Monday, March 31, 2014

The need for truth in "based on a true story"

Let me give you a little background to this post.  A little over a week ago, my friends Geoff LaTulippe and Scott Beggs over at Broken Projector discussed the issue of fidelity to the truth in content that's labeled as "based on a true story." In particular, they were discussing the case of a twitter account whose author claimed to be dying of terminal cancer.  Those who followed the feed found it to be inspirational and quite moving, and they were saddened when a final tweet announced the author's passing.

It didn't take long for people to begin questioning the veracity of the account.  As the story became less and less plausible upon examination, the followers started to feel duped and hoodwinked.  Geoff and Scott batted this issue around, with Geoff essentially taking the position, "Who cares? Does it matter?"  Is there a responsibility to be 100% accurate when telling a story that's ostensibly based on actual events?  They invited their listeners to write in with their thoughts on that debate.

This happened to be an issue I've given a lot of thought over the years, so I dashed off a not-small email to the fine gents.  On their show this week, they gave the issue another airing and encouraged me to post the letter in full on my blog. Then to drive home the point, they got on Twitter and attempted to get their followers to bully me into posting it.

Message received.  What follows is the email I sent them, with a few revisions and additions for clarity:

The first time I can ever really remember thinking about this question was when I was in middle school and ran across a Roger Ebert piece on JFK. The whole piece is worth reading in full, but I'll reproduce a few key paragraphs below:

"Their criticisms all boiled down to a couple of key points: They felt Stone's movie was based on unsupportable speculation, and they believed his film's hero, former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, was an unscrupulous publicity seeker who drummed up his celebrated case against Clay Shaw out of thin air.

"These points are no doubt well-taken. I believe they are irrelevant to the film, which is not a documentary, not a historical study and not a courtroom presentation, but a movie that weaves a myth around the Kennedy assassination - a myth in which the slain leader was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. The pollsters tell us that most Americans believe this anyway. Even Tom Wicker, down deep in his piece, says he does not believe the Warren Commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Well, who does? And yet the image of Oswald as the lone killer has been the official establishment myth for 28 years. Is it such a terrible thing Stone has done, to weave a countermyth?

"Here on the movie beat, I always sort of quail when anybody makes a film that ventures out of pure Hollywood fantasy and into the real lives of the experts in the front section of the newspaper. I'm sure to be treated to many analytical studies of the factual accuracy of the film, in which the writers may be sound in their knowledge of history, but seem to have little idea why they or anyone else in the audience really goes to see a movie. People will not buy tickets to "JFK" because they think Oliver Stone knows who killed Kennedy. And when "Babe" comes out this summer, and inspires all sorts of disillusioned analysis on the sports page, that movie's factual accuracy will have nothing to do with the tickets it sells, either.

"People go to the movies to be told a story. If it is a good story, they will believe it for as long as the movie lasts. If it is a very good story, it may linger in their memory somewhat longer. In the case of "JFK," which I think is a terrific example of storytelling, what they will remember is not the countless facts and conjectures that the movie's hero spins in his lonely campaign to solve the assassination. What they will remember (or, if they are young enough, what they will learn) is how we all felt on Nov. 22, 1963, and why for all the years afterward a lie has seemed to lodge in the national throat - the lie that we know the truth about who murdered Kennedy."

A perspective like that is why I'm generally pretty forgiving about "inaccuracies" in movies like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. When the distortions are in service to the story and as long as nothing truly batshit happens like aliens rescuing the ship, I can live with some fudging in terms of specific characters and attitudes. But then I can't help but remember that in another review of a movie based on a real-life incident, Ebert muses that "for an entire generation, this will be how they remember the truth." I can't remember the film or the real life incident, unfortunately. But I get where this is coming from - if APOLLO 13 implied that the malfunction was the work of Russian spies looking to cripple the NASA space program, that would be beyond the pale, no matter how much drama it made for.

So to some degree, I think that the need for fidelity in filmmaking varies with the scope of the incident and the significance of the incident to the larger world. It'd be easy to say a blanket "Who cares?" but I don't think it's that black-and-white. Now just to contradict myself, I'll revisit an issue that was batted around a few weeks ago.  The whole story with THE BRINGING really strikes me as distasteful. To take a real life incident where someone actually died and use their real names while wrapping it up in a supernatural context strikes me as really distasteful. Even though this real-life story is relatively unknown (I hadn't heard of it until the film), it bothers me that the script seems to capitalize on that tragedy when it would be so easy to change the names and merely allow the story to be vaguely inspired by the real incident, as most LAW & ORDER eps are.

And yet, I don't have a problem with the myriad of time-travel stories that deal with someone going back to the Kennedy Assassination, even when the story reveals that the traveler ends up being the assassin. I recognize there are a lot of contradictions in my stance.

With regard to the internet hoaxes discussed on the podcast, I think that it's ridiculous to get fired up over things like if Diane in 7A was real or not. If someone was using that viral lie to solicit money or otherwise profit from it, then I'd have an issue. In general, most harmless Twitter hoaxes don't bug me. This also includes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I thought it was brilliant how they tried to add some verisimilitude to the whole thing by building that internet rabbit hole for people to fall down if they attempted to do an internet search on that story.

When it comes to someone like James Frey, though, fuck that guy. I mean, it turns out that lying to Oprah is the least of that guy's sins, but I think once you've gone on Oprah and tried to pass your hack writing off as a real memoir, you deserve what you get when people call it out. If the BLAIR WITCH filmmakers appeared on Oprah under the pretense they wanted to raise awareness about these missing kids and how Maryland was doing nothing to find them, then they'd be rightly drawn and quartered when the truth came out.

(And as indicated, my disgust with Frey is at an extreme because of the story in the link above. I think people who prey on naive writers are the lowest of the low.  Taking advantage of someone's naivete in order to get them to sign over basically all rights to their creative work with an insulting low pay scale is really offensive.  As far as I'm concerned it's indefensible.  For a fellow writer to do that to people who look up to him as a mentor is about the slimiest thing ever. So yeah, fuck that guy.)

So I don't know. I think it would help if there was agreement on what consisted a major inaccuracy in an adaptation. I'm tired of every Oscar season turning into hit piece after hit piece on these "based on a true story" films. Sometimes the changes are major, but when we get to stuff like nitpicking deliberate timeline inaccuracies or composite characters, it gets out of hand.

In the second podcast, Geoff touched in this and said that he had no issue with those kinds of articles if they approached it from a more academic standpoint.  In other words, if they come from the angle of "Look at what they changed and understand why some of that was necessary," it could be educational about the process of writing a script.  Too often, these pieces carry the subtext of "They changed a few facts so this movie doesn't deserve an Oscar."  I'm not sure that should be one of the main criteria when evaluation how effective a film is as a piece of drama.

So what are your feelings on adapting true stories?  I'm curious to see where some of you draw the line.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why aren't you watching THE GOLDBERGS yet?

This TV season was an embarrassment of riches when it came to single camera comedy. Just last night on Fox, the excellent BROOKLYN NINE-NINE concluded its freshman year on the air, wrapping with the confidence of knowing they will definitely be returning in the fall. The police-comedy had been one of my most anticipated shows of the year, and usually when that happens I end up disappointed when the show sputters out of the gate or just plain dies. (THE BLACKLIST and THE FOLLOWING fall in varying places within that spectrum.)

Fortunately, it's hard to go wrong with Andre Braugher and casting him as the authority figure some 20 years after he first played Detective Frank Pembleton on HOMICIDE ended up paying off well. On a lesser show, I'd probably be saying, "Well, at least Braugher is good," but not content to coast on their lead's mastery of deadpan deliveries and slow burns, the creators of B99 have surrounded him with a strong ensemble. Andy Samberg's natural goofiness is exactly what this show's world needs in order to inhabit the cartoony-but-not-TOO-cartoony tone that many of the show's best gags rely on. When he goes really big, Braugher becomes the anchor that ensures everything still has weight and the distance between the two approaches is where you'll find most of the show's other characters.

The only show that comes close to even competing with BROOKLYN NINE-NINE in terms of hitting the ground running and refining its voice over the course of a season is THE GOLDBERGS. This checks all the boxes for me, almost as if creator Adam F. Goldberg and his staff are spending millions over the course of a season just to play precision target practice with my funny bone. Framed as Adam's recollections of growing up in the 80s, the series evokes similar nostalgia that THE WONDER YEARS mined so long ago. But it's more of an outright comedy than TWY is, and a key decision is to not adhere strictly to the real timeline of the 80s. One episode might make mention of a movie from 1982 being at the theatre concurrent with a reference that fixes the action in 1986. It's enough to make one speculate about an episode where young Adam listens to Billy Joel's 1989 hit "We Didn't Start the Fire" and realizes he must avert the yet-to-occur "Rock and Roller Cola Wars."

As much as THE GOLDBERGS is compared to THE WONDER YEARS, the difference in the way they explore their time frames draws a sharp contrast. In its strongest moments, TWY examined the universal moments in childhood: first crush, first license, the frustration of dealing with a teacher who keeps pushing you to do better, the discovery that your parents are people who had their own dreams and lives before you. In some ways it told stories that could have been set in any era. But it was also VERY much about the Vietnam War era. A major plot point in the pilot was the death of Winnie's brother in Vietnam and though that element often receded into the background, it only allowed that tragedy to gain further potency in the moments where it was judiciously invoked.

A conventional drama might have felt compelled to explore Winnie's grief in depth. However, as we were bound to Kevin's perspective, the toll it took on the girl next door was only apparent when the signs were too aggressive for Kevin to ignore. This comes to a head in "The Accident," where Kevin fears Winnie has fallen in with the wrong crowd and isn't acting like herself. He recognizes her acting out as the cry for help that it surely is, but all his efforts to reach out to her are rebuffed until after she's injured in a car accident and is left to deal with the consequences of her recent behavior. It was the last time the show would really examine the scars left on Winnie from losing her brother, aside from mention made of it in an episode when Kevin and Winnie work on the McGovern campaign.

It's hard to imagine THE GOLDBERGS getting either that serious or that political. We're not going to see an episode dealing with Iran-Contra or Gary Hart anytime soon. The vast sum of its nostalgia is drawn from 80s pop culture rather any of the world events at the time. It's as much a love letter to childhood and family as TWY was, but in a way that allows it to have more fun. THE GOLDBERGS is one of the rare shows where I can't think of a single dud episode thus far. As much as Adam's world has been fleshed out, there's the sense that the elements introduced later have always been there on the fringes, just waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Nothing feels like it's invented week-to-week. A good example of this is the GOONIES episode, where all of Adam's friends were made up of characters introduced individually in earlier episodes.

But the show's at its best when dealing with the characters who have been there from the start. Jeff Garlin fits the role of Murray like a glove, perfectly hitting the right tone of paternal pride in his children even as their drama annoys him to all hell. (In a recent episode, he remarked having more children was his worst nightmare, then turned to his daughter without missing a beat and said, "You'll understand when you have kids.")

He and Wendi McLendon-Covey inhabit their roles of Murray and Beverly like they've been playing them for years. It's rare to have that chemistry between a TV married couple who can bicker and snipe without making you wonder how these two still stand each other. There's a familiarity between the two and stories like last week's episode (where the two engage in a passive aggressive war of "improving each other") really take advantage of that. The writers really understand these characters and the characters understand each other. Hopefully five years from now we won't be complaining that their most prominent traits have been exaggerated over time and made them unbearable.

I also like how older brother Barry has alternately been a dork, a jock, a bully and a sappy romantic. TWY's older brother Wayne was often just a straight-up ass, but Barry is allowed to be the heavy as often as he's the goat. Objectively, he's probably more dork than anything else ("Big Tasty" casts a long embarrassing shadow.) However, because to Adam, Barry still wields a lot of power, the writers have license to play with the character in fairly versatile ways. Another great touch is that Barry is 100% confidant in his abilities, even when his his lack of game is cringe-inducing. (It helps that Troy Gentile is clearly having a ball with whatever the script throws at him that week.) There are a lot of directions the writers could take Barry as he matures and it'll be interesting to compare the Barry from five years from now with the one we've been presented with this season.

And then there's Erica, who probably took the longest to be fully-fleshed out this season. My favorite moments have involved her at odds with her mother, in part because that dynamic feels so real. I don't have a sister, but I DO have a younger brother and a mother who are more alike than either would like to admit, and so many of the Beverly/Erica fights rang true. (I assure that right now, both my mother and brother are calling bullshit on that last sentence and the comparison in general.)

Erica's an interesting one to examine because she's the only character without a real-world analog in Adam Goldberg's family.  Throughout the season you could feel the writing staff trying out different roles for her (alternately a conspirator and adversary to her brothers, manipulative with her grandfather, aggressive against her mother) with the result being that Haley Orrantia got to play a lot of different angles.  This paid dividends because in the "rebellious sister" category, Erica feels a lot more complex than Kevin Arnold's older sister Karen.

George Segal's Pops is another wonderful depiction of a familiar archtype brought to life in an interesting way.  Maybe it's because you really can imagine Segal as a former Lothario, but the requisite "randy old man" jokes don't play as the cheap laughs they often are on other series.  Or maybe it's just that the writers are smart enough to realize that "old guy wants to get some" is the set-up to a joke, not just the punchline.

The wonderful thing about Pops is that just below the humor is a very human story about a guy in his declining years.  He already had his driving privileges taken away and a recent episode dealt with him needing to stick to a budget and raised the issue of his memory lapses.  Segal and the writers make balancing those tones look a lot easier than it actually is.

And of course, I can't leave out the show's own storyteller, Adam. Sean Giambrone is a real find - a TV kid who actually looks like a kid. Adam is supposed to be about 14 and Sean looks damn near that age.  This might sound like a no-brainer, but the last show to cast a 14 year-old regular with someone who's actually that age probably was THE WONDER YEARS.  Consider that most of the characters on CW dramas and Glee started their series runs at age 15 and were played by actors in their early-to-mid twenties.  It pushed those shows into more adult territory early on.

But because Adam looks so young, he's allowed to be a kid.  So many stories about the early teen years now feel like fresh territory.  Several episodes this year reflected this, as we had stories about Adam giving up his beloved childhood toys, Adam's geeky love of THE GOONIES leading him to send his friends on a treasure hunt, and Adam wondering if he had a crush on his platonic friend.

Adam is an "every-kid," must like Kevin Arnold was.  He's not a future Tiger Beat cover boy, he's not written like some sort of teenage fantasy wish-fulfillment.  He's simply one of us, neither an Alpha nor an Omega.  He's developed just enough for the audience to project their own childhood feelings onto.  There's an innocence that Giambrone brings to the role and it'll be interesting to see how long the show's able to maintain that.  I have to imagine the writing staff is praying daily that their young lead doesn't return from hiatus having hit a growth spurt.

As of yet, THE GOLDBERGS has yet to be renewed for a second season.  It feels like it should be a lock, but I'm sure an upswing in the ratings can't hurt.  When the show returns next week, please consider sampling it.  It was one of the best, if not the best new comedy of the season.  (Aside from BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, only ENLISTED made a fan out of me as quickly as THE GOLDBERGS.)  I'd love to see it run for many years - or at least long enough so that young Adam Goldberg can become a fan of THE WONDER YEARS.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reader questions: Are you bringing something original to the table?

Joe writes:

I adapted a screenplay based on a RomZomCom novel about a married couple on the verge of divorce that repairs their relationship after/due to a zombie outbreak. I thought that since it was a RomZomCom that focuses on a bickering married couple (I'm aware that it sounds like a similar premise to Shaun of the Dead, but thought it would fall into the "same, but different" category) and not a dreary zombie flick about a group of survivors holed up somewhere would give it enough commercial appeal to at least be a direct to DVD film. 

I hosted my script on the Black List, paid for two reviews, and much to my dismay each came back as 5 overall with no individual scores higher than a 6, and each review had a 4--one review gave me a 4 for characters, and one gave me a 4 for plot. 

The weaknesses discussed in each review focused on a lack of character development, particularly the couple's relationship--which I agree with and have ideas for fixing--but the "Prospects" section of each review stated that my screenplay wasn't unique enough to stand out from other zombie movies. 

Obviously, since no category was higher than a 6, there are also issues with dialogue and plot (which may be linked to character development) that need to be fixed, but in your opinion, would it even be worth the time to re-write the script focusing on developing the relationship of the couple? Or, given the fact that there are already so many zombie movies, is my premise not even unique enough to have any commercial appeal? How do you know when it's time to just give up on a script completely?  

First, as far as knowing when to give up on a script, check out this video post.

But to further that discussion, I think it's important to consider the larger context here.  I think that no matter how good the script is, you're going to be fighting against that knee-jerk reaction of, "Not ANOTHER zombie movie!"  Zombies, like vampires before them, have hit total saturation point.  If you think there are a lot of produced films about either of those entities, you need to remember that for each one of those, there are hundreds of specs all trying to cash in on that genre's success.

To stand out from the crowd, you're going to need an incredibly inventive take.  The first spec that springs to mind is MAGGIE, which was on the Black List a few years ago.  This was a zombie script with a twist - it treated zombie-ism as a slow-progressing disease and focuses on a 16 year-old girl who's gradually turning into a zombie over six weeks.  I've read MAGGIE and it really plays less like a horror movie and more like a terminal illness movie that uses the supernatural trappings to dress it up a bit.

I'll confess I wasn't a huge fan of the script. I admired its cleverness in how it set up its concept, but it wasn't a script that left me with a burning need to see brought to the screen.  But I can't dispute that it found an approach to zombies that no one else was doing and it did it on a budget.

With your script, you need to be brutally honest in deciding for yourself if you're bringing anything new to the table.  With a genre like that, it's going to take more than just another set of characters working through their issues amid a zombie attack.  What's unique beyond those characters?  ZOMBIELAND didn't work just because it was four colorful characters - it was because the story started at a point where zombies had almost completely taken over the country and it treated that situation with a bit more irreverence than we'd seen.  We're given the doomsday scenario, but it's made darkly funny rather than brutal.

Is your script doing something that no one else's is?  Or is it merely a well-executed example of elements that feel familiar at this point?

Alessandro asks:

Is there any room for a character arc in a short movie script? (15 mins max)

Absolutely.  Just to pull from two examples I've featured on the blog, check out "Violet" and "Man Crush."  Both of them are under five minutes and were produced by students participating in Campus MovieFest.

Daren asks:

I've always liked the format for THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER script - with the absence of traditional sluglines. Using instead things like "IN JACK'S OFFICE" as the heading. Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER script used the same style. I also really liked the bold. Both scripts were lean/fast reads. 

Anyway, question - is it okay to use similar formatting as long as you're consistent? I'm not talking about using a non courier font or messing with margins/dialogue and character spacing, but would the use of non traditional sluglines or bolding your script really turn off a reader/producer that much (assuming the story is great and script well written of course)? 

I don't see this thing too often so I can't speak to what the exact reaction would be.  I'd presume that once the script got to the point of being budgeted, the non-traditional slugs are going to drive your line producer crazy.

Speaking as someone who reads a lot of scripts, I always get thrown by this because it makes it harder to scan and identify specific scenes easy.  The extra line break before that scene heading and the "INT."  is really easy too look for when one has to scan back for a particular sequence.

I'm one of those who tends to feel that any time you stray outside the normal format, you're making it harder on the people reading your script.  The last thing anyone should want to do is force the reader to make extra effort.  I never want to have to rely on the benefit of the doubt.  There's a reason that every formatting program defaults to the standard sluglines.  They're universally recognized.

I don't think straying from the format will hurt a brilliantly written script, but if your writing already has the reader assessing it on the borderline AND they're having to work harder to keep track of things, you're probably dead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nepotism and network cronyism

Ah, nepotism.  It's often invoked by people far outside the business as the reason that movies and TV "suck."  You know the type of people I'm talking about - the bottom feeders who comment on Deadline articles presenting themselves as an authority who understands show business better than the people who work in it day in and day out.  To hear them tell it, everyone who ever got a movie made got there only because they were fraternity brothers with the studio head.

Sometimes these accusations get a little ridiculous.  Google "Lena Dunham nepotism" for an example of what I'm talking about. Yes, her parents are artists - it played no part in her getting an HBO show.  Plenty of people who actually ARE artists have trouble getting their own shows.  Nepotism doesn't quite work like that.

However, as we head into staffing season in the coming months, I'm reminded that nepotism does exist in a number of forms in the industry.  In some cases, this is expected and maybe even reasonable. Most industry jobs are highly coveted, with hundreds if not more than a thousand people applying for each job.  Those UTA job postings that you find on the net? Virtually worthless.  By the time the UTA List has gone wide, several thousand people are flooding the inboxes of people seeking employees.  If you're looking to apply to a job that's been publicly posted, the best way to get called in for an interview is to have someone who knows that person pass your resume along.

As some of you might remember, every year around this time I pound the pavement looking for a writers' assistant job.  I've put posts up on the site saying as much and I typically work all my contacts.  I know a lot of people working in TV, both as writers and in jobs with access to writers.  In general, it's not hard for me to get my resume into the right hands on a number of shows.  Even as I do that, I realize that there are at least a hundred other resumes coming in via similar means.  People in the business are going to recommend people they know who are qualified, experienced and easy to work with.  That's honestly a reality of any industry, so don't think I'm railing against that.

Here's what DOES burn me, though - when all of those resumes are discarded because the network or studio in question tells the showrunner "These are the four PAs you will hire."  Who are these PAs and assistants whose employment becomes network mandates?  23 year-old entitled brats just out of college.  They're kids who've never had to punch a clock, whose car is probably newer and more expensive than most of the staff writers on their show.  Hell, there's a good chance their condo (because Daddy wouldn't DARE let them throw their money away renting) is better than several staff writers.

Yeah, fuck those guys.  And fuck the studio execs who give the showrunners zero say in who their low-level employees are.  If you guys want to say, "I want you to interview these guys" be my guest.  But throw them in the thunderdome with the rest of us who've actually put in the time and earned the respect of the showrunners.

On more than one occasion, I've had a direct "in" for a writer's assistant job because I or someone close to me was very tight with the showrunner of a newly-ordered series.  In some cases, this has even involved me proving my worth to the writer by taking the time to read their work and give them very considered and detailed reactions.  So I'm not just coming in from a place of "Hey, I know this writer socially."  It's often a case where I've shown my value to the process and demonstrated a willingness to put in the hours and check my ego at the door for the good of the show.

What I'm getting at is that in pretty much all of these cases, I probably would have been at least a strong runner-up for any position if it was in the hands of the show-runner.  I can take being beaten fair and square by someone with more experience than me.  But to get trumped by some twit who proceeds to spend the next ten months whining about being called upon to do basic tasks that are part of their fucking job?  Yeah, screw those guys.  They're the ones born on third base and are pissed that they can't have someone wave them into home.  Why do they have to wait until someone else hits the ball?

Frankly, I'm tired of losing to these guys.  And I don't blame the showrunners at all. I know they've done what they can.  The fact that I've seen this play out for many years across several shows tells me that this isn't their fault at all.

This is not meant to demean every writers' assistant.  There are a number of those who do manage to get hired through conventional means.  (A good trick is to have the writer hire you before the pilot is officially picked up. A showrunner who doesn't want to get saddled with a dud shouldn't put themselves in a position where the network knows there's a vacancy.)  But if you work in TV and you find yourself dealing with a writers' assistant who acts like getting coffee and taking notes is beneath him, you probably wonder "How did this idiot get hired?"

He knew the right people. And the "right people" didn't give the people who had to work with that twit any say in the matter.  I wish I had advice about what to do about this, but I don't. This is a venting post.

I'm not saying I'm owed a job just because I've proven my worth to those people in the past.  I do feel like I and every other person in that resume stack at least deserves a chance to present ourselves as a more grateful alternative to these spoiled dilettantes who often leave the business within five years anyway.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Joshua Caldwell's superhero short film "Resignation."

Friend of the blog Joshua Caldwell just recently presented his new short film Resignation and I'd say it's well worth the time required to watch it.  I think the film carries more impact if you watch it without knowing anything about the premise, as I did.  For that reason, I've put the promotional blurb below the next paragraph, so you can avoid being spoiled.

If you have difficultly viewing the embedded video, it's probably best to view the video via the film's dedicated site.  When you go there, you will be prompted to select "Film Only" or "Immersive Experience."  I highly suggest going with "Film Only" for your first viewing.  The Immersive Experience is a little too busy for my tastes and I feel like it distances you from the drama.

Resignation is described thusly, "The gritty, action-fantasy, immersive film that turns the superhero myth on its head: as an alcoholic combat photographer with a curious, heroic past struggles with his job as a “professional witness,” he must confront the fact that his dilemma may run deeper than he’d like to face."

Caldwell directed from a script credited to himself, Thomas G. Lemmer and Alex LeMay.

I like a lot of what Josh has done here.  There's a nice mood to the piece, aided tremendously by a score that evokes both the Hans Zimmer and John Williams Superman themes at different times without violating copyright. One thing I think Josh does really well is picking a big theme but finding a way to explore it via a relatively small scale or location. It doesn't feel rushed and despite the fact it's over eight minutes long, it doesn't feel drawn out early.  There's a nice sense of pace to the whole thing.

I asked Josh to talk a little bit about his vision for the film:

"With Resignation I sought to explore the character of a superhero in a way that I hadn’t seen before -- at least in the movies. I believe that superheroes can serve to reflect back on our society -- and they are ever changing because of it. So, rather than simply creating a kickass fight scene and having the hero save the day -- I wanted to play with something much more complex and multi-layered. To put that hero in a place where's he's grown tired of having the responsibility of being a savior, of playing God, and see what happens when he's directly confronted by that choice once again. 

"Where and how this fits into the existing canon wasn't of concern to me. Nor was whether this was in line with our current understanding of this character. I just didn't think it needed to be. Had I been making a $150 million studio movie, yes, there would have been that responsibility. But I was much more excited about exploring a version of this character whom we had never seen before (and probably never will) and challenging the audience with the choices he makes."

Please check it out when you get a chance.

Friday, March 14, 2014

What was the first script you wrote?

On Go Into The Story yesterday, Scott Myers asked the question, "What was the first script you wrote?"  Though I answered over there, it felt like this was something worth covering on this site as well. I actually re-read that final draft of my first script a couple weeks ago and live-tweeted the experience. It wasn't as wretched as I feared, but it's still not anything I'd want out there as a sample of my writing.

(For the purposes of this post, I'm discussing my first feature script - not any of my shorts or scripts for the TV show I created in college.)

The story was about a disgraced cop who was in exile on a small-town police force after being the Mark Fuhrman-like fallguy for the failure of a high profile case. He's thrown a nuisance case that arrives in the form of a student film showing a murder, with a note saying that this actress has really been killed.

The cop investigates the local film school (I developed the story in college and wrote it my senior year. I was writing what I knew, sue me) and quickly matches the film to its director, who has a lot of holes in his story AND who had been dating the actress. Surprise, surprise, they were having problems. But a couple other twists emerge and red herrings start popping up left and right.

I first came up with the idea during my freshman year and at that point, I was intending it to be a 20-minute short I would make as my final project senior year. Overtime, the story evolved and expanded to the point where I realized my treatment couldn't possibly fit into 20 minutes of screentime.

During my senior year I took a screenwriting class and two of the assignments involved writing a treatment for a feature-length story and then writing the first act (delivered to the class in 15 page increments as we went round-robin rotation.) We had just learned the three-act structure before being given the treatment assignment. I went back to my dorm, looked at my printed treatment and drew three lines between various paragraphs: END OF ACT ONE, MIDPOINT, END OF ACT TWO.

In what surprised me at the time, the story beats that in a perfect world would have matched those turning points, landed EXACTLY where they would have if I had done it on purpose. Basically, I had internalized the pacing and structure of your typical thriller to such a degree that I innately followed the beat sheet without trying.

Before I pat myself on the back too much, I'll note that for all my plotting and structure strengths, the show comes up light on character. I was - and still am - a huge fan of LAW & ORDER and its influence was very apparent in the script's style. There were a lot of short dialogue-driven scenes. Almost everything in the plot is advanced through dialogue. No real set-pieces, just a lot of talking, interviewing, debating and interrogating.

As I said, we wrote the first act as part of the final project for that semester. We then had an option to continue into Advanced Screenwriting, where we would spend the full semester finishing our scripts.  As before, we worked in a rotation. There were nine of us in the class, broken into groups of three.  When our group's turn came up, we were to deliver pages (anywhere from 10-20 pages each) to the rest of the class for reactions and in-class critiques at our next meeting.

However the schedule worked out, by the time it was coming up on my final turn in the rotation, I was just at the start of Act Three.  I knew I was doing something right when a couple students realized that my next turn might not necessarily finish off the story if I stuck to just 15 pages. (During finals week, we were to rewrite and complete our scripts before submitting them to the professor, so the assumption was that those who didn't have a complete draft before then would complete it at that time.)  More than one classmate implored me to finish the story for the next class.  They had to know how the mystery was resolved.

For all the nitpicking and issues they had had with the script up to that point, that was when I knew that in some sense it was working.  It was one of the few scripts in that class that left the audience with a need for the closure.  That desire was far less evident in reactions to scripts where the writers were clearly making it up fifteen pages at a time.

This was the script I brought with me out to LA. My first internship was at a boutique management company. It passed muster with one of the assistants, who compared it favorably to a script they had just sold for $1M. He had a few suggestions before he passed it up, most of which just involved adding another red herring. I made the changes and one of the managers read it. It came out as a gentle pass and some very correct advice that this was a hard sell. I believe his exact words were, "I'm not sure the best possible version of this script could be a spec."

[Note: a really weird quirk of this office was that they would use "spec" only to talk about hot scripts that sold for a lot. Technically, the script already was a "spec" since I didn't write it for a buyer, but in the terminology of the office, he was basically saying he didn't see people paying a lot of money for it.]

I moved on to another internship - a production company responsible for a lot of hit films in the 90s. Coincidentally, their latest film was that $1M dollar spec. It also was their LAST film. Take from that what you will.

Anyway, the director of development agreed to read my script one day. Not long after I delivered it to her, I saw her walking through the office, nose buried in a script, reading WHILE WALKING TO THE BATHROOM.

Yes, whatever she was reading, she didn't even want to put it down to pee! About an hour later, she calls me into her office and says, "This is great writing, Bitter! Do you have an agent?"

Don't get too excited for me. She passed it on to an agent and nothing came of it. Later I gave it to a development exec at the first company I actually worked. His takeaway: He could see I had a lot of talent, the story moved well, but he just didn't think it had much of an audience as a feature. I asked him if he thought it would work for me as a writing sample and he bluntly said, "Agents are looking for something they can sell."

So I moved on and wrote another script. I'd learned enough from that first script that the next one was a little better. And then the one after it was stronger still, as was the one that followed that.  In fact, out of six solo feature specs and two feature specs written with partners, I'd really only want the three, perhaps four, most recent features to stand as any kind of representation of my writing.

(My TV samples have a higher hit ratio, but that owes to the fact that I only wrote one early TV spec before focusing on features for several years.  By the time I returned to TV writing, I'd gotten a LOT better at it.)

I read some of those early scripts now and they feel like the work of a different person.  I might not be making all of the rookie mistakes, but I still see a hundred things I would do differently now.  Being a good writer is about more than just not making the most grievous errors - it's about knowing how to tell a story in a compelling way.  The best version of my first script works on the page in some ways, but it would never make a good film.

So if you finish that first script, bask in the accomplishment.  Be proud of what it represents.  Then site down and start writing your next one.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mind control sex scene and rape culture

Oy. I know I'm wading into a topic here that's likely to provoke some strong reactions, but I think this is a conversation that needs to happen.

I've been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and if I'm being totally honest, I've stuck with it mostly out of potential for what the show could be rather than any significant enjoyment of the stories and characters. As I'd rather not derail this into a "what S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to improve post, I'll merely note that this week's episode largely represented an upswing from the usual quality. It's probably not a coincidence that it's one of the few episodes to make a significant effort to tie into the wider Marvel Universe.

 In a nutshell, an Asgardian named Lorelei escapes to Earth following a jailbreak from Asgard (as shown in Thor: The Dark World.) As Lorelei has the ability to mind-control men, making them enamored with her and willing to do anything for her, Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander, reprising her role from the Thor movies) is sent to bring her back and crosses paths with Agent Coulson's team. You'd think that the men on Coulson's team would be made to sit this one out considering a touch from Lorelei is all that it would take to get them to betray their friends and their country. Oddly this doesn't happen, and predictably, Lorelei ensnares Agent Ward with her mind control.

On its face, it opens up an interesting conflict, as our heroes are faced with the possibility that they'll have to kill Ward in order to stop them. Lorelei is an especially nasty manipulator and it's pretty clear she'd get off on ordering Ward to his death against his comrades, especially for the angst it will cause them. It's pretty standard mind-control stuff. The problem is that during said enchantment, Ward and Lorelei head off to Vegas and spend a passionate night in a suite together.

What unsettled me was that this moment was played as a "hot" scene - not what it really was: a woman forcing sex on a man who is not in a mental state to give consent. Sure, in his mind, Ward has been convinced that this is what he wants, but that's only because he's been given a magic roofie. I don't think it's a stretch to call this a rape scene.

The problem is that the show seems blithely unaware of this subtext. If anything, there's a leering "Awesome, Ward had hot sex with a babe!" feeling floating over the moment in question and then beyond that, there's zero follow-up. He's not even the one who ends up taking down Lorelei.

Pretend for a moment that the genders were reversed. Let's say it was Skye or Simmons who got the mental whammie on her and suddenly she can't get enough of Loki. The two of them get to a suite and she can't tear her clothes off fast enough for some steamy action. (A) Do you think this scene would even make it to screen? (B) If it did make the final cut, how much do you want to bet Loki would be explicitly punished for this, with Skye or Simmons mortified or even traumatized by their own behavior and (C) If so, is there anyway that scene gets made without it being called out as rape?

(If such a scene with Skye or Simmons DID make it to air in a fashion as tone-deaf as the Ward scene, I have no doubt there'd already be a couple dozen blog posts and "think-pieces" about how abbhorant S.H.I.E.L.D. was to do that and how it plays into rape culture. And the writers of such scenes would be right to call it out for that.)

If a woman was the victim here, I have little doubt that the non-consensual sex would been treated as wrong. It probably would have been portrayed in a similar tone to another mind-control near-rape done on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Dead Things." In that episode, the Nerd Trio finally invents a mind control device to get the hot sex slave they always wanted. When the subject is first raised, it's through the lens of the juvenile teenage boy who thinks it would be pretty cool to have a hot chick at his whim. Unfortunately for them, their intended victim comes to her senses and calls it out for what it is - rape.

There's no similar lamp-shading of what was done to Ward. When I raised the issue on Twitter, Emily Blake correctly drew an analogy to how we as a society perceive cases of teacher-student sex. If a teenage girl has sex with her older male teacher, then he's a pervert and the worst kind of sex offender. She's a victim who was taken advantage of. When a teenage boy has sex with his hot teacher, he's lionized and practically given a high five. He's not a victim, he's a "lucky dog."

I think that does a great disservice to the young men who are victims of non-consensual sex. The message they're given in society is that they're supposed to want it, that they should feel excited whenever they get it, that if their victimizer is "hot" then there's no reason to get upset. And maybe I'm making too much of a few minutes of a TV show. Had they treated this moment maturely, it still probably wouldn't change anything in society. But it sure as hell reflects society and it's not doing anything to make someone question the wrongness of this message.

Think of how many 80s movies feel kinda "rapey" now, viewed through today's mores. I ran across an article that is an excellent examination of that culture, including a good take on 16 CANDLES:

16 Candles is not only rife with cheap racism, it’s cavalier about sexual assault. Worse, Jake Ryan - the beau hunk himself - is the one who orchestrates it. In exchange for information about Sam, he offers The Geek the opportunity to drive his girlfriend Caroline home and basically gives him permission to do whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t leave her abandoned in a parking lot somewhere. (This is after he tells The Geek that if he were interested in her anymore, he could go into his bedroom where she’s passed out cold and ‘violate her ten different ways’. ‘What are you waiting for?’ The Geek splutters.) But worst of all is when The Geek and Caroline wake up in the car the next morning. Despite neither of them really remembering the previous night’s ‘activities’, The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. ‘You know,’ she replies, ‘I have this weird feeling I did!’ 

80s movies. Encouraging hilariously rapey ‘sexcapades’ enjoyed by beta males, and making it an extra triumph for them because the girl really enjoyed it. (See also: Revenge of the Nerds.) 

One day, the Ward/Lorelei hotel romp is going to be just as repugnant to more progressive eyes. Trust me.

Don't let that happen to your writing. Be aware of what you're putting into the culture and what your scene is really saying.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Future Filmmaker: An interview with Eliza McNitt

Some of you might remember that two summers ago I attended Campus MovieFest's Hollywood awards ceremony. CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week. Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood.

I was so taken with the quality of the films shown there that I spotlit a number of them in a segment I called Future Filmmaker Friday.  I was able to run interviews with all of the filmmakers I wanted to showcase, save for one: Eliza McNitt, who directed a short called VIOLET.

Recently, Eliza reached out to me to tell me about her latest short, Without Fire. Without Fire is the story of a Navajo girl who has to figure out a way to heat her home without electricity or fire in order to save her asthma-stricken mother from a bitter winter storm.

The film was the recipient of a $25,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant and just screened at NYU's Fusion Film Festival and received the top awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film.  It will also be appearing at the Sun Valley Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival. You can find it's website here.  

Eliza found time to answer a few questions, so I took the opportunity to get the interview I wasn't able to complete before:

So tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in film? Where are you in your school career? 

I found film through science. I was researching the role of the pesticide Imidacloprid on Colony Collapse Disorder - the disappearance of honeybees around the world - when my friend Charlie Greene told me about a documentary contest for C-Span. The prompt was to “inform Obama of the nation’s most important issue” so I immediately thought of Colony Collapse Disorder. A world without bees is difficult to imagine considering one out of every three bites of food we eat is a crop pollinated by honeybees.

I won first place at the Intel Science Fair for my research, but the audience I was able to reach out to was limited to scientists and environmentalists – I thought this documentary competition would be a good opportunity to transform my research into a film. I traveled to Florida and Pennsylvania to interview leading scientists and beekeepers. And there was a moment when I was in a bee suit holding my little HD camera in a swarm of bees when I realized I was fascinated by this. Not the sweaty suit, but the process of making a film. There was a real adventure involved in the creation of a film and the stories you discovered along the way.

Our documentary Requiem for the Honeybee won first place in C-Span’s competition and was broadcast internationally. As a competitor in science fairs I told a narrative about my research – my hypothesis, the materials I used, how I came across my conclusion – and I realized what interested me all along was the process of storytelling.

I just graduated in May from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in Film and TV and I am pursuing a career as a writer and director.

I was really impressed with VIOLET when I saw it at CMFHollywood in 2012. Can you tell us a bit about how it came together? 

Thank you! Violet is the story of a frightened teen who channels her dislike for the color purple into an inventive plea for help.

I wanted to tell a story about hair. It’s a simple thing you can run your fingers through or get tangled up, but it is also your identity. I’ve always had long hair. But one time I cut it a little too short, and felt like I didn’t recognize myself. I wanted to tell a challenging narrative about the meaning of something you love, that you have to learn to hate.

My cinematographer Hunter Baker lives in Monmouth Beach County, which became the backdrop for Violet. I admire how Alexander Payne casts authentic people and places that sculpt the world of his films. In that style I wanted the locations where we filmed to bring their own sense of character.

We found this unbelievable hair salon called “Chop Chop Bang Bang” with a purple car parked out front. I even ended up casting one of the hairstylists who worked there. She wasn’t an actor and in many ways was just playing herself. When I met her she had pink hair, and the day we filmed it was green. That was the kind of personality the character would have. And what made her perfect for the role.

I really admire my versatile actress Amanda Yarosh, who brings a real complexity to her characters. I was also really fortunate to collaborate with my cinematographer Hunter Baker. Together we developed a subdued visual tone to make the images feel still and let the performances play out on screen.

It’s a short film, so we put everything into making this possible. I funded Violet using my prize winnings from the Intel Science Fair and the Baker’s were kind enough to let the cast and crew stay at their home. Violet was made for Campus MovieFest, where you have a week to create a film - so we shot and edited the whole thing in seven days. I missed a lot of class. What - in your opinion - makes for a good short film? A short film is about a moment. And story is the driving force behind that. I think a lot of shorts get lost trying to squeeze a feature length plot into a couple of minutes. The simpler you are, there is a greater opportunity to dig deeper.

What have you taken from the CMF experience? Can you tell us how CMF played a part in the genesis of your new short film WITHOUT FIRE? 

CMF is a true test of your survival skills as a filmmaker. Here’s a camera and a computer and seven days, go make a movie. That sounds crazy. But it’s possible (with little sleep and great determination). I was fortunate to be a finalist two years in a row at CMF and participated in the festival that culminates in Los Angeles. Through CMF I met talented filmmakers from schools all over the country. When I decided I would be filming my NYU thesis film Without Fire in Arizona, I immediately called up friends I had made through CMF who lived out there.

How did you come up with the idea for WITHOUT FIRE?

Without Fire is the story of a young Navajo girl who must find a way to heat her home without electricity or fire in order to save her asthma-stricken mother from a bitter winter storm. The story is inspired by a friend of mine who I met through my experiences at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Using soda cans he created a functional solar and water heater that could warm a room and heat water up to 200 degrees. I wanted to explore the journey of a young person’s unconventional use of science and technology. But like many of the themes in Violet, Without Fire also explores a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.

You actually got a grant to shoot the film. Can you walk us through the process of getting that kind of funding? 

I was the recipient of a $25,000 production grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for Without Fire. After writing the script I was fortunate to discover the Sloan grant, which supports projects about science and technology.

Once I was selected as a finalist the process involved months of rewrites and a great deal of patience. I was assigned a writing and science advisor. In order to ensure the accuracy of the science in my script I had the opportunity to consult Tyler Volk, the Director of Environmental Studies at NYU. My story mentor, veteran screenwriter John Warren also helped me develop and structure my idea. I was up against several other filmmakers and there was no guarantee I would receive the funding, but I was driven to make the film with or without the grant. It’s a great honor to have received the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation throughout the production of Without Fire.

What were the challenges in making WITHOUT FIRE beyond getting the funding? What was the production like? 

Without Fire was filmed on a sheep camp on the Navajo Reservation with a crew from New York and Arizona. I was very fortunate to be granted permission to film on the Reservation thanks to the support of Ryan Begay and the Community of Pinon.

Casting was one of the biggest challenges and I was lucky to find two powerful lead actresses, Magdalena Begay and Misty Upham. I first saw Magdalena in a film online where she was building a time travel machine. She’s a ten-year-old Navajo girl who carries herself with great maturity and experience. It was an honor to have Magdalena and her father be a part of the project.

I really admired Misty Upham’s work in Frozen River – and I kept telling our casting director Angelique Midthunder, I want someone like Misty to play the lead role – and finally Angelique said "why don’t we just reach out to Misty?" She had just completed production on Jimmy P and August: Osage County with Meryl Streep. I was thrilled when she read the script and accepted the role. She brought forth a truly powerful performance and was such a professional actress to work with.

Shooting in Arizona presented many of its own challenges. I had to go to the hospital one day when I became severely dehydrated halfway through the shoot. I asked the doctor if he’d let me bring the IV to set so we wouldn’t fall behind schedule. He probably thought I was joking.

What do you think are the most valuable ways a filmmaker can make a short film work for them and what is your game plan for WITHOUT FIRE as you start to work the festival circuit?

Making short films has given me an opportunity to experiment with different visual styles and methods of storytelling. In both Violet and Without Fire I have pushed myself to use images to tell a story instead of just words. A short film is a chance to work creatively within limitation.

I want to take advantage of every opportunity to screen Without Fire. It’s currently on the festival circuit and has been accepted to NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, the Sun Valley Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival. We will also be screening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle before Arnaud Desplechin’s film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Once Without Fire completes its festival run – it will be showcased on the website for the Museum of the Moving Image.

Do you have any ambition to direct a feature and what sort of movies would you like to make? 

I’m currently developing a feature version of Without Fire. The feature focuses on the experiences of my friend leaving the Navajo Reservation to participate in science fairs and the obstacles he encounters along his journey. But first I’m going to make another short, this one is going to be about my true passion – honeybees. I want to tell stories about compelling characters that challenge contemporary views of science and technology.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Stealing the burrito" - the inverse of "save the cat."

I've actually been meaning to write a post about this for a while.  This falls into the category of "Things that once I might have blogged about but got out of my system via Twitter and failed to revisit."  This has been happening more and more frequently, but I'll try to be more diligent about gathering these musings here too.

Most of you are probably familiar with the principle of "save the cat," coined by screenwriter Blake Snyder. The idea is that in order to get the audience on the side of your protagonist, you need to show them committing some sort of heroic or selfless act.  Usually, "save the cat" is a metaphorical phrase, but INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS took it rather literally.  A less literal example might be an early moment in ALADDIN, when the hero gives half of his stolen bread to some starving orphans.

Basically, if we see a guy do something nice, we'll realize he's worthy of our support and be on his side for the rest of the script.  It's simple manipulation.

BATTLESHIP has a classic example of the inverse of this, and it led me to coin the term "Stealing the Burrito."  This is when your protagonist does something so mind-blowingly stupid or awful that no power on Earth could ever get an audience to root for them again.

In an early scene, Taylor Kitsch is trying to pick up swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker in a bar.  She's hungry for a chicken burrito, but the kitchen is closed.  In an effort to impress her, he says he can do it and she gives him five minutes to make it happen.  He runs across the street to a 7-11, but it's his bad luck the place is closed. So he does what any reasonable man trying to sleep with Brooklyn Decker would do - he breaks in to steal a chicken burrito.

The scene is played for attempted screwball comedy, but it succcess only in making Kitsch's character look ridiculously foolish as he ends up making a total mess of the place as he breaks in, heats the burrito and tries to get out.  Ceiling tiles are over-turned, items on shelves are smashed... it's a total mess. By the time he's arrested, he fully deserves the taser he gets. But don't take MY word for it...

(Sidebar: I don't think any man is above committing a misdemeanor or even a minor felony on the off-chance that said infraction would offer even the possibility of sexual congress with Brooklyn Decker.  That said, I'd be more likely to respect a guy who is at least smart about his law-breaking.

Also - just because I accept a guy's libido would make him stupid enough to do this, it doesn't mean I'd respect any woman who was actually wooed by this behavior.   By extension, I question any audience member who looks at this and says, "I'm SO pulling for this guy."

No, this is a scene that makes me shake my head and say, "No, I REFUSE to accept this as our hero."

I can see the argument that starting this low gives the hero an opportunity for a redemptive moment later on.  It would be more persuasive if the action didn't require him to be so unbalanced in the first place.  This is also what undercuts the "selfless" act of him offering the burrito to Brooklyn.  Stealing food for a starving kid is one thing.  Stealing food as a down payment on some possible groping and sweaty action? That's less laudible.

So the next time you see a movie screw up its efforts to become a cheerleader for their characters, you know you can call that a "stealing the burrito" moment.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Two opportunities offered by The Black List and one from theOffice

Yesterday, the Black List announced yet another opportunity open to their users, coming on the heels of their recent partnership with TNT and TBS.

Black List is pleased to announce a partnership with the Walt Disney Studios to identify writers with diverse perspectives who have not made more than $250K for their screenwriting work in the last ten years for Disney's Feature Writers Program. This is the second such partnership between the Black List and a major Hollywood studio. 

The Walt Disney Studios' Feature Writers Program is a paid one year residency housed in Disney's live-action production group that provides up-and-coming feature writers with development and mentorship opportunities. 

"There are countless stories to be told and we're always looking for new perspectives at every stage of filmmaking, especially during the creation of a script," said Walt Disney Pictures President of Production Sean Bailey. "Disney is thrilled to partner with the Black List to uncover the next generation of creative and talented writers who will create the classic stories of tomorrow." 

Beginning today, writers with screenplays hosted on the Black List website can opt into consideration. On May 5, 2014, the Black List will select a short list of between five and ten writers based on the data gathered about each script during its time hosted on the website. Each finalist will then provide a professional resume and one page personal statement, which will be reviewed along with their selected screenplay by executives in the Walt Disney Studios live-action production group. 

To be considered, simply opt in during the script upload process or on your My Scripts page. 
For additional information, click here
For additional submission requirements, click here
For the Walt Disney Studios submission agreement and release, click here

It should be noted that one of those requirements is that the script be hosted on The Black List site for at least one week during the submission period.  So if you had a script up there and let it expire, you're going to need to reactivate hosting to qualify.  Looking over the forms, there don't seem to be any usual terms or conditions.

Also, late last night, Deadline reported that Jon Avnet and Rodrigo Garcia’s digital company WIGS has partnered with The Black List for their own search to name a writer to develop a YouTube series. According to Deadline, the digital studio specializes in scripted female dramas.  The Black List will come up with a short list of five writers to submit.  You may apply until May 6.

This joins the Black List's previous partnerships with TBS and TNT, the Sundance Institute Workshop, the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship,  and the blind deal offered via Warner Bros, as the newest of the opportunities it's made available to users.  The site's twitter account is also teasing that more announcements are yet to come.

I also was told about a new opportunity from theOffice:

If you're looking for the perfect place in LA to leave the distractions of life behind and finish that screenplay/novel/short story/what-have-you, enter now to win a FREE 6 month Premium Membership to theOffice.

theOffice is a quiet, communal workspace on 26th (across from the Brentwood Country Mart). There are 26 ergonomic workstations in the room equipped with Aeron chairs, wifi, a reference library and all the coffee you can handle.

Charter and current members include JJ Abrams, Mark Cullen, Matthew Carnahan, Sam Harris, Susannah Grant, Gigi Levangie Grazer, Gary Glasberg and many more. It's where serious writers go to GET IT DONE.

The contest is free to enter. All of the details are on the

Deadline to apply is March 15th.
Send Submissions to:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reader questions: casting and descriptions

More reader mail...

Sand Man writes:

I find it beneficial to have an actor in mind when I write or read a screenplay. Would someone like yourself find it beneficial to have the writer suggest an actor they feel fits the characters they've created..?

First off, as a writer, I think it can definitely help to have a certain type in mind when writing.  If it crystallizes the character for you, that's not a bad thing.  I don't often do this myself, however on one of my recent scripts, my wife instantly came up with a casting choice after reading the script.   The funny thing is, I wasn't thinking of this actor and probably wouldn't have come up with the name on my own, but as soon as it was pointed out to me I could really see it!  Now when I picture the eventual film, that's the actor I envision.

However I decided not to go back and insert a reference to that actor in the description.  I realize that putting it in could help a reader picture exactly what I want them to.  But what if they hate that actor?  What if that actor's latest movie has terrible buzz? Or worse, what if this exec has seen an early cut of that actor's next film and knows he or she can't act their way out of a paper bag?

I also worry about boxing their imagination in too much.  Maybe they don't think this particular actor is marketable and limiting their imagination to that specific type, I've closed them off from coming up with other possibilities they might have actually worked with.  These are things I worry about, but at the end of the day, it's all a judgment call.

I have no doubt that there are some professional and produced writers who would totally endorse naming actors in your script.  It's a perfectly acceptable shorthand, especially if you're dealing with readers who have limited imagination.  Also, it's a much easier trick to use if you're naming an actor with a lot of mega-successes under his belt.  (In other words, using "Robert Downey Jr." probably isn't going to be as much of a knock against you as "Chris O'Donnell.")

So is there really a right answer here? I'm not sure, but there's probably a right answer for you.

Ian writes:

I've read plenty of screenwriting books and plenty of scripts. I think I'm pretty competent when it comes to putting a story together, and anyone who reads my work says my dialogue is strong. But it's action and description that I still can't figure out. I'm never sure how much to describe a setting or a character's expression, and when to keep the description to the bare minimum, and I think it's affecting my work negatively since, obviously, a lot of the writing in screenplays is action and description. 

So I was wondering if you could weigh in on this? Should I keep the level of description consistent throughout, or should it change from scene to scene? Do I just keep things simple on the page, and let directors, cinematographers and actors fill in the description for me? Anything tips you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

If by consistent, you mean that every scene should have the exact same level of description, I rather disagree with that.  It's going to vary depending on the specificity of the environment.  For example, if your main character is walking into an unremarkable office or a grocery store, there's a good chance you'll do less describing than if they wander into an alien spaceship or something totally foreign.

Also if you're returning to the same environments several times over, you won't need to write nearly as much on subsequent visits as you will the first time.

In terms of how complex you get, I don't think you need to delineate every single piece of blocking in the scene.  If it's important that a character cross a room in a particular way, then certainly go crazy.  If you get carried away and try to spell out every movement in the script, you're going to over-complicate the read and that can hurt you.

The question-behind-the-question here is really about figuring out what's essential to tell the story.  I can't give you a one-size-fits-all answer.  That's one of those things you discover yourself through trial and error.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reader questions on selling unmarketable ideas and foreign submissions

I've gotten very lazy about answering the old mailbag, so I'm going to try to make some headway this week.

Joel writes:

I've written two screenplays so far and am working on a third. I am increasingly cynical about Hollywood, as there seems to be more people making money off exploiting aspiring artists, than people who are making money off of art. It's kind of like a modern day gold rush, you're far better off selling whiskey to the prospectors than actually panning for gold. 

My screenplays are more about the telling than the actual tale, and are more or less unpitchable, in the traditional sense of the word "pitch." For example, Ripple, my first screenplay uses multiple inter-connecting storylines to track a highly contagious bad mood through a community, until all the small altercations culminate in an event that affects everyone involved. Not pitchable. 

As a film enthusiast, I prefer soft concept movies. It's seems that most production companies only want high concept screenplays, and in a few years there will be no such thing as a drama. As a reader, what is your advice? At the moment selling this screenplay, which everyone that's read it has loved, seems impossible. Should I keep plugging or should I attempt to shoot it myself with absolutely no budget? Or go to screenwriting seminars and sell cocaine to all my fellow failures? 

Okay, a lot to unpack here and also a lot that probably deserves more in-depth discussion than I can give.  So let's start with the soft concept discussion. You're right about how soft concept scripts are hard sells.  Part of that is that high concept stories are a lot more exciting to pitch and seem more marketable.

The other part of that is that this town is swimming with soft concept scripts. In my years reading professionally, I read a ton of low-key dramas.  Clearly SOME of these writers were getting repped or at least had enough connections to get their work passed around.  But there's also supply and demand.  When there's a massive surplus of those stories floating around, the bar is going to be raised for the really good ones to stand out.  So statistically, your odds of selling such a script go down and they're probably likely to sell for less.

(Your specific pitch actually sounds more high-concept than low-concept.  I could see the concept cutting both ways.  On one hand, it could lend itself to one of those "Valentine's Day" ensemble-type films with a dozen famous faces.  On the other hand, the "how do we market this?" question looms large if you don't pack it full of famous faces.)

I think it's good that you recognize how the market perceives your work.  That sort of insight helps you direct your energies to the strategies most likely to pay off for you.  Personally, I like the idea of trying to shoot it yourself.  If it can be done on a low budget, it seems like the sort of idea that could brand you as a director (if that's what you're after).  There's certainly a history of directors with original ideas finding a way to shoot their films themselves and get noticed that way.

If you're running into a situation where a lot of people love it, but can't do anything with it, you're choices are: (1) keep trying to find the right buyer or (2) shoot it yourself.  It's possible that "right buyer" exists somewhere out there and the great thing is that if the script really is good, that buyer won't be able to keep their hands off it.

But if your ideal buyer is an extremely rare breed, then I say shoot it yourself. We're in an era where it's gotten drastically cheaper to make a film.  The challenge then is to make a GOOD film and to find a way to market it so it can become your calling card.

If nothing else, see if it's at all feasible to produce it yourself.  If it's way out of your reach, then maybe change your strategy of who you're going after.  Or write something that IS producible.

Borja writes:

In a few months I'm finishing my studies, and a question started buzzing in my mind: Could an Spanish writer send scripts to Hollywood? I know maybe I'm aiming too high, but Spanish Film Industry is dead (or at least deadly wounded). That's why I'd like to know if you have ever red any script sent from Spain.

Just speaking for myself here, I didn't read too many submissions from foreign countries that didn't come through agents. So if you're looking to get your script to someone like me, you need to chase after agents first.

The foreign submissions I did read frequently had issues with language/translation.  Occasionally, you'd stumble onto some awkwardly written descriptions, but the place where this was most noticeable was in the dialogue.  Unless the writer was totally fluent in English, when they translated the dialogue from their native language to English, it would often take on a stilted, formal quality.

So before you start submitting to American companies, find Americans to read the script and be brutal with you about the quality of your English.  It will pay off in the long run, I promise.