Friday, December 19, 2014

Last minute shoppers! Why not give the gift of MICHAEL F-ING BAY?

Less than a week to go until Christmas (and we're already part-way through Hanukkah), so I imagine some of you are panicking about what to get those last few people you never know how to buy for.

Why not get the film lover in your life my book Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films? The Kindle version is a mere $4.99 and you can conveniently purchase it in "Give as a Gift" mode. This is especially useful if your recipient is far away for the holidays.  It's a great little stocking stuffer.

I've heard back from a number of people who've read it and they all seem to have enjoyed it. My favorite reactions are those from readers who've said "I can't tell if you're joking or not." Reader AJ Bulldis tweeted me a reaction to that effect, then went on to say, "all in all I give MICHAEL F-ING BAY a 22/10. I will definitely buy whatever you sell next."

And don't forget that it made /Film's Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide, as I covered here on my blog.

For a little more info on the book, be sure to check out the following round-up from my "Press Tour":

The initial announcement of my book, with instructions on how to read the e-book if you don't have a Kindle.
My interview on Amanda Pendolino's blog.
Go into the Story's Scott Myers interview with me - Part 1 and Part 2.
My appearance on the Broken Projector podcast.

All I want for Christmas is for this book to do well. Would love to wake up to find it climbing the Amazon charts this week. Once again, it's only $4.99 for the Kindle version and $9.89 for the paperback.


His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

SNL destroys female character screenwriting stereotypes

When you've read as many scripts as I have, you start noticing the same sort of stock characters popping up. And when you're a writer, you've probably inevitably written some version of those stock characters.

I'll plead guilty to writing a version of the One Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy, brilliantly played here by Cecily Strong. (I tried giving it a few new spins in my script and as it was sort of a self-aware rom-com a few of the cliches were intentional, but... yeah... We can probably do better.) In just a few short minutes, Strong cycles through every. single. stupid. cliche of this character.

Watch it. And then write female characters that are better than this.

If the embed doesn't work, just click here for the video.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Strong performances are a fact in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a film that at first blush appears to be a biopic of the brilliant Dr. Stephen Hawking, but soon reveals itself as being more of an examination of the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Rather than centering on the scientific breakthroughs that Dr. Hawking was responsible for, this is much more of a story about how Hawking's deteorating physical mobility altered the relationship between he and his wife, making Jane into as much, if not more, of a caregiver than a lover.

The film spans some 25 years of Hawking's life, starting with his pre-disease life as a student at Cambridge. It's there that he meets Jane, and the somewhat awkward Hawking manages to charm her with his wit. Before the relationship can get two serious, Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that will eventually rob him of his own mobility and even the ability to speak. His doctor gives him two years to live, which shatters Hawking so much that he pushes Jane away out of a desire to spare her.

The strong-willed Jane won't hear of it, and is determined to be by his side as long as he lives. While Hawking deteriorates, he and Jane marry and have two children. Hawking, who had already been recognized as brilliant by his instructors, continues his work. He proves that the universe had been birthed from a singularity, an astounding breakthrough. The script works to make Hawking's theories as accessible as possible to the layperson, and in one sly bit of writing, calls upon Jane to essentially translate Stephen's work for the audience. That scene is an exercise in both explaining rather abstract concepts to a general audience, but also in working in Jane's personality as she delivers what could have been dull exposition.

Felicity Jones imbues Jane with a great deal of strength and stubbornness, even as leaps forward to later years expose fault lines in the relationship. She and Eddie Redmayne as Hawking have strong chemistry, and I like the subtle exhaustion and sadness we start to see in Jane as she buckles under the weight of caring for Stephen herself. It's really hard to not get blown off the screen when placed opposite a performance like Redmayne's but Jones refuses to slip into the background.

Redmayne's performance is a remarkable bit of acting. One might quip that his job is easy because he just has to sit immobile in a chair for a good two-thirds of the film. To reduce the performance to that would be to show a profound misunderstanding of just how difficult it must be for Redmayne to be as immobile as he is. It's not just that Hawking can't move, it's that his body is contorted due to the specific muscles that are contorted and relaxed. Redmayne spends much of the film bending his body in awkward positions and then having to hold it as if he has no motor function at all.

That's not even adding in the challenge that this film wasn't shot in sequence. I saw the movie at a SAG screening that Redmayne and Jones attended, and during a Q&A it was revealed that some days, Redmayne found himself playing Hawking at as many as three distinct stages in his degeneration. Charting those nuances and making sure they add up to a cohesive performance is not easy. Doing all of that, and emoting while most of the actor's toolbox has been stripped away is pretty much setting the acting degree-of-difficulty about as high as possible.

A late scene in the script (kind of a big spoiler, so be warned) is one of those moments that every writer should aspire to pull off. Stephen is preparing for a trip to America. By now he's speaking via a computer voice box. We see him watching Jane pack things in the next room, and then we notice he's typed something to say, something he has held off from sending to the voicebox.

He's going to have his nurse accompany him to America, he says. The timing of how he executes that mechanical voice is wrought with subtext. He doesn't have to say it, Jane knows what this means. In so many words, he's declared that he's leaving her. And as I describe this, I realize I cannot possibly convey the depth of emotion that these two actors bring to this moment. One can only speak through a flat electronic voice and the other somehow has to generate emotion aside that inhuman affect. The words they exchange are simple, the electricity of that moment is not.

There are ways to reveal character without big speeches. Characters can reveal emotions without big showy performances and acting histrionics. The actors bring the weight to that moment through the history they've built with those characters. You might call the moment understated, but it's also a release of everything that has been building for some time. At some point, perhaps around the Oscars, we should give this scene a thorough examination, line by line. Absorb this moment, and you'll never again over-write.

This wasn't a totally flawless film for me. I felt that the movie could have been better at delineating some of the leaps forward in time. Though the movie spans 25 years, Jones and Redmayne aren't aged too aggressively in makeup for most of it.

I also felt that the script seemed to bend over backwards to keep both Jane and Stephen relatively "clean" in their post-marital affairs. Jonathan, the man who would become Jane's second husband, was long a friend of the family before the marriage ended. From the moment he's introduced, he and Jane are played as people who definitely want to hop into bed together. They have great chemistry, but in playing that up so fast and then soon having Jane deny any romantic feelings for him, it feels like the film is protesting too much.

It's understandable that Jane and Jonathan would develop a close connection while caring for Stephen, but something felt false about the way the film tries to claim they are "just friends" until it was acceptable for Jane to move on with him. The film is less charitable towards Stephen's nurse Elaine and later second wife. From the moment she shows up for a therapy session with Dr. Hawking, Elaine looks like she can't wait to jump his bones. It's almost as if she was directed to play it like a gold-digger. As I said, there's something about it that felt false and white-washed. Perhaps this is the way that Hawking and Jane prefer to remember it.

Other nitpicky notes include my surprise we get no real explanation for how Hawking has outlived his two-year prognosis by about five decades. I'm curious what scientific reasons might be responsible for this. Also, though Hawking's fame and work are a small piece of this story, it might have been useful to better explain when and how he became so famous to the world at large. There's a point relatively early in his disease where his mentor notes Stephen is world-famous. Stephen retorts that's "For black holes, not rock concerts." As this is before his book A Brief History of Time, I was left to wonder how his work made him so famous rather than just making his theories famous.

Script quibbles aside, this really is worth seeing for the incredible performances of the leads. And when the script works, it REALLY works. I don't know if I'll be motivated to revisit this any time soon, but there's at least one scene that had me hoping I could one day write something as good.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BOYHOOD might be this year's best film

It happens occasionally that the story behind the making of a film is so compelling and unusual that it completely overshadows the film itself. This sort of happened last year with ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, a film that was remarkably shot covertly in Disneyworld and Disney Land by some ambitious filmmakers who were able to disguise their equipment and cast. It was daring guerrilla filmmaking at its finest, pulling off a shoot in a location known for its Draconian hand. Alas, the film's story itself wasn't quite as compelling and once the novelty of the location wore off what remained was a so-so film. That still doesn't take away from the feat the filmmakers pulled off, though.

So I don't blame anyone who sees all the praise BOYHOOD has been getting and cynically suspects that it's instigated by the film's unusual production. Beginning in 2002, director Richard Linklater assembled his cast each year for a week of filming that lasted across 12 years. The objective: tell the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from age five to age seventeen. It was an ambitious idea, requiring investors to sink in money for over a decade without seeing a return, never minding the gamble that all the principal actors would remain alive and committed for a project that would span more years than most TV shows.

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I had this idea we occasionally kicked around. As fans of BACK TO THE FUTURE and its sequels, we loved the idea of making a time travel movie, but spinning it a different way. How could would it be, we thought, if we made it a story about someone coming back in time from 2012 to 2002? Imagine if we shot the "past" portions of the film starring our then current selves and then ten years later, returned to shoot the "future" versions, using green screen technology to put the two sides together in a Back to the Future part II-like way? We never really figured out much of a story beyond that, but every now and then the idea came up in conversation as a "wouldn't that be cool if..." sort of thing.

Linkletter's project was even harder, as the story he chose seemed to demand a looser narrative that would likely be adjusted and refined over the years while in progress. I'm sure he had signposts in mind along the way, but he had to be far from knowing exactly how he'd end the film, or even how he'd shoot it.

I saw BOYHOOD a while back and have struggled to find something different to add to the conversation. It's a very well-done, ambitious idea. I notice that many reviews - like this moving one from Drew McWeeny - use the film as a launching point for one's own self-reflection. It's definitely a film that provokes that kind of introspection. You can't watch young Mason grow up and not think about what it was like to live through your own milestones. Even if you're prepared for that emotional wallop, the film can still blindside you.

For me, that shock came early. I, of course, knew the film's conceit going into it, that we'd live 12 years in this boy's life. Then came an early music cue in the first segment, Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." In my memory, that's a song very linked with my final weeks of college and my first summer out of school. It was like a kick in the balls - "This kid went from first grade to graduation in all the time I've been out in L.A!" In my head, my post-graduate time couldn't possibly have been that long, but here was the proof. It was like getting a one-two punch of nostalgia and reflection - thinking back on my own childhood AND realizing all the time I've burned in "adulthood."

Even so, much of the emotion that the film provokes is genuine and not manipulated. The film's approach gives it the freedom to abandon some of the more rigid set-up, pay-off rules of the three-act structure. Characters drop in and drop out without their stories being brought to dramatic conclusions, which makes it feel more like real life. Sometimes we just drift apart from people in our lives and there's no neat closure years later. Even mini-set-ups don't lead to expected payoffs. There's a point where Mason is warned about texting while driving. In any other film, that would be there to set-up a later scene where his phone distracts him and causes a crash. Thus, when he later drives with his girlfriend and shows her his phone, we're primed to expect a crash that never comes.

The filming approach also lead to some unintentional irony years later. In a sequence set in (I think) 2008, Mason and his father (Ethan Hawke) camp out together and chat about STAR WARS. They wonder "Do you think they'll ever make more of them?" In 2008, that seemed incredibly unlikely, so hearing their speculations takes on a new level of humor with the knowledge that Disney is already working on a third trilogy and a series of standalone films.

Though young (and eventually not-quite-so young) Ellar is rather good as Mason, Patricia Arquette rightly deserves all the praise she's been getting for how she evolves Mason's mother over the years. She's the strength in Mason's life and we get a sense of the sacrifices she makes to give her two children a good home life. The most harrowing example of this is the abusive marriage to an alcoholic professor that she finds herself in. The film perhaps gives one or two strong tells before revealing the abuse in a truly unsettling scene.

Linkletter's staging of this moment really stuck with me. Mason returns home to a partially open garage door. We can only see inside through a three-foot gap from ground to door. Mason's mother falls into frame, crying as her husband berates her. Mason has walked into the middle of a fight and sees his terrified mother, beaten and screaming while the drunkard continues his threats. We don't see the stepfather's face here, though - only his legs - and somehow that makes him even more fearsome. It reminded me of how adults are sometimes depicted in children's cartoons, shown in incomplete fashion to underscore how massive they appear to children at that age. It's a moment that proves more unsettling than a more conventionally staged outburst later in the film.

I find it interesting that once Mason's mother takes her children out of that house, we never revisit the abusive ex-husband or the two children who were step-siblings to Mason and his sister for a couple years. A more conventional film might have brought the step-siblings back for an emotional moment at graduation, but that could have easily felt false here. We're left to wonder "What happened to them? Did they get out of that situation? Did they turn out okay?"

There are other nice touches along the way. Notice how the qualities that initially attract Mason's girlfriend to him eventually become the very traits that push her away. Take in the gradual maturation of Mason's father. Most of all, notice how the moment's that serve as the film's ending could just as easily be a new story's beginning. More than anything, this is a movie that makes you feel. For both that, and the pure ambition behind the endeavor, it might be this year's best film.

Monday, December 8, 2014

WHIPLASH wields strong character work to become one of the year's best films

I've seen a number of movies lately but have fallen behind on blogging about them. This week marks my concerted effort to catch up on putting down my thoughts about some of this year's best films, starting today with WHIPLASH.

When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual for a number of the smaller Oscar contenders to not see much of a release in my hometown until after the Oscar nominations. By that point, the critical narrative had usually taken hold and had been reinforced by multiple "Best of" lists touting that year's biggest features. You can't blame critics for making noise to ensure a good film didn't get overlooked, but that same environment also is what can foster a backlash. I have this theory that one is more prone to become a disciple for a film when they're allowed to discover it ahead of the curve. There's nothing like being blindsided by a fantastic film that hasn't yet become a large part of the conversation.

But when you're on the other end of that scenario - when those disciples are the ones telling you again and again that this movie is perhaps the greatest film in several years, one that will be studied for ages - you probably walk in with a different attitude. Surely you're hoping it'll live up to the hype, but it's possibly even more likely your disposition can be summed up with two words: "Prove it."

I offer this preamble to my WHIPLASH review because I fear that this could be the film that gets tagged as being "overhyped" by late-comers. For my money, it's one of the best films of the year, capped off with a fantastic performance by J.K. Simmons as a band conductor at one of the best schools in the country. But it's also a very small-scale movie. Though there were turns in the story that came as a gut punch to me, it's much more about character than plot. Any writer seeking to learn from strong character writing (and that should be all of you) really would benefit from studying this film. Don't walk into this movie with the misconception that a film needs to be an epic in order to be one of the year's best.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a new student at the Shaffer Conservatory. Our first glimpse of him comes as he practices the drums. His work briefly catches the eye of Simmons's Fletcher. Fletcher is an imposing figure and it's clear that when he asks Andrew to show him another piece, it could be a big moment for Andrew. A few measures later, Fletcher walks out mid-performance, not even bothering to say goodbye to the young student.

But soon Andrew ends up as a drum alternate in Fletcher's jazz band, and in the first practice scene, we see just how cruel a taskmaster Fletcher can be. His keen ear detects someone out of tune and he first berates the whole band before honing in laser-like to berate the woodwind section. His wrath becomes focused on one student in particular, who first denies being out of tune and then under continued interrogation cracks and admits it. Fletcher has had enough of this boy's screw-ups and throws him out of the band.

Once the kid is gone, Fletcher confesses to the ground that that student wasn't the one out of tune, "but he didn't know the difference. And that's just as bad."

Fletcher berates, intimidates and humiliates his students on a regular basis. When three candidates for the top drum spot each fail to perform a piece to his satisfaction, he keeps them there for hours and hours, auditioning in succession. Each performer gets but a scant few seconds before Fletcher stops them and let's loose a tirade about how pathetic their work is. They keep drilling again and again until they're all ready to break down. Their fingers are literally bleeding, they've been practicing so hard, in a sequence that makes the audience almost want to drop in empathetic exhaustion with him. Eventually Andrew is the one who earns the coveted spot.  (And it should be said that Teller appears to have some serious chops as a drummer.)

At times, Fletcher seems to be as close to pure evil as any character J.K. Simmons has ever played, and that's saying something considering he's played murderous Nazi bastards at least twice! But one of the film's sly-est moves is that now and then we get a small hint that there's perhaps a tiny bit of compassion behind him. A late phone call unnerves him in one scene, giving a tiny crack in Fletcher's armor. As Andrew attempts to confront him, he's rebuffed with an angry "not now!" that feels far less controlled than Fletcher's usual outbursts. The next day in practice, an unusually sedate Fletcher speaks of a young student he had who showed a lot of promise, saying that the man was killed in a car accident the day before.

It's as shaken as we've ever seen him and movie formula would mark this as the moment that hints at a more likable side. It's reinforced by a short exchange we see between Fletcher and a former student, who greets him warmly. Fletcher shows some familiarity with the man's daughter, and audiences would be forgiven for assuming this might be the turning point into a story about how Fletcher is deep down a good guy, that he just pushes his students hard because he cares.

I'm sure you can chart that particular storyline. Likely something would happen between Andrew and Fletcher to force Fletcher to show the young man some compassion. Perhaps Andrew quits and Fletcher shows up at his apartment door, telling him he's one of the best he's ever seen and that everything he did was because he cared about Andrew. Maybe they even have a heart-to-heart over a milkshake, where Fletcher can reveal some vulnerable secret and both men form a life-long bond that ensures Andrew will always look back on Fletcher as the greatest teacher he had, both in music and in life.

Uh, yeah. That's expressly NOT the movie we get. I'm going to discuss the rest of the film in fairly broad strokes so as not to ruin anything, but if you have any desire to stay utterly unspoiled, get out now.

There's a part of me that suspects we're deliberately fed those cliches to trick us into letting our guard down so that the third act can blindside us. There are moments where it appears things might play out as I suggested above. Fletcher even discusses his teaching philosophy, saying "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'" He believes that when mediocrity is coddled with obligatory praise, the artist stops trying to push themselves. He relates a story about Charlie Parker and how a dissatisfied band leader once threw a chair at Parker for a comparatively minor mistake. Fletcher points out that Charlie never made that mistake again and having to learn that lesson pushed him to become one of the greatest jazz legends who ever lived. Without that motivation, he might never have done it.

It's a very revealing speech for Fletcher's character, just one of many excellent character bits. Simmons inhabits this character so fully that he absolutely should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and right now he'd be my pick to win.

I don't want to reveal too much about the third act, except to say that even as Andrew lets his guard down, the audience is probably screaming at him to run like hell. Removed from the situation, that's an easy call to make, but Teller makes it understandable that Andrew's trusting nature makes him easy prey. Deep down he not only wants to believe the best of Fletcher, but he craves his respect and approval too. Teller - whom I also loved in The Spectacular Now - also does good work here, by the way.

All I'll really say about the final act of WHIPLASH is that when Fletcher is given occasion to say "How fucking stupid do you think I am?" my blood ran cold.  If you've ever had a teacher or a mentor who appeared to be composed mainly of pure malevolence, yours will too.

WHIPLASH is one of the best films I've seen this year from a purely character standpoint. It's a small, seemingly simple story, but boy does it pack a punch.

Friday, December 5, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - my interviews and other blogs

For the final day of TV Writing Resource Week, I thought I'd compile several resources from around the web.

Let's start with our old friend, Jeffrey Lieber, who's currently a showrunner over on the successful NCIS: New Orleans. I'd never watched an NCIS before, but I gave this one a shot to support Jeff and I'm really enjoying it. It's a fun show and it's always great to have Scott Bakula on TV.  Lieber is also the creator of Miami Medical and has worked on The Whole Truth, Chase, Pan Am and Necessary Roughness.

If you've followed Jeff on Twitter (and there's no excuse not to be), you've probably seen his on-going series of Showrunner Rules, handily archived by Go into the Story. There's 200 here and in recent months, Jeff has been tweeting more rules that have yet to be added to the archive.

I interviewed Jeff Lieber a while back on my video channel. You can check out all six parts below:

And while you're there, check out my massive 13-part interview with Liz Tigelaar. Liz got her start as a writer's assistant on Dawson's Creek, she went on to join the staffs of several successful TV shows, including American Dreams, Kyle XY, What About Brian, Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money, Once Upon a Time and Revenge. She was also the creator and show-runner of the CW's Life Unexpected.

My interview with her covers a lot of ground, including how she got an agent, how she landed her first jobs in TV, the development of Life Unexpected and working on the staff of several other shows.

As we're reaching into the wayback files, don't miss my Robert Levine interview. I interviewed Levine waaaaay back in early 2010 when he was a mere staff writer on Human Target, coming off of stints on Jericho and Harper's Island. These days you might know him as the creator of Starz's Black Sails, which recently got picked up for a third season.

Ken Levine's blog - Probably one of the more prolific bloggers among the professional writer set. On any given day, Ken could tell old war stories from FRASER and CHEERS, or drift into writing anecdotes in general. And then for variety, he'll throw in a few stories from his radio days or wax about his time as a sports announcer. This is a daily must read.

Jane Espenson blog archive - This is no longer active, but newcomers to the archive will find no shortage of great advice from the woman who made a name for herself on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who more recently has created Husbands and been a writer on Once Upon a Time.

And for you twitter types, Indiewire just put together a fantastic article on the best writers rooms to follow on Twitter.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - Books about writing for TV

I just confirmed via an Amazon search that there is no shortage of books offering advice on TV writing. Much like with screenwriting books, it's really easy to get lost in the weeds with these. It's important to never take any book's advice as total gospel and to run as fast as possible from any book whose sales pitch is primarily "Here's how you get rich in TV!"

So in this post, I'm not looking to spotlight any books that a focused on the mechanics of writing for TV. I know they're out there, but a dozen different books can tell you the format, or you could just track down a script from one of the shows you really like. I'm much more interested in pointing you towards books that pass on some practical experience, war stories, if you will. If you want to work in TV, it's probably a good idea that you understand the kind of environment you're crawling into.

I'm fortunate enough to live near a very good library. I've almost never paid for a screenwriting book and I've almost as rarely paid for a "how to write for TV book." My first advice would be to see what tomes your local library has in stock. I don't have time to read them all, so likely there are some really good books that I won't reference below.

For a first-person look at breaking in and working on staff: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek.  Jeffrey Stepakoff traces his career in television, starting with breaking in in the '80s, up to the time he was on staff during a critical season of Dawson's Creek. He's retired now, so don't expect much insight that's specific to the current TV landscape, but there's a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from his war stories.

A memoir from a man who co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of the modern era: You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom. This is Phil Rosenthal's account of the creation and maintenance of Everybody Loves Raymond. It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember it being an interesting look at modern TV production through the eyes of a showrunner.  I didn't even watch Everybody Loves Raymond and this one kept me in.

Another memoir about becoming a working writer when your first gig was on one of the most successful shows in TV: Conversations With My Agent. Rob Long got his start on Cheers. After that, it was a fight to make sure it wasn't all downhill. As the book copy says: Getting from pitch to pilot is a tricky path to navigate successfully, from making non-negotiable changes and deal-breaking edits, combined with accommodating the whims of studios, networks and agents, often the finished product ends up a long way from where the script-writer started. With the help of his agent, her constant demands, monstrous salesmanship, brutal irony and unswerving loyalty, Long's career fluctuates from wannabe to player, from award-winning script-writer to burnt out has-been.

To better understand the business of TV: Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN. I've raved about this one before, and I consider it a remarkable look at the sorts of pressures faced by a fledgling pair of networks and how that comes to bear creatively on their shows. Network executives are often demonized as soulless "suits" out to maliciously destroy a show's uniqueness for the sake of the bottom-line, but co-author Susanne Daniels is not one of those. For my money, Daniels is one of the sharper execs out there and this book is a total steal at $.99 on Kindle.

The best behind-the-scenes episode and production guide there is: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. I'm cheating a bit because this one is out of print, and as you can see, used and new copies command a pretty high price. Still, you might find these in second-hand bookstores. This is nearly 800 pages of information about the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode is covered in-depth, with plenty of quotes and insights from the writing staff. It really gives you a sense of how a story takes shape and might go through multiple iterations before finally making it to screen.  Most episode guides focus mostly on synopsis and trivia, but this is a book that really digs into the creation of each episode and the evolution of longer arcs. I wish every TV show was dissected as in-depth as this book does for DS9.

If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments. Please try to keep the suggestions in the spirit of books that are either written by people who've worked in TV, or books that focus strongly on the craft of writing, not the mechanics.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - The Nerdist Writer's Panel

Let's continue TV Writing Resource Week with another free resource - The Nerdist Writers Panel podcast.

Like Children of Tendu and Showrunners, this is another forum to get the straight shooting on TV writing straight from the horse's mouth.

The Nerdist Writers Panel series is an informal chat moderated by Ben Blacker (co-creator of the Thrilling Adventure Hour; writer for Supah Ninjas, Supernatural, among others) with professional writers about the process and business of writing. Covering TV, film, comic books, music, novels, and any other kind of writing about which you'd care to hear. Proceeds from the live panels benefit 826LA, the national non-profit tutoring program. 

You'll recognize several guests on the show as people who've appeared in the earlier podcast and documentary I pushed this week. Episodes generally run a little over an hour, with a panel of three guests in most cases. There's a lot of "how did you break in" talk as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits from writers as varied as Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan and Enlisted's Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce

Rather than blather on, I'll just give links to a host of my favorite episodes:

Dana Gould (The Simpsons); Liz Tigelaar (creator, Life Unexpected); Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Alphas).  

Vince Gilligan (creator, Breaking Bad); Julie Plec (developer, Vampire Diaries); the return of Josh Friedman (developer, Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Jeff Greenstein (Desperate Housewives; Will and Grace).

Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time; Husbands; Buffy; Caprica) and Douglas Petrie (Charlie’s Angels; Buffy; Pushing Daisies) 

Sesame Street

The Colbert Report

Children of Tendu hosts Javier Grillo-Marxuatch (Helix; creator, The Middleman) and Jose Molina (Sleepy Hollow; Terra Nova) and their mentors Rene Echevarria (Star Trek: TNG/DS9; Dark Angel; Medium; Terra Nova) and Naren Shankar (Star Trek: TNG/DS9; CSI; Almost Human)

Rina Mimoun, showrunner of Red Band Society and Mistresses

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

We continue with TV Writing Resource Week by moving on to the perfect follow-up to Children of Tendu: Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show.

Showrunners is both a documentary film and a companion book to the documentary, written by Tara Bennett. This week I was trying to highlight resources that were largely free, but Showrunners in either form is so essential that I'm bending that rule a bit.  The book is available on Kindle, with a list price of $9.99, or in paperback with a list price of $14.95, though can you can often get cheaper prices on either thanks to Amazon discounts.  The movie is available for purchase and rental on iTunes. HD purchase runs you $12.99, but it can be rented for $4.99. (SD downloads of each are about a buck cheaper.) Access to both could cost you less than $15, so that's pretty much next to nothing.

In either form, Showrunners is a very frank, in-depth look at the art and business of running a TV show. It really drives home what a demanding job it is. Many participants speak wearily of the long hours and the heavy workflow, but most also display an awareness of how careful one must be when complaining about a job that pays so heavily. Still, we're reminded at the start that 85% of new shows fail, and an interview with a TNT & TBS executive points out that being a great writer doesn't always make one a great showrunner.

If nothing else, both references will convey just how all-encompassing the job is. I might actually favor the book, which is in the format of an oral history that has been culled from many of the same interviews that appear in the documentary. The book has room to expound on several of the interviews, though the documentary sets itself apart by taking us into several writers' rooms, along with showing us some of the showrunners working on set and meeting fans at Comic-Con.

If Children of Tendu demystifies the process of working on a TV writing staff, Showrunners pulls back the curtain on the top job. We get a few writers talking about how they got their start. Several of them discuss how they sold shows and dealt with the network and actors as part of the creative process. It's a look at the top job in TV, straight from the horse's mouth. The stable of interviewees includes:

J.J. Abrams (Alias, Felicity)
Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies)
Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus)
Jane Espenson (Husbands)
Hart Hanson (Bones)
Mike Kelley (Swingtown, Revenge)
Robert King & Michelle King  (The Good Wife)
Damon Lindelof (Lost)
Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica)
Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory)
Ray Romano & Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age)
Shawn Ryan (The Shield)
Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)
Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles)
Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse)

And many more!

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Purchase the film on iTunes here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

TV Writing Resource week: Children of Tendu podcast

This week is free TV resource week on the blog. I'm pulling together a comprehensive guide of all the things that any aspiring TV writers should be taking advantage of. The cost of anything I cite will be nothing or "next-to-nothing."

First up is a podcast I discovered about two months ago called Children of Tendu. If you want to work as a TV writer, this podcast is utterly essential. There's no other way to put it. If you haven't started listening to it, you're already behind the curve.

The show is hosted by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (creator of THE MIDDLEMAN, writer/producer LOST, HELIX, MEDIUM) and Jose Molina (AGENT CARTER, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, THE X-FILES). What they have put together is possibly the most detailed, piece-by-piece breakdown of what it means to be on a writing staff, what the day-to-day work is like, how to be the kind of staff writer your showrunner wants, what to do and what not to do.

A running theme of the podcast is "don't be an asshole." There's a great deal of emphasis on how one "serves at the pleasure of the showrunner" and that there's no way around the necessity of being collaborative and easy to work with. Both men are candid about how they themselves have broken this rule early in their careers when the didn't know any better. Jose recounts a cringe-inducing moment when he responded to a showrunner's story pitch with, "Doesn't that seem a little desperate?"

I don't see too many places where the politics of being on a writing staff are laid out so thoroughly and not only should this podcast be a wake-up call to every writer who shoots me an email pleading that they think TV writing is the place for them despite their total introversion or dislike of having to compromise their singular vision. I'll put it this way, if the mere thought of taking general meetings fills you with paralyzing fear, working on staff isn't the place for you and this podcast will make it abundantly clear.

Among the other topics discussed are dealing with your agents, staffing season, your first script, what all those producer titles mean, how to accept notes, and dealing with actors. They also bring in former showrunner bosses from time to time, such as Naren Shankar (CSI), Rene Echevarria (DARK ANGEL, MEDIUM) and Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters.

Like me, Javi and Jose worship at the altar of the great (and sadly departed) Michael Pillar, showrunner of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and co-creator of STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and STAR TREK: VOYAGER, and one of my professional idols. Pillar gave a great many writers their first shot, and the writing staffs of his TREKS were filled with first-time writers who now are among the most successful showrunners in TV, including Ronald D. Moore (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), Brannon Braga (SALEM, TERRA NOVA), Bryan Fuller (PUSHING DAISIES) and the aforementioned Naren Shankar and Rene Echevarria. Piller's name is invoked a lot, and this'll have you often rushing to rewatch TNG episodes, which is never a bad thing.

The podcast currently consists of 13 episodes, plus one "Christmas Special" and a crossover with the Nerdist Writer's Panel. If you're motivated, it shouldn't take much to catch up. Javi and Jose say there'll be more episodes once they go on hiatus from their current staffing gigs, so there's no time like the present to catch up!

Children of Tendu website -

On Twitter

Javi Grillo-Marxuach on Twitter

Jose Molina on Twitter

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

MICHAEL F-ING BAY made "/Film’s Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide" List!

It's always cool to be recognized by a website you read regularly. For my money, /Film (or Slashfilm) is probably the best entertainment news aggregator out there. If you've been away from the internet for the entire day and you needs one site to catch you up on all the major film news (particularly of the geekier interests), /Film is the site you should hit.

This week they've complied their "Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide." Right there among their book recommendations, alongside great books like Alien: The Archive, The James Bond Encyclopedia, The Back to the Future Almanac, and the book about the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, we find my very own MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films!

/Film writer Peter Sciretta says, "Hey, I know everyone loves to hate Michael Bay but I really appreciate the filmmaker for a pure visceral level. And I love the fact that someone has written a book praising the 'unheralded genius of Michael Bay’s films.'”

The book makes a great stocking stuffer for the film buff in your life. The Michael Bay lover and Michael Bay hater in your family can love it equally. And it's only $4.99 in Kindle form! Also, if you buy it, you're giving me a little extra money to get something nice for my wife this holiday season. She has to put up with me all year, so think of it as a charitable donation to her, if you must.

Find the entire /Film list here.

Buy MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films on Amazon here!

Monday, November 24, 2014

MOCKINGJAY won't fill you up, but it's a good meal while it lasts.

If you thought the ending of last year's CATCHING FIRE was abrupt, be forewarned that its follow-up, MOCKINGJAY PART 1 comes to an end just as suddenly. This third HUNGER GAMES film is a bit like half of a meal that's is suddenly cleared from the table by the busboys mid-course.

But it's a good half of a meal.

We pick up right after we left off at the end of the prior film. Katniss's rebellion in the games has sparked an uprising. Katniss's home district, District 12, has been destroyed and the rebellion has set up shop underground in District 13. The district President, Coin (played by Julianne Moore) wants to use Katniss as a propaganda tool to keep hope alive in other districts long enough for them to move on the Capital and President Snow.

Snow has his own propaganda tool, Katniss's partner in the Games and her showmance lover, Peeta. His fame is quickly put to use at both discrediting the rebels and breaking their spirit. In a televised interview, he denounces the revolt and urges everyone to surrender. Most of District 13 immediately brands him a traitor, but Katniss is convinced he's being forced to say these things. She submits to her usual role as a PR tool after extracting a promise that the rebels will rescue Peeta as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

And that's really all that PART 1 deals with. It's a half-measure towards resolution as we see the immediate consequences of that set-up play out, but the big chess moves feel like they're being saved for next year's finale. This often makes for a movie that feels like just another episode in the middle of one TV season's long arc.

The more claustrophobic production design adds somewhat to that feeling. A great deal of the film takes place in the underground bunker that houses the last 10,000 or so survivors of District 12. It makes for a striking contrast with the aggressive opulence of the Capital or the wild beauty of the Games habitats in the first one, but it still calls to mind the sorts of "bottle shows" that a series will do when it needs to save money.

The TV series feeling also comes from the fact that this is a film that depends very much on our memories and emotional ties with the earlier films in the series. Details like Katniss's bond with Peeta, her simmering feelings for Gale and her complicated alliances with Plutarch and Haymitch all pretty much are taken for granted by the filmmakers.

Earlier this year I remarked how surprised I was that my previously-uninitiated wife was able to watch X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and not be hindered by the backlog of continuity because of how well everyone was (re) introduced. I doubt that's a feat that could be repeated as effectively by MOCKINGJAY. This won't be a problem for most viewers, but it contributes to the feeling that this is less of its own movie.

The film's biggest asset is no shock, though. Jennifer Lawrence gives as much to her role as Katniss Everdeen as she has for any role that she's been nominated for. One advantage of the film's limited scope and slower pace is that it's able to really hone in on Katniss's emotional arc here. As I discussed in my CATCHING FIRE review, the great thing about Katniss is that she wasn't "born special," it's her actions that ended up defining her as the flashpoint for revolution. As she herself says, she didn't want any of this. This all started to keep her sister alive, and then later to keep Peeta alive.

The big reason that the HUNGER GAMES saga has remained so compelling is that it all hinged on Katniss's agency. She makes a choice and choices have consequences. That one moment in the first film where she volunteers as tribute is what brought all of this about. Katniss isn't a leader, or at least, she didn't set out to be one, but she inspired so many. She's never fully embraced her icon so much as she's allowed others to exploit it. The Katniss everyone wants to follow is a pure media creation, or at least a distortion of her.

With different writing, or possibly even a different actress, Katniss's continued rejection of her role in this might be read as whining. Lawrence plays it so raw and real throughout that you can't help but be moved by her fear and horror at all that has come from her few acts of defiance. We don't often get to see a hero spend as much of the film as clearly traumatized and shell-shocked as Katniss is here and it's an approach that makes the audience identify more emotionally with the story as well. Katniss's vulnerability is the film's greatest strength and it makes the moments where her resolve does emerge feel that much more emotional.

I've not read the books (no spoilers please) but this chapter made me feel certain that even if Snow is deposed, drawn and quartered, there is no happy ending in the offing. Katniss has lost so much that any victory is bound to feel Pyrrhic to her. I don't see the final chapter ending with an elated celebration like the Rebels and Ewoks partying after blowing up the Death Star.

Not that we wouldn't be tempted to cheer should Donald Sutherland's President Snow meet a particularly gruesome end. I don't want to give away some of the few real surprises in the film, but Snow stands reveals as pure malevolent evil by the end of this film. I'm not the biggest Donald Sutherland fan, and I think there's a good stretch of his 90s filmography where he was basically sleepwalking through sinisterly-twinged roles (Outbreak being a good example.) I saw some of that in the first two films but in this one... this one Snow is a guy who you want to see dead. You want every one of the main characters to line up and get a shot at bringing the hurt to this guy.

One of Snow's evil plans leads to the film's biggest shock (which I won't describe here.) It's a twist made more potent by the decision to only make brief shifts to show the Capital's perspective. We're confined to seeing mostly what Katniss sees, and the film uses our uncertainty about what Snow knows and doesn't know to great effect. Elements like that give the final act enough of a sting that this movie doesn't feel like a total exercise in table-setting for the final chapter next winter.

There's no denying that the film ends abruptly, too abruptly to allow the movie to get any sense of closure within this particular chapter. It's a bit like if Return of the Jedi was two films and the first of those ended with Luke leaving to surrender to Vader.

I really hope that we aren't going to start seeing more of this sort of approach in franchise storytelling. The further I get from Guardians of the Galaxy, the less I like the fact that Thanos was paraded in for a fan-service cameo that exists mostly to establish him as a force in later films. I think he might have carried more mystique as an off-screen presence ala the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt in the first Star Wars. If you saw GOTG, your biggest impression of supposedly the most fearsome bad guy in the universe was that he sits on a hovering stone throne all-day. We don't even check back in with him after his minions fail. Though at least Guardians was a pretty decent film. Amazing Spider-Man 2 showed this sort of sequel-seeding at its worst.

MOCKINGJAY shows another peril of franchise-storytelling - that feeding your audience half a meal may leave them hunger, and not always in the best way. There's a lot here that keeps the film alive, but repeat viewings might exacerbate that "mid-season episode" feeling and that could have an impact on the enthusiasm for the conclusion. If nothing else, I hope that other franchises take note of why this gambit is successful in some ways and realizes just how easily this could have been a major misstep

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Go Into The Story Interview, Part II - MICHAEL F-ING BAY is "the Tyler Perry of China"

Part I

My interrogation at the hands of Scott Myers continues over on Go Into The Story. Scott really hits me with the challenging questions related to my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

Jerry Lewis is maligned in the United States, but beloved in France. Given the ginormous success of Transformer movies in Asia, does that mean Michael Bay is the Jerry Lewis of China?

You know how every year, Tyler Perry makes a movie that opens huge? And then the next Monday, the trades fill up space with the standard article of, “Oh my god! Black people go to the movies too! Studios are now actively going to court this financial goldmine?” Then usually nothing changes. Studio films remain as un-diverse as ever until some six months later when the next Lee Daniels-directed or Oprah-produced film come out and everyone feigns shock over this “undiscovered” audience that no one realized was out there.

The genius of Tyler Perry is that he makes films for an under-served segment of the audience. A great many of these films may be critically dubious, but that doesn’t hurt him because people want to see representations of their experience on-screen. That’s why it confounds me from a business standpoint that we don’t market more to African-Americans and women, two of the most unrepresented demographics in studio filmmaking.

Bay’s a smart guy. He knew that if he set some of his last TRANSFORMERS film in China, it would do huge business there. And it did. So in conclusion, Michael Bay is not the Jerry Lewis of China, he’s the Tyler Perry of China.

Plus, I pitch the Michael Bay version of Boyhood, Scott asks me to give advice to the next generation of Transformers writers and demands I resolve the eternal question of "Michael Bay = Steven Spielberg minus what and plus what?"

All this and more in Part II.

Buy the book here.

Find my announcement of the book here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Go into the Story interview about MICHAEL F-ING BAY, I pitch "Michael Bay's 'JUNO'"

Scott Myers is one of a kind in the screenwriting blogosphere. The man works tirelessly, putting up a half-dozen new posts a day covering everything from script analysis, spec dealmaking and famous lines of dialogue. If there's something you want to learn about screenwriting, there's a good bet you can find it on his site, Go Into The Story.

Scott's been a good friend to the blog and I always enjoy talking to him, but rarely have I enjoyed it as much as this interview he conducted with me about my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films. Scott asked some of the tough questions I haven't gotten elsewhere, such as

And then there was this gem, for which I probably owe an apology to Diablo Cody:

Michael Bay does Juno. Go!

Michael Bay and Diablo Cody on the same film? I’d love to see the trailer for that if for no reason other than the fact that Diablo Cody has a name that was meant to be pronounced by a Don LaFontaine-like trailer narrator. Try it – it’s impossible not to make it sound kickass!

Okay, so the first thing to understand about how Bay develops is that he’ll often start with the action set-pieces first. There’s always action in a Bay film. Even the lower budgeted Pain & Gain has a couple footchase scenes and some explosions. And what do you know – Diablo’s one step ahead of the game with the high school track team’s running scenes. The slow-motion shots of the young men’s privates undulating with each stride also hits the Bay quota of male homoeroticism. So this part of the film is definitely the same – except there’ll be a lot more of it.

Also, Michael Cera’s part is now played by Jai Courtney.

For the rest of the pitch and part 1 of a wild interview, mosey on over to Go Into The Story.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Read my announcement of the book here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I talk MICHAEL F-ING BAY on the Broken Projector podcast

Continuing my press for MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, I appeared last week on the excellent podcast Broken Projector. Host Scott Beegs of Film School Rejects was kind enough to ask some good questions about my book and Michael Bay's oeuvre in general.

On any given week, Broken Projector is a must-listen, but I especially hope you'll check out this week's show.

You can find the episode embedded at Film School Rejects here.

Download the episode directly here.

Buy MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films here.

Here's my post announcing MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

Jon Stewart's ROSEWATER deftly provokes thought without preaching or pandering

There's little debate that ROSEWATER's promotion has been aided in large part by the existing profile of its first-time writer-director Jon Stewart, moonlighting from his day job on The Daily Show. As I consider that, I can't help but ponder if the writing and directing might be getting even more praise if it was coming from a truly unknown quantity. With a cast full of relative unknowns, Stewart has crafted a film that leaves an impression on the viewer well after the final title card has run.

ROSEWATER is the story of how journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government on suspicion of being a spy after appearing in a satirical segment of The Daily Show that covered the 2009 Iranian election. Bahari himself had returned to his home country of Iran to cover the elections for Newsweek. For a while, it appeared that encumbrance President and all-around oppressive madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might lose to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who - perhaps not coincidentally - was favored by the west, as well. Ahmadinejad's election was believed by many to be the result of a rigged election, sparking protests.

When Bahari is first detained by the Iranian government, he assumes his coverage of those protests is what brought him there. It's an utter surprise when his interrogator confronts him with a Daily Show segment where correspondent Jason Jones pretends to be an American spy and interviews Bahari. Bahari's jailers absurdly believe this to be evidence that Bahari himself is a spy collaborating with American spies, despite Bahari's futile attempts to explain the satire behind The Daily Show piece. (This may come as a surprise, but Iranian officials are not known for their sense of humor.)

One scene hints at possibly an additional motivation, as another clip of Bahari's appearance on the show has him saying that "Iran and America aren't so different." The Iranian interrogator is incensed that one of his own people would equate their country to what the Iranian government likes to term "the Great Satan." Governments generally crave war more than their people do, and so a government like Iran, constantly fearful of American intervention that will upend their oppressive regime, needs its people to hate the West. The foundation of their rule is based on ensuring the people fanatically hate a democratic way of life.

For an Iranian to speak well of America is a vile a notion to the Iranian government as it would be for an American citizen to say "Y'know, that Hitler guy might have been on to something." Furthermore, for an Iranian-born individual to have such little fear of repercussion that he would say this openly on a TV broadcast likely only galls his jailers more. Revolutions happen when people no longer fear the consequences of speaking openly. And so what we come to see are jailers desperate to break Bahari.

It'll be interesting to see if ROSEWATER provokes any debates about torture similar to what Zero Dark Thirty incited a few years ago. The films depict markedly different versions of torture. Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes were dehumanizing and viscerally degrading while most of the abuse depicted in ROSEWATER is of a more banal nature. During his 118-day imprisonment, Bahari spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement. While it's not the most cinematic of tortures, it definitely is a horrible thing to isolate a person from all other contact for extended periods. Though the film shows the occasional physical beating, it appears that the efforts to break Bahari were more psychological than physical.

The film strongly demonstrates something I've believed for a long time - that torture is an incredibly ineffective way of eliciting useful information. It holds its greatest power when it comes to punishing someone or forcing their compliance. Last year I wrote about some powerful moments in 12 Years a Slave that demonstrated just how quickly a person will break and stop fighting when they just want the physical pain to end. They'll say things they don't mean and believe things they didn't before just so they won't have to hurt any more.

You don't have to go far to find documentation that torture is incredibly ineffective and unreliable, to the point that anyone who argues it is a valuable tool for intelligence purposes is lying, either to themselves or to everyone else. ROSEWATER supports this in spades, for eventually, Bahari confesses to crimes he never committed. Why would someone do that? Because he's hoping his cooperation betters his situation, perhaps increasing the chance that he'll walk out of there and back home to his wife.  Torture makes people compliant, not truthful.

But as we've discussed, The intelligence gathering may only be one facet of Bahari's imprisonment and torture. If the goal is to punish the prisoner and gain power over him, then it becomes clear why his captors would so readily work to break Bahari's spirit. This is about power as much as it is about investigation. Bahari is taken from his home on incredibly flimsy pretense, denied any kind of due process and then is psychologically and physically abused all because state officials must demonstrate their might against an enemy they fear.

There's an analogy that's begging to be drawn there. It might surprise you that the film doesn't try to find a way to compare Bahari's imprisonment with any number of "suspected terrorists" who found themselves rounded up on thin pretenses by U.S. officials and tossed into the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay. There, government officials enthusiastically had interrogators use dehumanizing interrogations that ultimately degraded this nation as much as they did the suspected terrorists. And eventually, given the nature of how torture works, it likely yielded as much bad information as good.

Stewart doesn't go near this territory, likely in part because it would widen the scope of the story beyond Bahari's experience. Even if there had been a way to deal with this notion more directly, it would have given the idiots at Fox News an easy talking point to attack the film with. Perhaps not every viewer will come away drawing the same comparisons as I did, but it is hard to watch this film and not be swayed on how torture is a tool that more effectively brings compliance and submission rather than credible information.

It's to Stewart's credit that he made a film capable of provoking these questions. Perhaps some viewers will come out of the film pondering what they would have done in Bahari's situation. How much would they give in just to retain a little bit of hope?

Among many powerful scenes is one that comes late in the film. (SPOILER ALERT. Don't say you weren't warned.) After Bahari's been imprisoned for quite some time, a guard mentions to him that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. We are then treated to a rapid montage of news channels discussing the outrage over the detainment of a journalist. A great deal of this is due to an effort from Bahari's wife to keep the imprisonment in the public eye.

The Iranians are furious at the efforts of this woman, eventually sending Bahari's interrogator in to tell Bahari to "control his woman." The interrogator gives Bahari a phone and makes him call his wife to tell her to stop. It's the first time in months that Bahari's been able to speak to his pregnant wife and the emotion overwhelms them both. He whispers "I love you" and before he can even say anything about the media coverage, the interrogator takes back the phone. He verbally berates his prisoner, trying to intimidate him, but Bahari literally laughs in his captors face.

The Iranians tried to take his hope away, but in making him tell his wife to call off the dogs, they showed their hand. Bahari saw their fear, and in that moment, the power shifted. The interrogator showed he didn't have total control, for if he did, nothing Bahari's wife could do would be of any concern. He might still be a prisoner, but in that moment, the torturer restored one thing for him: hope.

There are so many strong films from this year that it's hard to call anything a sure thing. That said, it would not be surprising for ROSEWATER to nab a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and I wouldn't entirely count out the fine work from Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal as Bahari. He gives such an empathetic performance that when one particular title card delivers the coda, it's impossible to not be moved.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Amanda Pendolino interviewed me about my Michael Bay book

I did an interview with Amanda Pendolino about my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.  She asked a number of good questions about why I wrote the book, what my favorite Bay film is, and if there's any sort of sequel in the works.

What's your favorite Michael Bay movie? 

This is probably going to be clear to everyone who reads the book, but THE ROCK wins hands down. It's got one of the best premises that Bay's worked with, and probably his strongest cast. Sean Connery is basically doing a riff on James Bond, how do you not love that? Nicolas Cage is also the perfect counterpoint to Connery's character and there's a lot of smart writing in their dynamic. The dumb version of this would have been Connery as an unstoppable badass and Cage as the tag-along comic relief, but they're both fleshed out beyond that. It's also a stroke of genius that while Ed Harris is the antagonist, he's not a terrible person and you kind of feel sorry for the guy. There's a part of you that can really empathize with why he's taken these hostages and what he's after. It makes for a much richer story when characters aren't reduced to two-dimensions just to keep things easy on the audience. 

You can definitely make a case for some of Bay's films having deeper, more profound readings, but THE ROCK is the clear favorite.

Head over to Amanda's site for the rest of the interview.

As always, you can find the book on Amazon here.
For my blog post announcing the book, go here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How to get a free copy of my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY!

So maybe you've read about my new book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, and while you'd really like to read it, you can't spare the $4.99 to buy it. (First - REALLY? You can't skip one day's worth of latte's? You could probably scrape together $4.99 out of the loose change in your couch cushions.) Well, I'm here to help you with that.

Today, the Black List twitter account at @theblcklst will be giving away FIVE free Kindle copies of my book. All you have to do is follow @theblcklst and be the first person to correctly answer one of the five trivia questions they tweet out throughout the day.

If this gets a good response, I'll try to arrange a few more free giveaways.

Also, since I forgot to mention this last week in my Franklin Leonard post, I want to remind L.A. residents that this Saturday is another Black List Live event. It's a live reading of Brian Duffield's script YOUR BRIDESMAID IS A BITCH and they've got a great cast that includes Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, John Wick), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Selma), Zachary Levi (Chuck) and Lamorne Morris (New Girl.) Tickets are $30 and you can get them here.

For more information about my book, go here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Announcing my book: MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius of Michael Bay's Films. On sale now!

Starting today, you can purchase my first book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius of Michael Bay's Films on Amazon. Yes, that's right, for the mere price of $4.99, you can be downloading and reading this first-ever examination of Michael Bay within seconds!

His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

With the holiday season coming up, it's the perfect stocking stuffer for your friends and family. You can even gift the Kindle versions if you only want to spend an Abe Lincoln.  If you love Michael Bay, you will find something to enjoy in this book and if you hate Michael Bay you'll probably still find plenty to love here. Every movie Michael Bay has directed is covered here, in all-new in-depth examinations.

This is not a greatest-hits compilation of posts, nor is it a how-to screenwriting book. The only segment that's seen the light of day before is my analysis of Transformers: Age of Extinction. It became one of my all-time most-popular posts, so you've probably read it already. If you haven't, give it a read for a taste of what you're in for with MICHAEL F-ING BAY.

And all this is yours for $4.99! If you have been a long-time reader of the blog, that's like tipping me less than a dollar a year. It's a tiny drop in the bucket. You can cover the cost by skipping your latte, maybe not necessarily your essential morning latte, but the one you get in the afternoon just so you have an excuse to leave the office a bit.

But what if you don't have a Kindle or a tablet with a Kindle app? Good news, you can still read MICHAEL F-ING BAY! Go here and download the Kindle reading app for your computer.

Here are the instructions for the Kindle for PC program.
Here's where you go for Kindle for Windows 8.
Here's the site for you Kindle for Mac people.

So you're looking at those sites and it still seems complicated and confusing. Or maybe you're just the type of person who likes to hold a physical book in your hands. I'm looking out for those few of you, which is why I have made it possible to buy a physical, dead-tree edition of MICHAEL F-ING BAY as well.

Link roundup:
Amazon Author Page here.
Kindle version of the book here.
Dead tree edition here.

Your support would really mean a lot to me, guys. E-books like this succeed through word-of-mouth, so please sound the trumpets for my first book. I really hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

FAULTS ironically has very few faults of its own

Summing up Riley Stearns's feature debut, FAULTS, without blowing too many details that are best left discovered for oneself is a tricky prospect. What I can tell you is what it displays an abundance of from its writer/director: confidence.

I read the script about a year ago and it was basically catnip to me. I'd venture that some 75% of the film centers on the dynamic between two characters while confined to one hotel room. It's the type of scenario that leaves a writer nowhere to hide: there's no place for pyrotecnics, no kinetic car chases or action scenes. Every bit of tension has to come from those two characters and the claustrophobia of their location. There's no half-assing the writing here. The characters have to pop, they have to have a clear conflict and when you're limited to a duel of words rather than fisticuffs, the dialogue has to be sharp as a jagged piece of glass.

And then once you get all that right on the page and pull off an engaging read, some poor director has to come along and make it look like more than a filmed stageplay. You can probably think of all of the ways a terrified helmer might add a little extra spice out fear that his audience would become bored. These include: wild and crazy angles, which wouldn't be complete without frantic editing, and on-the-nose scoring to add gravitas to the quiet, subtle dialogue.

Stearns doesn't fall back on any of those crutches. That takes balls, especially on your first film. The fact that FAULTS also has to skillfully mix humor with a lot of intensity and creepiness makes this even more of an achievement. I've seen a lot of films that have attempted to mix tones in this way and it soon becomes apparent that there are a lot of ways to fall on your face. A misplaced joke can destroy tension rather than heighten it. A bad gag at the wrong point has the potential to turn the film goofy right when it can hurt the most. Finding that tone and making sure the actors play within that space is the director's responsibility and Stearns hits the bullseye as surely as if he were Robin Hood.

So if you're tempted to think that a film centered largely on two actors in one room is an "idiot proof" prospect for a director, you need to realize there are probably about fifty ways FAULTS could have gone wrong, even with it starting from an incredibly solid script.

It helps that FAULTS has a very solid cast. Leland Orser plays Ansel, a former cult deprogramming expert whose since fallen on hard times. This is a man at such a low point in his life that he steals not just towels from his hotel room, but the battery that powers his TV remote. Following one of his seminars, he's approached by a couple played by Beth Grant and Chris Ellis. Their daughter Claire has fallen into the clutches of a cult and they believe Ansel is the only one who can save her. Ansel may be at the point in his life where he doesn't give a shit, but he needs money, and deprogramming Claire is an opportunity for him to make enough to clear some pressing debts.

Thus Ansel kidnaps Claire and has her brought to a motel room so that he can spend the next five days psychologically breaking her down and undoing what the cult did to her. Ansel knows how to challenge her beliefs all while weakening Claire's resolve. What we witness is the gradual breaking of Claire, in a very strong performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead also happens to be Stearns's wife, but don't confuse this connection for any sort of nepotism or vanity project. Winstead does very good work in a role that is a lot more challenging than it appears for much of a first viewing. Suffice to say, if Winstead impressed you in diverse roles such as Smashed and Scott Pilgrim you'll probably enjoy seeing her play yet another entirely different sort of character here. (And yes, add me to the chorus that thinks Winstead was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Smashed a few years back.)

As the film is not in wide release, that's probably all I should say about the plot. As seemingly straightforward as the premise is, FAULTS zigs and zags in ways that you won't always see coming. It probably isn't giving anything away to heap praise on how Orser and Winstead gradually evolve their dynamic, allowing for a few shifts in the relationship that aren't even immediately apparent until the script specifically underlines them.

And through all of this, Stearns's steady hand shows. Most of these two-handers are shot with long takes with little camera movement. Occasionally there might be a slow push-in or a well-timed pan, but this doesn't feel like a film where the director went out of his way in leaving the editing room to save him, if need be. Many scenes are given room to breathe, playing out in takes that hold on the performers and invite us to register the subtlety in their performances. The score is modulated similarly, as it's completely absent from many scenes, allowing its limited usage to make much more impact.

At present, FAULTS is still doing the festival circuit. I saw it this past weekend at AFI Fest, though Screen Media Films currently has it scheduled for a March 6, 2015 release to theatres and VOD. If this sort of film appeals to you the way it does to me, I hope you'll check it out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Black List CEO Franklin Leonard answers YOUR questions in our open forum

As promised, the answers to our open forum with Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. Franklin was generous enough to find time in his busy schedule to answer all of your questions. Thanks Franklin! I'm sure everyone appreciates it.

From Ben James:

Two questions for Franklin would be:

1. What advice would you give to a newbie submitting their first script to the Black List?

Make sure your script is as far along as you can take it on your own. Our readers are evaluating material as they would the work they read or have read in their daily lives as Hollywood industry professionals. Good enough is rarely good enough.

2. What impact do you think the Black List has had on the way new screenwriters can break into the business?

One of our goals has always simply been to make the only gap between being an aspiring screenwriter and a working screenwriter being a good screenwriter. Whereas before breaking into the industry was very much about who you know or where you live (with the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship which has a thirty year tradition as a way into the industry for writers from outside the system), now it's as simple as writing an excellent script and making your script available to the right people via the Black List website.

From Gail:

I'd like to ask Franklin if TBL site was planning on ever showing us who is looking at our scripts. Right now it's like a black hole. You can see someone downloaded it but you don't know who. There are other sites that show you exactly who's looking and reading and it's great.

We have no plans to show you who is looking at your scripts. While we monitor every click and keystroke on the site in order to protect writers, we made the decision we did because we knew that industry professionals would be far less likely to download and read material if they had the risk of (oftentimes unprofessional) follow up from writers. By providing that modicum of protection to the industry professionals, we can create an environment where high level industry pros will actively seek out material, which generally can't be said of the other sites to whom you're likely referring.

From Clint:

Knowing they like to crunching numbers there, I'd want to know things such as:
What percentage of uploaded scripts are rated 8 or higher?
What percentage of 5 rated (6 rated, 7 rated, 8 rated etc) scripts are downloaded by pros? My guess would % gets higher with higher score. I'd also be curious if ANY scripts rated less than 8 get downloaded by pros.

4.28% of evaluations receive overall ratings of 8 or higher (3.73% receive 8s. 0.53% receive 9s. 0.02% receive 10s.) Best place to take a closer look at similar numbers would be our first year annual report. Scripts rated below an 8 definitely get downloaded, though you're right that the % and volume increase with higher scores.

From Jace:

How does the BL account for subjectivity when it comes to comedy? I had comments on a script that stated that the characters were "too broad" and "over-the-top", which is exactly the feel I was going for (something in the vein of a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey comedy). It feels a bit unfair that a script whose fundamentals are strong (at least, as indicated through the "Consider" it got from a respected script consultant) would be punished because the reader has a bias toward comedy that is more grounded in tone.

A belief that a script is "too broad" and "over-the-top" isn't evidence that "the reader has a bias toward comedy that is more grounded in tone." It's evidence that the reader though that the script in question was "too broad" and "over-the-top." Another "respected script consultant" may feel similarly, or different.

We treat subjectivity in comedy the same way we do in every genre: we embrace it. Each of our readers rates the script based on how likely they would be to recommend it to a peer or superior in the industry. The aggregate of all ratings a script receives allows us to make individual recommendations based on industry pro members' tastes and identify those scripts which are generally well received.

One more:

Does the BL have any strategy prepared in case someone makes an accusation that his/her idea was stolen through the site? I know idea theft from newbies is rare in Hollywood, but the ability to anonymously download other people's entire works makes this scenario within the realm of possibility.

We track every view, download, click, and keystroke on the site. Technically, downloads are not anonymous. We simply do not share the information with the writer.

From Iam Seth:

1) How much money and/or profit has TBL made from aspiring screenwriters?

With the joining fee and reading charges it must be a lot.

This is not information we plan on sharing. Our prices are actually quite low compared with services that provide far less than we do.

2) Echoing others, who are your readers and how are they selected.

All of our readers have worked as at least major agency, management company, studio, financier, network, or production company assistants wherein a significant part of their job was reading screenplays for at least one year. Most have considerably more experience. They are further vetted by me based on their previous coverage and additional coverage they do on a script that we provide (not an actively hosted scripts). Fewer than 15% of those who have applied with the minimum of experience have been invited to read for the Black List.

I ask this after seeing some of the semi-literate notes from TBL's readers.

This is not a bitter case of "Z0mG ju di'nt gimme me a 10!!!!!!!!"

I mean I have seen some very cruddy TBL notes that seem like they were written by a 15 year old, and not an intelligent one.

It's disappointing to hear that you had an unpleasant experience with one of our readers. You're in the very small minority. Trust me that the only person more upset by a poor quality script evaluation from us than you is me. If you haven't already, you should get in touch with us and let us know about your poor quality evaluation. If your complaint has merit, we'll be happy to give you a free month of hosting and replace the evaluation at no additional charge.

From ToddB:

In your opinion, should a person write a safe text book script as a sample to get screenwriting gigs or write a risky spec script? I feel every screenwriter hits this crossroad and decides upon one of the two. The obvious answer would be a professional combination of the two, but I'd love to read your thoughts on the subject.

You've answered your own question. Write something amazing. Period.

From DH:

1) We hear a lot about the success of the film side of the Blacklist however, how has the TV fared? Has anything been sold?

There has not yet been a TV pilot sold via the Black List website, though I don't find this terribly surprising. Unlike selling a feature film script, where you're just selling the script, selling a television show means selling the pilot and the ability to generate dozens more after the fact.

There have been success stories from the TV side of the site though. Among them, a writer staffed on "Hannibal," another selected for the inaugural Sundance episodic story lab, and another whose pilot was shot as part of Issa Rae's new company Color Creative.

From CableTVForMe:

My question.....

"How do you feel about all the many schemes such as screenwriting competitions that seem to be designed to offer nothing in return for taking money from wannabe screenwriters?"

There are screenwriting competitions that offer quite a bit. The Nichol and Austin Film Festival spring to mind. As for the others, especially if they're explicitly designed to offer nothing in return for taking money from wannabe screenwriters, I find them despicable.

From rosavideo:

Would it be possible to see data on types of films that receive high/low/mediocre rating? Genre, protagonists race/age/gender adaptation vs original story, etc. I know it wouldnt take into account over "quality" of writing, but it would still be interesting to get a whole look at what is being submitted.

We haven't done this analysis yet, but it's on the docket. Give us some time.

From baronvonscott:

Two questions:

1. Will The Black List ever show unique downloads? It would be nice to have that along with the non-unique data for those of us curious if it's the same person downloading repeatedly or multiple users.

We do show unique download numbers. You should email us, and we'll get you sorted.

2. Regarding paid readers, is there a standard range of deviation you see between their ratings and those of industry members? Also, do you know what percentage of industry members rate scripts that they've downloaded?

Typically, about 1 in 7 downloads result in a rating from an industry member. Generally, industry members rate a bit higher than our paid readers, but that's likely because industry professionals are generally downloading and rating only higher rated scripts (as compared to our paid readers.)

From John:

The amount of scripts on the site has exponentially expanded. And not, in my opinion, gotten better.

Have any of the new scripts (within the last year) found an ... agent? .. producer? .. company? Any success stories?

I think it's safe to assume that your sample size of the scripts that are hosted isn't representative of the site as a whole. As for success stories, there have been enough that we've lost track and people have stopped telling us about them when they happen.

From Jeffrey:

1) Can you describe the typical industry audience for scripts on the site? Are they production companies/producers looking for material, agents or managers looking for people to rep? Assistants looking for the right material to help them make the jump? In other words, who is most likely to see the work?

All of the above. Also studio, financier, and network executives looking for material. Ditto some directors and actors.

2) There was some initial publicity when the site first launched and some recent TV deals, but I haven't seen many announcements for feature scripts or writers that have been discovered through the site. Can you share some recent success stories?

Easily my favorite recent success story would be this one. From Apple store Genius to screenwriter of the I AM LEGEND prequel for Warner Bros in about seven months.

3) If you have a script with a high rating, but perhaps not enough reviews to qualify for the spotlight emails, what ways do you recommend a writer use the rating to get views and read requests?

One overall rating of 8 or better from one of our paid readers qualifies you for the weekly spotlight email. Ditto an 8 or better in a category and genre that an individual industry has specified interest.

4) Is there a genre or type of material that's being sought on the site more than others? (i.e. comedy, horror, low-budget, etc.)

We haven't done this analysis recently, but I'd check out our first year annual report. It'll give you a pretty good idea of how the site is being used.