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Posts in Category: Screenwriting Articles

Hooray for Hollywood: Calling in Favors Edition

Last week, I reread some old scripts I had written because, since I’m too lazy to research new ideas, I thought maybe I could adapt some preexisting material into a novel that somebody might actually want to read. And then something happened that has never happened before (and hopefully will never happen again): I started reading one script, and I got really into it, like I hadn’t written it, like I didn’t really know the story…and I really, really liked it.

When I finished—I read it in one sitting, which something I rarely do, especially with my own material, which I usually put down in disgust after five minutes and come back to it a few days later—I thought to myself, “This fucker’s a screenplay. I could turn it into a novel, but right now, as it stands, it is the best screenplay I’ve ever written, maybe it’ll make an above-average novel, but it’ll make a hell of a good movie.”

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Asshat

On Saturday morning, I checked my e-mail and found one from a friend of mine. Just a rambling, stream-of-consciousness “check-in” type of thing, since I haven’t talked to him in a week or so.

As I neared the end of the letter, a paragraph struck me: I don’t know if you’ve been in contact with Clint or not. His script is being optioned* by Big-Shot Producer. He deserves it. That was a really good script.

It’s true: Clint did deserve it, for many reasons other than his script being really good (it is). I imagine, being an unknown writer dealing with a small company, he didn’t get a huge amount of money, but he got something more important: a sizable chunk of his leg in the door previously held open by a few toes. Perhaps he’ll get an agent or a manager, or other production companies interested in reading his other scripts (he has one in particular that I think is the best script I’ve ever read, produced or not). It’s a good thing for him, which is why I sent two of my scripts to the same producer over a month ago.

But here’s why I’m a dickhead: in equal proportion to my happiness for him, I was both pissed off and obsessing over the details. I haven’t talked to Clint since a week or so before Christmas, so I knew nothing about this option, and, in fact, he hadn’t said word one about even dealing with Big-Shot Producer. I don’t know if he was holding out on me, or just not bringing it up because what business is it of mine, or if he hadn’t sent anything to Big-Shot Producer, just like I hadn’t, but when I got him to reply to my e-mail, I told Mark (the friend who told me about Clint’s script, who had asked about Big-Shot Producer), who possibly told Clint that the door was wide open.

So was this a process of Clint spending nearly a year—since we pitched to the guy back in May—or was this a rapid-fire process, where his script was so damn good they had to option it ASAP, but mine and Mark’s scripts suck ass and aren’t worth the hard drive space they’re stored on?

I felt like a total douchenozzle, because I just can’t flatly be happy for Clint. Adding insult to injury was that, since it’s been over a month since I sent my scripts to Big-Shot Producer, I dropped him a line on Thursday to remind him (a) I exist and (b) nobody’s mentioned anything about the scripts. Thursday and Friday passed with no word, so I was getting frustrated. I felt like he was giving me the brush-off. And then I started to get a little jealous. I felt like my scripts were both better than his. And maybe they both are, but that’s just the way Hollywood works: maybe this particular producer thinks he can work better with a gut-busting comedy about terrorists than a dramedy about a failed rock-star.

And all of these things just made me feel worse, because I can’t help thinking them, but I really am happy for Ryan’s luck. But I’m an angry, bitter hermit who expresses his happiness for other people through abuse and manipulation. Some find that charming; most find it disgusting. I even sent a subtly worded e-mail to Clint, not specifically mentioning that I’d sent him any scripts; even though he probably knew from Mark, the idea is that the scripts I sent weren’t important. What was important was, his script got optioned, and I was happy for him, and I wished him well.

How in God’s name could an e-mail like that be infused with negativity? Really, honestly, it’s not. It’s a very happy-go-lucky, congratulatory e-mail that he does, indeed, deserve. Untarnished. The problem came from the thoughts boiling in my head, phrasing it to prompt a response from him in some way or another, something along the lines of, “Yeah, it took months of dealing with him to get him to option it, but I’m so glad it paid off.” Something with a little more information than Mark’s sparse e-mail supplied.

So far, I’ve received nothing in response. I’m sure it’s because he’s busy having a life and family, and he’ll respond to me in a few days, but deep down, I don’t feel like I even deserve any kind of response, because even a nice e-mail came from such a twisted place.

A few minutes ago, I got an e-mail from Big-Shot Producer:

Stan,

Thanks for the note – I’ve been in a crunch with the release of our next film and starting another one so I’m sorry to say I’m a little behind in my reading.

I’ll do my best to get to them in the next week. Feel free to bug me in a couple of weeks if you’ve not heard from me or my assistant.

Best,

Big-Shot Producer

It’s about what I expected from him in the first place; I dreaded the quick brush-off, but this dude brushes people off for a living. If he’d even read my scripts and disliked them, he wouldn’t try to hide from me or leave me hanging. I’m nothing. He’d just say, “Sorry, not interested.” It’s as easy as that. So now I’m feeling a little more positive, a little less hated, a little less paranoid, but as usual, I’m a little disgusted with myself.

*I’m sure I’ve explained this before, but for those who don’t know or don’t remember, the easiest way to explain an “option” is like this: it’s basically a “rental” of your script by a production company or studio. They pay you a flat fee to “rent” the script for a certain amount of time, with an exorbitant bonus (the equivalent of somebody renting a house you own for a year and then buying it from you) if they either produce it themselves or sell it to a studio that will produce it. If they can’t do anything, and it sits languishing in a pile of other optioned scripts, when the agreed-upon time elapses, the original owner retains his rights to the script. [Back]

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The Press Release

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine optioned a very funny screenplay to a producer with whom I’ve also been dealing for months. Over this past weekend, he forwarded me a press release the producer’s company wrote about the deal.

It’s flattering overall and, like most Hollywood press releases, overhypes the deal by referring to “selling” and “buying” even though what’s actually happening is “leasing” and “renting.” There are a few nice quotes from Clint, one of which includes a veiled reference to me. That creeped me out, but it also made me feel good in a stupid way. According to him, I was the impetus for him pursuing the producer, which led to the option. If my scripts go nowhere, at least I can hang my hat on that much.

However, I took issue with one quote, this from the producer, in which he totally condescends to Clint and his abilities. Maybe I should chalk this up to a producer touting his ability to recognize an unmolded talent within the doughy, shapeless body of a screenwriter, but first he mentions that Clint “didn’t think he was a comedy writer.” This is patently untrue, considering—among other things—he spent several years in classes and workshops at the Second City and even, at one point, made it into the cast…for about three months, at which point half the cast ended up on Saturday Night Live and the other half was fired.

It was at this time that he originally conceived the script, with an unfunny comedian who went on to become unfunny on national television, to be a vehicle for said unfunny comedian and his even less funny friend. But when they both got the call from SNL, they jetted off to New York and left Clint in the dust, with nothing but an idea and a half-finished script. He kept on it, freed by his ability to not write a star vehicle for two others, and the version I read—probably three years after his first draft—was pretty damn funny. Because Clint is pretty damn funny.

But here’s why the producer doesn’t think Clint knew he was a comedy writer: “He [originally] pitched me some giant-epic-action-biblical-save the universe from a flood type thing (or something like that).” I’m not sure if it’s the parenthetical that makes it seem extremely condescending, or the fact that he’s essentially thumbing his nose at a very vague (and inaccurate) description of a script he wouldn’t even bother to read. Maybe it’s because I read it in one sitting, jaw on the floor, stunned at how fucking good it is. Baffled by the fact that this guy, whose other scripts were mostly comedies, had written the best action-adventure script I’ve ever read, professional or otherwise. And then he goes and pitches it to a guy who tells him to fuck off and, nearly a year later, mocks him for his efforts.

That really incensed me, but what incensed me even more is: I’m a giant whore. We all have known this for a very long time, but I’m sitting there getting pissed off at this man’s lack of any kind of integrity, artistic or otherwise, belittling a “first-time scribe” nobody whom he’s not even paying (not yet, anyway…), but rather than saying something, I’m hanging back. Because I don’t want to blow a potential deal for my scripts.

This makes me the worst kind of whore. Because some whores have some kind of values. Say there are two of them, standing over there on Cicero, and a guy pulls up and wants both of them. So they go back to his moldy, potential-serial-killer dwelling, and he says, “One at a time. I like it when one of you watches.” For the sake of this metaphor, the one watching is me, the one doing is Clint, and the producer is the john. And he proceeds to do all manner of vile things to the poor girl, most of them involving defecation, urination, maybe even a little finger-down-the-throat forced-vomiting, while the other girl leans up against the peeling wallpaper, aghast.

And now she has a choice: refuse and run the fuck away, or allow the john to do these same horrible things to her. My choice is: bring on your bodily waste…

…and speaking of bodily waste. To add insult to injury, a little more than a week ago I hauled my fat ass over to Lincoln Park to see the very last showing of this producer’s brand spanking new film. Opening and closing in two weeks, it played at 17 theatres during its peak. I went to see it because I thought I could kiss some ass. I read a lot of middling reviews, most indicating it was pretty mediocre but had a few redeeming moments. I thought, based on my previous Hollywood experience mining terrible material for little nuggets of gold that could be fostered into large hunks of gold (the gold in this instance is magic leprechaun gold that can grow like a vegetable), that I could find its redeeming qualities and acknowlege the good points while ignoring the bad.

The problem, I discovered as I left the theatre, was that it had no good points. Okay, two good points: I laughed at one very small joke, and I really enjoyed a “dramatic” scene near the end. Here’s a note to comedy writers out there: if the best scene in your comedy is the dramatic scene, you’re in trouble.

I ended up writing an incredibly vague but complimentary note to the producer. It did elicit a rapid response (and an implication that things will actually get moving on my scripts, which may seem nice but is probably more accurately described as “bullshit”), but I didn’t even have to go and see the movie to write what I did. I suppose it might be nice in case he ever attempts to cross-examine me on the film’s strengths and weaknesses. I have seen it, I won’t go in blind, but hell, what I wouldn’t give to get back the $20 and five hours I spent on that movie (yes, I’m including commute time and transit fare).

In other news, I might or might not have a nice little crap (but paying!) job in Los Angeles coming up. If I get it, and here’s hoping I do, I’ll have to hustle my fat ass across the country (again) posthaste, and it’ll last through August.

And I’ve been reading obsessively because, frankly, I have nothing else to do. Here are this month’s recommendations: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

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The Mountains of Indiana: A Story of Disdain

Long-time readers know I have a tendency to act bitter and vindictive mostly for entertainment purposes; sometimes I really am bitter and vindictive for various reasons, but usually I just enjoy being mean. Not mean-for-meanness sake like Bluto or something; I just don’t take life seriously enough to get worked up over much, yet I find it entertaining when others do, so I try to provoke those feelings. It’s not one of my better traits, but it is one I’ve tried to work on (often with unfortunate results). Once in awhile, though, people stumble into my crosshairs and turn into an arch-nemesis, usually without even knowing it. Would I really announce an arch-nemesis to the person? That’s not how I roll; I prefer to quietly plot their demise while maintaining a ruse of friendship. I believe it’s a strategy laid down in Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I might have that confused with Crazy from the Heat by David Lee Roth.

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Ethical Lapse?

One of the problems I found myself having as a reader (and continue to have, even in my unofficial capacity as “guy who reads things”) was probably the most basic for a writer: everything I read, I knew how to make better. It didn’t help that when I read for The Manager, he had both general submissions and a “client” roster of awful, awful writers with very good ideas.

Knowing how to improve a story is actually helpful because, rather than just dumping all over a shitty script, you can hone in on the potential goodness and tailor your suggestions that way. I tried not to be the kind of guy who would look at something and say, “Here’s how I’d do it,” so I’d try to look at things as objectively as possible: what’s the story they’re trying to tell, where does it go wrong, why does it go wrong? It helped that many of these screenplays suffered from what I’ll call “objective badness,” plundering such depths of crappiness that any person with basic reading comprehension would know it’s bad. They may not know how or why they feel that way, but they know it with every fiber of their beings.

It turns into a problem when you find a script that is loaded with so many good ideas—but is so poorly executed—that giving feedback isn’t enough. You want to just swipe that idea and make it your own, to do it the justice it deserves.

It’s what we in the biz call “plagiarism.”

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Welcome to the Party, Pal…

Here’s what nerds argue about:

Where’s the first act-break in Die Hard? I watched this movie today, for the first time since I was maybe 10-years-old, in my continuing effort to analyze the way movies in this genre are put together. In particular, this movie was recommended to me because it shares one common element with my action thriller: an extremely long first act. I’m not ordinarily one to follow the goofy script-guru “if [insert jargon] doesn’t happen on page [number], your story will fail” line of reasoning. For me, screenwriting is about 30% mechanics, 70% instinct. Anybody who has seen a lot of movies could write a screenplay with a rough but definable three-act structure, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. The structure may be the only thing they get right, with all the plot points and arcs hitting the right beats, because it’s been ingrained in drama since Ancient Greece.

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Stupid Bloggers Need the Most Attention

About a month ago, Ken Levine posted a moronic critique of No Country for Old Men, written by Bob “Back to the Future” Gale. (Some of the nitpicks are reasonable, but the bulk of them are either a side effect of not paying attention or just not understanding what was happening. I don’t understand why people, especially professional writers, found the movie so difficult to follow.) This post isn’t about that.

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Character Ark

Yes, I know how to spell. That’s a pun. You’ll see.

I discovered from the blog of stupidity that a screenwriting forum I no longer read (because, honestly, it got too full of people like her) has had somewhat of a debate on character arcs, prompted by a post by this guy. His take is decidedly an argument against arcs. Her take?

But that doesn’t mean authority is always wrong either, because that would be equally short sighted. So I say, if your script calls for character arcs, knock yourself out. And if it doesn’t, knock yourself out with that too.

Way to be Switzerland!

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Sycophants

Found this on a blog, where the author has a weekly tradition of predicting weekend box-office success:

SUPERHERO MOVIE (2960 theaters). Craig Mazin over at Artful Writer wrote and directed this, which means it’s likely to be more consistent and funnier than “Epic Movie”, “Date Movie” and that ilk. Should do pretty well. $19.3 million.

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The Bead™

Sometimes I read a script that I just can’t figure out. I know it has problems, I can even put my finger on what they are, but I can’t offer up solutions; granted, some people don’t like solutions, but offering solutions while I point out problems has never failed me, and one of the unfortunate side effects of covering so many scripts is that I am, at this point, a better reader than I am a writer. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to figure out what’s causing it, but what happens when I can’t even do that? I know the characters are thin, but why? I walk myself through the story, reminding myself of surprising moments of nuance and subtlety that give the characters depth. Why is it that, at the end, I felt like they were paper-thin? Something went awry.

I can’t pretend to understand how it happens, but when I actually talk out these problems, I figure them out. It’s all in how you’re telling the story. Here’s the story, and here are its flaws. But what if the writer did this, that, or the other? The solutions present themselves, and if you do it right, you can solve every single problem in one fell swoop—and if you’re really good, you can do it without insulting the writer.

You’ve found The Bead™.

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