Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Film School Rejects: If you want to make a Superman show, make a Superman show!

In a recent post for Film School Rejects, I took aim at the latest examples of a trend: TV shows based on comic book properties that don't include the main character of those properties. Until now, GOTHAM was the most visible example, being set in Batman's hometown years before the Caped Crusader makes his debut. As I note, that hasn't stopped producers from mining the source material for other characters, even if it seems they're all debuting too early.

Two upcoming shows spun out of the Superman mythos - Krypton and Metropolis - both sidestep using Superman himself. Krypton takes place two generations in the past on Superman's homeworld, with a time-travel hook that has Superman foes traveling back in time to change history. (This conveniently lets the creators use plenty of characters who don't belong in that part of the timeline.) Meanwhile, Metropolis is focusing on the exploits of Lois Lane and Lex Luthor before Superman arrives.

Based on what we know so far, I'm finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for two properties that take place well before the single most important element of the story, and who will probably take some liberties to introduce a lot of characters early in this prequel setting. There's one thing that would pique my interest, and it's basically the same idea I had to improve GOTHAM  a few years ago:

In other words, establish that the villains in Krypton succeed in erasing Superman and Metropolis can be set in the same timeline, where there's no Superman coming to save everyone. The ripple effect of that change can be explored, forcing Lois to step up as a hero and maybe even sending Lex down a different, more noble destiny.

Check out the rest of my thoughts here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Black List and Women In Film Announce Participants and Mentors for Inaugural Feature Lab for Women Writers

Los Angeles, CA, February 23, 2018– This week, the Black List and Women In Film are hosting their first annual Feature Lab for Women Writers. During this week long, residential Lab, each writer will workshop one screenplay through a peer workshop and one-on-one sessions with professional screenwriting mentors. Additionally, they will attend a series of events and screenings that will further expose them to the realities of a life as a professional screenwriter.

Mentors and special guests include Amy Baer (Founder, Gidden Media), Tonia Davis (VP of Film, Chernin Entertainment), Dana Fox (HOW TO BE SINGLE), Maryam Keshavars (CIRCUMSTANCE), Graham Moore (THE IMITATION GAME), Amanda Silver (WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES), Kiwi Smith (LEGALLY BLONDE), Scott Myers (Go Into The Story), Lindsay Doran (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), Aline Brosh McKenna(THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) and Franklin Leonard (Founder, the Black List). The Lab participants’ scripts will be hosted by the Black List website following the Lab and participants will have their final scripts read by industry executives.

The participating writers are:
Déjà Bernhardt // HALF ANGELS
Debbie Castanha // THE DROUGHT
Natasha Lewin // FREEDOM RIDES
Lise Pyles // BANNER HERO
Cat Youell // TUSSAUD

The 2017 Lab is supported by Verizon’s go90 – the premium mobile entertainment destination.

About the Participants
Traveling between her disparate homes in Bali, Indonesia and Austin, Texas, Déjà Bernhardt draws upon her mixed heritage finding inspiration to tell both narrative and documentary stories. Her films have screened in over 30 festivals globally and her 35mm graduate school film, THE MIDWIFE'S HUSBAND (2012), was nominated for a Student Academy Award.

Debbie Castanha lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she began screenwriting after mastering tardy notes to teachers and Christmas letters about her amazing family (who she’d leave in a heartbeat to pursue her screenwriting dreams). She is passionate about character-driven stories, and her script THE WATER TOWER was a quarterfinalist in the 2017 Nicholl Fellowship.

Jessica Ellis is an AFI graduate and writer/director of upcoming feature WHAT LIES WEST. Jessica also worked as a story editor for digital series LOCAL AIR, and can be found screaming about television regularly on Twitter at @baddestmamajama.

Natasha Lewin is the Chief Writing Officer for Zuckerberg Media—a multimedia production company founded by the creator of DOT and Facebook Live, Randi Zuckerberg. In 2017, Natasha won the Hollywood Fringe Diversity Scholarship and took home the SHORT + SWEET Award for her play CHATTER.

Texan Lise Pyles learned screenwriting while living in the Outback, after an article she'd written for Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine seemed best suited as a movie. Now a Nicholl and AFF semi-finalist, she remains dedicated to screenwriting with her third feature script in the works.

Having grown up a sheltered only child in Orlando, FL, obsessed with Turner Classic Movies, Cat Youell paved her way to USC‘s School of Cinematic Arts where she completed her MFA in Film Production. A writer, director, and producer, Cat loves exploring the world and discovering little known true stories, particularly those about strong female characters with a dark twist.

About The Black List
The Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives' favorite unproduced screenplays, was founded in 2005. Since then, more than 319 Black List scripts have been produced, grossing over $26 billion in box office worldwide. Black List movies have won 51 Academy Awards from 264 nominations, including four of the last nine Best Picture Oscars and ten of the last twenty Best Screenplay Oscars. In October of 2012, the Black List launched a unique online community where screenwriters make their work available to readers, buyers and employers. Since its inception, it has hosted more than 40,000 screenplays and teleplays and provided more than 65,000 script evaluations. As a direct result of introductions made on the Black List, dozens of writers have found representation at major talent agencies and management companies, as well as sold or optioned their screenplays. In only three years, a half dozen films have been produced from scripts introduced on the website including Golden Globe nominated NIGHTINGALE, starring David Oyelowo. Currently, the Black List hosts over 3,500 scripts for consideration by over 3,500 film industry professionals ranging from agency assistants, to studio and network presidents, to A-list actors and directors. More information on the Black List is available at

About Women In Film
Women In Film advocates for and advances the careers of women working in the screen industries -- to achieve parity and transform culture. Founded in 1973, Women In Film supports all women working in film, TV, and digital media from emerging to advanced career. Our distinguished programs include: mentoring, speaker & screening series, production training program, writing labs, film finishing funds, legal aid and an annual financing intensive. We advocate for gender parity through research, media campaigns and ReFrame, a collaboration with Sundance Institute. Women In Film honors the achievements of women in Hollywood through the legacy series, annual Emmy and Oscar parties and our signature event, the Crystal + Lucy Awards. Membership is open to all media professionals and more information can be found on our website:

About go90
Verizon Media’s go90 is a premium mobile entertainment destination for the best in live sports and original content. go90 is part of Verizon's digital media network of video content and platforms, which includes AOL, HuffPost, Yahoo View, Yahoo Sports - and Complex Networks and more. go90 features 1,400 hours of originals from sought-after creators and talent and 25,000 hours of live sports and TV. go90 content can be viewed free from the app on iOSAndroid or at

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The time has come for the next generation to save us from guns and the GOP

At this point, I do not understand how anyone can say with a straight face that they believe in the Republican Party. A fiction writer could not craft such a comically evil and corrupt organization without being smacked for a depiction of pure scum that was dead on the nose.

On every subject - workers rights, healthcare, race issues, LGBT issues, law enforcement, education, environment, conservation, taxes, the economy, national defense - they are on the wrong side. Every single policy seems designed to benefit only the richest of the rich, at the expense of hurting the poor and the middle class for not being rich.

In short, I've spent the last year saying "Fuck off and die" to the Republican Party so much that I felt like it was beginning to lose all meaning.

And then last week brought another mass shooting at a school that claimed the lives of 17 people. The blood had barely dried before the usual talking points were trotted out: "We should arm teachers!" "Guns don't kill people! People kill people!" "Now is not the time to talk about gun control!" "Don't politicize this!"

And my absolute favorite: "Laws won't stop criminals from getting guns because criminals don't obey the law." If you parse that out, it's really an excellent argument against laws of any kind.

Even for a party that has cornered the market on intellectual dishonestly, this is lunacy. We've spent 20 years trying to have a conversation with people who aren't willing to discuss the issue in good faith. Nothing ever changes and we keep trying to engage these right wing zealots as if they can be reached. 90% of the country - that's Republican and Democrat voters - want sensible gun care and it's blocked by the 10% of Republican politicians who are bought and paid for, and the sociopathic voters so desperate not to see the truth that they would rather believe all the shootings are staged false flags with crisis actors.

Fuck Alex Jones. If you have someone in your life who listens to the shit he peddles, cut them out completely. There's no saving them.

I've spent 20 years feeling like the only thing we can do is wait for these aging white bigots to die off and become demographically insignificant. Then, miraculously, in the shadow of tragedy... I got a glimmer of hope.

The teen survivors of Stoneman Douglas High School have done what no other school shooting survivors have done - become aggressive advocates for new laws and gun control. These kids aren't asking for change. They're demanding it. They're throwing down the gauntlet and telling lawmakers that one way or another, change is coming whether they like it or not.

Showing them rev up for "Here are our terms of surrender, you NRA prostitutes" has brought into sharp relief that this has been long overdue. It's time to treat this debate for what it really is - not a Socratic debate between equally good-intentioned sides, but a hostage negotiation. We've wasted our time trying to reason with the Party of Reagan, when it's been clear to all that to swallow the pro-gun shit they shovel, one's mind has to be as dementia-ridden as... well... you know.

(Okay, if I get off on the "Fuck Ronald Reagan" tangent, we'll be here all day. After the kids burn the NRA to the ground, maybe we can get started on Reagan's legacy. Even if you ignore that Iran-Contra was way worse than Watergate, the guy fucked the economy over for generations and let the AIDS crisis explode due to his homophobia.)

The generation that grew up about teen heroes fighting tyranny in YA dystopian novels is now faced with their own Voldemort and President Snow. Watching every right wing gas bag throw impotent punches at them has been a true delight and whine about how unfair the fight is has been a true delight.

So I wrote a piece for Film School Rejects about what I've dubbed "Generation Rey." Like the female star of The Last Jedi, it's fallen to them to solve the crisis that was created by and ignored by the heroes of the previous generation. Check it out here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Watch Twitter, potentially the greatest writers' room, workshop a concept

The last 24 hours in my twitter feed have been a lot of fun. It started when on a lark I posted a quick pitch that I spitballed earlier in the day to another writer:

"Premise: a retiring Olympian has the greatest sex of his life while at the Olypmic Village. He never gets the name of the other athelete, and doesn't see her before the end of the Games

To find her, he ditches retirement and is determined to compete 4 years later, past his prime."

Sometimes I toss out these quick pitches and they get little reaction. This one seemed to hit a chord with some people. One frequent reaction was to immediately start poking at the premise:

Granted, my pitch was less than 280 characters, so it's not like I was delivering a full treatment. I don't blame people for their first reaction being, "Here's why that hook doesn't work." But here's what I found impressive as the tone in my mentions turned from nitpicking to supportive...

And some others liked the potential the story had to subvert familiar tropes:

But best of all were the people who looked at the plot holes in the premise and decided to work the problem. It's easy to poke holes, but it takes more effort and creativity to solve them. This is how you give good notes. Look for story problems and plot holes as opportunities for creativity, not roadblocks to stop you from moving forward.

A couple people suggested the same complications...

And then there were the sillier riffs.

And then a twist on the concept, changing the genre.

All in all, I got a big kick out of this "virtual writers room." Sometimes the hive mind can solve problems that one person can't. Seeing how this one idea was workshopped might offer an example of how to receive and contribute to improving both your own ideas and the ideas of others.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ron Howard's MasterClass is damn near essential for aspiring directors

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I've had generally strong praise for the previous three MasterClass courses I've examined. Though it was for actors, Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (since made unavailable, but you can find my review here) actually gave me some valuable insight in how to direct actors. Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review) offered some really interesting peaks at how someone like Sorkin builds his scripts and gives guidance to other writers, while David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing (review) is a good instructional course for beginners.

As I've previewed each of those classes, there's almost always been a moment early on where I have to remind myself, "Remember, this is geared for people who haven't necessarily spent a decade plus working in the industry, and who likely haven't even gotten a degree in writing, acting, or filmmaking." I always try to watch each class with an objective less about what I personally am getting out of it, and more about how it might function as a tool for someone in the early stages of their career.

So I wasn't surprised when that moment came a few times in the early videos of Ron Howard Teaches Directing. The first several lessons focus on things like how Ron chooses a story, the three components he looks for in a great screenplay and how he works with various department heads like his production designer and cinematographer.

It's not that Ron doesn't have anything useful to offer there. In fact, I think it's incredibly important how some of his instructions stress collaboration and demystify the notion that the director is the entire brain trust behind the operation. He expresses the hierarchy really well when he says, "We all have to be telling the story, every single department. And who is the keeper of the story? Ultimately it's the director." This is tempered in a later video when he describes his policy of how if anyone he hires has an intuitive suggestion that still accomplishes the scene’s goals, he will test it. This rule "gets people invested in the project," builds trust, and makes it easier to say "no"when he needs to.

As I watched this, my thought was, "This is good stuff, and it makes me REALLY wish there were more people in general as wise about this as Ron, but is all of this worth the money and the time the average person will spend on it."

I never should have questioned this. By the end of these videos, I was pretty certain this was the best of the courses I'd taken, by far. The groundwork laid by Ron's first several videos is dominated by some basic instruction and advice that you might find elsewhere, but the back two-thirds are utterly unique. A multi-video exercise (with most of these videos exceeding 20 minutes by the way) puts us on set with Ron and a troupe of actors as he walks us through the rehearsal, blocking, and shooting of a scene from Frost/Nixon. It's a recreation with new actors, treated as if Ron is preparing the scene for that day of production, and it's as close as we could ever get to looking over the famed director's shoulder without actually being on set with him.

First, Ron rehearses the actors without any movement or blocking. He's just gauging the energy and the rhythms of the scene and making adjustments to their performances in general. We see him direct several of the actors and here's where you really feel the collaborative spirit coming in. It never comes across as him scolding the actors for doing the line wrong. Instead, it's always an energetic, affable redirection. When he tells them to try it differently and explains how, it feels like they're eager to take the note and try it instead of getting hung up on a mistake.

After a few runs to his satisfaction, Ron guides them through another rehearsal on set, as they try to figure out their blocking, how they interact with each other, what bit of business they'll do, and so on. When redirections are given, they're in the same spirit as before, and often Ron will take a moment to explain his changes like, "If you land here on this line, it puts you by this window and that's great for composing with more depth." Or, "If you stand here, we can shoot you down the hallway and add depth as opposed to just against this flat wall."

Then Ron adds cameras and it's clear he's simultaneously thinking of several things at once: are the performances natural? Is the blocking dramatic and aiding the performance? Are there ways to add tension or change the energy of the scene with specific movements or interactions? How does the framing of the shots and the sense of space enhancing the tension and the relationship among the actors?  A lot of stuff goes by fast as we watch the scene shot again and again from different angles, and even when Ron doesn't stop to explain his thought process behind certain choices (which he does frequently), his instructions and notes are usually so specific that you start to figure out what's motivating them.

With those videos, Ron drives this series into the end zone, but then he REALLY spikes the ball with what he does next. With the scene's coverage committed to film under one set of blocking, he tells the actors he's now going to restage the scene the way he considered doing in the original film before abandoning it in favor of another plan. And so he blocks them for a Stedicam shot. His original plan to do it all as a one-take Stedicam "oner" proves impractical given the limitations of the set, so he instead does it as successive Stedicam takes, giving us a contrast with which to compare the earlier staging.

This also gives Ron an opportunity to point out the virtues and the pitfalls of one-take scenes. They're not just challenging in the sense that every performer in the scene has to be dead on in their work. It also means that the director is giving up some of the power they normally have in the editing room to tighten up the scene, extend the tension in the scene, take out entire lines that don't work, put lines in different order. That's a lot of manipulation that gets taken off the table. But, he concedes that there's an energy and immediacy to a long take and that audiences certainly respond to the emotion of that.

Then, in a video that is probably especially useful for the student filmmaker, Ron walks us through how he'd stage the scene if he was running behind schedule or if he was on an indie film with a tighter shooting schedule. We're shown the economical way to block the scene, and while the coverage isn't quite minimal, it's certainly less elaborate and refined than the first version.

When I was in film school, we never had an exercise like this and it's not something I've seen discussed in depth in many how-to filmmaking books either. Sure, we were instructed about basic shots like Master, Close-Up, Medium, and Extreme Close-Up - and also when we could and could not cut from one of those shots to the other. When it came to staging scenes, the only truly important rule I recall being given was "The 180 Degree Rule" and the strict instruction to never "cross the axis." And to be honest, that was presented to us in a way that made it as much an editing rule as a rule of shooting coverage.

Weirdly Ron doesn't even bring up those guidelines or even other principles like "directional continuity." At this point in his career, Ron is following those rules instinctively, perhaps so intuitively that it doesn't even occur to him to point them out. As much as I've lamented the basic 101 info that pops up in these master classes, it might have been beneficial to squeeze a crash course on these into one quick video. Having said that, it could just be that the MasterClass is assuming some degree of familiarity with filmmaking principles.

Editing is only touched on relatively briefly, and I hope that some future MasterClass focuses on this. (Stuart Baird as an instructor, perhaps?) At the time I took the course, three videos were not yet online. In each video, Ron deconstructs a different film scene, discussing the mechanics of the shots, how research helped him compose the scene and how he managed a key transition in the story's point-of-view. Hopefully they'll be online soon because I'd love to hear what Ron has to say.

Ron Howard sets a high bar with these videos, and in the coming months I'm hoping to find time to watch the directing courses by Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. It'll be interesting to see if they compliment each other or prove redundant.

If you're looking to buy MasterClass, it'll cost you $90/class. If you have any inkling that you'll want to try two or more of the classes, your best bet is to get an All-Access Pass. With that, you have unlimited access to all of the MasterClasses for one year.

Assuming it won't affect your ability to pay rent or bills, is Ron Howard's class worth $90? We're talking about over six hours of videos, so figure $15/hour. If I hadn't gotten a film degree, or if I'd only taken a basic filmmaking class and I wanted to learn more about directing, I'd probably consider this a pretty good investment. Sure, you could always buy a few books on filmmaking or check them out of the library for free - but there's no other opportunity that basically lets you shadow a major feature film director on set as they shoot a scene. If what I've described holds any appeal for you, you'll probably find Ron Howard's MasterClass to be money well spent.

Order Ron Howard's Master Class here.
Purchase the All-Access Pass here.

The Full MasterClass roster:

Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing
David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing

Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Usher teaches performance

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball

Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Thomas Keller Teaches Cooking Techniques

Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography