gets turned into a movie. And sometimes, that movie is panned by critics. Often, the movie is criticized for its script more than for anything else. A current example of such a movie would be Killing Season, originally titled Shrapnel, a screenplay that finished on the 2008 Black List. 

Recently, I was given a screenplay to cover as a test of my scriptreading abilities. I got the screenplay without the title page. I read it, disliked it, and made sure the coverage reflected my feelings about the story's shortcomings. After I sent in my coverage, with some internet sleuthing, I managed to discover that this particular script made the 2011 Black List and is currently in production. With more sleuthing, I found out that the script divides its readers. Some love it, some hate it. The one thing they can agree on is that the screenplay is slow and could use a rewrite or two. 

So I guess my question is twofold. One, why do imperfect (for lack of a better term; no screenplay I've ever read is perfect) screenplays finish high on the Black List? And two, do you think people are more forgiving of a mediocre script that made the list than of an equally mediocre script with no credentials? 

As to the first,  you have to understand that most of the scripts out there range from terrible to mediocre.  It's not just that a lot of scripts are bad, it's that they're blandly bad.  In that sea, a script that makes bold choices will stand out more.  Sometimes this means that the script will make choices that are polarizing.  There will be people who dislike it for being bold, perhaps in matters of sex or violence, but there will be just as many people who remember the script for having the guts to go places few scripts go - and do it well.

A good example might be LOOPER.  I thought it was a good movie, but it wouldn't have been on my Top 10 last year.  However, I know plenty of writers who named it their #1 favorite movie of last year and many of them pointed to one scene that really elevated it.

The premise is that Bruce Willis has been sent back in time and that after he escapes his past self, he sets off on a mission to kill someone who will grow up to murder Willis' wife in the future.  Of course, in this timeframe, that person would be a child and Willis unfortunately can only narrow his search down to three possible children.

So this means he not only has to kill a kid - he possibly will have to kill THREE kids to be sure he kills the right future bad guy.  That's dark stuff and most movies probably would have found a way to avoid showing their hero execute an innocent child.  And no, we don't see Willis execute a kid on screen, but the murder definitely happens.  There's no cop-out at all, no whitewash.

That's the kind of bold storytelling choice you'll find in a lot of Black List scripts - but not done in an exploitative way.  Bad scripts are brutal just for the sake of being so.  Good scripts make that kind of dark choice and give it weight.  Everything builds up to that moment and when it happens, it's awful, but it's also earned.  It's rare to see that in a script with brutal violence.

Some Black List scripts get on the list because of memorable risks like that.  Others get on there because of strong voice, heartfelt storytelling or really compelling characters.  I don't think you can point to any one factor.  What they have in common is that they stayed with those readers long after they were done with the script.

As one who reads a lot of scripts, I can tell you that 90% of them will fade from memory before too long.  When a script comes along with a truly unique hook and it's got strong writing behind it, it might not need to be flawless to earn a reader's admiration.  If the peaks are so high that they render the deficiencies moot, that could explain how it ended up on the Black List.

As to the second question, I'm sure that it can't hurt a script when a reader knows that it was on the Black List.  But I suppose there are times when it can backfire too.  I certainly have read a couple Black List scripts that I was less than impressed by. When those scripts aren't life-changingly awesome, perhaps my disappointment is more profound than with non-Black List scripts.

As an aside, I read Shrapnel long before I knew it was on the Black List and I really liked it a lot.  It's tense, well-structured and is a really engaging read.  I've seen the trailer and... I'm not expecting the same experience from the film.  But that has to do with a lot of factors outside of the script.

The bottom line is that there are a wide variety of scripts on the Black List, and the perceived flaws of each script are so different that it's mostly academic to debate if the Black List credentials cause people to be more lenient with it than if it was submitted without that.  Here's how I look at it - there had to be some concensus to get the script on the Black List in the first place.  Thus, plenty of people liked it absent that credential in the first place.

Bummer about Killing Season, though.  I really liked it back when it was just a script.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Film School Rejects post: "The Biggest Challenges Facing a Wonder Woman movie."

I've got another post up at Film School Rejects, this time I examine the difficulties that Warner Bros. will face as they attempt to adapt one of their comic book properties, in an article called "The Biggest Challenges Facing a Wonder Woman Movie."

If you have a moment, check it out and then read the comments.  I take no small amount of pride in the fact that my previous two articles, "Why the World Needs Superman Returns" and "If the Internet had existed when Wrath of Khan hit theatres" both got a lot of comments.  In fact, in the case of the Superman article, I'm fairly certain some people were so eager to comment that they added their thoughts before even reading the article.

So if you have some time, check out the article here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"If a coverage service likes my script, how can I capitalize on that?"

John emailed: 

I received feedback from a screenplay reader service that rated my script a "Consider" and gave me a great review along with some good notes. I emailed them, thanking them for the coverage and asked whether or not I could name drop them and their review in my query emails. My script is a coming-of-age drama that doesn't have high-concept hook and my thinking was any kind of positive review could only help. 

The response I got was as follows: "I wouldn't mention the Consider, nor would I mention a Recommend. Our opinion means nothing to agents and producers." 

My question: if my script gets positive feedback from a (reliable) script reader with the industry credits it claims to have, can I use it to solicit my script? Otherwise, what's the point?

What is the point indeed? You just hit on the reason why so many people advise against paying someone for coverage.  In most cases a positive review will mean very little as far as opening the doors.   At least with most coverage services, I'd never spend the money on the hope that a positive review will somehow get you read somewhere.  Most of the time, I'd suggest using those services only as a barometer of how good your work is relative to all the other amateurs out there.

Your reader is right in that their opinion probably won't open many doors.  There aren't many coverage services that have a strong enough reputation to make a real pro interested in something that service liked.  The Black List is one of the few that does.  If you get an 8 or higher on the Black List, I bet you'll get some read requests when you mention that fact in a query.

Since that was a quick one, let's get in one more question.  This one comes from Annette:

I hope you would be willing to answer a quick question about written dialog. I have a redneck character who speaks like this: "Yer gonna hafta read somethin' here" 

Do you have an opinion on writing like that or would it be better to write in the action, a character who talks like a redneck and let the actor mold his voice? 

Either alternative is acceptable.  I think the trick to writing dialect is not overdoing it.  Sometimes it helps the read to have the dialogue written that way.  However, you can't go too far overboard in writing out the speech phonetically.  I read one script with a Scottish brogue and the writer seemed determined to give every syllable a thick accent.  The result was I had to read each line of dialogue carefully, often sounding it out before I could make sense of what was said.

That's a case of the accent working against the script.  It forced too much effort on my part and kept breaking the flow of the story.  The result was not a very good read.  The plot was rather weak too, but it certainly wasn't helped by the presentation.

So go with whatever flows best.  As you point out, the actor can always add the accent later themselves.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Asking another writer to collaborate

I got this email about a week or so ago:

Let me start by saying that I do not consider myself even a remotely professional writer. I pulled together some funny stuff that has happened in my life & put it into a "script". I am a great story teller not so much a writer. I have faith that people will find hilarity in my story I just need help getting it to them. I'm thinking maybe a collaboration??? I will be more than happy to send a sample for you to see if it's something you'd be willing to read. Please let me know your fee & hopefully we can work something out. 

The person who sent it may have been well meaning, but this is the kind of email that writers hate getting. But don't take my word for it - hear what screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe had to say about this on this edition of a Broken Projector podcast (the relevant material starts at 20:45):

I've probably covered this on the blog before, but there is so much more to writing than just coming up with the idea. Hell, in most cases getting the idea is the easy part. The hard part is breaking it down, structuring it and putting in the time at the keyboard. Pro writers don't want to work on your idea - they have plenty of their own. Usually, when a writer wants to collaborate, it's going to be with someone they know and THEY will be the ones to initiate contact.

This particular email has the additional red flag of the author informing me that they aren't really a "writer" and then invites me to read what they have done. Well gee, when you make it sound so enticing...

I'm not interested in collaborating with writers who aren't as good as me, and I'd bet most writers would agree with me on that statement. In any partnership, there are bound to be areas of screenwriting where one writer's strengths are greater than the others, but I've never seen a successful collaboration where one writer was vastly ahead of the other writer in development.

An email like this really says that the author wants to ride the coattails of a better writer. I probably don't need to explain why so many writers find that concept offensive.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Meeting your idols at Comic-Con

I had an awesome weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, though that was probably evident from the fact that I couldn't get my act together and have a new post up yesterday.  SDCC can be an incredibly fun event, but also incredibly exhausting.  And yes, a lot of that is due to how crowded the show has gotten in recent years.  This was my tenth year attending the con, so I've seen a lot of changes just in that time.  To give you an idea of what kind of changes those are - during my first visit in 2004, one of my friends was able to buy his admission badge on site.  For Saturday.

This year, ALL passes for all days sold out in a matter of hours.  Panel audiences have gotten insanely crowded in the last couple of years, to the point where it is almost necessary to pick one panel you really want to see and line up for it at the start of the day, if not overnight.  (During my first year, I saw multiple panels in one day, including walking right into Ballroom 20 and Hall H without waiting in any lines.)

It's easy to complain about how the overcrowding and long lines dampen what used to be a great celebration of fandom.  It's hard to deny the effect that the Hollywood-ization has had on the con, to its detriment in a lot of ways.  But every now and then, you have an experience or four at the show that reminds you why you love this place to begin with.  After all, this is a place where I have run into Joss Whedon by chance - twice!

I've been pretty open in the past about my former hobby of collecting Superman comics.  It's a hobby that started in 1986 and only recently walked away from it a year ago, as detailed in this two part post.  If you read those, you might remember I spoke with great admiration for an era of Superman comics from the late 80s to the mid-90s, the Stern/Ordway/Jurgens era, as some call it.  That era was my "Golden Age of comics" and this past weekend, I got to meet four creators responsible for large parts of that era.

The first of these was a signing featuring writer Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove.  In the 90s, they were the creative team on SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL and created the character of Steel, who was far more interesting than his feature film made him out to be. There are a couple nice things about these sorts of signings.  First, since there are fewer people in line, there's less of a wait and you're less likely to be rushed along.  This also means that you can have a more meaningful chat while your books are being signed.

I always try to think of something interesting to say to these people.  This is partially because I used to be tongue-tied in situations like this, and partially because I've witnessed WAY too many awkward con encounters.  (Don't be shocked, but a fraction of comic book fans have issues with social awkwardness.)  Oh, who am I kidding? I was a tongue-tied fool during my first meeting with Joss Whedon during my inaugural visit to SDCC and I wasn't much better during my second chance meeting four years later.  Fortunately, making conversation with people whom you are a fan of is one skill I've honed from a lot of industry wrap parties and holiday gatherings.

I had a brief chat with Louise about some of her writing in the acclaimed "Funeral for a Friend" storyline and then it was my turn with the man affectionately known as "Bog."  I decided to ask him about how much effort it took to do the art for MAN OF STEEL 37, an issue that saw a time anomaly bring Superman into contact with Batmans of multiple timelines.  To underscore the effect, each alternate Batman was drawn as an homage to a specific era of Batman comics, with Bogdanove doing spot-on imitations of other artists' styles.

Bog's face lit up as I mentioned the issue, and he went on to tell me he immersed himself in research.  He studied all of his predecessors' and really got inside their process.  If I understood him correctly, he'd sometimes get only one of those Batmans drawn on the cover in a day, taking his time to get it right.  The most interesting thing was he said he learned a lot by trying to get inside the technique and style of those other artists and that it taught him a lot about his own craft.  He said it improved his technique to gain that insight and that it might have been one of the most important things he did for his craft.  It struck me that his experience could also be analogous to writing.

Speaking of writing, one of my favorite encounters of the weekend came at another signing, when I met legendary writer/artist Jerry Ordway.  Jerry's first issue of Superman (Adventures of Superman 424) was also one of my first comics, and eventually Jerry graduated from pencilling to writing and drawing as well. He was a part of the Superman family from 1987 to 1993, so he played a significant role in shaping that incarnation.

Jerry also happens to follow me on Twitter, so I introduced myself via my handle. Though I'm not sure he saw my review of MAN OF STEEL, he definitely remembered a tweet I made about how comic writer Mark Waid has a right to his negative opinion of MAN OF STEEL, just as I have a right to dislike Waid's own Superman origin series BIRTHRIGHT.  This led us to discuss how we both enjoyed the Zack Snyder/Henry Cavill film, and how we were perplexed at how little credit some people were giving it.

Jerry's said on Twitter that he enjoyed the film, so I don't feel like I'm betraying any confidence by repeating that here.  He went on to mention talking with another comics creator who really disliked the film, and that led us to a 5-minute chat about everything we liked about the movie and what we loved about Superman in general.  It was just like any chat you might have at the comic store, except at one point it hit me that "Holy shit, I'm geeking out about Superman with a guy who had a lot to do with SHAPING my concept of Superman!"  It was surreal, but very cool.

Jerry was also very gracious in signing several of my books, by the way.  When I asked for a picture with him, he also insisted on getting one on HIS camera, saying he likes to get pictures with the fans.  This was a stark contrast to several years ago when I lined up for a certain Star Trek actor's signature and the good captain couldn't be bothered to look anyone in the eye.  His eyes were downcast at what he was signing the entire time.

I had an equally great encounter with Dan Jurgens, a Superman writer/artist best known as the man who drew the landmark Superman 75, which was the issue where Superman died.  Jurgens first issue was actually Superman 29 in 1989, one issue after I convinced my parents to get me each new issue rather than purchasing it sporadically.  He was a regular artist on the books until 1995 and a writer until 1999.  He briefly returned to the book as the regular artist for six issues soon after the reboot of the series in late 2011.  Jurgens was pretty much the definitive Superman artist of the 90s. When I picture Superman, most of the time it's Jurgens art that I see.

I was one of several people who arrived early to line up for Dan's signing after attending a spotlight panel focusing on his work..  When he arrived at the table, he looked a bit perplexed, perhaps thinking that surely all of these people couldn't just be there waiting for him.  But we were and when my time came to get my books signed, I mentioned how long I'd been following him.  I couldn't help but mention that my comic collection actually ended with his last issue, to which he said, "I'm sorry to hear that."

I told him that I felt that the incarnation that was being published now was no longer "my" Superman.  Back when Dan and Jerry were doing great things with the character in the 90s, fans attached to the Silver Age era regularly complained that Superman had been ruined and that they missed the old version.  As someone who loved the then-current Superman, it always annoyed me that those fans couldn't let go of the past.  I told Dan, "I don't want to be the guys angrily raining on the fans' parade. If someone loves the current version, that's great, but I don't need to keep buying it just to make a point about how angry it makes me."

Dan reflected on that too, saying that though they got a lot of grief from the older fans, if those fans had their way, then it never would have led to great stories like the Death and Return of Superman.  That's a good point to to appreciate as writers - you can't be so scared of radical change that you close yourself off from exploring new ideas.  We chatted a few more minutes and I left with a feeling not unlike the one I had following the Ordway signing.

These guys were - in an odd way - an integral part of my childhood.  I waited every week for the release of the latest issues.  I knew Jurgens' artwork so well that I could detect the different nuances brought out by individual inkers.  Ordway artwork was equally unmistakable. I re-read those issues so often that I practically have each panel memorized, even more than two decades later.  So to meet them decades later and have substantive, if brief, conversations with them about that passion was oddly affecting.  (When I relayed the stories to my wife, she said, "That's like if Julie Andrews came over and had a conversation with me about Mary Poppins!"  What can I say? She gets it.)

I also had the opportunity to meet TV writer Jane Espenson and Brad "Cheeks" Bell, her co-creator on the webseries Husbands.  In a humbling moment, they both recognized my Twitter moniker and Cheeks said he was pretty sure he followed me and that he liked my stuff.  The highlight for me was that I got to thank Jane for a letter she wrote to me ten years ago.  I had written her a fan letter asking advice about breaking into TV writing and she graciously responded even as she was cleaning out her office on Buffy.

So yeah, it was a good con.

Bitch about the long lines, the terrible food, the incredibly rude volunteers and the convention-goers who never bathe all you want.  For two days this weekend, I got to reconnect with a major part of my childhood AND get it touch with some experiences that reminded me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.  Some sore feet, over-priced parking and a little claustrophobia are a small price to pay for that, wouldn't you say?  Experiences like these will always keep me coming back to SDCC as long as I can.

Monday, July 15, 2013

This is not a contrarian review of PACIFIC RIM

I hate contrarian reviews.  They're a fact of life in the world of geek pop culture and there are no shortage of people going out of their way to attack something that's fairly widely loved.  (Conversely, there are those who declare widely disliked works to be unfairly evaluated gems.)  What I hate most about those reviews is that they sometimes turn from examining the film to insulting the audience.  ("You may have liked MAN OF STEEL, but that's only because you're not smart like me, who is somehow able to engage the film on a superior level that delivers an objective verdict that an intelligent person could not overlook the flaws in this film.")  Popular consensus can be "wrong" but you win no points by calling your audience idiots.

So let me say this at the outset - if you enjoyed PACIFIC RIM, I'm happy for you.  See it again in IMAX 3D, buy the blu-rays, read the ancillary tie-ins, go crazy.  There is a lot I found entertaining in the film myself, but I suspect that since I didn't come out of the theatre declaring that Guillermo del Toro had made love to my eyeballs, this is a review that will anger people.  Remember back when I complained that we're no longer allowed to have a middle-ground reaction to a film? That we have to love it or wish death on those involved?  Yeah, this is one of those middle-ground reviews.

The bulk of PACIFIC RIM takes place in 2020ish, about 8 years into a war between humanity and giant Godzilla-like monsters called kaijus.  The invaders are emerging through a dimensional rift at the joining of two techtonic plates in the Pacific Ocean.  The world has come together to fight these monsters, who emerge with increasing regularity.  For a long time, the only effective weapon against them has been Jaegers, giant robots controlled by two humans. The drivers are connected by a neural link called The Drift, which demands that the two minds be as compatible as possible.  A side effect is that the linking of their minds also links their memories and it's possible for a person to be lost in the memories of either themselves or the other person.

Most of this is exposited in an opening montage sequence with voiceover explanations.  Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket explains what it was like to live through the first few attacks and brings us up to speed. We learn how the Jaegers work and that the Jaegers and kaijus eventually became a part of pop culture, with the Jaeger pilots being as celebrated as rock stars.  It's a lot of world-building that's just tossed at us in a fairly packed sequence.  I have to admit that if I was reading this in script form, the info-dump would probably set my teeth on edge.

And yet, in a world where every major tentpole now seems to spend so much time on world building that it's hard to find one that runs less than two and a half hours, I kinda admired the brevity.  The story that del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham wanted to tell was clearly one about the end of the war, not the beginning.  It would be unfair to knock it for that choice, but MAN would I be really interested in a prequel that showed the world reacting to these things for the first time.

The best parts of PACIFIC RIM are when the action is bombastic and the actors find the right tone that mesches with that excess.  Ron Perlman's performance as the scene-stealing Hannibal Chou is pretty much the platonic ideal that every actor should be reaching for.  Unfortunately, no one is as consistent or as enjoyable to watch as Perlman.  I'll admit that I liked Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's scenes quite a lot, but they weren't devoid of hamminess.  Idris Elba was dependable, but didn't leave much of an impression.

Hunnam doesn't quite carry the movie.  Whatever you felt about MAN OF STEEL, almost everyone walked out of there declaring Henry Cavill a star.  Hunnam gives a mostly bland performance and we can't peg all of that on the script and the direction, even though del Toro seems to be allergic to subtext.  If a character point is made in the script, you can count on del Toro to overemphasize it to the point of bludgeoning the audience.

Rinko Kikuchi is just straight-up awful as Mako.  I really, really hate beating up on one of the few major female roles in this summer's tentpoles, but there's no getting around the fact that there was not a single moment of her performance that I believed.   She's not helped by being tied to the single weakest element in the film - the budding romance story.

Kikucki's chemistry with Hunnam is just short of flacid, which forces del Toro to over-sell their attraction with his directing.  Their first meeting could have been played as a moment where the two of them causally find each other attractive, but her mooneyes performance and Hunnam's reactions push this all the way into "they fall in love instantly" territory.  I'm fingering the direction here because I can easily imagine that the scene on the page was less blunt and could have even taken more of a "two attractive people sizing each other up" approach.

This wasn't a movie that needed a love story, though I can see what they were going for with the idea that Mako and Raleigh needed to learn to develop their "neural handshake" so they can work together in harmony.  I can get behind that as a concept if there was more conflict between the two of them.  There's a slightly predictable subplot between Raleigh and another Jaeger pilot who thinks that Raleigh's inexperience and attitude are a threat to the mission.  (Yeah, it's basically Iceman/Maverick.)  It feels like a more logical development of the "working together" concept would have put these two in the same Jaeger and forced them to work as a team.

Instead Mako's development is only partially realized.  She's traumatized after having survived a Kaiju attack as a child and her first time in the cockpit of a Jaeger ends badly when she is forced to relive that memory and nearly blows up the military installation in a haze of confusion.  Not unreasonably, she's grounded after that.  Look, if one of the seven people you were trusting with the fate of the Earth suddenly cracked up and nearly razed your base with a plasma gun, you'd take away the keys to their war-toy too.

And yet, when urgent circumstances arrive as the film approaches the third act, Mako is pressed back into service to co-pilot with Raleigh.  It's one of the most unmotivated developments in the film.  We've already seen that there are at least a dozen candidates at that base who could be qualified to be Raleigh's partner - why not draft one of them?  Why would get back into the cockpit of that machine with the one person who had a major freak-out the last time they used it.  Literally anyone else would have made more sense.  After all that, it seems a bit too easy and unearned that the two of them suddenly are capable of working in harmony. I know I'm swimming against the tide here, but Mako was a big miss for me.

I saw this film with two friends and while we all walked in hoping to be blown away, as we exited, we had one of those conversations where we kept asking questions about the film, gradually finding more and more elements that just didn't work for us.  Throughout this review, I will include their questions/observations in italics, many of them drawn from a post-film text chat, the rest paraphrased from our post-film discussion.

Quick! Tell me the name of any character in this film besides Mako!

Fuck you.  Ummmm... Hannibal Chao... and...

Yeah, I got nothing here.  I had to have Wikipedia open to get the character names right for this review.

For as big as the movie was, the world felt really small.  After 20 minutes or so, it's like the outside world didn't exist.

I can't really argue with this.  For all the set-up about the drivers being celebrated as major celebrities, it's ultimately a throwaway detail that feels under-exploited.  Even when we venture into the city, we don't get a feel for much beyond Hannibal's operation.  My friends were also bothered by a lack of reaction to the destruction of the Rift at the end of the film.  They wanted an "Ewok Celebration" kind of moment.  I hadn't thought about that until they brought it up, but I agree something like this would have given more finality to the defeat of the Kaijus

So the world government's big plan is just to build a wall?  Even if the Jaegers have been less effective than before, they've still got to be more effective as an offensive weapon.

I admit it's a dumb plan.  But I also don't find it implausible that a government would come up with an idiotically stupid defense plan.  The real issue here is one that comes with the infodump.  We're told straight out that the Jaegers are these awesome defense tools and that their controllers are considered massive heroes.  Then just as quickly, the film reverses course on that and has to sell us on the idea that the Jaegers aren't so awesome after all.  It's a weird transition to make, particularly when it comes with a time-jump of several years.

Maybe it would have been better to set up the Wall from the start as the real endgame, with the Jaegers being a stopgap that until recently had been doing an extraordinary job of holding the line.

After 10 years of these things attacking the coastal cities, why the fuck do people still live there?

Um, beachfront property.

Dammit. I don't have an answer for that one.  I guess you could point out people stay in California despite the threat of earthquakes, but that's hardly the same thing.

At least the bunkers are effective... oh.

Dammit, now you're reminding me about the odd story beat that has the Kaiju seemingly able to sense Charlie Day after they shared a mind-meld link.

Alien mind-meld.  Independence Day anyone?

I'll argue this. It's a convenient expositional tool, but they handle it better than ID4.  Here it's a deliberate choice to use the mind-link for interrogation and it's justified by the technology that links the Jaeger pilots.  ID4 just used it as a convenient way for the President to suddenly know what the alien plan and motivation was.

This one was mine: if you need a monster to open up the rift/gate/dimensional portal/whatever, then how the fuck do the escape pods get out from the other side?

It's a one-way sphincter? Like a butthole? And those pods are the poop. Totally guessing here.

If the Jaegers have swords, rockets and blaster weapons, why do they spend so much time wrestling the monsters and fighting them hand-to-hand?

Well... a few of those have to be justifiable as "heat of battle" decisions.

But why are they not even TRYING to slice these guys in half from minute one of the fights?

The best I've got is that maybe those are actions that require more refined coordination/communication between the pilots and it takes a while to warm up to that level.  I'm willing to rationalize that, but it is kind of an open question in the film.

And because this text exchange between the other two made me laugh:

"Category 5! We've never seen this before!" Kinda looks the same as the others.

-Went down like a little bitch too.

I really wanted to come out of this film as ecstatic as many of you did.  I didn't want to come out gunning for this film or anyone connected to it.  I did my best to avoid the hype, just to keep my expectations realistic, but I'm afraid I'm lukewarm on this one.   Del Toro has got some really fantastic visuals here - I'd never argue against that - and the VFX are top notch.  It's not a bad movie and it's certainly one that demands to be seen on the big screen. I wouldn't even call my reaction a "thumbs down."  But it also fell far short of being a rapturous experience.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why would a pro use The Black List site? An interview with writer/director Derrick Borte

Two weeks ago I put out a call for loglines from people who had placed their scripts on the Black List site.  My assumption was that everyone who replied would be hoping to attract an agent or a manager through the exposure.  Honestly, it never occurred to me that anyone submitting would already have representation.  I certainly couldn't have anticipated that at least one script would come from a writer who was not only repped, but who had also already directed a feature film, but that's exactly what happened.

Derrick Borte submitted H8RZ, a script he co-wrote with Daniel Forte.  The two are repped at ICM and Echo Lake Management.  Derrick also wrote and directed the 2009 David Duchovny/Demi Moore film THE JONESES.  So what does a guy with all of this going for him think that some screenwriting blog and the Black List can do for him?  To get those answers, I reached out to Derrick for a brief interview.

Most people who use the Black List site are amateurs hoping to get someone to represent them. Franklin Leonard has made some efforts at attracting pros to the site, but I suspect they're still a minority there. Can you talk a little bit about what you hope the Black List (and by extention, my blog) can do for you? 

The first script I saw on the Black List was by a friend of mine who is a far more accomplished writer than myself, so I thought if he was using it to get his work out it could be a way to get more eyes on mine as well. I think that sometimes people need to be told what to like, and the fact that others approve of certain material seems to carry some weight. This material seems to be a little difficult for some people and I thought that maybe this could help build some momentum/buzz that might uncover some production company that I'd like to partner with to make the film.

What had your reps' strategy with regard to this script been up until now? When did you first hear about the Black List, and what was your reps response when you decided to put the script up there? 

The script kind of got discovered on the talent side, where the response has been spectacular. I've been meeting with some great actors over the past few weeks and hope to have a few of the roles cast soon. My reps weren't really part of me submitting the script to the Black List, so I guess I'll know what they think shortly.

I know a young director who went wide with his own script many years ago and kept taking meetings with people who loved the writing but wanted someone else to direct. Has this been something that's happened with H8RZ? If so, is backing off from directing this an idea that you'd entertain? 

That actually happened early with my first film, THE JONESES, which I only wrote it so I could direct. I held on for 7 years to finally direct it. I can't imagine any scenario that would get me to sell H8RZ without directing it myself.

Was there any quantifiable reaction to my blog post? Using the Black List stats, can you get a sense if my review was able to drive some traffic over to your page, and did that traffic convert into downloads? 

The views went from 1 to over 70, and downloads popped quite a bit as well. Unfortunately the number of ratings hasn't gone past the 1.

Beyond plugging your script my page, do you have any other strategies for taking advantage of the Black List posting? 

It would be great to get some buzz from the Black List, and your page has been great for visibility. I guess we'll see where this leads. As always, I'm just stoked to get great feedback on the work that Danny and I have done.

Check out H8RZ on the Black List.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Webshow: Technobabble is bad drama

When writing a science-fiction film, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing you can get away with any sort of magic technology because the entire world is completely invented anyway. In this video, I try to illustrate why that's bad drama.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Another Black List endorsement - WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS

This one won't be for everyone.

Timothy Visentin's WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS is a dark and often brutal script, but there's genuine talent here.  Of the submissions I read for my competition, this was the one I agonized over the most. No script had me as compelled at the start as the first four pages of this one did.  It was a scene that in the wrong hands could have easily made me toss the script away. And yet...

I'll set the scene for you - we open on a hunter, Mason, walking through the forest with his 17 year-old son Michael.  It has the feel of a father-son coming-of-age outing, as Mason points out their target and talks his son through lining up his shot and waiting for his moment.  You can almost feel the fatherly pride as Michael says, "Got him."  Yet when they go to collect their kill, all they find is blood, indicating a wounded quarry.  Mason says they don't leave wounded, and insists his son finish the job.  Michael tracks through the woods... and finds a man laying in a pool of his own blood.

Yes, father and son were playing out "The World's Most Dangerous Game."  Even though I had read the logline "When the FBI guns down his father, the teenage son of a serial killer goes on the run from a relentless and unstable Federal Agent who will stop at nothing to see him dead" when I selected the script, it was completely out of my mind when I opened the PDF.  I was completely blindsided by not just the reversal, but by the craft in revealing it.

(I can understand how a scene like this would push a LOT of buttons in a post-Newtown world.  In all honesty, some of the material later in the script left me similarly conflicted.  But I can still see this as a movie, particularly considering the low budget necessary to produce it.)

Before long the authorities come for Mason, who turns out to be a serial killer with dozens of victims under his belt.  He provokes the cops into killing him, allowing Michael a chance to get away.  FBI Agent Gabriel Reilly has been hunting Mason for a while and isn't about to let his son slip away - and it looks like we've got the trajectory for our script.

The resulting story isn't quite as much a cat-and-mouse game between killer and cop as I might have hoped, but it's still plenty compelling in it's own right.  The script explores the moral compromises that Gabriel is willing to make to stop a demented killer, even as Michael befriends some college age kids who have no idea how dangerous he is.

Visentin is brilliant at generating tension on the page.  There are a number of "Oh shit!" moments that ensure the reader will be at a loss if they're looking for a moment to set the script down for a break.  Perhaps my strong investment in the first half explains my disappointment in one aspect of the back half.

This aspect would be Michael's relationship with Hailey.  I never quite warmed up to Hailey as a character.  She's a perpetual victim and around the time some thugs rape her, I felt the script had made a choice that was too conventional.  When she was victimized (and later revealed to have a history of the same) it seemed beneath the script. Mostly, I was disappointed that once again a script resorted to raping a female character mostly as a way of motivating the male character.

Why didn't this same issue raise my hackles in CHAMBERS?  This is partially because the storyline there made a female victim more logical.  If a hack writer is going to kidnap someone as research for his novel, he's probably going to bow to cliche and make it a young woman.  That's also offset by the fact that the victim in CHAMBERS wasn't the only prominent female role, with one of the other major roles being the female sheriff.  Here, the treatment of Hailey felt less inspired and less justified and it was a struggle to buy into some of her actions late in the script.

And yet, I find it hard to totally dismiss the script on the basis that the second half of the story makes different choices than I would have made in the writer's place.  The Hailey material is a minus for me, but absent that, the script makes choices that are sound and reasonable.  Sticking to judging the script for what it is rather than what I want it to be, the back half rates AT LEAST a 7.  With the first half coming in at a 9, I figure it's fair to average that out to an 8.

(The Black List reader rating came out as a 9, which strikes me as fair.  Having read the comments of that reader, I mostly agree with them and I feel like they effectively represent the script's virtues to any curious industry users.)

Visentin is repped by managers Jennifer Au and Adam Marshall at Caliber Media, which is interesting because I've come to know Caliber Media as a place that often submits fantastic material that likes to test the audience's tolerance for violence.  I've read at least two prior submissions from Caliber where I've thought, "This is a fantastic concept, great writing... it just goes a little too far on the brutality."  From what I've learned, that's by design.  I can appreciate the wisdom of that (after all, the memory of those specs still stands out among the hundreds other I've seen since them), even if I think in some cases those scripts would have been an easy sale had the writers been willing to tone thing down.

For me, while some of this material walks up to the line and even crosses it briefly, its virtues are far more plentiful.  There's too much right with this script for me to hobble it based on those points.  It's not for everyone, and though I'd prefer certain elements had not been included, my own taste cannot be the first and last word on this.  I wouldn't be doing my job as a "first filter" if I got hung up on one element that's relatively easy to solve with a rewrite.

Click here to download WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS on the Black List.

Also, you can find the other two BSR- endorsed scripts: CHAMBERS and H8RZ on the Black List, or look up the reviews I wrote for them.

I'm afraid these are the only spotlight reviews I'll be writing for this batch.  3/8 is a pretty good ratio, and I'll add that I rarely give 3 considers per every 8 submissions even when I'm reading stuff submitted professionally.  You guys did good.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much from my end that I hope I can do it again some time.  I hope some good things come from these reviews, and if not, we'll try again in a few months.

Monday, July 8, 2013

CHAMBERS is another winner from Black List 3.0!

I agreed to read 8 scripts on the Black List website, selected via their loglines.  I already showed some love to H8RZ, so if you haven't already downloaded and rated it, please make some time to do that.  I'm also excited to say that I'm about to add to your reading pile with a second submission, CHAMBERS.

CHAMBERS is a psychological thriller from writer Stan Himes.  It's about "A wallflower college student, horrified at the discovery of a torture chamber hidden by his recently deceased father, struggles to save a young woman still trapped in it while his domineering brother wants to continue their father's work."  I was drawn to this logline because it was a solid genre idea with a very marketable hook. I'm sure someday serial killer scripts will finally go out of style, but for now, it remains a popular genre.

Going into this, I had hopes that it truly was more a cerebral thriller than a torture pore gorefest like SAW.  While I recognize that there was a period of time when the SAW-style films were on fire, I never warmed to that kind of film.  As it turns out, I had little reason to worry.

The logline pretty well lays out the concept.  A novelist who focuses on depraved killers is killed in a car crash.  His will leaves specific - and unusual instructions to his college-aged sons - who are ordered to bury him in secret.  Daniel is the more introverted son, and he has reason to think his father often favored his brother, Wally.  As the two settle their father's affairs, they uncover a secret storage facility in their father's name.  It's full of fake IDs, driver's licenses, passports and cash.  With the sheriff already poking around after her curiousity is aroused by oddities in the author's death, Daniel wants to bring the cops into it.  Wally cuts him off and insists they keep it between them.

This is what occupies the first act and I admit it would probably be a lot more suspenseful if the logline hadn't already clued us in to where this was going.  Sometimes it can be a problem when the audience is this far ahead of the main characters, but to my thinking, it works.  From the first few scenes, it's clear there is something amiss in the author's death and so the screenplay earn our curiosity about these various loose ends all while laying some character groundwork.  There's also some tension brought in by the female sheriff's efforts to uncover everything.  Even though we know the first big point that the script is building to, enough is going on that we trust the story has legs beyond that reveal.

As the script enters Act Two, the boys discover a hidden chamber on their father's property.  It's an underground one-room apartment that functions like a prison... and inside... is a 19 year-old woman.  It doesn't take the young men long to figure out that their father regularly kidnapped women and used his methods of murdering them as research for his books.  Daniel immediately wants to free her, but Wally is concerned that doing so impulsively could lead to her implicating their father, thus ruining his reputation.  He suggests they figure out a way to get her out of there without giving her any reason to suspect who took her.

And this is where I start playing coy with plot twists.  Suffice to say that an attempt to release her without exposing their identities goes very, very badly.  Things get so much worse than they could have imagined as the full extent of their father's depravity is revealed.  There are a number of twists I didn't see coming and most of them hold up pretty well to scrutiny.  I'll admit that the motivations of one or two characters is occasionally tricky to parse out. Still, it's nothing that can't be solved by a rewrite focused on fleshing out those specific characters.

Virtues: Strong plot twists, solid concept, could easily be produced on a low budget, marketable genre.

Could be improved: Character motivations.  The climax could also stand to be amped up.

In any event, the writer shows a lot of promise and this writing sample definitely deserves a look from potential reps.  If you have Black List access and want to read CHAMBERS, go here.  I give it an 8/10.

If you get a chance, please read and rate both it and H8RZ.  Two ratings make the script eligible for the Top Lists, where the scripts in question garner even more exposure.

Later this week, I'll publish my third review from the Black List loglines.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Black List submission gets a 9! No reason to hate on H8RZ (HATERS)!

I dove into several of the selected Black List scripts this weekend and before long, I found one that I was really, really into.  When you're reading professionally, you find yourself getting impatient a lot.  As such, most readers develop the habit of glancing at the page number, as if to ask, "I'm only here?  How much longer do I have to go?"  Before long, one spots a correlation - the lower the page number is the first time you check, the less into the script you are.  Similarly, if the reader keeps checking the page number, it's like looking at one's watch in a movie - they're clearly not into it.  So it's not unusual to be checking the page number well before page 10, given the relative quality of what I read.

The first time I looked at the page number with H8RZ (HATERS) was on p. 28.  And I didn't check it frequently after that.  I selected the script because its logline "The lone survivor of a massive school explosion is held against his will while the administration, police and school board appointed lawyer sift through a story of blackmail, cyber-bullying, and murder, to try to figure out exactly what happened" sounded compelling.  The script solidly lived up to the promise in that premise, but that's not the first thing that set this apart.  No, a big reason why this screenplay stood out was the sheer quality of the writing.  Even when the descriptive paragraphs weren't lean, the writing flowed amazingly well.  Scene transitions were excellent and you could just feel that you were in the hands of writers who knew what they were doing.

If I put this in a stack with 8 other scripts I read from work and asked five people to read ten pages of each script and then select the one with the strongest writing, I have little doubt this would win hands-down.

Unfortunately I don't get to play kingmaker here because I didn't learn until after I selected this script that writers Derrick Borte and Daniel Forte are already repped by Doug MacLaren at ICM Partners and Amotz Zakai at Echo Lake Management.  Borte, who directed THE JONESES, is attached as director as well.  The logline had my attention so strongly that I probably would have given it a read even if I'd known this beforehand, but I understand if people are disappointed that it wasn't a total amateur that I'm singling out first.

But there are two important things to take from this - the first is that I could instantly see a difference in the quality of the writing versus the other submissions I had already read.  That kind of gives you an idea about how high the bar might be.  It also speaks to how many readers can tell if a script has "it" almost immediately.  The other thing of note is that these guys already have reps and a director and they still think there's something the Black List can do for them.

But let's get back to the script.  As the logline promises, it starts in the aftermath of an explosion at school that has claimed several lives.  Only one of the involved students is in any condition to give a statement - a foster kid named Mitchell.  Another student is in critical condition and clings to life.  The principal's biggest concern is the lawsuit that Mitchell will be able to file against the school since he was injured on their property.  He wants the school board rep, Laura Sedgewick, to interview Mitchell about what led up to the explosion.  Basically, her job is to find a way to get Mitchell to incriminate himself so when every lawyer in the state calls this kid, he has no grounds for a lawsuit.

(I admit the logic of some of this felt dubious to me.  If the lawsuit is the big concern, than why not  fear wrongful death suits from the parents of other kids on the scene? The idea might be that Mitchell will say something that makes all the students culpable in their own demise, but I still feel like just implicating Mitchell isn't enough to make those legal issues go away.)

Thus this leads to most of the narrative being told in flashback form, starting with an incident where Mitchell and four other students are disciplined for cheating on a test.  The writers do an efficient job of using this scene to establish the group dynamics, underlining that the other four are a lot more privileged than Mitchell.  Jack and Carla are the popular couple, with Carla being the type A sort of person who freaks out when she's in trouble.  And then there are slacker goof-offs Cameron and Ricky.

This cheating scam could spell doom for all of their post-high school dreams, but Cameron comes up with an idea about how to alter multiple permanent records so that their grades will place them on top.  In short, the solution to getting caught cheating is to basically cheat on an even grander scale.  The nuts and bolts of this are fairly clever.  There's just one problem - someone finds out and starts blackmailing them.

The mysterious blackmailer uses the name "Brittany Tammand" - who was a former student who recently took her own life after being bullied and humiliated relentlessly.  Before long, "Brittany" is sending the fivesome on errands for her that include creating false IDs, fraud and embezzlement.  The tension builds as the gang tries to figure out who's pulling the strings and there's a major twist late in the script that I didn't see coming at all.

That the script has the balls to go as far as it does is a refreshing surprise.  It sent me back through the script to see if there were any obvious holes.  In doing so, I realized something else - the script didn't NEED this twist in order to secure my recommendation.  Even without it it has all the essentials one looks for in a screenplay: strong pacing, unexpected twists, and vivid, interesting characters.

It's no mean feat to balance five main characters (plus various supporting antagonists) and keep them distinct.  The script manages that in a way that gives many of the actors a great deal to work with.  I'd love to see who ends up being cast in these parts, but more importantly, I think some of these roles offer great opportunities for unknown actors to establish themselves with these parts.  Certain elements will almost certainly play better coming from fresh faces who are free of the baggage of other parts.  If it was my film, I'd probably cast more recognizable faces as the adults and attempt to assemble fresh faces as my teen cast.

The other advantage of fresh faces is that they're often cheaper, and this is a film that doesn't need a huge budget to be successful.  I'm also very optimistic that if the film can live up to the script, this would be a movie that people will be talking about with their friends after they see it.  It's that small indie movie that everyone seems to be telling you to see and you don't understand why until you finally cave in and later exit the theatre saying, "Got it."

I'm giving this a 9.  It's one of the best scripts I've seen on the Black List site and I hope it gets some attention.  As these writers are already repped, I don't know if there's much I can reasonably expect to come from this review, but I certainly wish them well.  I'd love to hear from the writers and get a better sense of what they hope my endorsement can do for them considering they've already got solid reps pushing their material out there.

(I'm sure there are people who will take issue with the fact that the first script I endorsed from this bunch is also the one that happens to be repped by a major agency.  I admit I wish I had discovered more of an unknown, but in my career, I've passed on plenty of agency submissions.  I'm pretty sure I've passed on stuff submitted by Doug MacLaren, for that matter.  So the ICM association doesn't really enter into my rating at all.)

Those of you with Black List access can find H8RZ (HATERS) here.

This is only the beginning.  I haven't read all of the eight submissions, but among the scripts I have read so far, there is one more that deserves some notice.  Due to the holiday slowdown this week, I'm going to hold that review for next Monday.  If there are further scripts deserving of notice, they also will get the spotlight next week.