Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How A Good Script Can Become A Bad Movie (aka "The Couple Of Death")


I LOVED the script for HappyThankYouMorePlease. Here’s my old review to show you how much. I loved the weird story. I loved the unique characters. I loved having no idea where it was going or where it would end up. But most of all I loved the writing. It’s rare that I slow down just to admire the skill in which a writer puts his words together. But I did here. And my neck still hurts from the whiplash I experienced after realizing that “that guy from How I Met Your Mother” wrote it.

Needless to say, I was interested to see what Josh Radnor was getting himself into, since he was both directing and starring in the film. The cast he lined up was good, including super-hottie Kate Mara, super duper hottie Malin Ackerman, and super duper uber hottie, Tony Hale (from Arrested Development of course). But man, after finally watching the movie the other day, I can’t tell you how disappointed I was. It was nothing like the movie I imagined while reading the script, and it jolted me into lesson mode. Because I love screenwriting (and screenwriters) so much, I sort of illogically cling to this falsehood that a great script is indestructible. That there’s no way to screw it up. Well, I have been proven wrong, and it’s time to figure out why. Folks, here’s how easy it is to turn a good script into a bad movie.

 "For the last time, can somebody please explain to me what the HELL this thing is!?"

One of the easiest ways to get your script made is to direct it yourself. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Anyone can set up a camera. But it takes knowledge and vision to be a director. The directing in Happythankyoumoreplease was, for lack of a better word, basic, as if Radnor had just completed his first year at film school and couldn’t wait to show the world what he’d learned. From the opening low-angle wake up sequence (I think low angles are the first “exciting” shot you learn as a filmmaker) to the outrageous overuse of close-ups. You’d think that New York consisted solely of big heads and bigger smiles had you only seen the city through Josh Radnor’s eyes. Haters gonna hate on Garden State, but all you have to do is watch these two movies back-to-back to see the difference between someone who has vision and someone who just got their first camera the day before production began.

Piggybacking off that, no one ever moved in this movie. Except for the outside shots where Radnor and the boy walked around, every scene had two people standing or sitting while we cut back and forth between them. It was as if Radnor had walked into a wax museum and simply started taping pretend conversations between statues. This is a good lesson for screenwriters. Try to have your characters DOING SOMETHING in a scene besides just talking to one another. Have them cleaning or setting up their new TV or taking the trash out. We talk a lot about making your character ACTIVE. Extend that concept to individual scenes. Make them ACTIVE in the moment. Brownie points if their actions reveal more about their character.

Oh boy. When I read this script, the one plotline that wasn’t up to snuff was the “Should We Move To L.A. or Not” couple. I thought it worked in script form, but in retrospect that may have been because I could skim through those scenes and get to the other stuff faster. Onscreen, there is no escape. The couple’s whiney repetitive disagreements become all the more whiney and repetitive because you HAVE NOWHERE TO HIDE. You’re stuck listening to them drone on and on and on about L.A. L.A. is bad. L.A. is good. L.A. is bad. L.A. is good. I quickly labeled them THE COUPLE OF DEATH because every time they came onscreen, the movie died. This is a HUGE reminder to make sure EVERY CHARACTER COUNTS in your screenplay. If you have a boring character or a boring couple in your script, rewrite them. Or get rid of them. Or replace them. But whatever you do, don’t leave them in your movie. Or they will kill your film every second they come onscreen.


I get it. All actors are vain. And the guy wants to prepare for his career after “How I Met Your Mother.” Don’t want to end up like Joey or the Seinfeld guys. So from a selfish standpoint, I understand Radnor’s choice to star in his own movie. Still, the number one slam dunk way to ruin a script is bad casting. The wrong actor can kill a character. And Josh was never right for this part. His face is too smiley. He’s too bubbly. I never once bought him as this down-and-out struggling dude. Maybe he does have some suffering in his past, but he certainly didn’t convey that in his performance. If you’re ever in this position, ask yourself, if I was someone else, would I really cast me in this role?

It’s really hard to find good young actors (5-6-7 years old) who can anchor a major plot thread for an entire movie. You can scour Backstage West or Frontstage North or Facebook or talent agencies or wherever. The truth is, finding a kid who can nail a role like this is one step higher than blind luck. The boy who played Rasheen in “Happythankyoumoreplease” wasn’t terrible. But he wasn’t good either. He just said yes and no 50 times and that was it. Kids are necessary to tell certain stories. But beware when writing major roles for 5 year olds. Chances are you’re not going to find that actor.

People. Unless you’re Richard Linklater, limit the “conversations about life” scenes in your movie to 1 per script. And if you really want to do the world a favor, don’t write any at all. There are few things as pretentious and grating as two characters opining about existence and life’s difficulties. I’m sure there are a couple of examples in film history of these scenes working, but I can’t think of any. More importantly though, be aware of WHY you want to write these scenes in the first place. It’s usually because your characters have nothing to do. You need to fill some time. So you think, “Hmmm…I’ll have them discuss, like, life and stuff.” Who then, are our big violators of this deathly mistake in “More Please?” Surprise surprise. None other than THE COUPLE OF DEATH! They have nothing to do. Therefore the writer is forced to give them meaningless dialogue. Always give your characters something to do people, somewhere to be, something to get. By doing so, you won’t need to give them pointless things to say.

Building on that, the biggest thing I’ve learned here is just how difficult it is to turn talky scripts into good movies. Talky stuff works on the page because readers love to speed through scripts and if there’s a lot of dialogue, it’s easy to get through faster. But what was so fast and easy on the page becomes slow and plodding on the screen if the actors delivering the line are standing around doing nothing. You need a means to liven things up. Woody Allen is a master at this and the main tool he uses is he always has other things going on in the scene besides two people talking. Maybe there’s subtext (one of the characters likes the other but hasn’t told them yet), maybe there’s an external force pulling at them, maybe there’s another couple antagonizing them. People are always in a state of flux in Woody Allen’s scenes, which adds energy, something sorely lacking in “More Please.”

For example, in his latest film, Midnight In Paris, there’s an early scene where Owen Wilson and his fiance are having lunch with the fiance’s parents, and two old friends of the fiance show up unexpectedly. The scene is interesting because the fiance is trying to balance entertaining two opposing groups who don’t know each other at the same time, never an easy task. In the meantime, Owen Wilson doesn’t get along with the parents and doesn’t like the friends, so he’s trying to stave off any attempts to meet up later with either party, which, of course, is exactly what his fiance wants. That’s what I mean by multiple things going on in a scene. It’s complicated. It’s dynamic. And it’s not just two people standing across from each other talking about the meaning of life, which are some of the most difficult scenes to make interesting EVEN IF you’re a great writer.

I hope there’s something in these observations that helped you. But if not, here’s one last tip. Please, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER write a COUPLE OF DEATH into your movie.

Man and Wife

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: An INS agent tasked with weeding out false marriages falls for one of the married women he interviews.
About: Lorene Scafaria has not one but TWO scripts in my Top 25, The Mighty Flynn and Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World, which she’s shooting as her first directing project right now (with Steve Carell and Keira Knightly). Although there’s no imminent start date on Man and Wife, I believe that
Italian director Gabriele Muccino is still attached to direct. Muccino is best known for being hand picked by Will Smith to direct The Pursuit Of Happyness, despite, at the time, knowing little to no English.
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Details: 109 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Gosling for Thomas?

Scafaria possesses a unique talent for understanding both the man’s and the woman’s side of a relationship, something you don’t see very often in screenplays. But writing three great scripts back to back to back is no easy task. Shit, you should be happy if you’re able to write ONE great script in your lifetime. So how does Man and Wife stack up? Is it a 50-year anniversary? Or a Frank McCourt style divorce?

Thomas Yale is sleepwalking through his life. Like, literally! He has a sleepwalking problem. He’ll wake up and all of a sudden be on midnight train to downtown New York. As a result, his fiance (the deliciously heartless Christine) is tasked with tying him up every night, and not in that good way.

Thomas works at the INS office, processing marriages between U.S. and foreign citizens, trying to sniff out the fake ones. He’s great at his job, and can usually figure out if someone’s lying to him within a matter of minutes. Of course, the irony is that Thomas’ own relationship, that with Christine, is about as loveless as they come, and there are plenty of times where the people trying to dupe him know more about their fake wives than he does about his real fiance.

Anyway, one day a Chinese woman named Mae comes in with her husband and Thomas is tasked with figuring out if their marriage is fake. Despite their backstory being suspicious (she knew no English when they met, they got married 3 months later, right before her visa expired), the two are able to answer every question with expert precision, which is rare.

Afterwards, Thomas is troubled by the interview, not because of how easily she was able to answer the questions, but because he can’t stop thinking of her. As a result, Thomas sort of tricks himself into thinking he needs a second interview, giving him an excuse to go see Mae again. He does, and the two start unofficially hanging out while he continues to work on her “case.”

The dilemma, of course, is that if he finds the marriage to be a sham, Mae will have to be sent back to China. But if he finds that the marriage is legit, it means that he has no chance with her. Talk about a no-win situation.

Needless to say, the INS office becomes suspicious of Thomas’ intentions, pressing him to come to a decision soon. Does he allow this woman he’s clearly fallen for to stay in America, or does he send her away for good?

Like all of Scafaria’s writing, there’s a clever central idea driving Man and Wife. Thomas is tasked with an impossible decision. Keep the girl he loves here yet toil away in agony since he can’t have her or send her back home, even though it guarantees never seeing her again. What’s cool about “Wife” is that there are more layers to this decision than you first realize. In both cases, Thomas loses the girl, but if he does keep her around, a new element is added – temptation. He’ll be tempted to do the immoral thing and continue to try and win her over. He’s weeks away from getting married. Can he handle that temptation? Therefore, does he send her away out of a selfish need to keep his life on track? And what about his work? Thomas is a letter of the law type worker. How does his sense of duty play into all this? If he finds out she’s lying and allows her to stay, has he betrayed his country? There’s just a whole lot of shit that’s going into this decision, and it’s what I enjoyed most about Man and Wife.

I also just like the way Scafaria writes. When you read a lot of scripts, you become keen to writers who can confidently take you down a story path, and those who are trying to figure out things as they go along. I always feel like Scafaria knows exactly where she’s going, exactly where she wants to take you, and so even when things get a little slow or a little confusing, I’m confident that it’ll all straighten out.

Having said that, if I were ranking Man and Wife, it would come in behind “Seeking” and “Mighty Flynn.” Hold on, hold on. No need to lower the life boats. My screenwriting crush on Scafaria is still as strong the Santa Ana winds. But I thought this script helped explain just why those other scripts were so great. If I may, let me ramble for a second.

Here’s my main contention. Both Thomas and Mae – our central characters in “Man and Wife” - are too nice. They’re introspective, pleasant, moral, the kind of people you’d love as your best friends. The problem with super nice people though, is that they’re not always interesting, especially when placed together.

Take a look at The Mighty Flynn’s main characters. One is a selfish semi-maniac who leaves a cloud of destruction wherever he goes. And the other is a rebellious powder keg of a kid who never takes no for an answer. Those characters had real personality. And they were a little dangerous. And it’s fun to watch dangerous people. In “Man and Wife,” Thomas is so damn polite, that when you put him in a room with a woman who’s also polite, and then combine that with the fact that she can barely speak English, it’s tough to make those conversations exciting.

Now that’s not to say two romantic leads need to be sparring every time they walk in a room together a la Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. There IS conflict here. It comes from the obvious attraction between the two that cannot be acted upon. It just doesn’t read as sexy as two people who are butting heads.

The next issue is that the characters’ situation feels a little stuck. Sort of like we’re repeating beats over and over again. What I loved so much about “Seeking” was that we were pushing towards something. Our characters had goals. They had thrust. Each segment of the screenplay felt different from the last. Now granted, it’s a lot easier to achieve this when your characters are on the road, but it is something I noted during the read, and combined with the characters being so internal, made for some frustrating scenes. There were times where you wanted to kick Thomas and Mae the butt and say, “Tell them already!”

Scarfaria wisely adds a ticking time bomb to ward off the slow pacing (Thomas getting married), however, since his and Christine’s relationship is broken from the very first frame, I’m not sure we ever see that as a threat (though there is the fear that he’ll marry the wrong person). I think a cool ticking time bomb would have been through the INS storyline. Maybe each case has a set time restriction, so he has to make his decision within two weeks or something? That might’ve added more urgency to Thomas’ situation.

In the end, the central dilemma driving the protagonist in Man and Wife is really intriguing. But I think if there’s something I’ve learned from this script, it’s the dangers of putting two reserved personalities together. If Lorene Scafaria has trouble making it work, chances are you’re not going to figure it out either. An intriguing script. But not quite up to par with the awesomeness that is “Seeking” and “Flynn,” which I’m sending another APB out on right now. Who has this script? Please make it now!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you’re writing a relationship movie, you need at least one character in the relationship who’s got some oomph. Not every character needs oomph. But people with oomph tend to pop more on the page.

Hell On Wheels

Genre: Western (TV pilot)
Premise: In 1865, a town physically moves across the frontier, following the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
About: Hell on Wheels is an AMC show set to debut either this year or early next year. Tony Gayton won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting scholarship at USC, where he attended, over a decade ago. After graduating, he worked as a production assistant for John Milius. He also wrote the Val Kilmer film, “The Salton Sea” as well as writing (with his brother), “Faster,” last year’s film starring The Rock. Here’s an interview he did with his brother leading up to the film’s release.
Writers: Tony & Joe Gayton
Details: 44 pages – 8/3/2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

AMC has its shit together. In a world where creativity is shunned, this channel is one of the growing few that is willing to take chances. Okay okay, I admit it. I stopped watching The Killing after three episodes (I sensed they were basking a little too comfortably in their “anti-procedural” proceduralness. Sooner or later, you gotta start answering questions – I still haven’t seen the finale but I hear it proved me right. What did you guys think?). But overall, you gotta give it to AMC for not creating Law & Order CSI 50.

Friday, we dissected the amateur period piece, The Triangle, which afterwards left serious doubts as to whether it’s possible to make period pieces exciting for a modern-day Twitter-centric audience. But Hell On Wheels proves that with some good old fashioned story sense, an eye towards milking the drama, and an infusion of as much conflict as possible, you can make any story exciting.

It’s 1865. The Civil War is over. Lincoln is dead. America is trying to get back on its feet. But they’re having a rough go at it. Each side is bitter about how things went down (particularly the, um, losing side) and they’re not hugging it out saying “good game.”

Hell On Wheels starts off the way every show should start off, with a good scene. Bring us in right away and never let go dammit. A local soldier goes to a church to confess the sins he perpetrated during the war but seconds later the priest he’s confessing to puts a bullet through his head. Or who we thought was a priest. This is Cullen Bohannon, an ex-Confederate soldier with revenge on the brain. Something really bad happened to this man during the war. And now he’s going after the Union soldiers who did it, one by one. This is the second to last. He’s got one more to go.

Cut to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the thing that’s going to change America. The thing that’s going to connect the East to the West. The railroad is being built by a dishonest tyrant of a man named Thomas “Doc” Durant. Doc could care less about America’s noble pursuit to expand. All he cares about is making this construction go as slowly as possible so he can milk the government for every penny they’ve got.

This is where Cullen is headed. And where many people are headed for that matter. Building a railroad requires a lot of work so, obviously, they need workers. Once there, we meet a few more of the major players. There’s Elam, a black man dealing with the ongoing testiness of men who still don’t believe he should be free. There’s Joseph Black Moon, a Cheyenne Indian who’s acting as a sort of intermediary between his people and the railroad workers. There’s Daniel Johnson, a mean son of a bitch who carries a hook for a hand. There’s Lily and Robert, a married couple who are dealing with Robert’s deteriorating health. As the train moves further and further into Cheyenne Country, and the threat of violence with the natives becomes more of a reality, he’s begging her to go home where it’s safe, but she insists on staying by his side.

And then of course there’s the biggest character of them all, the thing that sets the show apart from everything that’s come before it, the town itself. “Hell On Wheels” is a moving town, a series of makeshift tents that trudges along the frontier, following the expanding railroad. This was my favorite aspect of Hell On Wheels because I’m always asking, “How do you make a Western different?” They’ve done just about everything already. Not only is a moving town unique, but it brings up a lot of opportunities you’d never get to see in a traditional Western (for example, the concept of moving further and further into dangerous Native American territory). In other words, it’s not just a gimmick.

That combined with the intriguing main character, Cullen, who we’re not sure if we should like or fear, gives this pilot an edge that you just don’t see in movies or TV shows. Out of all the Westerns I’ve seen or read in my life, Brigands comes first. And this would be second.

So what does it do right? A lot. There’s conflict everywhere you look in Hell On Wheels. Cullen seeking revenge against the men who ruined his life. A Hitler-esque railroad developer who challenges everyone he meets. A character on the brink of death from disease. The looming threat of a war with the Cheyenne Indians. Racial tension on the building lines. That’s why this teleplay is so damn great. There isn’t a single scene where something isn’t clashing with something else (or leading up to a clash). We’re never bored here.

Which leads to the next thing. In a TV pilot, you want to set up/allude to as many major character conflicts as you can. You want the audience saying, “Hmm, I wonder how that’s going to play out?” Or, “I wonder how that’s going to evolve.” When someone finishes watching that first show, you want them pissed off that the next episode isn’t on RIGHT NOW. So here, when we learn that Cullen’s final mark is here in this town, we can’t wait to see how he’s going to get to him. When we see the Cheyennes discussing how they’re going to treat this invasion onto their land, we can’t wait to see if they’re going to move in. We can’t wait to see how Joe, the Cheyenne who’s in the middle of it all, is going to react. Will he choose his people? Or his new friends? And of course we can’t wait to see the unique machinations of this moving city, this “Hell On Wheels.” There are so many intriguing threads here.

I loved the little touches in Hell On Wheels as well. Like when Durant gets pissed at his builders for trying to build the railroad straight. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asks. If you build the railroad straight, you complete the railroad faster, which means I don’t get paid as much money. So he insists they make it curvy. This had me wondering, is this really what happened? Were our ancestors so corrupt that still to this day we have inefficient railroad paths twisting through our country? I love when screenplays break that fourth wall and make you think.

You know, I recently watched the abysmal pilot for the Spielberg produced TNT series, Falling Skies. And I found myself comparing the two scripts, wondering why a script about the old west, something I have little interest in, was so much better than something about aliens, which is a subject matter I love.

The answer came quickly. There wasn’t a single character that stuck out in Falling Skies, that popped off the page. None of them had anything unique or interesting going on. Everything about their existence, their goals, their desires, was humdrum, basic, generic. But here, in Hell On wheels, you had characters enacting revenge, characters torn between two sides, lovers in denial about impending death, corrupt dictators. One of the sure signs of a good screenplay (or teleplay) is that you REMEMBER the characters afterwards. And the way to do that is to give them real lives, real problems, real fears, real conflicts. Hell on Wheels had that in spades, and it’s the reason it’s so damn good.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Create looming conflicts. Conflict is not just about the right now. It’s not just about two characters who don’t like each other or don’t agree on something in the moment. It’s about the future. It’s about hinting at conflict that is to come. When you do that, you create a powerful force – anticipation. If we’re anticipating an event, a future showdown, we’re more willing to keep watching. The two instances that really got me here were the looming clash with the Cheyenne Indians and Cullen’s last mark. I needed to see those two things resolved. Pack your pilot with a handful of these and people will want to tune in for the next episode.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The F Word

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A guy begins hanging out with a girl under the pretense that she’s single, only to later find out she has a boyfriend.
About: The F Word has been in my Top 25 since the beginning of my blog! And I’m finally getting around to reviewing it. Don’t worry all you lonely screenplays out there. With a little patience, you too will get your shot. This script made the 2008 Black List with 10 mentions (just below Everything Must Go and with the same amount of votes as Up In The Air). The script seems to have impressed big-time writer Alan Ball so much that he’s working with Elan (the writer) on his next directing project.
Writer: Elan Mastai (based on the play “Toothpaste and Cigars” by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi)
Details: November 28, 2007 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I have a bad habit of avoiding scripts I read and loved from a long time ago, only because I’m afraid they won’t live up to their original awesomeness. That’s why I STILL haven’t seen Everything Must Go. And an experience I had this weekend seeing another one of my favorite scripts turned into a movie did not help (Tune in Thursday for the full scoop on that debacle – yuck squared).

So anyway, that’s why I’ve been avoiding reviewing The F Word, a script that’s been in my Top 25 since the beginning, but a script I don’t remember a whole lot about to be honest. I’ve read over 2000 scripts since then and am much harder to please these days. Would it still hold up? Or would the unthinkable happen? Would I need to take The F Word out of my Top 25??? I can tell that the suspense is killing you so let’s get to the review, shall we?

Wallace and Chantry are a couple of 20-somethings doing what 20-somethings do on a Saturday night. Hanging out at a party that they don’t really want to be at. Wallace is conservative, nice, a little quirky. And Chantry is fun, intriguing, a little sarcastic. The two find themselves meeting in the kitchen and putting together goofy sentence combinations with those refrigerator letter magnets (“THIS TURKEY SANDWICH SAT IN MY HAT ALL WINTER”)

The two clearly have a connection, but later that night after walking home, right when it seems like they’re about to have the kiss to end all kisses, Chantry mentions that she has a boyfriend. Oops.

Wallace goes home and confesses to his best friend Allan (who also happens to be Chantry’s cousin) that he can’t stop thinking about the girl, which eventually leads to them beginning a friendship. They go to movies, talk on the phone, eat at fine establishments. For all intents and purpose they act like a couple. But they’re not a couple. Because Chantry has a boyfriend.

Complications arise when Chantry’s boyfriend goes off to Paris for his job, and the two are allowed to spend even MORE time together, resulting in them getting even closer. They go shopping together, camping together, skinny dipping together. And yet, Chantry is steadfast on keeping the line drawn. They’re just friends. And Wallace completely respects that.

The F Word asks that question that has been debated since the caveman era. Can men and women JUST be friends?

So how did The F Word hold up after all this time? Would it be meeting up with another word, the 26th word, if you know what I mean? (I mean placing it outside the top 25). The answer, thankfully, is no. But I’ll tell you this. I was worried there for a little while. The F Word starts out slow. The alphabet refrigerator letter scene, while cute, goes on for way too long (it feels like a holdover from the play) and it makes you wonder if this is going to be one of those talky indie relationship movies that make you hate hipsters.

This is followed by a second rough patch, before the relationship actually begins. Chantry hangs out at work. Wallace tries to forget the other night. Very little seems to be happening. I kept thinking to myself, “Hmmm, this isn’t nearly as good as I remember.”

But once we hit Wallace and Chantry’s friendship, the quality of everything, from the story to the characters to the dialogue, jumps up a few notches. Mastai does a great job of building this relationship, nailing the “trifecta rule” of romantic comedies: We like the guy. We like the girl. We want to see them get together. If you’ve achieved this, you’re 70% of the way there in your Rom Com spec.

The next rule is having a legitimate reason why your couple can’t be together. The F Word may have gone with the most basic solution to this problem, but it works. Chantry has a boyfriend. It’s clean, it’s identifiable. We do not question why Chantry and Wallace don’t just get together. Now while I admit to not believeing Chantry truly liked her boyfriend, Mastai made up for it by selling Chantry as a loyal woman with strong morals. I believed that Chantry didn’t want to cheat, and that sold everything that came afterwards.

In fact, my favorite thing about The F Word was how Mastai constantly puts his leads in situations that test their resolve, such as throwing them in a changing room together or having them go skinny dipping together. We’re constantly wondering as an audience, “Are they going to break here?” “Are they going to break here?” And if your audience is excitedly asking those sorts of questions, you’re in good shape, particularly because the majority of the time, readers are asking questions like, “Good God, when does this end???” “How come it’s page 80 and I still don’t know who the main character is?” “For the love of all that is Holy, end this now!” (yes, that last one is considered a question by readers).

The key here is making things TOUGH on your characters. That’s what creates drama and that’s what keeps things interesting. These two going on a group date to the Opera and sitting five seats away from each other isn’t a difficult situation for either of them. Swimming in the moonlit water naked less than a foot away from each other? Now THAT’S testing your characters.

There are a lot of things this script has to be proud of actually. Once you get past the opening, where I felt the dialogue was a little forced, it gets really good. And Mastai threw in all these little touches to take the script away from the stage (where it was born as a play). We have Chantry’s animated robots having conversations with her. We have Wallace imagining jump cuts of what Chantry’s boyfriend looks like. We have an “asking questions about each other” montage that takes us through 20 locations, cleverly selling the evolution of their relationship. It isn’t 500 Days of Summer inventive. But it has that same sort of vibe.

The negatives are few. Chantry’s boyfriend could’ve been a little better developed. I never got a sense of him. But in a strange way, that almost helped (I imagined this is how Wallace saw him too – as this vague entity). The script needs to start faster or have more going on early. Technically, things are “happening” in the opening ten pages, but you get the feeling that it’s not as good as it should be. I’d like to see Mastai get into that party more, have Wallace and Chantry dance around each other a bit, as opposed to just standing in front of a refrigerator for 12 pages. The Allan-Chantry connection (being cousins) felt a little convenient. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent script.

The F Word is that rare bird. It’s a clichéd “been there, done that” idea that is so well executed that you don’t realize how “been there, done that” it is. It’s a reminder that the key to any screenplay, in the end, is simply creating characters that we care about. If you do that, we’ll be willing to go anywhere with them, even to places we’ve been before. After last week’s crop of duds, it was nice to remember what a great screenplay looks like.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (TOP 25!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you have two romantic leads who aren’t allowed to be together, you better be tempting them CONSTANTLY. This is what the audience came to see – your leads being tempted. So create as many of these scenarios as possible. Put them in a dressing room half-naked together. Put them in a lake completely naked. Make them sleep in the same sleeping bag. Tempt tempt tempt!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I'm Not Reviewing Django Unchained

Lots of people have been asking me if I plan to review Django Unchained.  The answer is no.  The Weinsteins are wreaking havoc for those posting online reviews so it's just not worth it.  However, I know a lot of you have read the script and don't really have a place to discuss it.  So, I'm providing that place.  Go ahead and discuss Django guys.  Just don't provide any plot summaries or go into any super-spoilers.  Thanks!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Triangle

Genre: Period
Premise: New York, 1910. When a group of starving female workers strike against the most powerful garment manufacturer in America, they turn to a clever young reformer who must lead them in a fight for human dignity before winter -- or worse -- takes their lives. Based on actual events.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free, however, to use an alias and fake title).
Writers: Patrick McNair & Eric Thompson
Details: 115 pages

This is going to be one of the tougher reviews I’ve ever had to write. Because I know Eric is a big fan of the site and he’s been pushing me to review this script for a long time. So I really really wanted to like it. That’s what kind of sucks about Amateur Friday. Is that the people who send their scripts in are usually the biggest fans of the site. And the last thing I want to do is tear their baby apart. But part of the journey of screenwriting is learning to take criticism and using it to come back bigger, faster, and stronger with your next script. And that’s going to be the theme of today’s notes.

Of all the genres you have to choose when writing a spec, a slow-moving period piece puts you in the worst possible position to succeed. So normally I BEG – literally get down on my knees and BEG - writers not to write period pieces. Production company pays you 50 grand to rewrite one of their own period piece properties? Yeah, do that. Spend 1-2 years of your life writing a period piece from scratch when you don’t have any pre-existing knowledge from agents or producers that they are looking for this kind of script? Honestly? It’s career suicide. Except before your career’s even started. It’s pre-emptive career suicide.

And the thing is? Today’s writers seem to know this. This is what Eric had to say to me in his e-mail query: “My writing partner and I messed up. Royally. We should have written a comedy about immature men or a taut thriller about a victimized woman in perpetually wet clothing. We should have written about things that blow up. God help us, we should have written a coming-of-age teen dramedy instead of writing what we did. We... we wrote a period piece. I know, I know, but that's not even the worst of it. *Sigh* There are multiple protagonists (and half of those blend into each other), it would cost a fortune to make and no one would go see it because it looks to be about "issues." Hell, it doesn't even have a dog. You get the idea.”

That he acknowledged the difficulty in writing this type of screenplay gave me confidence that he knew how to make up for that somehow. That he’d need to write a dramatically compelling conflict-filled rip-roaring story with amazing characters and intriguing plotlines. That was my big hope when picking up The Triangle. A hope that was dashed pretty early in. The Traingle is so dense with characters, so information packed, so heavy with words, that by page 50 my attention was shot. I’d spent so much energy trying to keep up with all the characters and all the situations, all while nothing exceptional or interesting was really happening, that by the middle of the script I was toast. I felt the way you feel after cramming for a test all night. At a certain point, the words on the page just stop making sense. So if my summary is a little off, I promise you, I did my best.

It’s 1909. Immigrants are arriving in New York. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company is renowned for taking a lot of the poor female Jewish immigrants from these boats and putting them to work for ridiculously low wages and under less than stellar working conditions.

Frances Perkins, an educated woman from Philly, is looking to better the conditions for these women and women everywhere. Though because this is a man’s world from the top down, she’s encountering a lot of resistance.

Meanwhile, the girls at the Shirtwaist Company are sick of being treated like dogs and decide to unionize. But Max Blanck, the powerful and heartless Russian owner of the factory, tells his workers that if they join a union, they will lose their jobs.

The girls strike anyway, and Max ignores them, simply hiring new fresh-off-the-boat girls to take their places. To make matters worse, a band of wild hookers attack our striking workers for seemingly no reason. The Shirtwaist workers are sent off to jail, where they realize the hooker attacks were a scam perpetrated by Max to stave off the bad publicity he was receiving from the strike.

We keep cutting back to Frances, who’s slowly making her way through a gaggle of politicians, getting closer and closer to seeing her “Improved Working Conditions” bill passed. But it looks like it’ll be too little too late.

Max’s deplorable working conditions end up causing a giant fire and because one of the key exit doors was locked, over 100 women were burned alive trying to get out of it. A tragedy that could’ve been avoided, but because of arrogance and a basic ignoring of human rights, many people died instead.

When you give a script to somebody, you’re making a deal with them. You’re saying, “You give me two hours of your time and I’ll entertain you for those two hours.” That’s what people receiving your spec script are looking for. They’re looking to be entertained. When you give these same people a period piece, the phrasing of that deal changes. You’re now saying. “Look, I know it’s a period piece. I know most period pieces are really long and really dense and really dull. But I promise you, this isn’t going to be one of them..” But it doesn’t matter. They’re already on guard. Period pieces are always the hardest screenplays to read and for that reason, readers hate them. Here’s a list of six things readers are terrified of encountering when they read a period piece.

1) That there will be an endless amount of characters they have to remember.
2) That the story will move at a glacial pace.
3) That they’ll need to memorize a bunch of time-specific details in order for the story to make sense.
4) That the writer cares more about the history of the event than how to DRAMATIZE the event.
5) An unfocused narrative that jumps around to too many disparate story threads.
6) Thick never-ending chunks of text.

The Triangle violates pretty much every one of these, handicapping its story so severely that it’s basically reader kryptonite. Let’s take the first fear, character count, and see where The Triangle falls. 



















Mrs. Lansner













There’s your character list for The Triangle.  Okay, I'm going to say this next part as kindly as I can.


One of the jobs of a writer is to know how much information a reader is capable of handling.  Readers are not geniuses. They are not human computers. They do not keep assistants on hand to write down and recite back character names when they can’t remember someone. I mean writers have to be honest with themselves. How is reading something enjoyable when every two pages the reader has to stop, check their notes, recall the character, then go back to reading again? And that’s IF they decided to keep notes in the first place. If your reader is not taking notes? This script is toast by page 20. They will not remember anyone and therefore every single scene will be confusing. There is no way to save a screenplay once that happens.

The idea in any screenplay is to make us care about the characters so we care about what happens to them. But how are we supposed to care if we only spend a couple of minutes with each character every 20 pages or so? How do we get to know these people? Huge character counts KILL a screenplay because the reader can’t latch on to anyone. Titanic (which I’ll reference here a lot since it’s both a period piece and has a tragic ending, like The Triangle) had a big character count but 90% of the time we were with Jack or Rose. The biggest character The Triangle focuses on is Frances, and she’s not even involved in the fire! Guys. You have to write smart! Limit your character count to JUST the characters that matter. Keep us with the most interesting of those characters 70% of the time AT LEAST.

Next thing I worry about with period pieces is glacial pacing. Let’s recount what happens in the first half of The Triangle. Women hate their job. They want to unionize. They go on strike. Another woman lobbies the senate for better working conditions. That’s pretty much it. In screenplays, INTERESTING THINGS NEED TO HAPPEN FREQUENTLY. Nothing really happens in The Triangle until the fire. It’s just a bunch of people talking about unions or getting bills passed. The one memorable moment is the hookers attacking the strikers and that moment was so strange (the image itself is actually quite comical) that it didn’t play the way it was intended to.

You have to keep us entertained. Even if it’s a “slow-moving” period piece. Things need to HAPPEN.  It would be like if Titanic, instead of focusing on Jack and Rose, focused on the politics of how the Titanic sunk.

This led right into problems 3, 4 and 5. The Triangle is basically a history book. It’s a retelling of events. Which is not what movies are about. Movies are about finding drama in situations, not recounting said situations. You do this with your characters. You focus on them and then you tell the story of the historic event through their eyes. Is Titanic about how the ship sunk? No. It’s about two people falling in love. THAT’S what we remember.

What The Triangle needed was two or three characters we could latch onto who were experiencing some sort of conflict with each other. It doesn’t have to be a love story. It can be a brother and sister. A mother and her daughter. Any two people that have some unresolved issue. Make us care about that issue and we’ll end up caring about the building they work in that later catches on fire. The unions and striking and lobbying should all be secondary to that relationship. Like, WAY SECONDARY.

Outside of that, this script just needs a great big shake-up. It needs more energy. It needs more surprises. It needs more drama. It needs more conflict. It needs a quicker pace. It needs more humor. It needs more edge. It needs more interesting situations. It needs to be focusing on a core group of people. One thing I see with a lot of period pieces is that the writers who write them LOVE history so much, that that’s all they focus on, is the history of the event. Giving us the cold hard facts. There’s a specific line in The Triangle where I officially gave up on the script being able to entertain me. Here’s the line, which comes on page 39: “Let us know as soon as you possibly can if you would be willing to form an Employers Mutual Protection Association....”

This is indicative of the mindset of the script. We’re focusing on “Employers Mutual Protection Associations.” I don’t care if you’re Aaron Sorkin. There is no way in the world that you can make “Employers Mutual Protection Associations” interesting. There may very well have been an Employers Mutual Protection Association during that time. But readers don’t care about that.

Your job is not to retell history. Your job is to DRAMATIZE THE EVENT. In Titanic we have Jack saving Rose from suicide, we have them sneaking around behind her fiance’s back, we have a man looking for the biggest diamond in the world, we have classes clashing, we have a mother forcing her child to marry a man she hates to save the family, we have forbidden love. THAT’S how you dramatize an event. Anybody can read up on the Titanic and give you a play by play of how it sunk. What I want to know about is the PEOPLE who were victims of that mistake.

And that brings us back to the character count. This is where The Triangle burned itself. Remember, if you don’t have a few core people the audience loves/wants to root for, every single thing that happens from that point on doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if it’s the most interesting plot in the world. We don’t care about the characters? We don’t care about the world they live in. When you blanket your script with an endless character count, you prevent the reader from latching on to anybody. If there’s a priority of things to fix in this script, that would unquestionably be number 1 on the list.

I realize these notes are harsh but one of the best things a reader can do for a writer is tell him when something isn’t working. So many writers just write in circles cause they never get any real feedback. In the few instances that a prodco agrees to read their work, they often never hear back from them, or get a stock “pass” e-mail, leaving them with no idea what’s wrong with their screenplay. Do they write another draft blindly? Do they guess what’s wrong? It’s an agonizing process.

In order for The Triangle to work, it would likely need a huge rewrite that focuses more on the characters and less on the mundane details of unions and strikes. And the problem is that even if Eric and Patrick nailed that rewrite, they’re still trying to pitch producers on a period piece, which means they’re getting about 1/10 the reads that you’d normally get (and you’re normally not getting many reads). There’s nothing wrong with the writing here. In fact, I don’t recall a single typo. If you read this script, you can tell the writers put a lot of time and effort into it. But it’s so difficult of a sell. And I know how nice of a guy Eric is. I wouldn’t try to break in with this script. If you really really really love the subject matter? Save it for when you become big time. But trying to break in with this is like trying to walk into North Korea draped in an American flag. It’s just too damn risky.

Script link: The Triangle

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don’t write a period piece on spec. Just don’t do it. It really is suicide. The only exceptions are if you’re doing it for practice or you don’t really care whether you succeed or not. Where do all the period piece movies come from then? They come from pre-existing properties. They come from book adaptations. They come from in-house production company ideas. They rarely, if ever, come from spec scripts. If you still refuse to ignore this advice, then at least make your period piece exciting. Limit the time frame. Add revenge to the mix. Keep the story simple. Create impossible odds for your hero. Give us a COMPELLING SCENARIO. For example, Odysseus sold a couple of years ago and that script met all of that criteria. I just hate to see writers waste their time on impossible pursuits. You’ve already chosen the most competitive field in the world. Why voluntarily make it harder for yourself?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn From Say Anything

When I think of Cameron Crowe, the first movie that comes to mind is Jerry Maguire. But I think Say Anything may be the best script he’s ever written. One of the reasons why it’s stood the test of time is that it’s so different. I mean seriously, when’s the last time you read a high school romantic comedy where the central conflict was a love triangle between a teenage couple and the girl’s father? You haven’t. And that’s the theme of today’s tips. Be different. If you’re constantly challenging yourself to make unique choices, you’ll put yourself ahead of 90% of your competition. Now, let’s learn a little something from this script, shall we?

This one seems obvious because it’s talked about so much in screenwriting books and on websites. But here you get to see it in action. Lloyd and Diane are NOT your typical high school love story. Lloyd is not an uber geek, hanging on to the last rung of the popularity ladder. He’s an outsider with a smattering of cool friends who lives with his sister and has an unhealthy obsession with kickboxing. Diane Court is not the unobtainable prom queen princess. She’s an uber-geek, made unobtainable more by her brains than her looks. A screenplay is capable of overcoming a lot of clichés. But one cliché it cannot overcome is cliched main characters. Always make sure your main characters are original.

I’ve talked about this before but it’s a mistake I keep seeing writers make. You need to SHOW your leads falling in love. People don’t fall in love cause it’s a love story or because both of them are good-looking. They must experience things together to make them fall in love. Lloyd takes Diane to her first party, which is a wild experience that ends with them driving a random drunk kid around for three hours looking for his house. He teaches her how to drive. They make love in the back seat of a car. He moves some broken glass out of her path. They muscle through an awkward dinner with her father and his friends. Instead of a bunch of boring scenes where two characters talk about their “opinions” on life, we SEE these two experiencing things together, and those experiences are what sell us on their falling in love.

I always find it funny when a character is sitting around, doing nothing, and all of a sudden a call comes in from one of the other characters. “Rick, it’s time to go to Bill’s party!” Our hero LEAPS into action and we cut to the next scene. Nobody sits on a couch staring at the wall for hours. Your characters should be doing something that pushes the plot forward or tells us about their character, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE NOT ONSCREEN. Right before the break-up scene in Say Anything, Diane calls Lloyd to talk. Crowe could’ve had Lloyd anywhere (in his sister’s apartment for example). But instead, he puts him in the middle of an intense kickboxing class with little kids, reminding us of how important kickboxing is to this guy. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes us feel like our hero is actually living a life, as opposed to waiting for a fictional story to call on him when needed.

One of my favorite moments in Say Anything is when Lloyd comes to pick up Diane for their first date. Normally, these scenes play out like so: The father sizes up his prey before barraging him with difficult questions about his daughter and his life. Hilarity ensues when the young man bides time until the girl shows up. So what does Crowe do with this scene instead? Before the dad can get a word in, Lloyd hits him with, “Look, I know you’re busy. You don’t have to entertain me. But you can trust me. I’ll tell you a couple of things about myself. I’m 19. I was overseas for a couple of semesters and now I’m back. I’m an athlete so I rarely drink. Kickboxing. You ever hear of kickboxing? Sport of the future? I can see by your face, no. My point is you can relax because your daughter will be safe with me for the next 7-8 hours sir.” He totally turns the cliché on its head! This is what all of you writers should be doing.

Remember, the most interesting place to put your scene may not always be the most obvious one. But a good way to figure out WHERE to put a scene is to consider who your character is, then put him in a setting that conflicts with him. A neat little scene in Say Anything is when Lloyd calls Diane for the first time. This scene could’ve been placed anywhere where there was a phone – a bedroom, a living room, wherever. But Lloyd is bursting with energy, an animal that constantly needs to breathe, that needs space. So where does Crowe put him in this important moment? In a tiny bathroom! What was a simple phone call scene has turned exciting, as Lloyd is now a caged animal, pacing and ducking and colliding with everything in this very tiny space while he tries to ask Diane out. Always look for the most interesting place to put your scene.

One of the things you’re constantly dealing with as a writer is your characters’ parents. The role parents play (or don’t play) in your character’s life will have a huge effect on the character and his journey. The idea is to find a unique angle to make your character’s situation stand out. The three most common parental relationship situations in movies are: Parents are together but unhappy, Parents are divorced, and one of the parents is deceased. All of these can work (this is what they use for Diane’s character actually), but what I loved about Say Anything was that they eliminated Lloyd’s parents from the equation altogether and had him living with his sister and her son. It was this weird unfamiliar family dynamic that really helped explain why Lloyd was so weird and unfamiliar.

If you hit us hard with a series of really intense scenes, the audience needs an outlet to get that tenseness out of its system. Say Anything hits its most intense segment when the IRS auditors bear down on Diane’s father, he encourages her to leave Lloyd, she breaks up with Lloyd, and then the subsequent depression Lloyd goes through. Cameron Crowe realizes he needs to give the audience a release, so he writes one of the funniest scenes ever written in a high school flick, when Lloyd goes to the Quickie Mart and is subsequently given the worst relationship advice in history. Too many writers are afraid that humor will “ruin the tone” of their serious movie or their serious sequence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Remember, dramatic irony is when we have knowledge that our main character does not, usually that they’re in trouble. When you do this to an audience, you want to milk it as much as possible. So in the famous “I want you to have this pen” break-up scene in the car, we know Diane is going to break up with Lloyd beforehand. For that reason, Crowe plays up Lloyd’s happiness for the first half of the scene. In fact, Lloyd is on the total opposite end of the spectrum. He’s realized he’s in love with Diane! So much so that he needs to tell her. Right now! Crowe milks Lloyd’s excitement about the relationship all the way to the boiling point when he finally allows Diane to put us out of our misery. If you’re going to use dramatic irony, make sure you milk it!

I never realized this before but Lloyd Dobler is a great big cheat character. What makes him so memorable is that he overtalks (in an endearing way) and will always tell you what’s on his mind. As Say Anything unfolded, I began to realize how useful this personality trait was. Lloyd would say things that would normally be considered “On the nose” (paraphrasing: “I feel good around you.” “When you and I are together it just feels right, you know.” “I like you a lot.” “I have a good feeling about us”), but since that’s his personality, we don’t question it. Ditto on exposition. Lloyd can launch into a half-page diatribe about how his father wanted him to join the army and we don’t bat an eye, because it’s who he is to say those sorts of things. I’m not saying every story should have one of these characters. But if you do have one, take advantage of it.

A while back, I read an article about this movie, where the author pointed out that Crowe’s big mistake with Say Anything was the weird IRS scam subplot with the father. If he would’ve ditched that, Say Anything would have been a lot better. I initially agreed with this. I always found that storyline to be tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film. But upon watching the movie again, I’ve changed my mind. That storyline is part of what makes this movie so original and so memorable. You’ve never seen anything like it in a rom-com before. It’s just so odd that you can’t forget it. Sure, Crowe could’ve done something more traditional, like make the dad a slightly intimidating blue collar worker who’s overprotective of his daughter, but we’ve seen that before. The way the father’s whole storyline plays out is so unique that it sticks with you afterwards. That’s what we’re all trying to do. Write things that stick with people long after they've left the theater.

This is a great movie. And except for a couple of dated musical choices, it still stands up today. I strongly advise revisiting it and watching these screenwriting tips in action.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Out Of This World

Genre: Drama/Comedy/Family/Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Fish-Out-Of-Water/Thriller?
Premise: After being the first person born on Mars, 15 year old Gardner falls for an earth girl via an online relationship.
About: There isn’t much information on this one. I don’t think it ever sold. I believe Allan Loeb is developing it with the person he created the idea with. As we all know, Allan Loeb is one of the hardest working and highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, working on films as far ranging as Things We Lost In The Fire to The Dilemma to Wall Street 2. He’d been writing for something like 12 years with no success before he broke through with “Fire.” I reviewed one of his spec scripts a couple of years back, “The Only Living Boy In New York.”
Writer: Allan Loeb (based on a story by Allan Loeb and Richard B. Lewis)
Details: 122 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

This one just sounded too bizarre to pass up. A kid - born on Mars - who falls in love with an earth girl over the internet. Now THAT is wild. And in more ways than one. Because when I heard that idea, I immediately thought of a dozen story problems they were going to run into. And I just didn’t see any of those problems being solved. Because I’ve seen them hundreds of times in scripts before and they’re notoriously difficult to overcome. Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened this screenplay, but I knew it was going to be worthy of discussion.

Astronaut Sarah Elliot is preparing to be one of the first colonists on Mars. A day before her launch, she celebrates with her boyfriend with a little nookie nookie, if you know what I’m saying (I’m saying sex). Bad idea. Sarah ends up pregnant (which they find out quickly after launch), which means she’ll now be having a baby…on Mars. This is how Gardener Elliot comes into the universe, as the first known “alien” (born on another planet) in human history.

Sarah dies and Gardner grows up on Mars, mostly under the care of Kendra Wyndham, the only person on the red planet who doesn’t treat him like a freak show. Once Gardner hits his teenage years, he starts communicating with people back on earth, specifically a young alternative troubled girl named Root Beer. He falls for her, but doesn’t tell her his true identity.

Back on earth, the totally uncool head scientist of NASA, Ed Jurado, wants to use the first person born on Mars as his own personal guinea pig, so he orders Gardner to come back home on the next flight. Kendra comes with him, and nine months later Gardner sets foot on earth for the first time.

When he realizes he’s there to be studied though, he makes a run for it, looking for his online crush Root Beer and then his mysterious father (who was never informed of Gardner’s existence). After a few fish out of water sequences, Gardner makes it to Colorado where he finally teams up with his little bottle of A&W, and the two head to California, where they believe his father is living.

Ed Jurado and his nasties are always hot on their trail, while Kendra is forming her own one-woman show to divert them and save Gardner before he’s turned into a permanent lab rat. May the best…space…….person…team win.

So, like I said, when I heard this idea, I could see the problems from a million miles away (no pun intended). These are screenplay problems that even the best screenwriters in the world are going to have difficulty solving, so I was curious to see if Loeb could hurdle them. Here are the first three that came to mind.

1) Relationships over the internet are boring and un-cinematic. How would they deal with this?

Well, about midway through the movie, our young heroes finally meet, allowing them to be, in fact, face to face, at least for the second half of the movie. But it’s too little, too late, because, as I feared, up until that point you have two people e-mailing each other. And I don’t care if you’re the most original most amazing writer in the world. You can’t make two people e-mailing each other interesting. And no, don’t use “You’ve Got Mail” as an example. You’ve Got Mail is a terrible movie. But even if you argue that it’s a good movie (and you’d be wrong), the newness of e-mail was what allowed that script to overcome that rule. Keep your characters face to face people. It’s waaaaay more interesting.

2) How do you set up the Mars situation quickly?

When I heard this idea, I knew they were going to have to use a lot of exposition just to explain why this kid was on Mars in the first place. Whenever you have to explain something complicated, it eats up valuable screenplay real estate, real estate you should be using to tell your story, not explain what happened before the story. Sure enough, Out of This World has to burn its entire first act just to explain how our main character was born on Mars. This means the real story, coming back to earth, doesn’t get started until the second act. I would never want to be tasked with figuring out how to make this work. It’s just too complicated and no matter how you slice it, it requires endless explaining.

3) How is hooking up with a girl going to feel important to an audience when compared with a kid living on Mars?

To me, the bigness of this idea rests with the Mars angle. So doesn’t making the goal of our hero to hook up with a girl back on earth feel…I don’t know, a mite insignificant in comparison? I mean I get that the goal here is to have the reader love the characters so much that their relationship WILL feel like the most important thing in the script. But this goes back to problem number 1. How do you do that when you can’t even put your leads on the same planet for the first half of the movie? We’re just talking about impossible-to-solve screenplay scenarios here.

The uneven setup helped contribute to a few more clunky situations. Gardner gets to earth at the midway point, making what was a long-distance love story now a fish-out-of-water semi-comedy. Changing genres in the middle of your script is never a good idea. And the messy way it’s executed here doesn’t do the script any favors. It basically turns into the teenage version of Starman for the second half.

As if that weren’t bad enough, so that we don’t forget about Root Beer, the story is forced to keep jumping back to her. We already have an extremely complicated story with Gardner. That we now have to jump away from this story to highlight Root Beer makes things even clunkier.

And then there were just a lot of lazy choices. The villain, Ed Jurado, was one of the more one-dimensional villains I’ve read in forever. There’s a setup and payoff with 15 year old Root Beer owning a crop duster and using it to help them escape the government baddies, despite not believing any of Gardner’s story about being hunted by the government because he’s from Mars. Yes, we have a 15 year old pilot on our hands. And then there was the IM’ing when Gardner was on Mars. Mars is like 50 million miles away. It has at least a 45 minute delay in communication. That's going to be one boring IM session.


I will say this about Loeb’s writing though. He has an amazing ability to string words together in a pleasing easy-to-read way. I don’t think I’ve ever read a script I’ve disliked as fast as I did “Out Of This World.” I know that’s a bit of a backhanded compliment but seriously, after reading The Infiltrator, where every word felt like it had a stop sign at the end of it, this was one continuous stream of green lights. Maybe this is part of why he’s such an in-demand writer. His scripts are so easy to read.

Is there a story in here? I don’t think there is. It’s just too complicated. But if I were judging what worked best, I would say the fish-out-of-water stuff. That’s where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. So if you can get Gardner down to earth a LOT sooner, have him interact with the earth, and maybe meet Root Beer THEN as opposed to earlier on the internet? I suspect this story would be a lot cleaner and a lot better. But yeah, I couldn’t get into it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Just because an idea is cool or interesting or even great, it doesn’t mean it should be a movie. Sometimes you have ideas that simply can’t be executed. It unfortunately takes time and experience to learn which ideas fall into this category, but I will say this: Sci-fi or fantasy ideas that require a ton of backstory (as is the case with Out Of This World) are usually the biggest culprits. That’s not to say that’s the case with all of them (Star Wars was pretty good I remember), but just be wary of those ideas when they pop into your head. Make sure they’re workable in story form.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Infiltrator

Genre: Spy/Thriller
Premise: As the IRA moves in on one of their big targets, they begin to suspect that there’s a spy within the organization.
About: Josh Zetumer originally tried to break into Hollywood writing a bunch of epic period/gangster/mob type scripts, stuff like The Departed, but wasn’t having any success. So he reevaluated his approach and came up with a much simpler concept, writing about a couple of men up on a mountain battling one another. That script, Villain, is what broke him in, and I reviewed it about a year ago. Since then, Josh has been working on a lot of big projects around town, including the Robocop remake. When he pitched his take on The Infiltrator, the producers loved it and gave him a shot at the script, which is based on an “Atlantic Monthly” magazine article. Leonardo Dicaprio is attached to play the cold-hearted spy hunter, Scap.
Writer: Josh Zetumer
Details: Revised draft – June 5th, 2007 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I know The Infiltrator is not a bad script because it was recommended to me with high praise by one of the readers. Which is why I’m struggling to figure out why I didn’t like it. It may have something to do with my lack of excitement over the straight spy genre in general. I like the high concept spy genre, stuff like “Salt” (the original script – not the movie). I like the comedy spy genre, stuff like “The True Memoirs Of An International Assassin.” Actually that's more about hit men.  But the point is there's something that feels – I don’t know – cliché to me about the straight spy genre. And that bias was on full display during my read of The Infiltrator.

It’s 1993. Kevin Fulton leads a double life. He tells his wife that he’s a good man, an honest man, a working man. But the truth is, he’s anything but. Fulton works for the Irish Republican Army, which is, if you’re to believe the media and movies, a really nasty organization. A typical Sunday for Fulton might include blowing up a political bigwig along with his family, which in my experience doesn’t make your organization very endearing.

After one of their missions goes sour and their captain is killed, the IRA wants to bring in the mysterious and elusive Scap as the new team leader. Fulton, who thought he was going to head up the group, is pissed. So when Scap joins the team, he gives him the cold shoulder. Which is fine by Scap, because he doesn’t like Fulton either.

(SPOILERVILLE) But it turns out Fulton has more of a reason to be pissed than we thought. Fulton is a British spy! And he’s working his way through the organization to try and take it down, Fulton style.

It would appear he’s doing a pretty good job. UNTIL. He realizes that Scap is the IRA’s number one spy hunter! Scap was specifically assigned to this group to take Fulton down! I think! I’m not totally sure, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Their team’s mission, if they choose to accept it, is to recruit money out of some American bigshot so they have the cash to fund more invasions and murders and bomb plots. I think. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure, because the plot was really confusing. But I don’t think that stuff matters. The marquee here is the showdown between Scap and Fulton. And it’s not looking good for the good guys (which is Fulton) (I think).

Okay so, I didn’t like this script. And the main reason I didn’t like it is because I never knew what was going on. Now whether this is because I don’t understand the genre, or because the story wasn’t clear enough, I’ll never know. What I do know is that for the majority of the read I felt like the guy trying to get into the huddle to hear the play but could never manage to squeeze my way in. “Wait a minute, what’s the play? What’s going on? Hold up, can you repeat that again? Hey guys!?  Guys!!?"

Let’s start with Fulton and Scap. There’s a scene, midway through the movie, where Fulton’s undercover team tells him, “They brought Scap in to expose you. He’s a spyhunter.”

Okay, so hold up. If they brought Scap in because they knew Fulton was a spy, why doesn’t Scap just kill Fulton right away? Why wait? Is this some spy protocol I don’t know about? I’m not being facetious. I really want to know. I guess if they keep Fulton alive they can try and extract some information out of him before sending him to that big spy agency in the sky? But to me it didn’t make sense.

What made even less sense, however, was that Fulton continued on with his undercover mission after knowing that the IRA’s number one spy hunter was not only IN HIS UNIT, but also KNEW HE WAS A SPY. Am I the only one who thinks this is suicide? Yeah, go hang out with the notorious spy hunter who looks like he blends human flesh into his smoothies every morning. That makes sense.

The next big problem for me was that I had absolutely ZERO idea what the story was about. Virtually nothing was explained other than they were supposed to meet a rich American dude named Cavanaugh. The whole time I kept asking, “Where are they going? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What is the plan? What is their objective?” I had no idea. So every scene was me playing catch-up, which would've been fine if I were trying to catch up on some cool mystery. But instead I’m playing catch up on things like, “What is this scene about?” Or “Where are we?”

Is this common for the spy genre? Where nothing is revealed and every scene is a black hole that all information gets sucked into? If so, I don’t think I can ever like spy flicks. It would be like watching the final sequence of Star Wars without having the benefit of the mission prep scene beforehand. If you don’t know what the characters are specifically trying to accomplish, how can you become invested in their pursuit?

That explains nearly every beat in Infiltrator. They need to blow up a politician and his family. Why? They meet Cavanaugh. Why? They’re asked to kill a man for Cavanaugh. Why? They’re asked to go kill a man on a plane. Why? I guess the mystery is supposed to be part of the fun. But all it did was frustrate me, as I never once knew what was going on.

Now on the plus side, Zetumer has nailed a key aspect that gets scripts made into movies. He’s created two badass characters and pits them against one another. Actors love this shit. They love it. And if actors love it, they’re going to sign on. And when big actors sign on to your movie, your movie gets made. True this one hasn’t been made yet, but DiCaprio’s still attached and I’m guessing, from what I’ve read, that the lack of movement has more to do with there being no discernable plot yet, and not with the characters.

Now I’ll concede a couple of things before I go. I don’t know this genre very well. So I may not get why certain things are done the way they are. My boredom could have also lead to me missing key plot points and therefore not understanding what was going on. And there’s a chance that one of my main problems with the script – whether Scap knew Fulton was a spy or not – was explained by Scap NOT knowing Fulton was a spy. Or at least I’m hoping that’s the case. Cause I still don’t understand why Scap didn’t just kill Fulton as soon as he knew he was a spy.

I was in the dark too often on this one guys. I didn’t enjoy it. Did you?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Maximize your scene’s potential. If you write a scene with a rat trying to get some cheese, and you show the rat casually scurrying up, smelling the cheese, taking the cheese, and eating the cheese, only to have a cat leap out of nowhere and pounce on him, I’m going to be bored with the first 90% of that scene, because I never knew there was a threat involved. But if you show me that the rat knows there’s a cat somewhere in the room BEFORE he goes after the cheese, now you have me interested the entire time, since I understand what the threat is before the pursuit. Infiltrator never lets us know about the cat. The threats always come afterwards, making everything leading up to the pursuit unexciting and uneventful.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Larry Crowne

Genre: Comedy/Drama
Premise: A man in his 50s is laid off from his long-time job, forcing him to enroll in college for the first time.
About: You know Tom Hanks the actor. But do you know Tom Hanks…THE WRITER!? Yes, Tom Hanks scripted today’s screenplay, Larry Crowne, and used that credit to somehow finagle a lead role in the film. Dammit that nepotism. He also got his golfing buddy Julia Roberts to join him (they’re not really golfing buddies. I made that up). Sensing that maybe his script wasn’t up to snuff, he recruited his producing partner on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos, to come in and give the script a polish. Larry Crowne hits theaters July 1st.
Writer: Tom Hanks (with help from Nia Vardalos)
Details: 117 pages – November 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I’m an official card-carrying member of the “Tom Hanks Can Do No Wrong” Club. Part of the reason I think Hanks has been so successful in his career is that, unlike most actors, he not only understands character, he understands STORY. He knows how to pick material better than just about everyone out there. Because of this, you’d think Hanks would be a good candidate to write a screenplay. If he understands the two most important factors that go into writing a script (character and story), why shouldn’t he be able to write one?

Well, the more I study and appreciate this craft, the more I come to the conclusion that you need to DEDICATE yourself to screenwriting to be good at it. Yeah sure, every once in awhile a neophyte writer gets lucky. But most of the time, you gotta know this world inside out to write something great. As valid as Tom Hanks attempts with Larry Crowne are, he’s not a full-time writer. And that shows up in almost every facet of the script.

Larry Crowne works at a Costco-like store called Unimart. He’s one of their best employees. One of their happiest employees. And one of their most well-liked employees. So far, sounds like a Tom Hanks film. But with the economy slumping, Unimart has to downsize. And when management is figuring out who to fire, they realize that Larry’s never been to college, and therefore can never be eligible for a promotion. Larry is given the old “Clean Up on Aisle 27” order, and just like that, he’s out on the street.

After freaking out about house payments and interviewing for every job in the city, Larry realizes that his only real shot at getting a job again is going back to college. So he enlists at a local community college where he takes a handful of courses, highlighted by a public speaking class headed up by the Queen Bitch of the school, Mercedes Tainot.

Mercedes is angry. Scary. Pissy. Bitter. She’s not a nice gal. And she has good reason. She graduated from prestigious Vasser, yet she’s teaching at a dried up third rate community college. Not only that, but her husband sits at home all day, running his “blog” and surfing porn. Please, somebody kill her now.

While this would seem to indicate the beginning of a Larry/Mercedes courtship, Mercedes actually disappears from the script for awhile, while Larry befriends one of his fellow-students, the rebellious Talia, who surrounds herself with admirers and runs a local scooter gang. She recruits Larry into the gang and pretty soon they’re hanging out non-stop, despite Talia’s surprisingly chill boyfriend reminding Larry that he’s the man of the family.

Eventually, Larry starts chipping away at Mercedes’ rough exterior. He begins excelling in her class. He gets a part-time job. And he realizes that everything’s going to be okay. And that – my friends – is Larry Crowne in a nutshell.

This is actually a good idea for a movie – and a topical one at that. A laid-off 50-something is forced to go back to college. There’s potential for both comedy and drama in that premise. But Larry Crowne never really explores that potential, instead preferring to zip in and out of several disconnected storylines, unfortunately getting lost in the process.

Let’s start with the details. This is something I’m becoming more and more aware of that separates pros from beginners. Beginners don’t think the details of their screenplay have to make all that much sense. As long as there’s a vague understanding of what’s going on, they feel they’re doing their job. Nothing could be further from the truth. When details are mushy, when the peripherals are unclear, it’s like putting a foggy window between your story and your reader. Yeah, they can see everything, but ultimately they’re squinting the whole time, trying to figure out what the hell is what.

What is Larry Crowne really doing here? Is he trying to get a college degree to get back in the job market? If so, why is he only taking three classes at a low-level community college? Is that really going to impress an employer more than a 20 year job at Unimart? And why, of these three classes that he’s taking, would one of them be a public speaking class? I think someone points out that this class is necessary because it will help him in interviews or something.

Um, what?

If you’re going to build your entire premise around your 50-something hero going back to school, then you have to make it real. You have to commit to it. We as an audience have to believe that this is going to improve his life. Taking three classes at a lame community college is about as convincing a career move as sitting at home and watching Maury Povich reruns.

Further muddying the waters is the lack of a cohesive time-frame. This is why ticking time bombs are so important. They frame your story for you. I’m not sure if Larry is taking only these three courses. If he’s planning on a full 2 year course load. If he’s using this to eventually transfer to a major university. What’s the overall plan here? None of this is ever explained! Which makes everything in the movie feel unconvincing.

The script also had a strange approach to its main romantic plot. It starts off focusing on Talia, the scooter-scurrying Queenpin. And then about 60% of the way in, it anoints Mercedes as the female lead, which forces us to completely re-evaluate the story.

In fact, we’re never quite sure what Mercedes is doing here. She makes this grand entrance as a supremely bitter bitch, and then she’s gone for like 30 pages. Every once in awhile we’ll get a quick scene or two with her and her husband, but then she’s stashed away in a box for another 20 pages.

And that’s a shame, because Mercedes is by far the most interesting thing about this story. In fact, if this movie was about her, it would be much better. She’s the one arcing. She’s the one learning the most about life. I would’ve had more Mercedes in this movie and I would’ve had more scenes between Mercedes and Larry. That’s when the script is at its best.

My biggest problem with Larry Crowne though is that there are no stakes to the story. We never truly believe that Larry Crowne is in any trouble. Yeah he’s lost his job and he’s about to lose his house. But there’s this pervasive feeling throughout the script that everything’s going to be okay. Even his friendship/relationship with Taken Talia is easy-breezy. The boyfriend actually comes to Larry early on and says (paraphrasing), “I know you’re going to fall for her. But please respect that she’s mine.” If the boyfriend is already on to Larry, how are we supposed to fear that Larry will be caught? I was never worried for Larry. Not once.

And because I’m piling on, here’s one more question I’d like to pose. How does a man who has made 20-30 million dollars a year for fifteen years have any inkling of what it’s like to struggle? What it’s really like for the average Joe out there to lose his job? I don’t say this in a ‘how dare you’ way. I’m genuinely interested in how someone in that position could ever understand real 'holy shit I'm one month away from being homeless' struggle. And I think that ultimately shows through in Larry Crowne. Larry Crowne is never in any danger because Tom Hanks has never been in any danger.

There was some cute stuff here and there in Crowne. Talia was a fun character. The scooter gang had some giggle-worthy moments. And the late-script stuff with Mercedes bordered on great. But it was too little, too late. Larry Crowne didn’t have the depth or the focus or the ambition required to pull this idea off.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Get into all of your main story threads as quickly as possible. Remember, you don’t have a lot of time in a screenplay. You can’t afford to drag any of your main threads along. Get them started early so you can explore them to their fullest. Larry Crowne took its time with the Mercedes Tainot plot and, as a result, was forced to cram the bulk of it into the third act. It feels rushed because it is rushed. And this is due specifically to the writer taking way too casual of an approach to the thread early on.