Wednesday, January 2, 2019

10 years of Bitter posts - When Good Scripts Go Bad

When I started the blog, one feature I thought I'd get more milage out of was "When Good Scripts Go Bad." It seemed like an interesting way to pick movies that turned out less than good, but that read so much better when I saw them in script form. It sounded like a good idea in concept, but in practice, writing those posts was less fun.

I don't shy away from writing dissections of TV and film that I felt fell short. Studying those mistakes can be instructive, and there is plenty you can learn from failures. I think what I discovered was that in framing the reviews in the way I did, it made the post too much about ME and less about the work. Also, every post was determined to have the same punchline - "I read it, it was great, but I was wrong and the movie sucked."

That doesn't mean it wasn't instructive in helping demonstrate the difference between a great script and a great movie. That disparity absolutely exists. The problem was that in most of these cases I experienced, the reason for my bosses passes almost ALWAYS came down to business reasons. After I've told you once or twice that, "this script came with Tony Scott attached and there's no way in hell these guys wanted to work with him" or "they didn't get it, but it was more that they saw no commercial potential because later that year they developed two scripts that clearly they didn't get either."

That's why this was an experiment I did only twice and when I was halfway through a third post following the same pattern, I could already sense I was repeating myself. I found I enjoyed dissecting failed films much more just as a straight review rather than forensically looking back at the original script and using conjuncture to presume how it ended up going from A to B.

One of my earliest mistakes in getting a script wrong was DOMINO, a Richard Kelley script directed by Tony Scott.

I had the then-rare distinction of reading a really clever and engaging script for my bosses at the time. It had a complex plot, a clever non-linear structure, some funny showbiz cameos, and some really well-executed twists. In short, it was one of the most original scripts I’d seen and also one that I would have been willing to stake my reputation on. The script in question? Richard Kelly’s Domino, the story of a former model-turned-bounty-hunter, based on a true story (sort of.)

Unfortunately there was not shortage of reasons why my boss felt that the script was an inappropriate fit for us at the time, and there were factors I wasn’t expected to know about, so the company quietly passed. I spent the next year lamenting the fact that my bosses had let such a sure-fire hit movie get away. During that time, whenever someone asked me if I’d read anything good lately, I was quick to reply that Domino was one of the best scripts I’d ever seen and that it was sure to be a hit when it came out. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but in hindsight it certainly feels like I was staking all my script-reading credibility on this movie, at least as far as my rep among my friends was concerned.

Long story short - the movie that was released was not the movie in my brain. But it took YEARS for me to see the final film, which was plenty of time for Richard Kelley to become cemented in my brain as a writer who was vividly creative and clever. It meant he started ahead of the game the next time a script of his crossed my desk...

Here's what I had to say about my enthusiastic coverage for SOUTHLAND TALES.

There was some incredibly clever writing in that script, as well as a truly unique premise. But it wasn't realized exceptionally well. Isolated pockets of it worked so well that as a reader you really wanted the whole thing to come together and be more than the sum of its parts. I got this just before a weekend and it was such a priority that I was going to be reading it alongside the VP of Development, the SVP of Development, the assistant to the President of Development and the President of Development himself.

After my first read, I could never have explained half of what went on in that script. It was just all over the place and full of complex, scientific concepts and technobabble about the nature of time and reality. There were enough ideas in there for three completely different films. But the one-third of it that I really understood, I really liked.

I read it a second time, and understood it only marginally better.

I read the script FOUR times over the weekend, taking notes each time until I felt I had puzzled out most of the narrative. Then read it a FIFTH time as I wrote up the synopsis and tried to bring some order to a very chaotic script. I gave it a consider, citing its imagination, even as I knew it only worked about 50% and that was with immense effort on the part of the audience. To bulletproof myself, I mentioned the commercial viability of all of the talent attached.

I probably should have known better when it was taking that much effort to decode the script, but in my defense, the parts of the script I immediately liked were so good that they MADE me want to put in that time.

Of course, if you read that post, you'll see that I also was envisioning those scenes in an ENTIRELY different tone than they ended up being done in the movie. I supposes that exposes the limitations of coverage - sometimes your own imagination can steer you wrong, unless it's the fault of unclear writing.

I was early in realizing this, but sometimes the posts focused on the day-to-day work of being a reader were rarely fascinating to those who weren't readers themselves. It made me realize I'd need a different approach in discussing the script problems of completed works.

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