Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This blog turns five today!

"Chief, do you remember the time we rescued Captain Picard from the Borg?"
- "How could I forget? That was touch and go for a while.  Truth is, there were a couple moments when I thought that we were all going to end up 'assimilated.'"
"I never doubted the outcome. We were like warriors from the ancient sagas. There was nothing we could not do."

- Lt. Cmdr. Worf and Chief O'Brien, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "The Way of the Warrior."

The above quote is from the 4th season opener of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, written by Ira Stephen Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe.  This scene occurs after Worf has spent some time on the station several months after the destruction of the Enterprise, and he's in the midst of a personal crisis.  On the Enterprise, victory was a given, but here, on this Cardassian-built station, everything is unfamiliar, and unfriendly.

At first glance, it probably appears to be an odd choice to kick off a post celebrating the five-year anniversary of this blog.  Fear not. All will become clear in time.

Worf's conviction in himself and his comrades is the sort of attitude that we all should strive to have.  Notice I say "conviction" and not "arrogance." There is a difference.  Both in Hollywood and out, I've run across many an arrogant person who's certainty of their superiority borders on delusional.  And out here, there are many a charlatan and life coach who make a living by peddling the lie that all one needs for success is to merely put that desire out into the universe.

Actors seem especially vulnerable to this sort of snake oil.  I'm aware of at least one "class" that requires its students to go into the same casting offices every week and drop off their headshots personally so that they might introduce themselves to the casting directors.  I believe this is supposed to either show conviction or ensure your face will be remembered by the casting directors.  If those actors are remembered at all, I assure you it will be for all the wrong reasons.

I speak of a different sort of conviction - one that recognizes there may not be any easy solutions, but there are solutions.  The difference between success and failure is the willingness to go the distance rather than will it to come to you. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible - and certainly achievable.

There have been many times in my life when I have felt as Worf did about the Borg incident, despite the odds.  I have spoken before of the TV show I created and ran in college, and how we produced two seasons of shows despite the deck stacked against us.  But the incident where I really was aware of my inner Worf came several years before that, in my junior year of high school.

It was February of my 11th grade year when the School Board announced that they had targeted seven schools for closure - and my school was one of them.  Five weeks from that announcement they would make a decision about upholding those recommendations.  Before that, there would be community forums held at each of the schools.  The intent was to give the Board an opportunity to explain their reasoning while also allowing representatives of each school to make any statements they wished.

The reasons we were targeted were primarily ones of budget and capacity.  The district needed to close schools following the failure of a levy.  They were getting beaten up in the press about all the schools with low enrollments and people were definitely calling for blood in the form of school closures.  My school had a population of a little more than 500 in a building with a reported capacity of 900.  There was another high school nearby that had a population of 900 or so, and their capacity was in the range of 1500 or 1600.

(My recollections of the exact figures might be a little off.  Suffice to say, both buildings were under capacity and it appeared the other school could absorb both populations with room to spare.)

I will never forget the experience of walking into school the morning after that announcement.  There was no chatter, no hustle and bustle in the halls.  Just silence.  It might have been the loudest silence I'd ever experienced. It was the sound of 500 people still reeling from being kicked in the balls the night before.  Someone asked my homeroom teacher, "Do you think the school board will change their minds?"

"There's about a one-percent chance of that happening," the teacher said.

I couldn't accept that. No, I didn't accept that. I believed as Worf did, that with everything we'd been through, we were like those ancient warriors.  There was nothing we could not do.  And I wasn't alone.  That night, the PTA assembled.  Parents and students had a week to prepare for their community forum.  As luck would have it, we were first.  If we did it right, we could set the tone for all who followed.  The local media was already eating up this story - surely there would be a great deal of attention given to the first of these forums.

You might think that the plan was to make an emotional appeal, to parade students before an assembly and talk about how unique our school was, what a community we had built here and how much it meant to us.  Oh yes, you can probably imagine how this would play out as a scene in a movie.  We'd tug on the heart strings, play on their emotions and the School Board's heart would grow three sizes that day.  Our devotion would inspire them to reconsider and save our school.

That's not what happened.  Sure, you can defeat an enemy by fighting them on your terms.  But do you know how you really win? When you kick the snot out of them and humiliate them by meeting them on their terms.

They wanted to make it a simple numbers game. Each of the targeted schools would have their populations easily absorbed... no... "assimilated" into nearby schools.  It would solve the problems of too many buildings and underpopulation all at once.  So what did we do? We shoved those numbers down their throat and up their ass at the same time.

Funny thing about capacity numbers - they hadn't been updated since the late 70s or early 80s.  They were almost 20 years out of date by this point.  You'd think that wouldn't be a problem because the structures of the building hadn't changed, but the laws that calculated capacity had. To make a long story less long, special education students had an impact on the numbers.  I don't recall the exact explanation, but the gist of it is that special ed programs require certain resources that create a ripple effect that reduces the true capacity of the school.

So that 900 figure that supposedly was the number that our school could take?  It was rather high.  The true capacity was closer to 750. And the proposed receiving school had a similar adjustment - to the point where their true capacity was too small to accommodate the enrollment numbers from both buildings.

That was the crux of our presentation. Not "Please don't take our second home away," but, "You guys have NO idea what your own study says."  Our presentation was passionate at times, but it carried much more fact than rhetoric.  It was like a closing argument in court, and the soundbite on all the local news stations was the perfect distillation of our message: "The proposed receiving school can not accommodate the enrollment numbers from both buildings."

One-percent chance, my ass.

We redefined the story right there and put them on the defensive, both in that forum and in the press.  Myself and several other students were so well prepared when the media came looking for quotes. Instead of giving them the "I don't want to leave my friends" statements they were looking for, we started rattling off facts about capacity and how the initial proposal was based on bad data.  I was particularly pleased when a statement I cribbed from the O.J. Simpson trial ended up as a soundbite in the paper.  When asked what I thought about the proposal, I noted the flawed numbers in the study's foundation, and concluded "Garbage in, garbage out."

We found out later that the day after the forum, the superintendent held a meeting where he demanded some of his people debunk the capacity argument we laid out at the meeting.  I wish I could have seen the look on his face when his underling told him he couldn't.

Three weeks after the proposal, the Board held one of their standard meetings.  I and many others from my school attended, for some of our teachers were intending to use the "open mic" time to plead our case again.  As it turned out, we didn't have to.  At the top of the meeting, the Board announced - two weeks ahead of schedule - that they were not going to be closing any schools for the following school year.

We won.  And I had never doubted the outcome.  This result - the Board crying uncle - was the only conceivable conclusion I ever allowed myself to contemplate.  As our PTA President said, "You CAN fight City Hall."

So why tell this story on my five-year anniversary of all days?  Because I was Worf.  My high school, and later my college were my Enterprise... and when I first came to Los Angeles over a decade ago, I was not unlike that Klingon trying to make sense of a much harsher environment.  It was no longer like those days when I had the luxury of believing it would always work out.  Virtually everyone who had my back before was now gone.

I eventually got a job in the industry and started climbing the ladder, but do you know when things really started turning in my favor professionally?  When I launched this blog.  It was slow-going in the early days, I won't lie.  And yet, the more I made a name for myself (one that, ironically wasn't even my real name), the more control I had over my own destiny.

The blog became a great way to network, not just with other aspirings on my level, but with writers who had earned the kind of success I was desperately pursuing for myself.  Somehow, I became someone who they were interested in meeting.  I'd created a sort of credibility for myself and even though I'd only taken a few steps, along the way I found something that had been missing for a while: The conviction that I could do this.  That this wasn't just a pipe dream that I was doomed to pine for from afar.

So those of you still at the start of your journey, I want you to remember that the most important thing you can have is that certainty that you can do this.  It doesn't mean you wait for the universe to work out for you.  We did save the school, but that was a lot of work.  I produced two seasons of TV, but that was a HELL of a lot of work.  Embrace that.  Own it.

Those of you coming to L.A. will probably find it scary at first.  But if you stay strong, you will reach the point when you can look at yourself in the mirror and know, "I can do this.  All I need is the will to discover the way."

I didn't truly find that will until I took control of my destiny and created this little spot on the internet.  This blog has forced me to reflect on what I've learned in the industry, it's made me more aware of my own shortcomings as a writer... and it's brought me a lot of friends.  It's definitely helped my career in ways I couldn't have foreseen.

There are a lot of people I'd like to thank for their support and friendship over the years.  The problem is that I'm certain that the more comprehensive I try to make the list, the more likely I am to leave someone important out.  So instead, I think I'll pay tribute to one of my earliest supporters and the man who was critical in drawing an audience to my blog in the early days - Scott Myers.  After Scott plugged my blog, my hits jumped from about 50 a day to 500 - and they kept rising.  He's been a constant supporter and a good friend in the years since.  If you're not already reading his blog, Go Into the Story, add it to your bookmarks immediately.

To all of you who have come here regularly, either from the beginning or starting more recently, thank you for being a part of these last five years. And good luck in finding whatever it will take to own your own path.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Webshow: Voiceover

Going in concert with a Scott Myers post that goes live later today, today's video deals with when and when not to use voiceover.  There's conventional wisdom that voiceover is a lazy crutch that good writers shouldn't use. Is that accurate?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Everything Wrong with Modern Film Criticism

I've debated if I should post what I'm about to say.  I think that reviewing other reviews is often a dangerous road to go down.  Whether you're the person behind the work that's being critiqued or just an interested party, there's rarely any good that can come from providing a dissection of other people's reviews.

But for the past week I've been annoyed by a trend that popped up in the reviews for my friends' movie Devil's Due.  Critics didn't receive it terribly well, though that's not unusual for a found-footage horror film.  As much as I liked it and hoped it would be well-received, I wasn't completely blindsided by the fact that critics made a meal of it.

But what did get under my skin is that I saw a number of reviews where it was clear that the reviewer didn't even give the film a chance.  When several paragraphs of a review focus not so much on the specifics of the film, but rather the reviewer's fatigue with found-footage, I think we have a problem.  I think when you're hired to review a specific movie, the focus should be reviewing the movie - not using the film as an excuse to get into your specific issues with a genre.

And the more I thought about this, the more I realized that my issues with these reviews were just scratching the surface of what was wrong with the way films today are examined.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start off by looking at statements like this one from Todd Gilchrist of The Wrap:

Generally speaking, I have no problem suspending disbelief in order to enjoy found-footage horror – of course there’s no good reason for them to film all of the time. But “Devil’s Due” distinguishes itself, much to its detriment, by making a huge show of the characters’ reasoning, and then packaging their entirely self-sustaining “home movies” in between recordings of a police interrogation of one of the survivors. 

And the fact that the police don’t seem to believe the suspect, despite what is very obviously a mountain of footage evidencing their innocence, suggests that they didn’t find, or see, the material we’re watching. So how exactly can you have a found footage movie, if no one finds it?

Unlike The Blair Witch Project, Devil's Due makes no claims that the footage we are seeing is an assembled documentary.  It merely uses the technique of telling the story through cameras that capture the action.  It's an approach that was used rather effectively in Chronicle, and it's apparent from the first time the film cuts to the perspective of a supermarket security camera that we aren't going to be wedded to Zach's own camera.

And yet Gilchrist wasn't the only reviewer who got hung up on this non-issue. spent half their review digging into this:

This is the problem: A found-footage movie is supposedly more than merely a film for our putative enjoyment. It’s supposed to be a document, an artifact, of the world it’s set in. If the found footage is from one source — say, the memory card from the videocam some idiot used to record an investigation into a witch legend, or a monster attack, or, ahem, his own honeymoon — then, sure, this one tape was literally “found.” But when the “found-footage” consists of material edited together from multiple sources in ways that fail all plausibility tests, then something is badly wrong. 

I mean, look: I can buy that Samantha McCall (Allison Miller: 17 Again), a newlywed young woman still in school who doesn’t even want to be pregnant yet and had taken responsible steps to prevent it, might have gotten knocked up by Old Scratch in some crazy evil candlelit rite in the basement of a nightclub in Santo Domingo. What I cannot figure out, for the life of me, is this: Who assembled this footage? It cannot be her husband, Zach (Zach Gilford: The Last Stand, Post Grad), the dude with the video-documenting fetish, because as the film opens, we’re seeing police-interview video of him covered in blood being asked to explain just what happened — which we know he won’t be able to do because what cop or lawyer or jury is gonna believe “it wasn’t me it was Satan”? (And we know it was Satan responsible for whatever we’re about to watch in flashback, because the title tells us so.) 

But even if we could concoct a scenario in which he is exonerated and goes on to do some editing, huge chunks of the film consist of footage from cameras Satan’s minions secrete in the McCall house and other material that he doesn’t have access to and, in other cases, is probably not even aware of. The only other possible explanation is that the minions of Satan did some editing (using Lucifer’s supernatural powers to find the other footage), but why? They’re doing all their demonic babymaking in secret: they’d hardly assemble in one handy place all the evidence against them that reveals their diabolical plan. 

And then we have Mountain Xpress harping on the same point:

We are supposed to believe that it was cobbled together (by whom, I have no clue) from home video footage and security cameras. Banana oil. It's just a jumble of shaky, wobbly images that couldn't possibly be what they're claimed to be. Granted, the whole found-footage premise is played out and pointless, but you could at least pretend this footage (including footage that's stolen by the satanists part-way through the proceedings) could be real. 

Need I remind you the film never "claims" to be an actual documentary?

Even the New York Times got in on the act:

Though apparently pieced together from a variety of sources — including supermarket and police interview tapes — the film never reveals who did the piecing.


This film and so many others in the genre seem to have abandoned the idea that this footage must conceivably be found at some point. Switching perspective to cameras that no one is ever going to find is a cheat, pure and simple.)

A "cheat?" Really?

And CraveOnline:

That element of the found footage genre – y'know, that the footage was actually found – is now completely absent, as evidenced in a film like Matt Bettinelli-Olpin's and Tyler Gillet's Devil's Due. The shaky-cam, low-watt filmmaking is now less an indicator of the would-be snuff film aesthetic that was once a highlight of these movies, and has been reduced to mere affect, style, and an easily mocked formula. In Devil's Due, perspective switches rapidly from the camcorder-happy protagonist, occasional security camera footage, and even numerous shots from mysterious hidden cameras insides the protagonists home (hidden cameras placed by… who could it be??). In such a case, you, as a viewer, can only begin asking the most inappropriate questions about who found all this footage, and why they are assembling it for us. 

I mean....

Riddle me this, Batman. When is a plothole not a plothole? When it's completely invented by the reviewer.  Is it fair for a critic to build a box, then flunk the film for not fitting into it when the film itself explicitly avoids that box?  That's really dirty pool.

Look, I'm not saying everyone should have loved Devil's Due, but I'd have a lot more respect for a negative review that seems to hate it for fair reasons. The Wrap's review also had this gem of an unfair attack:

Suffice it to say casting one of the stars of “Friday Night Lights” in a main role and hiring hugely recognizable character actor Sam Anderson (“Lost,” “WKRP”) further undermines any sense that this is real, much less believable. 

We're 15 years from the time of The Blair Witch Project, which was probably the last time you could effectively dupe an audience into believing that a found-footage movie was an actual documentary.  Part-and-parcel of that showmanship tends to be that filmmakers cast unfamiliar faces to further the pretense this actually happened.

The problem with that is that a lot of found-footage films suffer for exactly the result you'd expect when you cast a lot of untested talent - weak performances.  A genre with the potential for the greatest level of intimacy is then hobbled by showcasing inadequate interpreters for the drama.  This (and the Paranormal Activity series) is a major studio release.  Is there any portion of the audience that would buy a ticket to this expecting it's any more real than Jack Ryan?  It's not like anyone flipped out because Captain Kirk wasn't Captain Kirk, but rather a CIA analyst.

I'd point out that it's not too uncommon for found footage actors to end up in studio films soon after.  Even if the whole film marketing is predicated on fooling the audience into thinking this is all "real," that shelf life is pretty short when a year later, the leads are staring on a CW series or popping up in rom-coms.  Two stars of 2012's Project X ended up in rather high profile projects within a year of that film's release.  Alexis Knapp turned up in Pitch Perfect and Miles Teller starred in The Spectacular Now.

But for that matter, found footage has long been making use of known actors.  Let's look back six years to Cloverfield.  Lizzy Caplan was four years removed from a very visible part in Mean Girls, to say nothing of numerous TV roles in that time.  Odette Yustman and T.J. Miller had also each done a TV series and Mike Vogel and Jessica Lucas had even more extensive TV resumes.   The aforementioned Chronicle also made use of familiar talent.

So the idea that found footage must star complete unknowns hasn't existed for a long time.  Why is this still considered a valid attack on any film in this genre?

Also, it takes a special kind of balls to call out a film for being derivative while using a review gimmick explicitly stolen from another reviewer.

I miss Roger Ebert. He always judged a film by weighing what it accomplished against what it set out to achieve.  It was this approach that lead to an infamous argument with Gene Siskel over the fact Ebert gave Benji The Hunted a "thumbs up" on the same show where he gave Full Metal Jacket a "thumbs down."

Modern film criticism is in sad shape, and to some extent, I trace a lot of this back to Red Letter Media's original 70-minute video deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.  I think there's one very astute and absolutely brilliant insight in there.  At one point, the reviewer challenges Star Wars fans to describe franchise characters without referencing their occupation or their clothing.  As you might expect, those questioned are able to give very in-depth answers when describing Han Solo or C-3PO.  When the topic turns to prequel characters, they start grasping at straws.  It's a brilliant indictment of how thin the prequel characters often are, done in a very clever way.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the lesson too many took from Red Letter Media (and I include RLM himself in this indictment) is that what made the review awesome was that it had enough material to fill 70 minutes.  Thus it beget an even longer autopsy of Attack of the Clones in which the "flaws" felt more like fanboy whining and failed to be dissected in a manner half as amusing as in the original video.

But the agenda seemed to have shifted from giving interesting lessons about drama to providing a comprehensive checklist of every perceived "sin" of the prequels, no matter how small. This is the theory behind those incredibly annoying "Everything Wrong With..." videos that frequently take potshots at major films.  There they list everything they think is a sin, no matter how pedantic.  Sometimes they identify valid plotting and character issues - but those fair points are often listed alongside minor continuity errors and gaffes.

Quality of criticism appears to be less valued than quantity of criticism.  After all, the more things you find "wrong" with a film, and the more words you can generate in tearing it down, the more objectively worse it must be, right?  Give me a succinct Roger Ebert deconstruction any day over a review that takes longer to read or watch than a full episode of Siskel & Ebert.

(I fully realize the irony of taking such a stand in what has to be one of my longer posts of late.  Hopefully you find the multiple quotes from the Devil's Due reviews relevant.  I felt it was important to illustrate just how frequently the critics employed what I considered to be an irrelevant attack.)

When I was growing up, Roger Ebert's reviews encouraged me to look below the surface and explore my own feelings about a film.  He knew how to give his opinions in a way that provoked discussion and introspection, not as a bludgeon to convince his audience that his opinion was an absolute truth.  More than that, he was fair when he deconstructed a film and itemized its shortcomings.  Was he always perfect? No.  When he really hated a film, you could sometimes sense his passion get away from him.  But he tried - and more often than not, he succeeded.

When I read the work of most current critics, I think of Roger Ebert and am reminded of a quote from Hamlet: "I shall not look upon his like again."

Friday, January 24, 2014

A peek inside the writers' room of The Vampire Diaries

If you're a fan of The Vampire Diaries or are just interested in TV writing in general, you should check out this fairly comprehensive article from Entertainment Weekly that deals with the seven biggest debates from the show's writers' room and the two smallest.  It's a fascinating peek behind-the-scenes of a show known for its often shocking plot twists.

I think I've brought this up before, but there were a couple seasons there where The Vampire Diaries was one of the best shows on TV.  I had expected little more than a Twilight ripoff when I started watching the show, (And truth be told, I only watched the pilot initially because I knew someone who worked on it) but the writers soon got a handle on the characters and by season two, they were layering twist upon twist in a way that was both exciting and organic.  For a while there, it was a standing rule in our household that neither my wife nor I could watch a new episode if the other one was not there.

But by the end of the third season, I was perceiving a problem with the series.  It was, in a word: Klaus.  As I discussed in a column for KsiteTV:

"Klaus was virtually unkillable and incredibly powerful.  That can make for a great short-term villain, but when you've got a bad guy who needs to sustain an entire season, it can be problematic.  It can make for great drama to see the good guys try to kill the bad guy and fail once or twice, but after that tedium sets in.  

"Plus, if your bad guy is seriously unstoppable and ruthless, not only should he win every encounter but in order to keep his cred alive, he shouldn't allow the good guys to walk away unscathed.  If our heroes survive too many encounters with this invulnerable force of evil, it doesn't make Klaus very effective either, does it?

"And as if making him immortal, strong and invulnerable wasn't enough, Klaus also had very powerful mind control powers.  If he can make any of the characters do anything he says, it again tips the scales so far in his favor that it's hard to buy our characters lasting too long against him.  The show did its best to find compelling reasons why Klaus couldn't just tear through these guys, but by the last stretch of the season" it felt like every episode contained a scene of Klaus threatening our heroes to do as he commanded, or flat-out using his mind control powers to make that happen.

At the time I felt like the story demanded that Klaus die at the climax of season three.  Everything seemed to be building to that outcome and I recall feeling like the show massively copped out when it dangled that possibility, only to have Klaus survive. Dramatically, he NEEDED to die for the show to maintain its credibility.

Well guess what?  According to co-creator and showrunner Julie Plec, that was the original plan:

“And Klaus, we were going to kill at the end of season 3 because he was the villain, and if your heroes can’t vanquish your villain then what the hell good are your heroes for? When we started pitching that, the studio and the network had a heart attack. They looked at us and they said look guys, from a strictly studio network point of view, it is so rare that you get a character and an actor like this that connects with the audience, that breaks out, that the actor is so talented and works so well on this show. If you kill him, you are making a major mistake. And we said, ‘But he’s our villain. Our entire season will have been for naught because our heroes will have just blown it.’ But we managed to make it work."

I think the network was wrong.  That's probably a bold statement to make in light of the fact that Klaus now anchors his own successful spinoff, The Originals.  (Which I admit, I didn't expect to like and have been very pleasantly surprised by.)  I think dragging out a character like Klaus ends up diminishing the impact they have.  The textbook example of this is probably Sylar on Heroes, who was a really compelling threat for the first season, but then became less interesting the longer the show had to contrive reasons to keep him around.

Powerful threats can be interesting when they challenge our heroes, but prolonged usage tends to undercut the threat they represent.  If a villain sticks around for too long, the stalemate not only makes their power less awe-inspiring (as it means the heroes CAN keep him at bay), but it runs the risk of making the heroes appear too ineffective to stop this continuing threat, often making their continued survival seem like the result of lucky breaks or outside interventions.

One reason I think Buffy's villains worked more often than not is that they typically only stuck around for a season and then were pretty definitively dealt with.  Sure, some might pop up in cameos or as apparitions, but by and large once the bad guys had served their purpose, their stories were brought to a definitive end.

I get where the CW was coming from in wanting to prolong Klaus, but most of the time I'd rather trust the creators to know when something had run its course.  I don't think anything done with Klaus the following year was powerful enough that it merited compromising the earlier story.  The Originals has shown that there's merit to the character when used in a new context.  In terms of The Vampire Diaries, I feel like the character's a bit of an albatross.  Better for both that they move in different directions.

The other interesting point in this article also deals with the need to follow through on consequences.

"Should we bring Jeremy back? After losing her brother in season 4, Elena went downhill fast. She turned off her humanity and nearly killed both of her best friends before turning all of her hate on Katherine. So why did the writers decide that bringing Jeremy back would be the right decision, even after Elena had grieved her loss? 

“Bringing Jeremy back was a massive debate. Massive,” Plec said. “We knew that his death needed to happen in order to make Elena turn to the dark side and to get us that story. When all is said and done, I can defend it with all honestly. Sometimes when you don’t look at your show critically but you look at your audience, and I as a fan have watched shows like Alias and like Buffy where really really terrible things keep happening to the heroes and it gets to the point where they get so depressed and everything’s so sad that it actually becomes kind of depressing to watch. So I thought about it from the point of view of an audience member saying you know what yes, to be a good writer, your deaths should feel permanent, but our audience that has been watching our show faithfully and sobbing along with us every time somebody dies, there is something beautiful about getting to revisit them every now and then and in Jeremy’s case, it was actually about bringing him back into Elena’s world so that she could find herself again.”

I have to admit, I felt Jeremy's "death" lacked some punch because there wasn't a single person I knew who thought it would be permanent.  His resurrection was expected, but stopped short of being a total cop-out.  I hadn't thought about it the way Plec articulates it here, and I guess she is onto something there.  There is something to be said for letting your heroes win now and then.  It helps that TVD had stuck to its guns on a number of character deaths prior to this, so one resurrection under extraordinary circumstances isn't too damaging.

That said, I think that if character deaths are undone too often, it compromises emotional investment in the work.  It's a real problem in comics, where it's rare that a death leaves any impact because there's little chance a major death WON'T be undone.  Drama thrives on consequences.  Puncture that too often and your story pays the price.

This is why while I might see Plec's side of the Jeremy resurrection, I think it was important that the show let its next major deaths stick, just to reestablish that sense of permanence.  Alas, TVD killed off Bonnie as Jeremy was resurrected, then brought Bonnie back to life fewer than a dozen episodes later.  That's a possible jump-the-shark moment, depending on how the rest of the season deals with the fallout.  What is clear to me is that the next several deaths HAVE to stick in order for the show to reestablish the threats to its characters.

But it is interesting to know that none of these decisions were made lightly in the writers' room.  They clearly debated each one at least as much as the fans eventually did.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Webshow: Flashbacks

So how true is the "rule" that writers should "never" use flashbacks.  In this week's video, we'll explore that question.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Scott Myers continues his postings about "screenwriting rules" today with a look at unfilmables.  In going through some archives, I found I covered this topic once before, in a comment on Scott's own site.

There are a couple of different kinds of unfilmables. One kind is what might be called the “tonal unfilmable.” Something inexplicable might happen to the character, and the description might read “What the fuck!?!” That’s something that generally works, and I’d think wouldn’t raise a red flag for most readers. In fact, so long as you don’t overdo it, it might even remain invisible or subliminal.

Note that key phrase, “so long as you don’t overdo it.” Slush pile hacks are frequently guilty of thinking that if this trick works great on one page, then two or three times in that same scene would be even better, right? And then why not do this for every scene?

There’s a saturation point for tricks like this. Was it THE EXORCIST that only used music in a select scene or two, which made its eventual usage standout and be more powerful? CASTAWAY definitely did this sort of thing, as there’s no musical score until Hanks gets off the island. In both cases, the absence of an element made its eventual usage more powerful. Any film composer will tell you the same thing – that scoring a movie is as much about knowing when not to add music as it is knowing when to use it.

Same thing with tonal unfilmables. Some of you might be rolling your eyes at the fact I even have to say this, believing it to be self-evident. I can assure you from my readings that it is not.

There’s another kind of unfilmable that absolutely MUST be avoided at all costs – the expositional unfilmable: “Frank drives his 1987 Buick Skylark, which he bought three years ago from his grandmother. It’s a good car, even if the upholstery smells like broccoli. He turns down Exposition Blvd, thinking to himself about his first solo drive down this very street, where he swerved to avoid hitting as squirrel, and instead drove his father’s car into a tree. “That tree is gone, by the way, with no evidence it was ever there.”

Slush Pile Hack LOVES to tell his readers what his characters are thinking, remembering, smelling and usually the entire story of their lives. He’s also big on describing the history of locations and settings, doing it in a way that draws attention to itself and isn’t useful at all. (How is your audience supposed to know that the blue dress Jenny is wearing is actually something she borrowed from a friend and never returned? Why is that in the description?)

I’d venture that at least 80% of the unfilmables I see come from the latter category – from writers who really should be writing novels. And THAT’s really where the “no unfilmables” rule is coming from. I don’t think anyone’s gonna rap you across the hands for most of the examples Scott gives in this post – but if you’re putting exposition – vital, plot-changing exposition – into your action lines, you’ll give yourself away as not knowing what you’re doing.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The final word on "we see."

Scott has been running a great series on Go Into The Story where he attempts to put the lie to the notion of "Screenwriting Rules."  I definitely encourage you guys to check it out. He's going continue the series over the next two weeks and I'll be coordinating some of my content here with the topics he's discussing.

Per Scott's schedule, today we're taking on the advice to "never use 'we see.'"  As you may have seen on twitter, this debate never fails to get pros in a frothing frenzy.  I have seen pros more vehemently attack someone who gives this advice than they have attacked actual scammers charging money for their services.  This isn't all on the pros - newbies really get their panties in a twist over the "we see" rule.

I've said my piece on this before, but Scott's goal is to have an archive where we can point people to for the definitive answers for these silly debates.  Basically, we're all tired of these fights and want a handy URL to point writers to so that they can read it and go back to worrying about important things.

I want to start from the understanding that anytime someone argues against a rule, they claim they are told "never" to do something.  That's not a helpful way to begin the debate because it becomes a strawman that's easily knocked down when one exception is found.  And boy do you aspiring writers love finding exceptions. 

Another thing some writers love to do: blame the reader. Do you know why that is? Because it's a lot easier to assume the person finding fault with your work is an idiot than it is to admit that you might, just might, not be as good a writer as you think you are.  And frankly, the people who rail the loudest about readers are generally the people who don't know shit about what they're talking about. 

But really, my overriding point here is that blaming the reader is an easy out.  You can't change the reader, but you CAN change your work.

Here's what readers care about: Is this a good concept? Is this a good script? Did it keep my interest throughout the read? Can I show this to my boss and not be embarrassed by it?

There's no such thing as a truly compelling script that gets a pass because the writer used "we see."  Or because the first act turning point came a little late.  However if your writing is shit and your pacing is garbage, yes you WILL get dinged for a late turning point, or for an over-reliance on "we see" that makes the act of reading a genuine chore.

Here's something that isn't useful to settling the debate - dragging out Black List scripts and counting the instances of "we see" in them.  If you do that and your take away is, "The concerns about 'we see' are full of shit and I should never listen to anyone again about it," you deserve to fail.  You might as well be saying, "Well these Black List scripts used italics and didn't get in trouble so I should make ALL of my description italicized!  And if someone tells me otherwise, they don't know what they're talking about!"

Instead you should ask, "Why is 'we see' such a debated issue?"

Contrary to popular belief, script readers do not go through a script with a scoresheet, marking rule violations and adding them up to some kind of score.  So asking "Why do the pros get away with X while I can't do that?" is overcomplicating a basic fact.  If the pros "got away" with something that you regularly get hit for, it probably means that they did it wellYou probably didn't.

If I'm reading a Craig Mazin script, stumbling onto a "we see" on p. 12 isn't going to convince me he's a shitty writer.  And the same goes for if I'm reading your script.

But if you are starting every paragraph with "we see," you're not a good writer. (And yes, I have seen writers do this.)

If you use "we see" excessively to the point that it clutters up your description and ruins any flow in the reading, you're not a good writer.

My stance on "we see" is generally "Don't overdo it. It's okay if you use it in moderation, preferably sparingly."

My feeling is that 90% of the time it's redundant. Your action descriptions are supposed to be all visual, so if you're writing it, the assumption is we're seeing it. After all, you don't write "We hear" before every line of dialogue, do we?

One notable exception is that "we see" is valuable when we're trying to limit what the audience sees and then replicate that limitation for the viewer. When this debate came up elsewhere, someone noted that in an Indiana Jones script, there's a "we see" that introduces a character wearing a fedora and leather jacket, though he's only shown from behind. Obviously, the "we see" is used to offer that description and give the impression that the character is Indiana Jones when that is not in fact the case.

So it's definitely useful when limiting the information the reader gets. I wouldn't dispute that at all.

However, as with capitalizing and underlining, this "rule" exists because there are always a healthy sampling of newbies who overindulge. Like I said, I once read a script that started nearly every paragraph with "we see" and after a while it just got to be annoying. It was a pretty clear PASS. However, I hasten to add that the Pass wasn't because of the "we sees," just that the "we sees" were merely symptoms of this writer's lack of skill.

If all the dialogue in a script sucks, the answer is not "Never write dialogue," it's, "learn to write better dialogue." And if all the uses of "we see" in a script reach such an epidemic proportion that it becomes cluttered and annoying to follow, the answer is "learn to use the tool properly."

If you write a script with non-linear chronology and the feedback you get is, "This makes no sense, you shouldn't write it this way," then it's not a reasonable response to say, "Tarantino did it in Pulp Fiction so I can ignore you! You don't know what you're talking about!"  No, the answer is, Tarantino did it well and you clearly didn't.  So rather than arguing about being judged unfairly, maybe your energy is better spent figuring out why Tarantino's execution was better than yours.

Most of all, let's knock it off with the strawman rules.  If you're arguing that it's wrong to "never" use something, you're completely missing the debate about why this particular thing might be an issue in some circumstances.

Friday, January 17, 2014

DEVIL'S DUE review

Let's get this out of the way for anyone not in the know who didn't read my interview this week with Radio Silence's Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: I have known the guys from Radio Silence for a long time now.  They're good friends of mine. We hang out rather frequently. I've helped them on a few of their shoots and we have spent many hours debating movies over the years.  So I wouldn't blame you if you want to keep those details in mind as you read my praise of their film, DEVIL'S DUE, opening today.

Then again, if I hated the film, I wouldn't lie about it. I simply would have side-stepped writing a review in the first place.

In an era where the success of found-footage horror like Paranormal Activity has lead to an explosion of found-footage projects, it would be easy to be weary of what many see as a gimmick.  In the wrong hands, that cinematic approach could be a cheat, a short-cut done to hide the lack of budget, resources and artistry on the part of the filmmakers.  Worse, it's leading to a number of projects being turned into found-footage movies just because producers are looking for quick and cheap ways to shoot a film.  A writer friend of mine tells of passing on a prospective rep when the manager kept pushing him to turn his scripts into found-footage stories, paying little mind to the fact that would not have been good for the story.

Fortunately, Radio Silence (directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, executive producer Chad Villella and executive producer/cinematographer/visual effects supervisor Justin Martinez) are smarter than most who take a stab at the genre.  In doing so, they not only refresh the genre, but also what could have been an uninspired retake at the concept of Rosemary's Baby.  (Lindsay Devlin wrote the script.)

Character development can be a hard thing to achieve in found footage (To date, Chronicle probabaly is the genre's best achievement on that front), and horror films in general often have trouble hitting those heights.  What was the last horror film where you really cared about the victims?  Right from the start, Devil's Due sets out to do what every script should - get the audience invested in its leads.

This would be a far lesser movie without the adorable chemistry of Zach Gilford and Allison Miller.  They play a young newlywed couple named Zach and Sam who end up in the wrong club during the final night of their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic.  Thanks to Zach's determination to capture much of their lives on film, the camera is left running through some of this and we catch glimpses of a satanic ritual the two are participants in while drugged and unconscious. Upon their return home, the two discover that Sam is pregnant.  While at first it's a happy moment, Sam's behavior becomes increasingly odd and disturbing.

The first fifteen minutes of the film lets us experience the two young lovers' wedding and honeymoon.  It's enough time to make them really feel like a couple.  They're cute in a way that doesn't feel forced and there's an intimacy to their reactions.  These two feel comfortable and goofy with each other and the genius of this is that it gives the horror something to threaten later on. You might find yourself rooting harder for a happy ending for Zach and Sam here than you have in a number of romantic comedies.

I can't help but contrast that with Paranormal Activity, where not only was it hard to buy the two leads as a couple, but the male lead was incredibly unsympathetic in how he ignored his girlfriend's terror and continued antagonizing the demon.  It didn't take long until you were just waiting to see this idiot push things too far and get maimed for it.

Zach is the complete opposite of that character.  Gilford brings a great everyman energy to the role and his empathic eyes sell both his deep love for Sam, but the total impotence he feels in the face of her strange behavior.  Without spoiling too much, Sam becomes more and more withdrawn even as she's prone to strange outbursts.  A nice touch is that it's hinted not all of her moodiness is the result of possession.  Sam hadn't planned on being pregnant for a while and one tense scene shows her frustrated with how this has upended all her life plans.  It's a credible way to increase the tension between her and Zach.

Miller does a great job playing the two sides to Sam.  Regular Sam is so goofy and adorable that you might develop a crush on her immediately.  As the transformation progresses and Sam becomes someone more unfamiliar to us, we're right there with Zach in wanting the old Sam back.

Radio Silence delivers on a number of scares, even while playing with familiar staples like nightvision and hidden cameras.  In most cases, our foreknowledge of how those tools are applied only increases the dread.  (When the nightvision comes out, you know it's for a reason. The only question is how long the suspense will be drawn out before the film plays its cards.)  There are a couple sequences here that are definitely in the mold of their V/H/S segment, but for my money, the most unsettling and uncomfortable sequence is one that has no supernatural aspects at all, and actually calls to mind a sequence in The Exorcist.

The film manages to avoid most of the found-footage pitfalls.  Since Zach never started filming with the intent to capture a ghost or haunting on film, we avoid the moments in all the Paranormal films where the characters apparently - and conveniently - miss playing back the footage with the most unsettling haunting footage (PA4 was especially sloppy in this regard.)  Still there is a point where Zach begins editing the footage and stumbles on to some shots he never expected to find.  This is one area where a little more follow-up might have been warranted.  Fortunately the film amps up the pace soon after this.

Aside from a welcome appearance from Sam Anderson, known to genre TV fans from Lost and Angel (and to TGIF fans from Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains), Gilford and Miller are left to carry most of the film on their own.  They rise to the challenge so well that there's little doubt they both have long careers ahead of them.  It's remarkable how much better a found footage film can be when the creators aren't afraid to cast familiar faces just because viewers won't believe it's "real."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Webshow: "Do I need to move to LA?"

Another question a lot of you guys are fond of asking is "Do I need to move to LA?"  Take it away, puppet...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A chat with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, co-director of Radio Silence's DEVIL'S DUE - Part 2

We continue our chat with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin of Radio Silence and co-director of DEVIL'S DUE.

Part 1 

I saw an early cut of this film and one of the things that struck me was how much time you spend building up the characters so that we care about them when things go horribly wrong. It's rare to get a horror film where the characters feel like real people, and surely some of that is because you don't often have the luxury of doing a purely character scene. Was it challenging to preserve that character depth as you went through the post-production process? 

We had to fight a little to keep in a couple scenes that were more character based, but for us that's what we love about all great movies. And it's one of the things that at the end of the day we could have easily cut down but Fox acknowledged that it's falling in love with Sam and Zach that makes the rest of the movie work, it's out linchpin. It's part of makes ROSEMARY'S BABY so incredibly special -- the amount of time you get to really understand Rosemary and who she truly is.

JOYRIDE, one of our collective favorites, does the same thing -- you get to fall in love with the Fuller brothers and laugh with them for a large part of the first act so that when Rusty Nail begins fucking with them, you hope them survive on a guttural level, not just a surface "I hope the hero lives" type thing, but a deeper feeling of "I truly like these people, they feel like my friends, I want to spend more time with them. And I hope some psycho doesn't kill them!"

It's pretty obvious of course, every great movie is about the characters, but unfortunately FF doesn't always lend itself to that type of storytelling but we really wanted to hold onto that from day one. Hopefully it comes through.

DEVIL'S DUE also marks the first time you four work on a script that you didn't generate yourselves. What was that process like?

It was a fun challenge but everyone involved was up for it and we really spent a lot of time molding the script into something that we felt was unique and ours, something we could go out and have fun with and tell a story that might have familiar themes but that ultimately we could make our own. It felt like a very malleable story that was constantly shifting as we tried to discover out the version we loved. We also had the extra job on constant camera justification. And after DEVIL'S DUE, V/H/S and the shorts, we've had way too many conversations and way too many headaches about why the camera is filming, but it's only because of those conversations and headaches that we're ultimately able to tell the story we want to tell in an authentic and intimate way.

Also, on set Zach Gilford and Allison Miller's (Zach and Sam) contributions were invaluable. We spoke at length during the entire process about camera motivation. Zach (who actually films a lot of the scenes his character is filming in the movie) was instrumental in helping us never lose sight of the camera as an extension of his character. We really functioned as a team throughout and that dialogue was always happening.

Let's talk about casting. Most of the time, found-footage films go for total unknowns or nearly-unknowns. While Zach Gilford and Allison Miller aren't quite household names, they've become fairly familiar faces on TV. The same could be said of Sam Anderson, who's recurred on everything from Growing Pains, to Angel to Lost. We don't usually see actors like that in found-footage because of the attempt to preserve the "this all actually happened" artifice. Was there any discussion of this? Why go in this direction? 

That was a very intentional choice during casting. Initially, we had talked about casting unknowns but with Zach (we're all huge fans of FNL) we decided he was the best for the role and shouldn't NOT get it because people might recognize him. We never wanted to pretend this is real. As soon as we settled on that we solidified the idea by casting Sam Anderson, who we loved on Lost.

Our thinking, and CHRONICLE did this wonderfully, was that we should focus on making an entertaining movie, not just a FF movie. That doesn't me we abandoned the rules of FF (we didn't) but it allowed us to be more creative with the story and the casting and everything in between.

For us, the movie should feel emotionally real, that's the ultimate goal -- audiences are way too smart to have the "this is real" FF wool pulled over their eyes anymore.

What were the most important things you guys learned from screening early cuts to an audience, both for this film specifically and for the process of shaping a film in general? 

Besides previews being nerve-wrecking part of the experience, they're actually pretty enlightening. Don't get me wrong, it's an awful experience but even if they go great, it's generally acknowledged that they don't ultimately mean much. Great movies get horrible numbers and vice versa.

But regardless of all that, I actually think they're incredibly helpful. An audience filled with strangers doesn't lie. They love it or hate it and either way we don't get to explain our choices or make excuses. They talk, we listen. But we got lucky, I think, because Fox let us take what was useful from the feedback and make those changes but none of it was do or die. Most of it was left up to us.

When you're sitting with an audience of strangers, there's a deep feeling in your gut when things aren't working and it sucks but it's much better during a preview than on opening night, right? And regardless of the feedback being negative or positive, those gut something-is-wrong-here moments are things you want to change. And ultimately, I think our movie is better for having gone through that process -- you get so close to the material that at a certain point it's impossible to see the big picture.

DEVIL'S DUE hits theaters this Friday!

Monday, January 13, 2014

A chat with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, co-director of Radio Silence's DEVIL'S DUE - Part 1

 About three years ago, I ran an interview with some good friends of mine who had made a name for themselves with web short released as the comedy troupe Chad, Matt and Rob.  You can find all three part of that interview here, here and here.

Since then the team has reorganized as the film-making collective Radio Silence, with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, and Justin Martinez.  Two years ago, they were among several filmmakers involved with the original V/H/S.  Many reviewers pointed to their segment, 10/31/98, as being the strongest of the bunch and most deserving of its placement as the film's closing segment.

Their first feature, DEVIL'S DUE, comes out this Friday.  It's already found a big fan in Eli Roth, who moderated a media event last month promoting the film.  The guys had some interesting things to say about the film and found footage in general, so if you're at all interested, you should check out the links below.

 In advance of the film's release, I arranged a two part interview with Bettinelli-Olpin, who along with Gillett, is credited as co-director. (Villella and Martinez are credited as executive producers, while Martinez is also credited as cinematographer and visual effects supervisor.)  In it we talk about found-footage in general, creative freedom and how one of the influences on the film was... The Notebook?

It's interesting that while you guys have done a fair number of "typical" narrative shorts for the web, the work that's made the most impact among a wider audience is all found footage. CHAD HATES ALIENS was your first viral short. MOUNTAIN DEVIL PRANK FAILS HORRIBLY was what got you V/H/S and your first foray into VFX, and then of course there's 10/31/98 from V/H/S

What are your thoughts on found footage in general and do you have any theories on why your work in it is so well-received? Is there something you're bringing to it that few others are? 

 There are obviously huge disadvantages when talking about FF, the most common ones are always "why are you filming" and too much "shaky cam." but there are also some advantages that we love -- mainly the intimacy you can create which in turn can heighten the humor and the horror. We love how intimate it can be, it's a real unique chance to bring the audience into the scene with the characters.

Since way back with CHAD HATES ALIENS, we've always focused on justifying the camera and making sure that it serves as an extension of the character and authentically have a place in the world of the story. But where the online pranks and V/H/S could literally be considered "found" footage, DEVIL'S DUE doesn't pretend to be footage that anyone has found or compiled, it's simply a story told through cameras that exists in that world. In that sense, it's a bit of an experiment that we were able to have fun with and as the character's lives spiral out of control we were able to mirror that journey visually by shifting to different (and hopefully creepier) POVs.

But all that said, our number on FF rule is always to be sure that the cameras in our story always function as an extension of character.

You guys have mentioned that Fox gave you guys a lot of creative freedom. Given that it's pretty normal for first-time feature directors to feel like their work is compromised, was that a surprise? Can you point to an instance where might not have expected the studio to go with an idea and they were won over? 

We wanted to create a sense of realism throughout so to allow for lots of improv within our scenes we had to meticulously structure the rest of the movie. And then try to hide that structure as much as possible. We're hoping to create an intentional feeling of free-flowing authenticity so from day one Fox agreed to let us go off the script a lot, as long as we got the scripted version first. But from there they were more of a creative partner than anything. We were given great and helpful ideas but never told "do this" or "do that" -- it was almost always left up to us to decide what should make the cut.

We found that a good conversation can go a long way, just talking through ideas as fully as possible whenever possible. And the people at Fox, Emma Watts and Steve Asbell especially, felt like true partners, not our bosses (even though they were, of course). At the end of the day, whatever felt like the best idea to serve the story would win out. And of course a few times that just meant trying all the different versions to see what truly fit the movie.

What do you think found footage skeptics will be most surprised by in this film? 

I wish I had a better answer but I feel like skeptics are always going to be skeptics and that's fine. We're not making a movie to change hearts and minds, we're just hoping to entertain people who want to be entertained and hopefully a little moved by Sam and Zach's plight.

We focused on their love story from day one. The first thing we said when we read the script was "let's hone in on their love story and then watch what happens when you throw a huge obstacle between them..." Not joking at all, we talked about THE NOTEBOOK quite a bit in terms of the horror of watching the person you love degenerate and being left helpless beyond continuing to love them unconditionally.

Read on in Part II!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The results from my Black List logline competition

Last week I pledged to read at least the first fifteen pages of four scripts, selected from several dozen submissions.  This was the latest run at an offer I've made twice before.  Last time, I read scripts and ended up praising three of them.  Though two of those three turned out to be from writers with representation, a third, CHAMBERS, attracted the attention of screenwriter F. Scott Frazier and manager Brian McCurley of DMG Entertainment, who have been representing the script since soon after I posted my review.

The writer, Stan Himes, wrote me to say, "I want to note that I didn't sign any official representation contract. They're simply representing the script and trying to make a sale. And as a guy in snowy Iowa, it's great to have someone in LA championing my work, so I appreciate their efforts, your kind review and the mere existence of the Black List site."

So did any of the four selections this time make the grade?

The promise was to read at least fifteen pages.  Two of the scripts got me just about to the halfway mark.  The other two got me the distance.  In fact, I ended up reading one of them twice.  After the first read, I liked it, but I wasn't quite feeling the passion for it I was hoping to find.  I liked the premise and a lot of the early stuff, but this read was also coming near the end of a long day, so I allowed for the possibility that something was affecting the read.  The only fair thing to do was give it a fresh read under better circumstances.

But while I felt it was good, I couldn't shake the feeling that it could be better.  I ended up contacting the writer and explaining this all to him and in the course of our email conversation, he mentioned a couple ideas for a subsequent draft that immediately clicked for me. "Go write THAT!" I wanted to tell him.  By the end of our discussion, I definitely felt it would be better for the script if it didn't get a big push until it was in a stronger state.  And I have such faith in the writer that I've invited him to send me a subsequent draft when he feels it's ready.

I think you only get one chance to make a big impression with your script.  That's especially true when you're pushing it out via the internet, where that paper trail lives forever.  I don't want to write a review that makes you think the script is pretty good. I want a review that convinces you the script will be great.

None of the scripts were quite there - some might have been close, about at the level of "Consider With Reservations."  In fact, in general the scripts were pretty good.  None of them had any of the really common amateur errors.  True, I bailed on two of the scripts halfway through, but that had more to do with me knowing they weren't likely to end up as strong as I needed them to be for a full-throated endorsement.  I could have bailed after 15 pages, but I saw enough initial promise that I figured it would be worth it to see things through.

I absolutely feel that all of these writers whose work I read this past week could be really great if they keep at it.  I recognized one writing team - Jeffrey and Susan Bridges - as a team who submitted to my first open offer just over a year ago. I saw a lot of improvement in their work just in that time. The writing flowed better, everything about it seemed more natural, and I daresay there was a confidence that wasn't there before.

To all of you - not just the writers of the four scripts, but everyone who submitted to my offer - keep writing.  Keep improving.  One bad reaction will never be the end of the world.  In fact, it could even motivate you to push yourself further.

Inevitably, I know some of you are going to ask if I plan on reading any of the runner-up scripts. I make no promises, but there are a couple loglines I'm curious about.  If time permits, I might look over a couple in the next few weeks.  I wouldn't suggest keeping your script uploaded only on the off-chance I read it, though.  If some of you were planning on terminating your hosting, don't renew just on my account.

So this didn't end quite the way I hoped, but I don't regret any of my selections.  Good luck to all of you.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Webshow: "Lies about guru beat sheets"

There's a frequent perception that script readers base all their evaluations on the tenets discussed in Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat."  So is there any truth to this?  Hear what the Bitter puppet has to say.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU is one of The Black List's Top 50 Most Downloaded for 2013! Also, a look at the site's data.

I got some very exciting news this weekend.  Despite behind hosted on the Black List site for a mere three weeks of last year, my script TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU was one of the site's Top 50 Most Downloaded Scripts for 2013!

As I did not purchase a review from the Black List, none of the traffic to my script came from official Black List emails.  This accomplishment is entirely due to my publicizing the script here and on social media, as well as the many strong rankings from Black List members.

Because of several high ratings of 8s and 9s, the script is currently in the 1 or 2 positions on several of the site's feature lists, including Top Unrepresented, Top Uploaded, Top Horror, Top Mystery & Suspense.

If you're new here and need to know more about TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU, check out this post.

Or you can watch this short video pitch.

For Black List industry members, the script is available here.

I'm already taking meetings about TOBY and as this week is really the first week back from vacation, I'm optimistic that I will be hearing from more people this week.  My assumption is that a number of people downloaded it to enjoy over their holiday breaks and that the coming weeks will see them reaching out if they liked it.

As some people have asked, I intend on doing a more complete data dump about my Black List experience as I approach the end of my time hosting the script there. 

The complete Top 50 Downloaded List is available here.

There are a couple of interesting finds here. Five writers each have two scripts on the Top 50 Downloaded List:

Dennis Luu - ON THE RUN and MOTHER

Conor Healy has three scripts on the list - CLEAN, BLACK AJAX and EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN.

As I'm a Black List member I went through and looked up each one of these scripts and gathered some data with regard to their ratings and paid reviews.  In cases like this, it's Black List policy to not share private data on individual scripts, but I am allowed to share non-identifying data.

I also want to caution that the data here only measures the Top 50 scripts against each other.  I don't have the information to stack these findings against the rest of the site as whole.  So what we're dealing with here may be a lot of correlation of data among the scripts in the Top 50 rather than determining the causation of how they ended up in the Top 50.

Having said that, these people succeeded in at least drawing traffic to their script so that at least suggests they figured out the salesmanship aspect of the goal.

40 of the Top 50 Scripts had a paid review of 8 or higher.  Some individuals had hidden their paid reviews, but by going by through my Black List emails featuring all scripts rated 8 or higher, I was able to at least identify scripts that met that threshold.  This means that only 10 scripts, or 20% of the list were able to draw traffic to their page by other means.  So it's not necessary to pay for a review on the site in order to get downloads, but it certainly improves your odds.

20 of the scripts (40%) had only a single paid review visible.
14 of the scripts (28%) had only two visible reviews.
3 scripts had three visible reviews
1 script each had four and five visible reviews, respectively.
1 script had seven paid reviews visible.

Does the number of paid reviews peak at 1 because 1 review is effective? Or is it because most people don't want to pay an additional $50 for a second review?  Or could those writers have paid for two reviews and only gotten one review to their liking?  There's no way to know for certain.  But you can say that 60% of the top downloaded scripts may have spent only $50 or less on reviews in order to attract their audience.  Pay to host it for two months and get one review and you've only spent $100, which is only slightly more than your typical contest entry fee.

What this also suggests is that a few writers employed the strategy of paying for reviews as a way of ensuring multiple appearances in the weekly emails.  Each paid review of 8 or above merits a mention in the weekly releases.  So if you purchase a review every other week and all of those reviews come back 8 or above, for the price of four reviews, the script will be pushed out to the membership every other week for two months.  Note that this strategy only really works if your script is good enough to get strong reviews.

16 scripts (32%) had fewer than 10 total ratings. (This includes both ratings from paid reviews and ratings from Black List members.)  One script had 2 ratings, one script had 3 ratings, three scripts had 4 ratings, one script had 5 ratings, three had 6, four had 7, two had 8 and one had 9 ratings.

Only ten scripts (20%) had 20 or more ratings.  Six scripts did not make this information available.

The other thing I wanted to take a look at is to see what percentage of the Black List member ratings were 8 or higher.  This is where it gets tricky because writers have the option to hide this information.  In fact 29 of the 50 scripts chose that option.  Of the remaining 21 scripts, only 11 had more than 50% of their ratings come in 8 or above.

I know, the numbers in that last paragraph can make your head swim.  What I want to get at is this.  Though you have to understand we are dealing with a VERY small sample size, it's not necessarily the end of the world if half of your ratings are below 8.  It's still possible to attract attention even with lower scores.  10 out of 21 scripts still got downloaded frequently even though more than half of the scores were less than 8.

Two things can probably make the difference here - having an irresistible logline, and having a strong review from the Black List reviewers.

I had also pulled the data with regard to how many of these writers were represented.  Here's where it gets tricky.  Since all of this information is self-reported and not mandatory, a writer doesn't have to identify themselves as repped.  Indeed, there were a couple writers who didn't have rep info listed even though I knew they had an agent or manager.

Additionally, I recognized a number of the repped writers as people who found representation only after uploading their work to the site.  But there's no way to know for certain who among these writers might have had an agent or manager before coming here.  So if I were to conclude "X number of writers on the Top 50 found their rep through the Black List," that would be impossible to confirm.

However, I suspect someone will go hunting for that data and might not put it in the same context that I am.  Between the information on the Black List site as well as public announcements about representation, I can state that 19 of 50 scripts had a rep attached.  Thus, (and I'm stating this again just so there's it's clear) going by the information available on the site and what has been publicly announced, we might conclude that 38% of the Top 50 have representation, but I urge against taking that as hard data. The actual number could be even higher, and we should not assume that 38% only encompasses writers who found their reps through the site.

And to think I swore off math once I got to college...

Monday, January 6, 2014

My Top Ten Films of 2013

Like just about every blogger out there, I felt the need to write up a Top Ten List of last year's films.  I haven't seen all of the major Oscar contenders, but as of now I feel like I've seen enough of them that my Top 10 is pretty stable.  Among those I haven't seen yet: Mud, Frozen, Nebraska, All is Lost and, most regrettably, Short Term 12.

The links will take you to my original reviews of each film.

1. 12 Years a Slave - Honestly, my top three films are pretty much a dead heat, but I feel inclined to give 12 Years a Slave the edge because it takes subject matter that could have felt like pandering Oscar bait and finds a way to make it a horrific personal film about one man trapped in a living nightmare.  It knows when to be subtle and when to beat us over the head with the brutality of slavery.  Of all the films I saw this year, this might have been the one that left me with the most to think about afterwards.  There's little doubt in my mind that Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the Oscar for his performance here and Steve McQueen is equally deserving of a Best Director nomination.

2. Gravity - I don't know how you begin to write a film like Gravity, much less direct it.  Alfonso Cuaron's film is a marvel of directing, visual effects and acting.  Some say there's no character arc in this, which to me is just indicative that they're not looking closely enough.  Many films this year offered spectacle, but for my money, no film delivered on that promise better than Gravity.

3. Her - Her could flippantly be described as a story about man who falls in love with his Siri.  That's not totally accurate.  The computer "operating system" Samantha is a few evolutionary steps above Siri, but not to a ridiculous degree.  Our lead character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely introvert who's still not made piece with his separation and impending divorce from his wife. Every part of Theodore's world has a veneer of phoniness to it, so it's not terribly surprising that he'd bond with his newly purchased O.S. "Samantha." In exploring the relationship, the film first seems to deconstruct the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope and in going beyond that, writer/director Spike Jonze begins to explore more universal truths about relationships.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street - A portrait of excess that's unfortunately been misunderstood by many. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese do some of their best work ever in this three-hour film about one of the greediest, slimiest stockbrokers to ever make a penny off his clients' greed and have them come back begging for more.  In its own way, it forces us to confront that part of ourselves that wants the life Jordan Belfort represents.

5. Captain Phillips - aka "the film that reminds us why Tom Hanks is so revered." The final scene of the film is incredible, as Hanks vividly shows us that the trauma of the hostage situation didn't end immediately with Phillips's liberation.  Equally impressive is how Barkhad Abdi holds his own with Hanks every moment they are on screen together - a feat that's even more remarkable once you realize this is Abdi's first feature film.

6. The Spectacular Now - There are a lot of virtues to be found in The Spectacular Now, but perhaps one of the most satisfying elements is the honest writing of the characters.  This is one of those movies where the viewer can't help but marvel at how authentic everything feels, even when it would be so easy for the script to veer into more common explorations of first love and high school cliques.  Director James Ponsoldt does a wonderful job of conveying the subtlety and nuance in Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script. This is the sort of film that is so natural that the writing appears deceptively easy, even though the truth is precisely the opposite. If you overlooked this one last summer, check it out on DVD when it's released later this month.

7. American Hustle - I didn't get to do a full review of this one back when I first saw it and now I wish I had because the capsule review here won't do justice to all my thoughts on it.  My big takeaway from this film was how rich and fleshed-out the characters were.  You want to know how to get a movie made? Get strong talent attached. And how do you do that? Write characters with as much range and complexity as the principle cast here.  Everyone scores here.  I've seen complaints that the structure was too loose, that the plot was too slight.  I don't agree with that and even if I did, guys like Christian Bale's Irving and Bradley Cooper's Richie were so fascinating, I'd have watched a whole movie of those guys just interacting.

8. Man of Steel - I rewatched this one a second time just a few weeks ago and found that my strong first impressions of the film weren't just "midnight screening" excitement. If anything, I enjoyed the film even more a second time.  David Goyer's script isn't quite as strong as some of his Dark Knight entries, but he still does a teriffic job of making an old story feel new. Some condemned this because this didn't feel like the Superman they knew.

As someone who's lived with multiple interpretations of the mythos including two or three comic book reboots, the Donner films, Lois & Clark, Smallville and more, I've gotten used to accepting sometimes wildly distinct takes on the continuity.  Judging this film on its own terms rather than what came before is not only fairer to the film, but a better way to enjoy it.  Henry Cavill is perfect casting as Superman and for my money one of the most exhilarating visual sequences of the year is Clark exiting the spaceship in full costume and gradually learning to take flight.  If the joy on Superman's face when he finally soars doesn't make you smile, you probably have no soul.

9. The Conjuring - The was the one unqualified success in horror this year.  Several reviewers have focused on the "clapping game" scare, but for my money the opening sequence was one of the first genuinely unsettling things I've seen in a horror film in a while.  More amazingly, it involves zero violence.  There's an amazing sense of dread achieved just with a dark hallway, a shaft of light bisecting the darkness, a prone doll and creepy writing on the wall.  As the director of Saw, James Wan bears some responsibility for the decade of torture porn scripts that I suffered through in its wake. Thus, I feel his role in reviving a more restrained approach to horror might be the biggest redemption story of the year.

10. Dallas Buyers Club - I've never really understood the hate for Matthew McConaughey. Like Ben Affleck, the guy's gotten a lot of hate and derision that seems undeserved.  There might have been a period where he was trapped in rom-com hell, but I've always liked the guy, maybe just out of affection for his work in A Time to Kill.  That's why it's so great to see him remind everyone just how good he can be in this 1980s-set story about a man with HIV who's given 30 days to live and prolongs his life through illegal medications which he also provides to other patients in his situation.  This is one I definitely feel I'll need to revisit outside of the awards glut, just to fully absorb it.  Jared Leto does great work as a transgender HIV-positive patient.  It's not really a feel-good movie and is probably my most-debated entry here, but man, is this a great second act for McConaughey.

Overall, 2013 was a great year for film.  This was the first year in a long time where I was often seeing more than one movie a week and still felt like I was falling behind in the awards season crush.  I could probably craft a full top ten list out of my runner-ups and still be leaving some great movies off.  Among the other films I really enjoyed that almost made the cut were Saving Mr. Banks, Don Jon, Rush, Side Effects, Lone Survivor and This is the End.  Also, V/H/S 2 was about 75% awesome, particularly the cult segment "Safe Haven" written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans.

Even the summer tentpoles were generally pretty good, with Iron Man 3 being the best movie of the trilogy (though nothing beats the first hour of the original film), Star Trek Into Darkness managing some great work with Kirk's character, even if the film wasn't quite as good as Abrams's previous effort, and World War Z proving that you CAN save a film late in production and that Damon Lindelof is capable of being your script's trauma surgeon.  There might have been some duds this year, but it definitely felt like the quantity of good material was a lot higher than in recent years.

No matter what your tastes were, there should have been something that came out this year that restored your faith in the movies.  If you came out of 2013 cynical about the state of film, I'm quite confidant in saying that nothing would satisfy you.

Friday, January 3, 2014


"The villain is the hero of his own story," is a fairly common adage that writers and critics toss around when it discussing the creation of three-dimensional villains.  The worst sort of villains are the randomly-evil, blatantly psychopathic characters with no redeeming qualities.  These kinds of black-hat-wearing antagonists often struggle to be interesting because there's no complexity to their personality.  As much as they may populate the movies, they're far less common in real life.

In real life, there are plenty of people who commit outrageously illegal and even evil acts for what they believe are good reasons.  More often than not, those reasons derive largely from self-interest.  "The bad guy never thinks he's the bad guy" is another cliche that underlines this.

Jordan Belfort, the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, is such a bad guy.

Owing to the fact that the film is derived from Belfort's memoir of the same name, the movie is told from his point of view.  We follow his ascent as a New York stockbroker, right there with him as he nets millions of dollars in deals that are designed to take advantage of investors who are both too ignorant and too greedy to use common sense to see through the snake oil deals Belfort and his sales team trick them into taking.

It's made abundantly clear to us early on that most of Belfort's early marks are working class people for whom this investment money may be a significant part of their savings.  In one early scene, we watch mesmerized as Belfort cold-calls a gentleman and through a combination of silver-tongued salesmanship mixed with misrepresentation, goads him into buying penny stocks in a mostly-worthless start-up for which Belfort will pocket half the money thanks to the markup on the deal.

On one hand, it's kind of thrilling to see Belfort in his element, knowing just how to play his mark.  On the other hand, it's pretty much the epitome of everything people despise about Wall Street scumbags.  The film revels in that dicotomy, making sure we have ample opportunity to immerse ourselves in the debauchery in which Belfort and his cohorts partake.  It's like an ongoing frat party for these guys - drugs, hookers, yachts, wild parties, dehumanizing stunts like paying a secretary $10,000 to shave her head, or a wild office party that includes dwarf-tossing.

It's a perfect portrait of greed and indulgence.  And I don't question the appeal of that lifestyle.  Who wouldn't like to have more money than sense?  We all dream of not being able to worry about money - and Belfort's only money problem seems to be that he can't spend it fast enough.  Guys like Belfort thrive because that lifestyle is so seductive.  His victims were so eager to give him their money because he represented the dream that they were buying into - the chance to be as rich as he was.

And yet, so much of what Belfort does in this film is so lacking in any moral compass that eventually his indulgences should repulse us.  Belfort is so over-the-top that I'm mystified that any viewer could reach the end of the film thinking that director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter were condoning the excess depicted in the story.  This open letter printed in LA Weekly is representative of some of the misunderstandings I've seen about this film.

"You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

"And yet you're glorifying it -- you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don't even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men."

I like to think the filmmakers respected the intelligence of their audience, that they trusted the viewers would "get" that Belfort's horrible actions were, well, horrible without having some overt moralizing to the audience.  It's a poor film that has to tell an audience how to feel.  And it's a poor viewer who needs the film to directly state its moral message to the audience.

Despite the film lasting three hours, Scorsese keeps things moving so fast that you barely notice.  Some of the best scenes are ones where Belfort is left to preach before his broker disciples like he's leading a revival meeting.  One such scene is built around him getting them fired up to sell stock in Steve Madden's company as it goes public.  It's both glorious and revolting to watch him lap up the adoration as he plays his audience like a fiddle.

(It reminded me of an utterly embarrassing display I witnessed at a recent Comic-Con as one personality pumped up the crowd to support his new venture and the mindless sycophants were heard to yell "Preach!" during the speech and then came up to the speaker afterwards to say, "You touched me, man. Kick some ass!" It was pandering of the worst kind.)

Watching DiCaprio "hold court" in those scenes is a fantastic thing to behold.  Belfort has to be charming - how else could he so easily part the fools with their money?  Evil rich guys aren't all like Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Burns and DiCaprio is very effective at drawing the audience into his web.  And this isn't even getting into the physicality of the quaalude sequence, or a great encounter with two FBI agents where he turns up the charm all while trying to hit their egos with his wealth.

I left the film utterly puzzled that anyone could sit through the film and think it lionizes its subject. Upon reflection I realized there was one subset of viewers who could possibly see the film as an endorsement of Belfort - people who want to BE Belfort.  Every now and then you'll run across these guys in Hollywood and they're among some of the worst people you'll have to deal with in the industry.  But still, people likely to take that message are already pro-Belfort.  I can't imagine someone with a negative view of the guy watching the film and feeling it glorifies him.

This is a guy who basically forces himself on his wife, hits her mid-argument, then attempts to steal off into the night with their daughter only to be stopped when he rams his car in an accident. If this was some kind of white-washing of the man, I don't think we'd have seen those scenes in the final cut.

Audiences leave the film pissed off that Belfort got off with a lot less punishment than he deserved and that he still thrives today.  I suspect part of the point is that we should be angry about this.  In general, white collar criminals suffer a lot less for their atrocities than they probably should.  The film reflects that and if anything, it's less an endorsement of Belfort and more an indictment of our justice system.

Like American Hustle, Wolf  has a pretty deep bench of well-drawn characters, though this is less of an ensemble piece than the former film.  I rather enjoyed both films, but admired Wolf a little more for its willingness to make Belfort such a scumbag without even a glimmer of redemption.  The final scene of the film really underlines this, reinforcing that the man hasn't changed a whit for everything he's been through - and that there'll always be an audience ready to buy the magic beans he peddles.