Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Find the entire /Film list here.

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

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

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

But it's a good half of a meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this and more in Part II.

Buy the book here.

Find my announcement of the book here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

Michael Bay does Juno. Go!

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

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

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

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

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Read my announcement of the book here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

Download the episode directly here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Amanda Pendolino interviewed me about my Michael Bay book

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

What's your favorite Michael Bay movie? 

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about my book, go here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

FAULTS ironically has very few faults of its own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

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

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

From Ben James:

Two questions for Franklin would be:

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

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

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

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

From Gail:

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

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

From Clint:

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

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

From Jace:

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

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

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

One more:

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

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

From Iam Seth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ToddB:

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

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

From DH:

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

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

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

From CableTVForMe:

My question.....

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

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

From rosavideo:

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

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

From baronvonscott:

Two questions:

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

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

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

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

From John:

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

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

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

From Jeffrey:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

KILL THE MESSENGER might be the most-overlooked film of the year

I have a very strong feeling that in a few years, as his performance is rediscovered, a lot of people will be saying "Why didn't anyone talk about how great Jeremy Renner was in KILL THE MESSENGER?" Though the film boasts a great performance from Renner, it's not a particularly showy one, particularly in an Oscar season that sets it against Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and Michael Keaton in BIRDMAN. The strange thing is that I can recall a time when this would have been the sort of dark horse everyone was buzzing about.

Renner plays journalist Gary Webb, a writer for The San Jose Mercury News who stumbles onto a bigger story when the girlfriend of a cocaine-trafficker brings him evidence that the key witness against her boyfriend used to sell drugs for the U.S. government. Webb is dubious until he sees the evidence, a grand jury transcript mistakenly turned over in the discovery process. Once Webb starts poking around, he realizes he's making a lot of people in the government nervous, a sure sign he's onto something.

This leads him to interview notorious drug figures like L.A.'s "Freeway" Rick Ross, and then feeds questions to Ross's attorney at trial, so that the examination of the witnesses against Ross can unearth a deeper conspiracy - that the government's biggest witness against the dealer was actually smuggling tons of cocaine into the country at the behest of the C.I.A. He takes a later trip to Nicaragua to interview another drug lord in prison, and this guy fingers Oliver North as the man who suggested using the cash from the cocaine sales in America to fund Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.

Yes, this all ties into Iran-Contra, undoubtedly one of the biggest scandals of the Reagan Administration and one that's been wiped relatively clean from Reagan's legacy. (Seriously, visit the Reagan Library sometime and see how sparse the material on his second term is. It's a joke. I don't think the Nixon Library gets away with a similar white-wash on Watergate.  The difference is that the core of Watergate is pretty easy to distill, whereas Iran-Contra is so complicated that I suspect the average American barely understands what all the fuss was about.)

With enough smoking guns that seem to tie the C.I.A. directly to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, Webb writes his story and it's a bombshell. It pisses off people in government and a number of his rivals at other publications. Few are shown to be more pissed than The Los Angeles Times, who apparently missed a giant story right under their noses. Thus, both they and The Washington Post (portrayed here as a mouthpiece for the C.I.A.) set to work at debunking the story and destroying Webb's credibility.

The first half of the film follows the relatively familiar pattern of the dogged journalist working to expose corruption in power. It's an underdog story where moral righteousness prevails, the truth is dragged into the light and our hero is lauded for the bravery he shows in the face of harassment and firm "you don't want to keep digging" conversations from sinister government officials. The only problem for Webb is that all of this takes up only the first half of the movie.

The second half of the film completely subverts the expectations of the first. Webb deals with the fallout, and that includes some pretty heavy indictments against the media. Some in the press are guilty of misrepresenting what Gary's story actually says, which makes that misrepresentation vulnerable to "debunking" by the CIA, thus smearing Gary's credibility over charges he never actually made. This turns some of Webb's media appearances into a farce where the talking points have nothing to do with the truth.  Then come the criticisms that he has no one on the record who's above reproach. As Webb points out, when getting people to go on the record about corruption they participated in, it's going to be hard to find someone who's morally pure.

The film takes the position that everything Webb wrote about was in fact true. Since we're there when he's meeting the key witnesses, we know that his editors are wrong when they suggest that Gary might have gotten a little overzealous, or misrepresented what he was told. You can understand in an abstract way why his editors might give pause when the blowback hits, but the filmmakers were wise not to make this potential ambiguity a crux of the story.

This becomes a story of how one man's life and career were completely destroyed by exposing government corruption. It's the dark mirror of the Woodward and Bernstein sort of heroic journalists who buck the odds and come out vindicated. Gary Webb takes on the system and the system sets out to destroy him, with the fourth estate becoming a willing accomplice to Webb's lynching.  Renner does some of his best work as his world spirals out from under him in the second half of the film. It's a downfall made all the more painful for the investment of one half of the film in what seems to be leading to his coronation as a leading journalist.

I first read this script years ago, and I recall it casting a powerful spell, being one of the best screenplays I read that year. Thus, it's no surprise that it attracted not only a terrific lead in Renner, but a supporting cast that's a murderer's row of great actors: Rosemarie DeWitt does fine work as Webb's wife, a woman who can't quite believe in her husband as much as she wants to. The always-excellent Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead make the most of their roles as Webb's editors, which allows those characters to remain sympathetic even as their actions are somewhat cowardly and self-serving. Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta also turn up in brief parts as key figures in the conspiracy.

It's a real shame that this film is falling under the radar, though perhaps ironic. SPOILER: a closing title card reveals that in real life, the C.I.A. released a 400-page report that essentially confirmed everything Webb wrote about a few years earlier. However, since this happened concurrent with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, none of the major papers paid it much attention.  That's the perfect note on which to end this film, summing up every point it wants to make about American journalism.

Monday, November 3, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER - a must-see study in creating "unlikable" characters

There will be some general story spoilers for the first half of this, but not much that you can't deduce from the trailer. I'm going to warn you before I blow bigger stuff, and then I'm going to tip-toe around the last 20 minutes or so of the film. I'm not sure how other reviewers have decided to handle this, but much of the back half of the film plays better if you go in fresh.

Right from the start, NIGHTCRAWLER lets you know that it's about a character who isn't going to be easy to like. At. All. We meet Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom as he breaks into a construction site to steal materials to re-sell as scrap. A guard catches him and Lou unconvincingly tries to talk his way out of it before beating up the guard and then stealing his expensive watch.

In the next scene, Lou tries to sell the scrap to a junk dealer and it's apparent that Lou either can't read social cues or actively has decided not to cater to them. First he tries to negotiate a higher price for his find, in the process pissing off the dealer. Then he asks the man if he can have a job, not even waiting for the owner to really respond before launching into a long, prepared speech about how he's a hard worker and not going to come with an entitled attitude like so many of his generation.

Lou Bloom is the kind of guy who makes you uncomfortable when he talks to you. At first, he reminded me of people who read The Secret or who took one of those bullshit life coaching classes where they preach persistence above all else, no matter the reaction. In Lou's world, "no" doesn't mean "no" so much as it's a provocation to reload and try again. Even if we hadn't seen how Lou obtained his junk, that sequence with the dealer alone would be enough for us to find him off-putting.

Eventually, we come to understand that his alien nature is what gives him his power. It puts his opponents off-balance, and opponents is precisely the right word because Lou treats every encounter like it's a move in a larger chess game. He has zero empathy with anyone, to the point where he's a near sociopath.

Quickly, Lou becomes fascinated by the work of videographers who spend nights listening to police scanners and arriving at accident and crime scenes with the intent of shooting and selling footage to local news stations. Fatal accidents and shootings command the biggest bucks, and while some might cringe at the moral issues involved in crashing a carjacking scene and filming a victim take his last breaths while paramedics work to save him, Lou has no such qualms. It's as if he's found his calling.

Before long, Lou has added another member to his team, a young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed, doing good work as one of the movie's only likable characters) who's desperate for a job. In another marvelous dialogue scene, Lou firmly informs the young man that this isn't a playing job, it's an "internship." He hits all the usual points about how this can be an "opportunity" for the young man and if you don't want to punch Lou in the face by the end of this scene, you've never tried hunting for a job in at least the last ten years.

The fascinating thing about this is how Lou manages to get exactly what he wants through sheer force of personality. There's no charisma to what he does, nothing that gives a person the grounds to think, "Well, he seems like a totally nice guy. I'll go the extra mile for him." He is unapologetic and emotionally detached. When engages people, it's only to get something he wants and the reparte is almost entirely on showing the person how screwed they are if they don't comply. It's not so much horse-trading as it is, "I'm going to take your horse. And I'm going to explain why you're better off just letting that happen."

There's a long history in film and TV of charismatic assholes, and yet, they often become beloved characters. Think of Ari Gold from Entourage, a character who is the epitome of every horrible trait you could find in his profession. He's a bully, he's racist, he threatens people, he destroys careers... and yet even as he does this, there's such magnetism to the character that one almost goes, "Ha ha... that's our Ari! What's he up to next?" He's not even at Walter White levels of "Wow, that was awful, but it was badass too!" Watch those guys (or Boston Legal's Alan Shore, or Scrubs's Dr. Cox, to name two other notable TV assholes) and some dark part of your soul goes, "Damn, I wish I could be cool as those guys." I don't know if there's anything "cool" about Lou Bloom.

This is not a criticism of Gyllenhaal's performance, by the way. Quite the opposite, he commits to Lou's horrible nature fully and completely, with no attempt at all to smooth off some rough edges to get us rooting for the guy. There's possibly a great counterexample even within the same film, through Bill Paxton's character as a rival nightcrawler. Paxton's chasing down the same sort of footage, preying on victims of violence in much the same way. Even as he's being a loudmouth, there's something likable about the guy. He's "a guy you could have a beer with." It's not even that the film seems to be trying to get us to like Paxton, we just kind of accept him. It shows just how hard they work to make sure Lou doesn't provoke a "Hey, he's kinda fun!" reaction.

Every success Lou has is followed up in pretty short measure by some scene that reminds us Lou is pretty slimy. Midway through the film, he takes news director Nina (Rene Russo) out to drinks. He's already asked her out and been rebuffed in an earlier scene and after a relatively unveiled threat to take his footage elsewhere, Lou manages to talk her into joining him.

What follows is a truly despicable conversation where he causally reveals to Nina that he's researched a great deal about her on the internet, successfully targets her insecurity and vulnerability - specifically that she is probably not long for that job and that the upcoming ratings period is crucial to her future - and extorts her not only for a higher pay rate, but also better credit, important introductions at the station and, oh yes, sexual favors. While there is a token attempt to let Nina know that accepting this deal benefits her, it's more of the "do this and I won't have to shoot you" variety rather than a true "win-win." This isn't deal-making, it's blackmail.

(Russo, by the way, is also excellent in her supporting role. It's a real shame that her only other roles since 2005 have been in the THOR movies.)


Of course, all this pales when cast against what Lou does in the second half of the film. Thanks to a police scanner (and a mandate to chase stories that prey on the white fear of urban crime creeping into their "safe" communities) Lou arrives on the scene of a home invasion just before the suspects flee. He gets footage of them and their car, then enters the affluent home and rolls footage on the brutal aftermath. Three people have been shot dead in gruesome fashion, their bodies left to bleed throughout the opulent setting. Lou gets what he needs and flees the scene before the cops arrive.

Nina's practically salivating at the footage (which has been clipped of the footage of the killers by the time Lou passes it on) and makes it the lead of the next newscast. Some of her colleagues have clear misgivings about using it, but Nina knows it's ratings gold and watching her direct the reporters' live commentary on the footage makes it clear just how she wants this story received. The local news mandate is to scare the crap out of their viewers - that way they'll keep coming back for updates.

And then there's the matter of how Lou exploits the footage he held back of the killers. Even with a spoiler warning, I feel like it would be a crime to blow this for the audience. Suffice to say that Lou's amoral nature and desire to create a newsworthy event goes far past most people's moral threshold. It actually makes him vulnerable for once, as he enters into a negotiation where someone else has leverage over him. There's some nice writing of that scene, where both players realize the power dynamic has shifted. You can almost see the gears working in their heads as that happens. It's the kind of moment we don't get enough of in film, seeing characters actually think. (It's also a nice showcase for the actor who becomes Gyllenhaal's sparring partner in that sequence.)

Watching Lou's plans play out make for some of the most intense moments in film this year. Watching this, you would never guess that it was screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directing debut. Not only does he have a wonderful command of character and dialogue in the script, but Gilroy has an innate sense of where to put the camera. He knows when to lock us into a particular character's point of view and watch tension build at a distance, and he knows when to put us right in the thick of the action. I felt like I was watching the work of Michael Mann circa Collateral.

As someone currently working on a script involving a sociopath and a character who isn't likable or redeemable in the least, NIGHTCRAWLER was a valuable study. There's a lot this script can teach about character crafting. I've said before that one of the necessary components of any great script is a strong character we don't feel like we've seen before. Lou Bloom is not the sort of character I've run across often. Creating him is an act of bravery on the part of Gillroy and Gyllenhaal, and it won't surprise me if that boldness is rewarded throughout Oscar season.