April 2011 Archives
April 15, 2011
[In lieu of actual content, for the next several weeks I will present, at least, one review of an upcoming film each week. These are scripts that I’ve been paid money to read, and many of them contain watermarking, identification numbers, password-protection, and other ways of tracking what company it was sent to; because of this and my desire to keep my job, I will not offer downloads for ANY of the scripts I review here. Don’t bother asking.]
“Now, Henry Winkler — there’s a father. Listen to what he told a close friend. ‘I don’t always keep my cool like the Fonz, but my love for my kids has given me plenty of happy days.’” — The Simpsons, “Saturdays of Thunder”
Ceremony confines its setting to a weekend-long bacchanal, and that decision is where it goes wrong. It’s not the single setting in and of itself. Plenty of films, many of them set at weddings (Robert Altman’s A Wedding leaps to mind, and though I’m generally not a big Altman fan, his film pretty much does everything right that Ceremony does wrong), have utilized this type of single-setting technique in effective ways. From claustrophobia (Das Boot, Lifeboat — which manages to generate claustrophobia on the open goddamn sea) to farce (Death at a Funeral) to all those filmed plays where disparate characters share intense experiences and find out new things about themselves and each other (A Raisin in the Sun and The Big Kahuna among the zillions out there), use of one setting over a short period of time can amp up tension more than just about anything else. In fact, my favorite film of last year, Lebanon, utilizes this technique masterfully.
I wonder if this style of storytelling stems from the days when large family systems had the misfortune of sharing a single, cramped dwelling (those days aren’t as long ago as one might imagine, and in many non-American cultures it’s still quite common). That’s just an idle thought that has little to do with anything.
The problem with Ceremony has less to do with its setting than with the story told within that setting. In every film mentioned above (and plenty more), the story and characters are inextricably linked to the choice of setting. Those stories would not be more compelling if things were expanded. This might sound like a violation of the “show, don’t tell” rule, especially in the case of the filmed plays. The rules say that it’s a movie — you can show anything, so why would you have a character tell a story to his friends instead of showing the story to the audience?
April 25, 2011
One reader had a very good suggestion that I am trying to follow through on. I’ve mentioned a handful of times that reading scripts has helped me improve as a writer. He asked me if I had a list of scripts that writers should read, and honestly, I don’t. But I should, right? It just makes sense.
So, over the weekend, I spent some time going through all the scripts I’ve covered to compile this list (which, in its current state, is out of hand — I need to pare my choices down), and I discovered I passed on a script called Cover Girl by Gren Wells. This shocked me, because although it’s not without its problems, I have nothing but fond memories of the script. I really enjoyed it — so why did I pass on it? Well: “Without extremely good casting, it’s more likely to end up as a bland, forgettable romantic comedy.”
That’s the problem, right? I read for a company involved in distribution. It’s too late to solve story problems, so I had it repeatedly drilled into my head that if the script won’t make money, I should pass, no matter what. A more optimistic version of myself — not the soulless husk you see before you — would make the argument that a good script trumps everything else. But I’ve seen enough good scripts go bad to know that isn’t true. I’ve also seen enough terrible scripts receive inexplicable praise (Black Swan!) to know that script quality isn’t the only factor at play. It’s probably not even in the top 10.