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Posts in Category: Murdstone & Grinby

Overkill: My First Bit of Coverage

In honor of that reader job, I’m going to share something with you that I didn’t even think still existed. Here’s the backstory:

In 2001 or 2002 (or maybe earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention until 2002), Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios launched an interactive component of their website. A social networking site in pre-social networking days, it allowed writers—and later all manner of other film-industry wannabe-creative-types—share their work in an honest, encouraging, semi-anonymous forum. It surged in popularity because of a (most likely bullshit) carrot dangled at the end: legend started to spread that Coppola himself was known, on occasion, to download the most popular scripts on the site and take a look at them. I believe Pumpkin was a Zoetrope.com find, and how you feel about that movie might gauge how you feel about the whole project.

It shared the same problem as a lot of screenwriting contests; I would say it was worse because it didn’t cost anything to submit a script, but at the same time you didn’t “win” anything for writing a good script, so maybe it broke even. Point is, people will pick up Story or Screenplay or just write a script on a whim and send it to a contest. I don’t want to denigrate those people, because I’ve long been of the opinion that the only formal training needed to write a good script (or make a good film, for that matter) is to watch a shitload of movies. But watching a shitload of movies and/or reading a book on screenwriting doesn’t guarantee the screenplay won’t be a piece of shit.

I can’t tell you how many “amateur” screenplays have loglines like this: “A waitress/single mother struggles against adversity in the small town where she grew up. Based on a true story.” This was especially true when I browsed the material available on Zoetrope.com. While it follows a basic “beginning-writer” tenet—“write what you know”—and could make for a good movie (last year’s Waitress was pretty great), it also ignores another basic “beginning-writer” tenet: the things that happen to you in your day-to-day life are not necessarily the stuff of great drama. Never say never, but I know my day-to-day is boring as shit, so when I write I take the emotional truth of what is happening or has happened to me in reality and apply it to something that is 100% fictitious.

There’s also the Hemingway-Cézanne philosophy: if you have something that’s real and true but isn’t quite dramatic, change it until it is. So many beginners fall into a pattern of writing “what they know” while neglecting basic principles of drama because, in their reality, “it didn’t happen that way.” So, to go back to the waitress/Waitress example: the arc of that story is centered around the effects of a pregnancy on an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, your “based on a true story” waitress has crafted a supremely uninteresting story in which she leaves her husband around the time her kid is six. What’s more dramatic—leaving your husband because you don’t want him to destroy the life of your newborn baby, or leaving him because, eh, you just got kinda tired? You try to explain this to the writer, and they come back at you with, “But that’s not how it happened!” Who cares?

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Screwing the Pooch

Amelia called to warn me that work was about to dry up. It’s like having an inside man at a company I already work for, but it’s helpful. She told me nobody at the company would tell me when scripts dried up, and she was right, but at least I had some warning. I mean, I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but they don’t even soften the blow by easing off. It went from a steady three scripts a day to a steady zero scripts a day.

Amelia mentioned that, because of the dealings Murdstone & Grinby has with other companies, they may help me find freelance work elsewhere when our work slows down. It sounded great to me, so I told her I’d ask as soon as they stopped sending scripts.

“Hang on,” she said. “That might not be such a good idea.”

Zuh?

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Attachments

I’ve mentioned this before, but I hate sycophancy. I especially hate it when I get yelled at for not being sycophantic enough. I’m much more willing to bend to the whims of those paying me money for my opinion, but I’ll never figure out why some people think pointing out writers and attachments will suddenly impress me. Usually, it just makes me lose a little respect for those involved.

Here’s a little background: over Memorial Day weekend, I was sent a script with no title page and no suggestion of the author’s name. This is not uncommon. I read it, hated it, and shit all over it. Almost immediately, I received an e-mail from my boss at Murdstone & Grinby, Assistant Jim, who snidely pointed out who wrote the script and asked me to include more details if I was going to crap all over such a genius’s script. The writer won one Oscar and received another nomination for writing several years later. In between, he wrote a whole bunch of shitty movies. So, awards and nominations or not, his bad scripts outweigh his good ones, so the fact that this one sucked should shock no one.

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Suspicious Script

Last week, I read a script that made me a tad uncomfortable. It attempted, very ineptly, to capitalize on the recent-but-not-as-recent-as-the-writer-thinks poker craze. I don’t claim to be a cigar-chomping cardsharp, but I know this: a 52-card deck does not contain any “1” cards. That’s more than the writer of this script, who explains that an “Ace is the best card you can get. Then it’s King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine, Eight…down to One, usually.” Usually.

Several things got my gears going as I read this script. First: I received it the day before Thanksgiving. Usually, the Murdstone & Grinby Company is shuttered for the whole holiday week (plus the Monday after), so getting a script during an unofficial coverage dead zone concerned me. Also irritated me, because while the extra cash is nice, it’s still the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m fucking lazy.

Second: something about it felt off, in an indefinable way. Sure, it had the same very definable problems from which other scripts suffer (notably one-dimensional characters and a nonsensical third act), but something about the diction didn’t feel right. It felt less like a dramatic work than a loudmouth guy at the end of the bar saying, “Hey, buddy. Yeah, you—you know what’d be a good idea for a movie?” before elucidating a ramshackle stream-of-consciousness narrative that felt more like a working-class fever dream than a piece of writing. I don’t just mean it had a conversational style. The only thing separating it from the guy at the end of the bar was a lot of “No, no—just hear me out” asides. ‘Twas a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Emphasis on the “idiot” part.

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Commercial Conundrum

This week’s attempt at a script review put me in an awkward position. You see, I haven’t read any of the scripts that are opening. A few weeks ago, I read some bad intelligence telling me Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior will be out this Friday. Turns out, that’s not the case. I guess it’s coming out way the fuck in September, and I really don’t want to be reviewing scripts more than a week or two in advance of their release. So, instead, I’m writing one of the many promised non-review articles that I’ve been too lazy and/or busy to get done.

Something’s been bugging me for the past few months. I got used to writing development notes, which outline a script’s strengths and weaknesses while offering suggestions for ways to improve the script. (That way, Your Boss—who, if you’re lucky, will read maybe one out of every ten scripts he or she forces you to read—will have something reasonably intelligent to say in his next meeting. It’s an elaborate charade, and everyone knows that his or her notes are coming from some borderline-retarded, caffeine-addled reader, yet nobody ever says a word.) On some level, you deal with marketability, but everywhere I’ve worked, they’re surprisingly concerned about making the script as good as possible. In other words, they’ve already convinced themselves that they can sell the product—so now, the challenge is making the product great.

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Freelance Script Reader for Hire

I know I haven’t updated in two months, and it seems like particularly bad form for my comeback post to be of the begging variety, but I’m left with little choice. I’ve explained the reason for my absence, which should impress prospective employers: I have work to do, so I can’t spend time working on a personal blog. (Prospective employers, please ignore this parenthetical: I have vowed to start blogging more, at least once a week, but no more script reviews for awhile. I have time and energy for surly rants, but not for anything insightful or thoughtful. I hope I can commit to this instead of making yet another empty promise.)

So here’s the deal, ladies and gents: I quit the script-reading job I’ve had for the past few years. It’s not a decision I made lightly—in fact, I’ve spent the past four months thinking about it—but I feel like it’s the only one left, for a number of reasons.

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