Screenwriting Articles Archives
May 17, 2011
Iconic Character Problem
[I forgot to post this yesterday. Oops.]
I want to talk about a little film called Hesher, which last weekend saw a quiet release to mostly awful reviews. I hate to feel like I’m patting myself on the back, but I found it sort of amusing and delightful that many of the reviews I read for Hesher cited the same problem I did when I covered the script: Hesher’s a cipher, full of ambiguous statements and questionable behavior, with no clear motivation for why he says the things he does or acts the way he does, or — more importantly — why anyone should care.
April 25, 2011
Cover Girl: Uncovered
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.
December 3, 2009
Morality and The Next Three Days
This post exists primarily to expound, in spoiler-tastic detail, on a comment I wrote in response to ScriptShadow’s review of Paul Haggis’s latest script, The Next Three Days. For those too lazy to click the link, The Next Three Days focuses primarily on a character hellbent on breaking his wife out of prison in order to reunite his family. Whether or not his wife actually committed the crime — the murder of her boss — remains a mystery throughout the script.
[The spoilers start after the jump, so don’t say I didn’t warn you…]
June 25, 2009
Out of the Moment
I always tend to worry about this problem, which I’m sure I’ve complained about before: novice writers reading shooting drafts. Everybody knows the phrase “development hell,” but few seem to realize that, even if a script doesn’t spend a decade or more in development, all scripts go through a process of development between their selling and shooting drafts. Even ones with largely apocryphal “we told them to shoot it as-is, because it was perfect!” stories attached to them. I worry that certain writers don’t know this, and as evidenced by one of the comically ignorant comments I received for my Fuckbuddies analysis, I have a basis for my concern. (This is not to ignore the fact that many scripts even change between the shooting draft and he actual, finished film — but that issue has little to do with what I intend to talk about today.)
June 20, 2009
Bad Twist 2: Twist Badder
When I last ranted about awful twist endings, I focused mainly on the “twist for the sake of twisting” problem that plagues so many screenplays — twists that not just come out of nowhere but actively undermine the story and characters. Lately, I’ve come across something infinitely worse: scripts that actively telegraph some of the world’s most misguided Shyamalan twists (more misguided than murderous trees, even).
June 17, 2009
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.
June 14, 2009
A Movie for Cat Ladies
Here’s where I live up to my reputation as a misogynist film blogger. This week, for the first time, I read a script where I kept having one thought repeatedly: “This is the first script I’ve read that seems to want to capture the cat-lady demographic.” It’s not so much that they want to hit this demo — it’s that they want to exclude everyone else from possibly enjoying this movie.
First, let’s take a step back and ponder what I consider the “cat lady” personality type. I know it’s harsh and stereotypical, and as a dude, I’m opening myself up to obvious accusations of sexism, but I’ve spent a lot of time reading television forums, and it’s impossible to not notice this small but vocal group of people — the kind of people who hate some people for being fat hos and hate another because she needs a sandwich, the kind of people who rage against bad parenting while glorifying rapists as misunderstood and quietly pondering brother-on-brother incest.
I don’t care if these people are lonely save for their 25 cats, or if they’re married with five kids and no pets. They’re all cat ladies, based more on personality type than actual cat ownership. To put it bluntly, their defining trait is not so much possession of a certain domesticated feline. In fact, I know women who own cats but don’t fall into the “cat lady” category. It’s more about the type of person who has some kind of damage causing them to not simply enjoy a work of entertainment, or to not level any valid criticism. They watch, and they judge characters in shockingly simplified terms: if they’re good-looking men, they can do no wrong no matter how many women they rape and/or beat; if they’re good-looking women, they can do no right even if they devote their lives to all manner of saintly deeds; if they’re dowdy female sidekicks, they’re abused and mistreated by their beautiful friends; if they’re dumpy, unattractive male sidekicks, they’re obnoxious and need to get off my TV screen.
June 10, 2009
All right, everyone. I’m back to beating the dead horse of believability once a-goddamn-gain. Here’s a tip for budding screenwriters out there: problems don’t arise from a far-fetched premise, plot, or even characters. There’s a little something called “suspension of disbelief,” without which no work of fiction could succeed. Assuming it’s a work of fiction that does succeed. At any rate, the writer bears the burden of making their audience suspend disbelief. It doesn’t happen by magic.
May 9, 2009
…Not to Be
So there’s this script floating around by John “How the fuck did I get nominated for an Oscar twice?” Logan that adapts Shakespeare’s Coriolanus into modern action-movie context. Except for one little detail… It keeps the language. Here’s what the script reminded me of:
Now, I’m not terribly familiar with Coriolanus, but I think it’s safe to blame the scripts flaws more on the adaptation than the source. Shakespeare scholars can feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the strong suspicion that Logan cut massive reams of dialogue in favor of long sequences of modern street warfare. If you’ve ever seen Death Wish 3, you’ve seen these action sequences. Except Death Wish 3 has guys getting stabbed in the head with a knife duct-taped to a loose floorboard, which puts it a little ahead of Coriolanus.
Because of the focus on action, and the strong desire to keep the story in a two-hour feature timeframe, dialogue has to get cut. Only problem: all Shakespeare had to work with was dialogue, so in cutting scenes, story and character development fly out the window. The entire second act is a clusterfuck of bizarre, rushed plot twists and double-crosses that, I assume, are properly set up and fairly dramatic in the play.
To me, the problem hinges on the choice to keep Shakespeare’s dialogue. Who do they want to come see this movie? Shakespeare fans, who will hate the poor adaptation even if they dig the action (which they probably won’t)? It honestly seems like they want this movie to be seen by teen boys who like watchin’ shit get blowed up.
January 19, 2009
Spy vs. Spy
I’ve never been the biggest fan of espionage movies. In fact, I can think of only three that I really like: North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor, and The Manchurian Candidate. However, if I were to shove everything into weird subgenres, then none of these would even qualify as espionage movies. True, they have all the usual craziness associated with spy movies — coded messages, shifty-eyed people in trenchcoats, elaborate conspiracies, possibly duplicitous love interests — but they don’t have what I typically associate with spy movies: the spy protagonist, or “spytagonist.” Okay, not spytagonist.
You know what I’m talking about: your James Bonds, your Ethan Hunts, your Jack Ryans, your… I dunno, does Jason Bourne count? They might get in over their heads and face dozens of double-crosses and explosions and inaccurate technobabble, but at the end of the day, they have the training and tradecraft to pull off the job. They almost rise to the level of “superhero” (especially Bond), performing extraordinary feats in order to save the planet.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that I’d lump movies like North by Northwest and The Manchurian Candidate into the “conspiracy thriller” subgenre, not spy thrillers. Both focus on ordinary people trying to unravel elaborate conspiracies — both of which involve espionage — that are over their head. To some degree, the Bourne movies share this characteristic (especially the first one), but he still has that “spy superhero” quality, even if he can’t remember why. Either way, the “superhero” spy protagonist, in my mind, defines the distinction between the conspiracy thrillers I love and the espionage thrillers to which I’m fairly indifferent.
January 14, 2009
I’ll never forget the first time it really dawned on me what an impact the first ten pages could have on a script. I’d heard adages about the importance of those pages from the moment I developed an interest in screenwriting, and all the reasoning behind it made perfect sense. Maybe it’s just my learning style, but for me, no description of the pitfalls and problems of the first ten pages could compare to seeing good and bad examples in action; unfortunately, you can’t truly understand their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without reading more than just pages.
The best opening I’ve ever read was probably right out of Field or McKee or some other guru — it lasted for exactly ten pages, and it had a damn near perfect setup. A dorky “regular guy” makes googly-eyes at an attractive woman inside a diner. He watches as a different woman walks by and lifts her purse. Wanting to play hero, the dork gives chase, manages to catch the thief and get the purse back. When he returns, the attractive woman has gone, so he decides to “innocently” dig through her purse to find an ID with an address or some way to contact with her. Instead, he finds a gun, $10,000 in cash, a pair of airline tickets to Bangkok, some unlabeled CD-Rs, and dozens of vials of blood that obviously came from a a clinic of some kind.
The dork finally finds her address and seeks out her apartment. He finds it empty and freshly repainted, and uses the cash in her purse to bribe the landlord into letting him rent the vacant apartment on the spot.
January 5, 2009
I just finished a script with one of the stupider twist endings I’ve seen. Leading up to the twist, the script told a serviceable but unexceptional story of a clever high school student tracking down an unusual serial killer. Also on the case is her father, the local sheriff. The killer has a strange M.O.: he goes to his victims and gives them a torturous choice, with either option generally resulting in the victim’s death. For instance, he offers a struggling pianist this choice: he can either never play music again (meaning he’ll chop off the pianist’s hands), or he can never hear music again (meaning he’ll deafen the pianist in some way).
I want to ridicule the script’s twist ending for undoing the goodness coming before it, but first of all, it wasn’t that good. Secondly, this M.O., and the father-daughter relationship that drives the rest of the script, both come into play in this twist. Here’s what it is: the killer turns out to be the protagonist’s BAD TWIN. No, really. The classic schlocky soap-opera twist becomes the stuff of 2009 horror-thriller denouements.
December 31, 2008
Mythological Action-Adven… Zzzzz
Nothing bores the shit out of me faster than the genre I will lazily identify as “mythological action-adventures.” This genre also encompasses the general, non-mythological “historical” action movies because, frankly, they might as well be mythological for all the historical accuracy they preserve. Now, I don’t really care much about accuracy if they tell a good story, but nine times out of ten, they tell a story that bores the shit out of me. Gladiator? Troy? Alexander? 300? Christ, how could 300 bore me? It’s specifically designed for the ADD generation. I am convinced there’s not a scene in that movie longer than 30 seconds or an individual shot longer than 0.25 seconds. And don’t get me started on anything older than Gladiator — the older you go, the slower the pacing, which means they get progressively more tedious. Spartacus? Ben-Hur? Never made it through them, and this is from a guy who thinks 1941-1952 and 1968-1981 are the golden and silver ages of cinema. I have a very high tolerance for movies not directed by Michael Bay, but this particular genre is just the height of tedium for me.
The weird thing is, I like history and I like mythology. What are these movies doing wrong? Maybe, because of my familiarity with history and mythology have led me to a point where these movies don’t show me anything I don’t already know. Actually, once in awhile they do, but it’s usually wrong. Not to say I’m some sort of genius historian/theologian/anthropologist or anything — it’s more like, “These movies are so goddamn braindead, even an idiot like me has culled more knowledge from History Channel documentaries than the jackasses who wrote the script.”
December 29, 2008
Screwing the Pooch
Tarini 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.
Tarini 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.”
December 10, 2008
Face to Face
‘Tis the season of giving, so I feel like an asshole trashing kids’ cartoons about Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t even rip it a new one like that torture porn script — nothing’s that bad, but when you combine painful mediocrity with words like “forgettable” and phrases like “sporadically amusing,” it ends up sounding like a big-time pan. My guesstimation? If these writer/producers are lucky, they’ll hit the 5-9 age range. They’ll be lucky to get kids as old as nine to enjoy the movie, but I tried to be nice and give it a wider bracket. Adults will hate it. It’s too creepy for kids under five. Anyone old enough to stop believing in Santa Claus will outgrow it. So that’s it.
I feel terrible, though. When you read a script, there’s a barely tangible, inexpressible difference between stories written from a place of passion and love and those written to maximize demo saturation by appealing to the lowest common denominator. This Santa Claus story had all the signs of a passion project — whether I think it sucks or not, the people making it have loads of obvious, misguided faith in it. This intrigued me, so before I started writing the notes, I made the mistake of Googling the writers.
December 5, 2008
I shouldn’t have to explain “style” in screenplays. I know I shouldn’t, but I keep reading these Shane Black wannabes who have no idea what their edgy, post-genre ironic detachment does to people reading their screenplays. Now, before I get a bunch of e-mails from people too cowardly to insult me in the comments (that’s why they’re there, people — I hurl enough insults, I may as well receive my own public shaming), I should have you know that I love Shane Black’s work. He’s great, but writers with a desperate desire to be him suffer from the age-old problem of knowing the notes but not the music. Because, you see, the ironic detachment and laugh-out-loud asides that populate scripts like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang come from the fact that the scripts are irony-drenched comedies. Just because Lethal Weapon treats its characters like real people and has a serious third act doesn’t mean it stops being a crazy satire of the Joel Silver action empire — Richard Donner may have reigned it in a bit, but at the end of the day Lethal Weapon is every bit as nuts as The Last Boy Scout.
Black’s style works for what he writes because he matches the tone of the piece. In screenwriting, tone is really what style is all about. Dialogue has some stylistic leeway, but when you’re talking about action blocks (or body copy or copy block or any of the thousands of other names for script paragraphs indicating action), if you want the story taken seriously, they have to be serious — almost style-free, generic descriptions of people, places, and things. Every action block has to convey the tone of the moment. If you’re writing a tender, sincere love story, Shane Black’s ridiculous sex scene description (which satirizes other writers’, ahem, detailed attempts to capture the act on the page) will not work. At all. It makes no stylistic sense.
December 3, 2008
Sometimes I feel like the quirky-character police. I don’t mind quirky characters, mind you — everyone’s a little off, which makes people interesting. However, there’s a fine line between “lovably eccentric” and “frighteningly psychotic.” Sometimes, it’s an intangible argument — why did I love the oddball characters in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, but I felt the ones in The Life Aquatic were “quirky for the sake of being quirky” rather than feeling like real people? I’ve thought about that more than any sane man should, and I’ve come to no conclusions. Why did I think Juno and Napoleon Dynamite verged on creating stereotypes of the “quirky character” by applying well-known, overused peculiarities? Since the recent notion of “quirky characters” stems from the ’90s indie world’s frustration with mainstream fare, which started to rely increasingly on stereotypical (in many cases, outdated) characters and situations, does this mean we’ve finally lapped ourselves? Have the ’00s defined themselves as the decade of capricious-cum-crazy? It’s already given birth to the manic pixie dream girl archetype, so why not just go whole-hog and admit writers and filmmakers no longer have a clue what separates oddballs from nutjobs?
December 1, 2008
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an example of torture porn, a budding subgenre that’s like a more nihilistic version of slasher movies. There are apparently two distinctions between torture porn and slasher movies: (1) the killer always gets away with it, and (2) nobody survives, but in the unlikely event that someone does, nobody believes their story and they get sent to the nuthouse. This is almost a complete reversal of standard slasher fare, where usually all but one character dies, and the one left takes an axe or something to the head of the killer. Even if they have the old “you think he’s dead and then his eyes pop open” ending, there’s still a moment of triumph. Torture porn lacks that moment of triumph, relying instead (for the most part) on moments of queasy hope that maybe these people will escape their attackers; if they ever do, the attackers chase them down and re-catch them rather quickly.
Why would anyone watch a movie like this? I can dig watching a movie where a bunch of people get killed, but I draw the line at one where everyone gets killed and the villain is victorious. Without ever receiving a satisfactory answer to my question, I never even dipped my toe in the bloodied waters of torture porn.
That is, until I received Wichita.
November 26, 2008
Sci-Fi Metaphors & Wasted Potential
On Monday, I talked a little about how much I liked a post-Apocalyptic western. I’ve also mentioned, on occasion, my disappointment about wasted potential. This seems to happen much more with sci-fi than other genres, but I’m not sure why. I’m not what you’d call a huge sci-fi fan, but I do enjoy imaginative forms of unreality — bleak futures, alternate Earths, alien worlds, etc. The problem comes when a writer creates a vivid, unique world…and tells a shitty story within it. The Time Machine was pretty great until he travels into the future, which is problematic since nobody but me will see a movie called The Time Machine that’s about a 19th-century tinkerer trying to rescue his slain girlfriend. The Final Cut isn’t what I’d call great, but it had good ideas and could have made some very interesting statements about paranoia and the “Big Brother” culture. Instead, it settled for ripping off The Conversation and delivering a shockingly stupid ending.
More often than not, the problem with sci-fi stories — the reason they let audiences (i.e., me) down — comes down to the metaphor. Obviously, symbolism is one of the most important tools of the writing trade. It turns a bland conversation where people shout exactly what they’re feeling into a conversation where people shout about linoleum tiles to avoid confronting exactly what they’re feeling. It makes a moment where someone overhears a meaningless conversation into a moment that makes them realize their entire life is a lie. Symbols allow writers to express their unique views about the world.
November 24, 2008
In a post-Matrix/Fight Club/Shyamalan world, apparently everything in the action genre is about upping the narrative ante to the point that nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense. You want to know how fucking terrible action scripts have gotten? I read a script about a group of thugs and assholes involved in some kind of… I don’t even know; it was half terrible noir, half fetishistic valentine to Japanese culture (by that, I mean it’s the type of script some pasty white guy would write after watching a bunch of anime and yakuza movies and assuming he’s an authority on Japan), centered around the kidnapping of the daughter of…someone.
See, it got confusing because the lynch-pin of the twisting and turning plot is a somewhat interesting concept involving a portable machine that allows people to swap minds. It’s like Face/Off, only with minds instead of faces and stupidity instead of goofiness. This could lead to good confusion — something intriguing and unusual, maybe even a moderately thought-provoking meditation on the nature of existence or mind vs. body vs. soul. But fuck it, it’s an action movie — let’s just keep character development to a bare minimum so it’s more surprising when one person’s body turns out to be occupied by another dude’s mind. That’s right, everyone gets the short shrift this time around, because if any character had a definable personality, we’d know the instant they swapped bodies with someone else.
But, okay, so it has thin characters and plot twists. It’s an action movie — that’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Here’s the kind of story this is: two women who bare a passing resemblance to one another get an elaborate series of plastic surgeries so they look like twins, then the main character — a male — switches bodies with one of the twins and has lesbian sex with her. For no other reason than “Whoa, man. Twins.” Remember the lack of character development? I understand the guy’s motivation, but what about the other “twin”? Narcissism? Doesn’t cut it. Past sexual abuse? Usually causes women to seek out something a little less healthy than a mirror image of themselves — maybe she abused herself as a child, but that’s meeting the writer more than halfway. It’s also the kind of story where the mind of a child is trapped in a random, unnamed body guard in the ultimate deus ex machina; the kind of story where the voiceover narration is spoken by one character whose body, it turns out, has been occupied the entire time by a different character — and even that wouldn’t be so retarded if not for other voiceover sequences where we hear the thoughts of characters’ minds in other bodies, only it’s their “real” voice, not the voice of the body they’re occupying. It’s only written this way to give us a Shyamalan-style twist, but I’ve said this a thousand times: don’t use a twist if it undoes everything that came before it. Christ!
November 21, 2008
Funny on the Page
I tend to go harder on comedies than I do on other genres. After 15 seconds of soul-searching, I came up with three reasons why. The first is obvious: I like to pretend that comedy is my genre, so I fiercely protect it from folks willing to pound out lazy clichés in place of actual humor. As they sit back, nodding and chuckling to themselves, I burst through their window and impale them on an indescribably deadly object. I take comedy seriously, and I’ve worked my ass off trying to assess something as subjective as humor in the most objective way possible. It all goes back to the golden age of The Simpsons: not everyone will laugh at every joke, but every single viewer will find at least one joke funny; if they don’t, they simply don’t have a sense of humor. Most “comedy” writers don’t have the ambition to utilize such field depth in their writing (admittedly, it’s a huge pain in the ass for someone to do alone), but even that’s okay as long as they work well within the limited styles of humor they choose.
After awhile, certain people — and I like to think I’m among them, although you may disagree — become so attuned to what makes humor work, it goes beyond whether or not they subjectively find something funny. Personally, I have an intense dislike of broad farces — but I can understand, objectively, how they work in terms of story structure, character development, and style of humor, and I can identify whether or not the script does well within what it wants to be. It’s the same as judging any genre. With comedy, like horror movies, you’re pretty much dealing with a bunch of subgenres that have to be considered on their own merits, whether I find them subjectively funny or not. I could say Farting Farce is a bad comedy because it doesn’t make me laugh, but that’s like saying Big Sloppy Action Movie is a terrible script because it doesn’t read like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. I can divorce myself from what I find funny and say, “Yeah, somebody who likes farces would probably love this.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a better-educated guess than you’d get from somebody with no sense of humor.
So I’ve honed that skill. I’ve done some of the worst stand-up, improv, and stage acting in the history of time, because there’s nothing like the sound of 300 people not laughing (I swiped that from probably the only insightful line Aaron Sorkin penned during his Studio 60 reign of terror, and he probably swiped it from somebody much better than he is). I’ve forced the most impartial people I could find (e.g., coworkers or classmates but not friends) to read my writing, because who cares what my friends think? Any asshole can make their friends laugh, and 90% of the time, they’re doing it with inside jokes that aren’t objectively funny. The trick is making other people laugh, which is something many “comedy” “writers” fail to do.
At long last, here’s reason number two: ignoring the issue of whether or not I find something funny, too many comedy writers tend to coast on important dramatic principles like character development and plot coherence because they think, “Hey, it’s a comedy! As long as the characters are wacky and the jokes are funny, who cares if the plot makes sense or the characters’ actions are clearly motivated?!” This philosophy is, for lack of a better word, fucktarded. Take a moment, if you like any comedy at all, to think about your favorite moments in comedies. If you’re not a chuckleheaded idiot, whatever came to mind was probably a moment that’s funny because of who the character is rather than what he or she is doing (or what’s being done to them).
The third reason is a little simpler and more personal: I’m a bitter asshole. Juno was terrible, but I only took it personally because it got made and its terrible screenplay won a fucking Oscar. I’m really, really hard on my own work, and I’d wager I probably make it worse by tinkering constantly instead of just leaving well enough alone. I’ll read through something I wrote and ask myself why I ever thought it was funny. It always shocks me — and should shock you — that when I read these “comedies,” I think, “Holy Christ, my shit is better than this.” It’s not an ego-driven thought, and I’m only pointing it out here because it illustrates how fucking bad this shit is.
That said, I have something to say to all the budding comedy writers out there: your shit isn’t funny until it’s funny on the page.
November 19, 2008
Considering the obsessive deconstruction of the genre, slasher movies are remarkably simple. You have a disparate group of young people, mostly teenagers or college students, and a psychotic killer who borders on mythical picking them off one by one. I won’t deny the powerful subtext permeating these movies, but did we really need the dozens of movies from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to last year’s (admittedly brilliant) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon to beat us over the head with the feminism, the gynophobia, the antiheroes, the monsters, the Ahabs? Do we need people to delineate true slasher films from pseudo-slasher offshoots like splatter films and torture porn? Why does it matter?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me now, but it probably would if I ever attempted to write a slasher script. That’s the problem with genre work: you have to understand the genre, even if your goal is to subvert or satirize… In ancient times, when I majored in music, I had a theory professor who would teach us things like symphonic form. He’d map out the structure of a symphony and then say, “Okay, now, here’s Beethoven’s third symphony — and here’s how he broke all the rules.” One day, a classmate asked, “How come we’re studying the perfect form of all this stuff, but all the memorable composers broke the rules?” His answer was a cliché, but a valid one: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
November 17, 2008
Man, biopics must be hard to write. It’s one thing to write a biographical book, even with a sort of novelistic “creative nonfiction” approach. Among other things, a book with an unlimited page count can create a much richer portrait of an entire life. It can also, if done with that creative nonfiction approach, play more with the fluidity of time. An important, well-known incident in the subject’s life can spur remembrances of insignificant, unknown moments that might have led to the event. Biopics are almost always framed with a flashback structure, but cinematic flashbacks can (and often do) make things cumbersome. They pose the question, “What led to this moment?” but it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours to answer the question. In a book, it doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph or two. “Remember this? It reminded her of that.” The end.
Biopics have the more difficult task of trying to encompass a person’s entire existence into feature length. I had similar problems with The Final Cut, but at least a screenwriter can just take an overview of a life and condense it down in some way or another. But if someone’s led a ridiculously eventful life, you don’t have many options in crafting a screenplay. As I see it, you can either try to dramatize each of these moments, or you can concentrate on one important moment and try to use that as an emblem of the full life.
The former strategy runs the risk of information overload, with no dramatic thrust, so it feels like we’re watching a series of scenes rather than a story; at worst, it makes us feel like we never get to know the subject despite it being a movie about the subject. I felt this way about recent critical darlings Ray and Walk the Line — good performances aside, both felt more like watching a greatest-moments reel than a dramatic story. The latter strategy tends to have a solid story, but it runs the risk of not even qualifying as a biopic; it also might still leave the central character as an enigma because the filmmakers assume we can fill in our own blanks about the subject’s life before or after the incident in question. I had this problem with Capote, which actually works better as a biopic of In Cold Blood than Truman Capote, who remains a mystery until some painfully on-the-nose dialogue near the end (despite giving us some insight into the character, the clumsy handling makes the movie worse, not better). Becoming Jane takes this same general idea while making a significantly better (albeit not great) movie by concentrating on her early romantic life and illustrating how it impacted her writing.
The only recent biopic I’ve liked as a pure movie experience was La vie en rose. Although it spans the bulk of her life, it never feels like it’s breezily moving from one moment to the next without taking the time to get into the character’s head and let us understand her. It also plays with time in ways that are more effective than the standard “present-day reflections on an eventful life” — the filmmakers wisely make the structure as frazzled and frenetic as Piaf’s life/mind. Yet, it plays so loose with Édith Piaf’s life, it barely qualifies as a biopic and would be better off as a fiction inspired by Piaf.
September 28, 2008
The Post-Credits Scene
Disclaimer: This post is in no way a reflection of my frustration at reading no fewer than three screenplays that include stupid, unnecessary post-credits scenes. It’s merely a hypothetical argument designed to help you, the screenwriter.
I’ve bitched about this before, so you you know what I’m talking about — Ferris Bueller coming out of his bathroom to whine that the movie’s over, you can go home now; the “epilogue” that finishes off the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie; Skeletor screeching “I’ll be baaaaaack!!!” at the end of Masters of the Universe. It’s the post-credits scene, which can sometimes serve a function but… Does it work in the screenplay?
July 30, 2008
The Poochie Problem
Here’s something I can’t stand: watching a movie or television show where it occurs to you that the writers have become so enamored of a certain character, all supporting characters exist to do nothing more than talk about that character. They don’t appear to have lives of their own — from a dramatic perspective, they have no goals, no nuances, no arcs. In every scene, they offer either a plot point that will affect the central character or lines of dialogue that allow for the central character’s development. Or, even worse, they populate scenes that exist to do nothing more than talk about the main character.
I call this The Poochie Problem, for one of Homer Simpson’s suggestions for Poochie the Rockin’ Dog, the new character he voiced on The Itchy & Scratchy Show: “Whenever Poochie is not on screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?’” It tends to happen more frequently in television — the medium of wheel-spinning — but it also happens in plenty of movies, especially action movies and shitty comedies.
July 9, 2008
Overkill: My First Bit of Coverage
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?
July 7, 2008
The Joke Thief
When you’re a comedy writer, you can get away with a lot of crap — a structurally unsound story, cardboard-cutout characters, overly expository dialogue — because the prime goal is: be more funny. Not that I, personally, want my script to suffer from those problems. I just happen to know from experience that plenty of nuts-and-bolts problems disappear if the reader is laughing his or her ass off. When your goal is maximum comedy exploitation, there’s really one ethical code to follow: don’t steal jokes.
This hits on an ethical tricky gray area similar to one I’ve dealt with before: the writing equivalent of, “If a tree falls and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Certainly, but if some half-assed screenwriter writes a terrible script that no one above my bottom-feeding level will ever read, is it appropriate to swipe their work, make it kick ass, and try to run with it?
June 11, 2008
Write What You Have
Now, look, I know I’m pretty hard on Stupid Blogger, because, well…I think it’s pretty clear. Maybe I’ve only devoted one officially sanctioned Stan Has Issues™ post to her, but I still read her blog daily and mock her to pretty much anyone who will listen. I won’t start some kind of blog jihad because that’d make me look publicly crazy. I’m really only prepared to look crazy in private, where my friends can assemble behind my book and discuss how worried they are about me and my obsession with people I find intellectually inferior.
But she wrote something recently that, while comically moronic, gives me a good subject to broach from a screenwriting standpoint.
May 23, 2008
Inside Jokes for Outside Viewers
Have you ever watched a movie that just sucks a painful amount of ass, but it seems like the cast (and probably crew) had a whole lot of fun making it? If the movie’s mediocre enough, the high spirits of the cast can make it approach good. The recent Jeff Bridges vehicle The Amateurs has a shitload of flaws, and at the end of the day it’s a pretty terrible movie, but they’re all having such a visible amount of fun with each other and with the material (which isn’t even very good) that you want to like it.
Sometimes, though, a movie is so, so tragically awful that nothing can save them. In the case of comedies, I think a lot of this has to do with the inside-joke factor. Inside jokes can be problematic for material that’s intended for release to the public; you aren’t making a movie and writing a book for the benefit of yourself and your friends. While they might laugh hysterically at your joke — in part because they know you, in part because you’re making reference to something only you and a small group of friends truly understand — an independent judge might greet your hilarity with a stony, possibly angry face.
May 21, 2008
It Was Symbolism; He Was Mad!
The more I read shitty scripts, the more it occurs to me that many screenwriters haven’t mastered intermediate elements of storytelling. They often have the basics — tedious goals, bland conflict, dunderheaded protagonist “growth,” revealing every single detail using expository dialogue rather than visual clues — but it creates a hollow reading experience that will translate to a hollow viewing experience. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg — and I’ll say many great things unless you try to talk to me about any of his recent work — fun “popcorn” flicks haven’t been the same since he stopped making them. You could say, “Well, he’s not really a writer,” but the man’s PRODUCED BY stamp is almost as firm as his DIRECTED BY stamp. You can watch The Goonies, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Poltergeist — even later stuff like Men in Black — and see the Spielbergosity of them. I mean, Gremlins and Poltergeist are pretty fucked up, the kind of thing you’d think he’d maybe get stuck with and then limit his involvement to “big name that gets the greenlight,” but no — they’re as full of Spielberg spirit as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
May 10, 2008
Where Do Babies Come From?
The genesis from idea to full-fledged screenplay (or novel, or short story) is nearly impossible to describe. It happens differently for every person — or, at least, people fall into different groupings in terms of what they do to take an idea from vague concept to finished work. My classic, unmarketable satire about a high school student who joins a Satanic cult when he can’t get a date for the prom came from remarkably simple circumstances: when I was in high school, I had no interest whatsoever in going to the prom, so I waited for the absolute last minute to ask a girl.
May 5, 2008
Killing Your Darlings
I don’t know why, but for the past few days I’ve found myself obsessing over ideas that don’t work. But not the normal “wow, this scene sucks” or “this plot point doesn’t work at all” kind of idea — ideas that work on their own, but for various external reasons fail.
I’ll give an example: in the novel I’m writing, I always thought it’d be funny to incorporate a scene that essentially spoofs the scene in Sling Blade where Karl goes to visit his father (played by Robert Duvall), who’s a barely coherent, almost immobile drunk living in squalor. It would have also spoofed a scene in the VH1 movie about Meat Loaf, where he goes to visit his unsupportive father (early in the movie, Meat Loaf leaves home because his dad comes after him with a butcher knife) and discovers a Meat Loaf shrine. Because I leave no rural social issue unmocked, the joke mainly revolved around the father (of German-farmer heritage) having a shrine to the Nazi Party rather than a shrine to his son.
I’ll tell you why I cut it (ignoring the fact that it’s not terribly funny): it has nothing to do with anything. It has no bearing on the story, doesn’t fundamentally change the character or his conflict with his mother (he blames her for the father’s death, making the big reveal that he’s still alive only function to shift his anger from the death to the hiding) — it’s what I like to call a Family Guy spoof: it’s random, it’s kind of funny, but it means absolutely nothing aside from, “Hey, look! They referenced that movie!”
April 30, 2008
Getting Burned Out on a Character
In mentioning the notecard theory the other day, I started rambling about a novel I’m in the process of revising and editing. It’s in pretty good shape in a general sense — nothing huge to rewrite — but it had enough flaws that I needed to get organized on it.
I neglected to mention that, until a day or two before that post, the novel had been sitting, lifeless, while I distracted myself with easier (and potentially more lucrative) screenplays about people beating up Nigerian 419 scammers. I spent much of last summer revising it, then I decided, “I need to get on that novel again” and put it up in the little status sidebar, thinking if I let all my shame hang out, I might do something about it.
Well, I am doing something about it, but not because of its shameful flaccidity as it flaps in the wind. I just got burned out on this particular set of characters.
April 26, 2008
So for all you non-writers, there’s this theory floating around — mainly but not exclusively in screenwriting circles — that notecards will magically help to improve structure. There are about 90,000 different methods of doing this, but the most useful one I’ve heard works like this: for every given scene, you write down a general description of what happens in the scene, followed by (a) how it fits into the overall story, (b) the characters involved in the scene, (c) their conflicts within the scene, (d) how these conflicts are resolved, and (e) how this scene reenforces the theme. In theory, you should have all the answers and a fully-loaded 3x5 notecard, or you should cut the scene. (Or rewrite it until you can provide all the notecard information.)
Most of the time when I hear the notecard theory, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a much more useless structural idea: you map out the scenes with notecards so that you can shuffle them around. I’ve read lengthy, possibly apocryphal stories (all of them coming from unsold spec writers) explaining how notecards saved their script. One part of the story doesn’t work, so they shuffle one scene from the first act to the third act, and — boom! Citizen Kane 2: Razing Kane. Am I an anomaly for never really having problems with an overarching structure or misplaced scenes?
April 17, 2008
Poring over* somebody’s screenplay, I’ve realized something: detail is a lost art.
Have you ever read an old-timey screenplay, something from the ’40s or ’50s? The screenplay for Treasure of the Sierra Madre is ridiculously vivid, jammed with visual information and nuance you don’t get in a modern screenplay. I can understand a desire to be concise for the sake of the reader. The most important rule in any kind of writing is to know your audience and cater to them, and the audience for a screenplay is generally “overworked readers who only read the dialogue” and “barely-literate producers who would rather read a two-paragraph synopsis.” However, there’s a big difference between brevity and eliminating necessary details.
April 12, 2008
Prove It All Night
I mentioned a few days ago that I sometimes lurk around misc.writing.screenplays (actually, now I stick with the moderated group), just to see what’s going on. I don’t have much interest in posting, and it’s easy to check in once a month and read all the worthwhile posts in maybe half an hour. They really don’t talk much about writing except to newbies, which is fine, except when they get distracted by politics, which they do. A lot. It makes it a chore to read unless you just skip those threads. I’m all for political discourse, but I’ve been lurking and (very rarely) posting there since around 2001, and it all comes down to: same shit, different day. It’s reached a point where I can’t figure out why posters allow their buttons to be pushed, or derive pleasure in pushing the buttons of the others, because it’s always the same argument.
April 7, 2008
I had trouble sleeping last night for a really dumb reason. It’s been a week since I sent Disappear to the Big-Shot Producer, and somehow reading through other peoples’ work made me realize something:
Disappear had a serious plot hole, and now it was out of my hands, ready to be scrutinized by people who may notice it and not care, notice it and toss it aside, or (if I’m really lucky) not notice it at all. The hole is a basic logic flaw that affects many thrillers and action movies: why do villains go to such elaborate ruses when it’s way easier just to shoot somebody?
April 5, 2008
Nothing Ever Happens
So the second script I read had one unfortunate side effect: very little in the way of plot. It gave me an early Richard Linklater vibe because of the setting and the writer’s penchant for meandering scenes of characters just hanging out. Although he defies many conventions, Linklater’s a master of subtext and conflict. For instance, Dazed and Confused has a very loose plot — seniors want to beat up next year’s freshman class — that sets up the characters and their minor goals over the course of the night (e.g., “beat up a freshman”/”don’t get beaten up”). It has the traditional obstacles and changing goals, but it’s mostly a movie about hanging out. Yet, from the conversations these characters share, everything they say tells us a little something about them. Their attitudes on superficial things like music, acid-induced dreams, fashion — what a person discusses and the way others react to it all tell us things about who they are.
The script I was given had the loose plot and the deliberate (some might say “plodding”) pace of a Linklater film, but it didn’t have much else in common. When the characters talked about buying a keg, all they were talking about…was buying a keg. That’s a problem. Similarly, the characters desires and goals are shielded until, quite literally, just before each goal is altered. (In one case, we don’t know a character wants a scholarship until page 100, and he gets the scholarship on page 102 — ooh, the suspense. In another, the character reveals he’s unwilling to take the scholarship because he knocked up his girlfriend and needs to take care of her. Beyond logic problems I won’t go into, this is another conflict that’s brought up way too late and then resolved almost immediately. In literally the same scene that he mentions it to the love interest, she’s hit by a drunk driver and killed, leaving him to take the scholarship.)
I don’t want to go on and on ranting about this particular script, but I do want to bring up some fundamental tools of drama that this script should have employed but didn’t.
April 3, 2008
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™.
March 29, 2008
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.
March 27, 2008
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!
March 24, 2008
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.
March 12, 2008
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.
February 28, 2008
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.”
September 7, 2007
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.
April 30, 2006
The Press ReleaseIn which I read a press release about a friend’s script and am angered by the condescension in it.
February 19, 2006
AsshatIn which my complex feelings about a friend’s success makes me feel guilty.
January 13, 2006
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.”