Friday, December 30, 2011

Facebook Friend Is Very Much Alive

First off, no official post today.  I know, I know.  What's the deal, Carson?  Hey, a man has to have some fun every once in awhile.  I got myself an Ipad 2 for Christmas and can't stop playing with it.  Which reminds me, what are the essential screenwriting apps for the Ipad?  I feel like I'm leaving productivity on the table with this thing.  I absolutely love it for books though.  Just downloaded Haruki Murakami's IQ84 and loving it so far.  Yes, that's right. I'm the only person in the world who takes time off from reading to, um, read.

Anyway, to the real point of this post.  Many months ago I reviewed a script called, "I Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead" for Amateur Friday.  The script went on to win the monthly prize over at Amazon, and just yesterday, received a big live-action test movie.  For those who don't know, Amazon is giving a million dollars at the end of the year to whoever can come up with the best test movie for one of its winners.  So these guys (no affiliation with the writers) went out and filmed the entirety of "I Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead," which is now up on the website.  I've only been able to watch 15 minutes so far, but for shooting an entire feature on no budget, I was pretty impressed.  I bring this up because 3 years ago, something like this would never have happened.  But in the strangest way, Clint and Donnie actually got their movie made.  Anyway, check it out if you have some free time.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Will Rooney make this year's Top 15?  Will I ever run out of excuses to put pictures of beautiful women at the top of my blog posts?

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for. I'm sure you've been on pins and needles since January 1st waiting with bated breath, mumbling incoherently to yourself, “I can’t wait any longer. I need Carson’s 2011 Top 15 List now!” Well here it is! And looking over it, I can’t believe some of the movies on it either. If you would’ve told me going into 2011 that I’d like a certain high profile cash grab comedy sequel, I’d tell you you were bananas. I mean, this is not the Top 15 I expected. But that’s the great thing about movies. They surprise you when you least expect it. Now just a reminder. Not all of these films came out in 2011. Qualifications for the list are only that I saw the movie in 2011. So let’s stop wasting time and get down to business!

15) Source Code
Writer: Ben Ripley
Director: Duncan Jones
You guys all know how much I loved this script. To me, it's still one of the best sci-fi screenplays of the last decade. Therefore, it was going to be hard for the film to live up to that love. And right away, I didn’t like some of the changes. My main gripe was changing Christina from an introverted artist into a perky happy semi-girlfriend. The reasoning for this change was that it would make more sense if the two knew each other beforehand because it would be easier for Colter to convince her to help him after every time reset. What they didn’t realize was that that's the exact reason they shouldn't have changed it. You WANT things to be difficult for your character. You want it to be hard. And Ben Ripley’s original script handled that perfectly. Despite that, director Duncan Jones managed to craft a pretty entertaining little thriller. Just enough to pull this film by its bootstraps into the Top 15.

14) Chalk
Writers: Chris Mass and Mike Akel
Director: Mike Akel
I think this film originally came out in 2006. Chalk is sort of like a high school version of The Office, but without the production value. What helps you overlook that though is the casting, which is top-notch. Chalk documents (or mockuments) a group of high school teachers that include the “maybe” lesbian gym teacher who takes her job way too seriously. The science teacher desperate to win “Teacher of the Year,” even though his students are smarter than he is. And the history teacher whose utter lack of social skills makes every class a mumbling bumbling journey of awkwardness. Like all micro-budget affairs, Chalk has its share of questionable moments (there’s a dream sequence that any halfway intelligent director would’ve burned off the negative), but the film hits a lot more than it misses. This was one of the funniest films of the year for me.

13) The Descendants
Writers: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Director: Alexander Payne
George Clooney and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to hate him. No, but seriously. I do. No, seriously though. I really do. Having said that, The Descendants is a film that never would've been made had Clooney not been involved, so cheers to that. You want to talk about non-commercial? Try a mother who’s in a coma for the entire movie, and who (spoiler) our characters take off life-support at the end. This requires our hero, Matt King (Clooney) to get his two daughters together, the beautiful but angry 16 year old Alexandra, and the hilarious but naïve 10 year old Scottie, and begin telling family members throughout the Hawaiian Islands that she isn’t going to make it. The power of the movie comes from Matt’s disconnect with his daughters. He was never the caretaker in the family, and now must learn on the job. The two subplots include Matt deciding whether to sell a huge chunk of commercial real estate that his descendants purchased as well as confronting the man he learns was sleeping with his wife, who coincidentally stands to make a lot of money if Matt sells. What I liked here was the unexpected humor, the difficult to predict plot, and the exploration of Matt’s broken relationship with his oldest daughter. The Descendants is slow and certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you like character driven films that take their time, this one might be worth checking out.

12) The Hangover II
Writers: Craig Mazin & Scot Armstrong & Todd Phillips (Characters by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore)
Director: Todd Phillips
No. This is not a misprint. I am actually including The Hangover II on my list. Before you think I've started drinking early for New Year's Eve, let me try and explain. When I kept hearing that this film was exactly the same film, beat for beat, as the first Hangover, I rolled my eyes at how lazy Hollywood was. I mean why not try to do *something* different? But after seeing the film, I understand exactly why they did it, and consider them sorta geniuses for the choice. The script is the most unpredictable of all the variables in filmmaking. Yeah, you could nail it in three months. But there’s a chance you might not nail it for a year. You just don't know. And the problem with Hollywood is, they’re not waiting until you figure it out. They set a date and wherever that date arrives, that’s the script they go with. This is the reason why we have so many bad sequels. The writers try to write an entirely new story and simply don’t have the time to explore it (see the Matrix sequels as examples A & B). So the Hangover team said, “Hey, we already have a formula that works here. We try to write a whole new movie, it’ll be all over the place. Let’s just stick with what works.” So while there was nothing particularly new in The Hangover II, the structure of the film was solid, creating a story that not only made sense, but was pretty tight - rare for a sequel. In addition, outside all of that screenwriting jibber-jabber, I just thought this film was funnier than the first one. I mean when Ed Helms learned that he had had sex with a tranny, I honestly lost it. And that may say more about me than it does about the film, but I loved that they took chances like that. This was easily the biggest shocker of the year for me because I expected to hate this film. Bring on Hangover III baby!

11) Super 8
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Director: J.J. Abrams
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved Super 8. But I certainly did like it. If there’s any director I’d trust to take me back to the Steven Spielberg era, it’s JJ Abrams, who kicks ass in every direction. What really impressed me in Super 8 was the casting and the perfect chemistry between the kids. I was reminded of what it felt like to be back with my own little bike gang as a kid going off on some daily adventure. I was a little disappointed that the monster was so independent from the main plot, but Elle Fanning more than made up for it. This girl is going to be a force in the future. That scene where she gives her first zombie performance while Joe puts make-up on her would've had me falling in love if I were 14 again. And a special mention goes out to Riley Griffiths, who gave a great performance as the director of the group. Super 8 had its faults, but it was a monster/sci-fi movie with some heart, which is rare to come by these days.

10) Troll Hunter
Writer: Andre Overdal and Havard S. Johansen
Director: Andre Overdal
I remember when I first saw this trailer I screamed, “I have to see this now!” I unfortunately had to wait seven months before I finally got my hands on it but it was well worth the wait. Over here in America, we’re getting bored with all the horror, alien, and ghost found footage films. Seeing a found footage film, then, that revolved around… TROLLS??? Giant trolls at that?? In a movie where the visual effects were pretty darn good? That's fresh. What I think got me more than anything though, was the detail that went into the mythology. For example, if there's a guy who hunts trolls, then aren’t there a bunch of dead trolls lying around? These guys developed not one, but two methods of disposing of troll bodies that were actually believable inside the universe they created. It does get a little repetitive near the end but you'll be surprised at who you’re rooting for in that final battle. These are the films that inspire me – where people just go out and do something different and it ends up catching a wave. A unique and fun movie.

9) Warrior
Writers: Gavin O’Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman
Director: Gavin O’Connor
I'm kinda surprised this movie didn't do better. I think one of the variables that screws up box office prediction is Middle America. As you rise up in the screenwriting ranks, you become focused on creating smart character driven fare that will impress Hollywood folks. In the meantime, the movies that play well in Middle America are Paul Blart and the latest Adam Sandler abortion. I thought Warrior was going to be the perfect hybrid. It had a couple of respected up-and-coming actors. It was a feel-good underdog story. And it featured ultimate fighting, which plays well in Middle America. So I don't know if they didn't sell it well. I don't know if the stars weren’t big enough. I don't know if not being able to use UFC's name had anything to do with it. But the movie didn't do well. And yet it’s one of the better sports movies I've seen in a while. Tom Hardy plays one of the biggest bad asses you'll ever meet. Joel Edgerton plays the underdog role to perfection. And the final match up in the film is more than emotionally satisfying. I wish this film would've done better because it deserved it.

8) Friends With Benefits
Writers: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck (story by Harley Peyton and Keith Merryman & David A. Newman)
Director: Will Gluck
Yesterday, I highlighted one of the worst films of the year, No Strings Attached. So why am I now celebrating its doppelgänger? Because Will Gluck is one of the few young comedy directors with a unique voice. There's something different about his films that stir up the butterflies at the bottom of your stomach. I didn't love Easy A, but I recognized its originality. And this film has that same kind of unique charm. But what really sets it apart is the killer chemistry between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. I mean these two are perfect together. Every scene between them sparked. It was the exact opposite of No Brains Attached. As I was watching “Benefits,” I actually wondered, in a science experiment way, what these two movies would've played like had they switched actors. Would “Strings” be the good one and “Friends” the bad one? I'm not sure. But I do know that any movie with Kutcher is probably going to be terrible so thank God this experiment never happened.

7) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (spun off the novel “La Planete Des Singes”)
Director: Rupert Wyatt
I don’t know who Rupert Wyatt is and what he directed before this, but he and the writers of “Rise” deserve a filmmaking medal. They took a franchise known for putting style over substance and rebuilt it to highlight substance over style. Not only that, but they turned a major franchise into a character-driven silent film! I don't think I've ever seen a mainstream release take that big of a chance before. Because that's what this is - a silent film. And to couple that with two acts that don’t feature a single major set-piece, instead focusing on a conflicted ape who's trying to come to terms with his emerging intelligence? - I mean, I still can't believe they did this. And even more impressive – THEY PULLED IT OFF! I loved “Rise.”

6) Midnight In Paris
Writer: Woody Allen
Director: Woody Allen
Let's be honest. Woody Allen isn't trying to make good movies anymore. He's just trying to keep busy. That was confirmed for me a few years back when he cast Jason Biggs and Christina Ritchie in a movie. Lucky for him, actors still believe it's an honor to work with Woody for some reason, and that means sooner or later he’s going to hit. Well, that moment’s finally come. Midnight In Paris is a wonderful little film, particularly if you have any interest in the famed city, which I’ve held a fascination with for much of my life. But what really grabbed me here was the time-jumping! You know I’m a sucker for time-travel, and who would’ve thought Allen would be writing a time-travel film at this stage of his career? Watching Owen Wilson stumble through 1925 Paris, bumping into Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, all while trying to figure out what was going on, was hilarious. I also have a renewed appreciation for Allen’s dialogue. This is a man who has written dialogue-driven films for 30 years, and seeing how he crafts his scenes to maximize the character exchanges was enlightening. The only thing that would’ve made this movie better was a Nutella crepe from the sacre couer court!

5) The Disappearance Of Alice Creed
Writer: J Blakeson
Director: J Blakeson
One of the challenges of low-character-count contained thrillers is the limited amount of choices. I read so many of these things that peter out in the second act, and that’s due exclusively to writers running out of ideas. Every once in a while, though, someone figures out how to make it to the finish line. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed follows two men who kidnap the daughter of a wealthy man and demand a ransom. 97% of the film takes place in two rooms and not once does it get boring. There are all these little twists and turns that come right at the moment these films usually start grasping for life support. In combination with a disarmingly confident directing style (watch the opening scene where they construct the room to see what I mean), you get the feeling you’re watching something special. We talk about subtext and dramatic irony a lot on the site. If you want to learn how to utilize these tools effectively, clear 90 minutes out of your schedule and watch this film. It’s pretty awesome.

T-4) Bridesmaids
Writers: Kristin Wiig & Annie Mumolo
Director: Paul Feig
Bridesmaids easily wins the underdog film of the year award. Some people didn’t think it would make a hundred bucks, much less a hundred million. But the character work in this female Hangover elevated it beyond your standard bodily function comedy, which it did, ironically, have plenty of. I just thought Kristin Wiig was perfect as this misguided naïve woman on the wrong side of thirty who was about to lose her best friend to marriage. Despite all of the juvenile desperate stunts she pulls to win her friend back, you still root for her. You still want her to succeed. And that’s the mark of a great character. Even the cliché inappropriate friend role was nailed by Melissa McCarthy, who had me rolling on the ground when she stole all the puppies. In a year with a lot of lame comedies, it was nice to watch one that actually made you give a shit.

T-4) X-Men: First Class
Writers: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
It's confession time here on Scriptshadow. I'm not a big fan of the X-Men movies. So I was hardly looking forward to X-Men: First class. Sure, director Vaughn was trumpeting to anyone who would listen that he was doing something “different” with his super-hero film, but those claims are almost always lip service. So I ignored the film until a bored Tuesday evening, when I reluctantly clicked “Rent” on my Itunes. The next thing I knew, my whole world had changed. Okay, that may be overstating it, but what a kick ass movie (no pun intended)! The character development in this film puts all other super hero movies to shame. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are mesmerizing as friends Charles Xavier and Magneto. Magneto’s inner battle between good and evil was pitch perfect. The training sequences, because they were anchored in that friendship (and not just about special effects), were the best I’ve ever seen in a super-hero film. It almost didn’t seem like a super hero movie. It was more about people. I can’t NOT celebrate that on a screenwriting site. Thank you Vaughn and Goldman for this totally unexpected treat!

3) Hanna
Writers: Seth Lochhead and David Farr
Director: Joe Wright
So everybody asks me, are there any examples of bad scripts that became good movies? Take a look at my old script review of Hanna. I thought that script kinda blew. At the heart of the problem was a plot that didn't make sense. A father trains his daughter to become a perfect warrior then sends her out into the world to meet him later on? Ummmmm, why not just go there together???? On top of this, the script was boring. Hanna was stuck in these weird caves for like 30 pages doing nothing. The only reason I watched this is because I like Joe Wright as a director. And about 15 minutes in, I was ready to turn it off. But then something happened. There was this unexpected kookiness to the story that was never hinted at in the script. A fairytale quality began to emerge. The world was exaggerated in the most unexpected and intriguing ways. But the key change was eliminating all those damn lags in the story. Instead of locking our heroine down in those caves for an eternity, writers Lochhead and Farr kept Hanna on the move throughout, which gave the movie a momentum the script lacked. Wright and his writers actually made a bunch of interesting choices, the most surprising of which may have been the 14-year-old lesbian friendship/relationship that they managed to somehow not make sleazy. Then of course Saoirse Ronan is fucking amazing. She’s right up there with Elle Fanning in that league of dynamite young actresses. This movie was just so much wilder than I expected it to be. What a surprise.

2) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Writer: Steve Zallian
Director: David Fincher
I read the book, which I thought was amazing. I saw the Swedish film, which I thought was underwhelming. So I didn’t know what to expect from this. And that bizarre opening title sequence didn’t help. What the hell drug was Fincher on when he made that? I suppose it wasn’t as bad as the Mission Impossible title sequence, which inexplicably gave the entire movie away before it even started. Worst choice ever? Anyway, back to Dragon Tattoo. This film was fucking AWESOME! Rooney Mara kicked posterior as the girl. If the make-up and costume directors of this film don’t win Oscars for what they did to her, it will be a crime. Every frame of this movie was perfect. Fincher’s unflinching directing was as good as it’s ever been. It seems like his entire career was merely a set of practice drills preparing for this franchise. The big feat for Fincher here, though, was capturing the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. It’s no secret that Fincher sucks with male-female relationships in his films, but he nailed this one. I felt Lisbeth’s pain in the end when (spoiler) she saw Blomkvist walk off with Erika. Young Fincher couldn’t have handled that. And thank you Steve Zallian for changing that way-too-drawn-out ending!

1) Drive
Writer: Hossein Amini (book by James Sallis)
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Any surprises here? I not only loved the original script, but I loved the pared down 30 pages less version they used for the movie. I can't think of any situation where they cut out that much of an already great screenplay and didn’t lose anything. But while the writing here is awesome, the real star is the director, Nicholas Winding Refn. He's able to capture a mood up on screen that so few directors can. All you need to watch is the opening getaway sequence to know what I'm talking about. Instead of the typical back-and-forth jokey exchanges you see from antsy directors who fear even the slightest hint of silence onscreen, Refn plays it quiet, allowing the heart thumping soundtrack along with your own heart thumping to do the work for him. Ryan Gosling was amazing as Driver. The cinematography was outstanding. The soundtrack was an instant classic. The directing was first rate. This movie left the biggest impression on me all year so it’s no shock it’s number 1. I still bust out the soundtrack when I’m driving around in the city, pretending I’m Driver, preparing for a getaway. That may make me dorky but that’s what a great film will do to you!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I love you Melanie. Just not your film.

I generally like to bust out the optimism here on Scriptshadow. There are too many people bringing others down in this business. “You can’t do this.” “You can’t do that.” Everything, according to these folks, is terrible. The truth is, the people who make it in this business are the people who ignore the naysayers – who don’t get caught up in the negativity. That being said, I’m a moviegoer just like everyone else. And while I respect the fact that thousands of man-hours were put into these pieces of entertainment, I’m just as mad as anyone when the product I paid for is junk. So I’ve reserved one day of the year to air out my frustrations. I should note that I haven’t seen “In Time” or “My Sister’s Retarded” (or whatever that Adam Sandler movie is called), both of which I hear are beyond terrible. And of course any year with a Transformers movie means that movie is automatically number 1 – so I won’t even bother putting it on the list. As for the rest of these films, each of them took my breath away. As in, I almost died of boredom watching them. Beware of what follows. It gets ugly.

10) Win-Win – Maybe Win-Win shouldn’t be on this list. It’s a competently made film with some okay moments. But I’m including it because it was the most average film I saw all year. And “average” can sometimes be worse than “bad.” I’ve had a problem with McCarthy’s films for awhile now, never quite understanding all the love they got, but going along with it because they were independent and Rotten Tomatoes always seemed to give them high scores. I figured it was my fault I didn’t like them. But after this movie, I’m not falling for it anymore. The narrative in Win-Win is all over the place. The central relationship between the boy and the coach is uninspired. I’m not even sure what the motivation of our protagonist is. To win a wrestling championship? I don’t get the sense that’d change his life in any way. So where are the stakes? The kid is boring. The grandfather scam is okay but ultimately unsatisfying. The mom stuff is cliché. There’s just nothing to grab onto here. It feels like one giant exploratory first draft.

9) Everything Must Go – I can't tell you how much it pains me to put this on my list. For those readers new to the site, Everything Must Go was my favorite script a couple of years ago. I thought it was such a clever story - the idea of this guy being kicked out of his house, forced to live on his lawn with all his “stuff,” then realizing that stuff was a symbol of his past and that in order to move on, he would have to get rid of it all, which he does in a yard sale. Unfortunately, I can't remember a movie where the performances were as dead as this one. The kid was boring. Will Ferrell was boring. Even the captivating Rebecca Hall seemed confused. Like “Am I supposed to like you or just be a helpful pregnant neighbor?” It was as if the entire cast was sleepwalking through the movie. And when your entire movie takes place in one location, the performances need to be amazing. I learned a lot from this film. Unless you’re writing a thriller or a horror film, be wary of placing your movie in a single location.

8) Cowboys And Aliens – Here’s a question for you. Who wins in a fight? Cowboys? Or Aliens? No wait, let me be more specific. Who wins in a fight? People 140 years less advanced than us? Or aliens 1 million years more advanced than us? Hmmm, let me think about that for a second. I don’t know. It’s a tough call. I mean the cowboys do have horses. Oh yeah, wait. THE ALIENS DO! But apparently the producers of this movie thought this was some sort of even battle, not realizing that any rational person would realize that if the Cowboys won, it would only be because the writers cheated. But that wasn't this script’s only problem. The writers decided to write a movie where nothing happens for 60 minutes. I mean seriously. What happens in the first hour of this movie? The highlight for me in this film was realizing that one of the actors was Captain Hadley from The Shawshank Redemption.

7) No Strings Attached – Look, Ashton Kutcher seems like a nice guy. No, really, he does. And I’m not even mad at him for cheating on Demi Moore. But come on. This guy cannot act to save his Twitter Account. When you then combine his talents with Natalie Portman, who is to rom-coms what Snooki is to book clubs, you get the abomination that is No Strings Attached. Not only do these two look uncomfortable in their own skin, but they have zero chemistry together. No. They have negative chemistry together. Is it possible to have negative chemistry? I’m going to look that up because if not, we may have just made a major scientific discovery. Which would mean at least something good came of this film. It didn’t help that Liz Merriwether’s original script was sanitized down to a faux-edgy piece of fluff. Natalie, I love you. But stay away from anything resembling comedy. Ashton, I love you, but stay away from anything resembling movies.

6) The Dilemma – I just…I just don’t know what to say about this terrible film. Actually, I do. How is it that you can overlook a story flaw so big, it eclipsed the sun the day the final draft was turned in? A movie about whether a guy should tell his best friend that his wife is cheating on him? That’s not a movie. That's a subplot. That's a scene. But if you think you're going to keep an audience's interest for an entire film with that sort of secondary conflict, you need to be sent to screenwriter jail. No chance of parole. This is a movie! The conflict has to be bigger!! Our main character’s girlfriend is the one who has to be cheating. But even if you don't take that into account, it still doesn't make sense. Should you tell your best friend that his girlfriend is cheating on him or not? Hmmmmmm…um YEAH! You should. Movie over. And on top of all this we have to endure Vince Vaughn and Kevin James bumping into things for 90 minutes. Here’s a dilemma for you. Do you tell an established producer that the movie he’s about to make is going to be terrible?

5) Happythankyoumoreplease– Oh Josh Radnor. I still remember the day I read your script. I still remember thinking how beautiful the writing was, how amazing the characters were, how original the story was. Yeah, it was a bit self-congratulatory in places. But overall, I was amazed by your talent as a screenwriter. And then you had to go and direct the film even though you’d apparently never picked up a camera before. Long shot, close up, close up. Long shot, close up, close up. All that was missing was a wind-up bolex and 3 reels of 8mm black and white film. I can't remember a single moment where a character was actually moving. Everybody always seemed to be sitting down in small rooms. And then of course there was the…..duh duh DUHHHHH…. COUPLE OF DEATH! I will never forget that couple, the way they argued over and over again about the same thing. About how depressed they looked. About how depressing they were. Those scenes were so torturous that I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from them. R.I.P. The Couple Of Death. R.I.P. Happythankyoumoreplease.

4) Somewhere – Look, I’m all for experimental film…WHEN YOU’RE A FILM STUDENT. But when you’re asking people to pay ten bucks for your movie, a cohesive storyline is required. Or a goal. Or a purpose. Or a point. “Somewhere” is a film that feels cobbled together from random dailies and rehearsal takes. Isn’t one of the first things you learn as a writer to cut out all the boring parts? When you start putting theme and symbolism and experimentation ahead of entertainment, you’re playing with fire in a fireworks factory. People will only travel down that path for so long before they start asking where you’re going. Coppola better be careful. She’s quietly directing herself out of the business. The title to this film is appropriate: “Somewhere.” Unfortunately, neither the director nor the audience knew where.

3) Sanctum - James Cameron should be ashamed of himself for producing and supporting this crap. What disappoints me so much is that Cameron understands the value of story. He made his living as a screenwriter before he became a filmmaker, and while it's not his biggest strength, he’s pretty darn good at it. So why, then, does NOTHING HAPPEN IN THE FIRST 50 MINUTES OF THIS MOVIE??? I remember a 7 minute helicopter landing scene. I remember 20 minutes of people radioing each other back and forth in a cave about NOTHING. There was no main character as far as I could tell. No point to any of the action. It’s never good when nearly a full hour into the film you’re still asking the question, “What is this movie *about*?” I mean I could’ve improved this script by 1000% had you just given me 30 minutes. If your movie revolves around a mysterious and fascinating cave, then DON’T ALREADY START in the cave. We have to go in there together. Discover it together. Build some actual suspense. Where’s the fun in everybody already being inside? And you know what? I actually would’ve been okay with this IF the reason for it was so we could jump right into the story. Except we get there, then listen to people radio each other back and forth for 50 MINUTES! So the whole point to starting late isn’t even taken advantage of. I wish somebody would’ve pushed me into this cave also.

2) Beginners – No no no. Make it end. The memories of this film still burn inside of my brain. Pretentious. So pretentious. Have not seen a movie this pretentious since film school. Subtitles whenever the dog talks. Make it stop. Entire movie told out of order for no other reason than the writer wanting to be weird and different. 83 year old father coming out and going to clubs that play house music so he can pick up 30 year old men. Non-stop voice over telling us insignificant things or stuff we already know. 83 year old newly gay father is also dying of cancer. Of course he is! We must make this indie and different and as pretentious as possible! No story here. Just a writer trying to be “deep” and different for different’s sake. Sometimes random images would flash across the screen. Because of the pretentiousness. They hadn’t hit the quota yet so they had to keep going. This movie was a cinematic fatwa. The only reason it isn’t number one on my list is because of Melanie Laurent who was as cute as a jelly bean. Thank you Melanie for saving me from a boredom coma.

1) Skyline – Sometimes Redbox sends me codes for free movies. I used one to get Skyline. I still want a refund. Apparently a couple of visual effects wizards figured they’d skimp on screenplay costs and, what the hell, WRITE THIS MOVIE THEMSELVES. As a result, we get 47 scenes in a hotel room that I’m pretty sure were the same scene from 47 different angles. Oh, and 5 scenes where they peek outside and see aliens. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the plot was here. Some guy is staying at a hotel. Maybe he’s an actor. His friends come by. I think one of them just won a Ferrari in a game show or something. Game Show Ferrari Guy gets mad at our hero because, um, well because it’s a movie and people get mad at each other in movies. People’s faces turn blue sometimes because, um, room service sucks? I have no idea. Note to aspiring filmmakers out there. Not anyone can write a script. Find some money and pay someone who knows what they’re doing. At the very least your movie will be coherent.

Oh man. I really needed that. Those were some pretty awful movies. But stay tuned for tomorrow when Happy Carson returns. My 15 favorite movies of the year, which I promise will contain some surprises. See you then. :)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Lorene Scafaria has 2 entries on this year's Top 10

Screenwriting is hard. Every year I'm reminded of that. Most scripts can be divided into two categories. There’s the script that's trying to tell the same old story as exceptionally as it can (something like Taken or Pretty Woman). And there’s the script that tries to do something different (District 9 or Pulp Fiction). The pitfall with the first option is that you have to nail every single rule in order to get the script right. And the pitfall with the second is that when you have to make up your own rules, which typically results in the script being all wrong. So it's sort of like a “pick your poison” deal. That said, ten scripts rose above these complications to become my favorites of the year. As has been the case in the past, this lineup reflects my feelings at this specific moment. In other words, the list may not coincide with my Top 25. I wouldn’t say anything truly blew me away in 2011, but a few scripts came close. Let’s take a look.

10) Reunion by Adam Zopf
Premise: At their ten-year reunion, a formerly bullied outcast decides to enact revenge on the cool kids who made his life miserable.
I'd read 60 straight Amateur Friday scripts before Reunion, and while a few of them were decent, there was nothing I would've told a producer he had to check out. Reunion was the first script to buck that trend. And what I loved about it most was the character exploration. 99 out of 100 amateur horror writers would've chosen to ignore what made their characters tick. Adam was the one who realized that no matter what genre you're writing, the thing that the audience cares about the most, whether they know it or not, is what's going on inside of the people. That’s what makes you care about them. And that’s what makes you care about what happens to them. I don't think this script has been picked up yet so if you're a producer looking for some great material, check out Reunion now.

9) The Imitation Game by Graham Moore (based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma” By Andrew Hodges)
Premise: The story of how Alan Turing cracked the impossible “Enigma” code, which helped the Allies win World War 2.
It’s rare that I get e-mails from people saying, "You have to read this now.” I get plenty of e-mails saying I should “check this out when you get a chance.” But people so excited they want me to stop what I’m doing *this minute* to read a script? That doesn’t happen often. The Imitation Game is a spec script that proves if you write a compelling main character dealing with an extraordinary situation, your script will sell. That’s because every producer in town knows that if they find a script with a challenging main character, every A-Lister in town will want to play him. I also loved how this biopic was a story, with a goal, stakes, and urgency. Not just a highlight reel of Turing’s life. I didn’t expect to like this one. But boy did I ever.

8) Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch by Brian Duffield
Premise: After agreeing to groomsman duties at his sister's wedding, Noah Palmer realizes he may have made the mistake of his life after finding out that the woman who broke his heart is also part of the bridal party.
This is going to be a running theme throughout the Top 10. The reason this script is elevated beyond your run-of-the-mill rom-com is because the characters are so great. Not only do you feel the main character’s pain, insecurity, flaws, fears, and history here, but I loved what Brian did with Anna, the girl Noah is hopelessly still in love with. I think most writers would've made her a complete bitch. But Brian makes her cool, makes us understand why Noah fell in love with her. That steered us away from black and white – which is where 99% of romantic comedies exist – and into grey, where the world is way more interesting. It would be easy for us if Anna was a bitch. But because she isn’t, we don’t know what we want. I wish I read more rom-coms that made interesting choices like this.

7) Inherit the Earth by JT Petty (based on the graphic novel by Chris Ryall & Ashley Wood)
Premise: The last human on earth, a young girl, is protected by an army of robots against an even bigger army of zombies.
With the sub-par box office showing of Cowboys and Aliens, it's looking less and less like this film will ever get made. But the reason I liked it so much was because it actually asked the question, “What would a ten year old girl really be feeling during this experience?” That may seem unimportant. But when you have zombies and robots battling for world supremacy, you need something honest anchoring the story. A little girl who just wants to be loved, who wants a mother and a father – that’s something real people can identify with and understand. For those of you paying attention, that's four scripts so far, and four examples of me ogling over the character exploration. Have I convinced you to do more character development in your next script yet?

6) The Mighty Flynn by Lorene Scafaria
Premise: After a cruel heartless efficiency expert gets fired, he meets a strange 16 year old girl who unexpectedly helps him turn his life around.
This script is Jerry Maguire for a new generation. People keep saying it will never get made because of Up In The Air, but it's so damn different from that movie. I mean, does Up In The Air remind YOU of Jerry Maguire? No, because Jerry Maguire is a lot more fun, and that's the feeling I got from this script. It’s fun. Scafaria, besides being cute and having a cool last name, is really good at mixing drama with comedy. And I love the unexpected pairing she came up with here, not only because it’s different, but because she didn't take the obvious route and create some sleazy romantic relationship between the older guy and the younger girl. It's just a unique friendship. The only fix that needs to be made here is the ending and this script could be perfect.

5) Nautica (Riptide) by Richard McBrien
Premise: An investigator tries to solve a murder case on a ship which involves a handyman, a stock broker and the stock broker's girlfriend, which won’t be easy since each suspect has a different version of the story.
This script has had a long journey and a lot of close calls and for whatever reason, still hasn't been made. This is Dead Calm but with a more complicated backstory. There have obviously been a fair share of Rashamon-inspired films, but this is one of the few that lives up to the technique. I remember going into this with no idea what it was then coming out exhilarated after all the twists and turns. The characters here are interesting. The story is interesting. I can't see anyone not wanting to be involved with this project. So let's boot this out of development hell already.

4) How It Ends by Brooks McLaren
Premise: A man must race across the US to save his pregnant wife as the apocalypse rains down around him.
Here I am, trumpeting the importance of character development for six straight entries, yet my number 4 script barely peeks beneath the surface of its characters. I think that's what turned people off and made them wonder why I ranked it so high on my Top 25. Commenter JakeMLB responded to this critique best. Brooks decided to take a realistic approach to his story. He wanted to put you right there in the action, attempting to mirror how it would really be. When you take that approach, an artificially constructed character flaw can feel forced and artificial. For example, it’s okay for Han Solo to finally overcome his flaw of being selfish at the end of Star Wars. But had we done the same with Will, it starts feeling like a Hollywood movie as opposed to a real situation. It's a fine line and I almost always lean towards creating a flaw, but in this rare case, it worked. Not to mention, this is about as intense a script as you’ll read all year.

3) When The Streetlights Go On by Chris Hutton & Eddie O’Keefe
Premise: (from Black List) In the early 1980s, a town suffers through the aftermath of a brutal murder of a high school girl and a teacher.
Let the controversy continue! “Streetlights” inspired some of the more intense debate over a script’s quality as we've had all year. Some people were moved by it. And some people wanted to move it into their toilet. Count me among the former. I'm a big believer in this script and more than a week after reading it, I’m still moved by its haunting tone and chilling ending. At the beginning of this article I talked about the two types of scripts you can write, the predictable one and the chance-taking one. “Streetlights” takes chances almost every step of the way. An ongoing voice-over. Lack of a clear protagonist. A period piece. A love story that doesn’t emerge until the final act. And yet, somehow, it all comes together. If anyone can tell me how these guys are only 21 years old, I'd love to know.

2) Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World (no link)
Premise: As a life ending asteroid shoots towards Earth, a lonely man befriends a strange woman and the two embark on a road trip to say their goodbyes to their loved ones.
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
This is another one that just stayed with me. I love Scafaria’s knack for going quirky, yet still making her choices relevant to the story. For example, one might complain that Keira Knightly’s character’s sleep issues (the girl can sleep through the world falling apart) are a bit on the “Ooh, look how different I can make this character” side. Yet her sleep issues turn out to be a big set up for a later payoff during the climax. On top of this, I'm just a sucker for stories where two misunderstood people find each other. I never reviewed this script on the site but Scafaria, in her directing debut, finished shooting it earlier this year, so we should get a trailer soon.

1) After Hailey by Scott Frank (based on the novel by Johnathan Tropper)
Premise: After a newlywed war photographer’s wife dies, he must decide whether to help out her troubled son from a previous marriage or move on and start a new life.
What can you say about After Hailey? It's one of those scripts where every character is perfectly written. It walks that inexact line between comedy and drama exceptionally. It's got a great central unresolved relationship at its core, and one we’re not used to seeing – a man stuck with parenting a stepson he barely knows after his wife dies. I know I talk a lot about “heart” on this site and maybe I don't explain it all that well. But if you want to know what heart reads like, check out this script. It just makes you feel good inside and it tackles a lot of identifiable situations we all deal with in our everyday lives, but in an amusing and heartwarming way.

Now that 2011 is over, I want to set a personal challenge to all of Scriptshadow Nation: Let’s dominate this list next year. We got one on the list. Let’s try for 3 or 4 in 2012. The things I preach on Scriptshadow aren’t revolutionary. But I believe that the people who follow this site understand the essentials of storytelling way better than the people who don’t. So let’s do this. Get out there and start writing. Create something great. I’ll be here to celebrate it when you’re finished.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Enjoy The Day Off

Hey everyone.  Short week this week.  No post today or Friday.  Tuesday will be my list of Top 10 screenplays I read this year.  Wednesday will be the 10 worst movies I saw this year.  And Thursday will be my Top 15 movies I saw this year.  Going to see Girl With The Dragon Tattoo later today.  I wonder if it will make the list!  Enjoy the day off and get some writing done. :)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Amateur Friday - Sammy Jingles

Genre: Family/Holiday/Musical
Premise: When a toy factory tour guide is framed for Santa's kidnapping on Christmas Eve, he sets out on a race against time across mythical Christmastown to clear his name, and save Christmas.
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 Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Patrick Bonner
Details: 107 pages


Oh man. That was lame. I gotta be honest with you though. It’s gonna get lamer. All I can think about is all of the presents I'm going to be opening in 48 hours! Yahooooo! Dot com. I still remember when I was so excited about Christmas that I would secretly open my presents the night before then sloppily wrap them back up and tell my parents (completely unprovoked of course) that I saw the cat hanging around the Christmas tree and he'd scratched open a lot of the presents so I found it appropriate to tape them back up. And I was convinced that I got away with this every time.

Which brings us, appropriately, to today’s gift under the tree. Yes, I’m talking about Sammy Jingles!

Sammy Jingles lives in a faraway place called Christmastown, where elves and Christmas-like creatures frolic around like college kids on shrooms. Or wait. I mean children on sugar-highs. Let’s keep this PG. But to be honest, Christmastown isn’t one giant American Idol dance routine. No no no. You see, there's a lot of pressure in this business, especially around this time of year, when Operation Chimney Assault is rapidly approaching.

It's also a stressful time for our hero, Sammy, as Christmastown’s retiring governor is about to name his successor. It’s down to Sammy, the nerdy but cute Emma, and the Brody Jenner lookalike, Arnold, who also happens to be the big maestro’s son.

Sammy, who works as a tour guide in Christmastown for visiting elves, needs this job. Not just because he's been working towards it for years, but because Sammy desires to be important. His goal in life is to be the number one celebrity in Christmastown.

Well, a few days later he gets his opportunity, though he doesn't realize it at first. Santa Claus, who spent the last 360 days working out to get rid of his Rosie O’Donnel’esque pepperoni pouch, is kidnapped by someone (or something??) and dragged into the Ice Forest, where even the bravest elves won’t follow. But when Evil Arnold places the blame on Sammy and Emma for the kidnapping, they have no other option but to go find Santa and prove their innocence.

Along the way they meet some lonely trees, a Frosty the Snowman who’s sort of gone insane, and eventually Santa Claus himself, all with the appropriate amount of jingling in between. The question is, will they get Santa back in time to save Christmas? Or will that even matter to Sammy when he sees an opportunity to grab Kardashian-like celebrity status?

The first thing you realize about Sammy Jingles is that it's written with love. And I mean a LOT of love. Believe me, readers are well aware when the writer is passionate about the material and when he isn’t, and there’s no question that Patrick is passionate about this story. I might even wager that he lived in Christmastown once. I mean how can you argue with a song called “Hangin’ Stuff” set to the Backstreet Boys’ “Hanging Tough?” Or a deliriously insane Frosty The Snowman? Or Sammy Jingles making an audition tape for MTV’s The Real World? Or a best friend named Emo who’s the most emo emo you’ve ever met?

This is Christmas and with any Christmas movie you want to have fun. You want to rack up the puns (CNN’s “Anderson Cooler”), you want to inject it with a heaping of heart, and you want to sing that heart out. Patrick does that here. The sheer level of detail that has gone into each character and each scene and each location and each song tells you that this man loves his story.

But not all is well with Christmastown. Sure the city is beautiful, but it’s also oddly constructed and over-decorated in places. I’ll start with what I believe is a critical scene mistake. The tour guide scene. This happens in the first act when Sammy is showing a group of elves the toy-making building. Patrick uses the scene to set up the rules of his world.

The problem is just how many rules there are (you will always face this problem when you have to do a lot of world-building in your screenplay) and if you try and pack too much explanation into a single scene or sequence, it becomes exhausting and grinds the story to a halt.

First we have the wish book which should have its own movie for how complicated it is. There are five different types of wishes, all color-coded, and we go through each painstaking one of them. Then the exposition shifts to how Sammy is up for a big job promotion. Then, after we’re all tired out by that, we go through a whole song. And then after that, the Mayor/Governor comes in, and we broach, once again, the job promotion issue, meeting all the major players. This kills the momentum of the story before it’s even started.

Yes, of course, you have to set up your story. But you also have to make your setup ENTERTAINING. Too many writers forget about the second part and are just happy to get all their exposition out of the way. Moving forward, I would split all of this info up into different scenes and simplify where possible (i.e. take the wish book down to 2 wishes, not 5).

My second big issue has to do with Santa Claus. And I told Patrick this. It feels odd to me that Santa Claus is completely separate from Christmastown. I think Patrick told me that that's what he was striving to do. He didn't want to tell a traditional story about Santa Claus but rather a story about the elves. Still, it's very hard to watch a Christmas movie where Santa Claus is treated as an afterthought. It's kind of like being told you're going to the ice cream shop but there’s not going to be any chocolate. It’s strange, right?

There’s also a huge structural issue with the big guy. Santa Claus gets kidnapped near the end of the first act…AND NO ONE CARES! Just the fact that Santa Claus is kidnapped from the North Pole would be a huge deal I’d assume. But the fact that it’s also a week away from Christmas!!!??? Why wouldn’t everyone be on DEF CON LEVEL 10 searching for the guy?? Instead, here, everybody goes and sings at a bar.

It isn't until 15 to 20 pages later, when Sammy is blamed for kidnapping Santa, that he decides to go after him. This needs to change immediately, particularly because of who Sammy is. Sammy is a character who desires celebrity. The second that Santa disappears, you need your celebrity-starved hero to realize that this is his ticket to stardom. Save Santa and everyone will love you.

In addition to just making more sense, making your hero more active, and having your hero act more within character, it would get rid of the worst part of the script, which is those 20 pages after Santa is kidnapped and nobody does anything.

If Patrick could fix these two problems - the early doomsday exposition scene, and getting characters out after Santa immediately - I honestly believe the script would be a thousand times better.

Finally, I should mention the songs because this is a musical. I'm not going to pretend like I understand musicals that well. I've read maybe five in my life. The tough thing about musicals is that it doesn't matter how good your lyrics are or how amazing your writing is, you will never come close to conveying the way a song feels when you hear it. And so a lot of times I was skimming through the songs because I didn’t know anything besides the chorus and therefore couldn’t match the lyrics to the melody. That said, I loved Hangin’ Stuff. “I Love Mistletoe,” was great. And “Put Some Tinsel On Me” was cute.

I think this script has a ton of potential. I love the way Patrick's mind works. I love his sense of humor. I love his dedication to exploiting every little crevice of his story. There’s no doubt he has that elusive “voice.” We just need to get some of the mechanics on par with the passion.

This script hovered somewhere between a “worth the read” and a “wasn’t for me.” So what does it get, two days before Christmas? Hmmmmmm….

Script link: Sammy Jingles

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] A Merry Carsonmas (and people call me a Grinch. Humbug!)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Patrick’s writing suffers from a habit of staying in his scenes too long. I saw it in numerous places where the scene had already ended but Patrick kept writing. I pointed out the tour guide scene as one example. I saw it with the tree scene as well (when they first meet the trees in the forest). And I saw it scattered about in a bunch of other places. Remember guys, you not only want to get into your scene as late as possible, you want to leave your scene as early as possible. Don't be the guy hanging around the party after everybody’s left. When the party’s over, it's time to go.

Happy holidays to Scriptshadow Nation!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Prometheus Trailer


An Interview With........Me?

 The room where we got our film equipment at Columbia College

Hey everyone.  Doing something a little different today.  Tom Benedek, the writer of Cocoon, interviewed me for his class last week at Screenwriting Master Class.  Since I put so much into the interview and covered a wide range of screenwriting topics, I thought you guys might want to read it.  Enjoy!

How did you get started? What has your professional journey been like?
I started out wanting to be one of those filmmakers who does everything - the Robert Rodriquez type - write, direct, edit, produce. So when I first came to LA, I got a job at a postproduction house with the hopes of using it as a place to edit my films. Unfortunately I ended up accidentally destroying a $100,000 piece of machinery and they never let me into an editing bay again. That was the first roadblock to me achieving my dreams, of which there were many more.

How did the Script Shadow blog evolve?
It evolved when I realized how much there was to learn through reading screenplays. I was sitting there thinking, "I wish there was somebody out there when I first started out to tell me how important this was because if there had been, I could've saved myself a lot bad scripts and a lot of heartache." At some point, I realized that I could become that person to other young screenwriters, and that's how Scriptshadow was born.

Did you study filmmaking?
I did study filmmaking. The problem was I studied it at the single worst filmmaking school in the entire country, Columbia Film School in Chicago. One of my professors was an alcoholic. Over the course of the semester he played Full Metal Jacket 9 times, believing each time that it was the first time he was showing it. Another professor would spend the first 20 minutes of every class telling us how he wished he was anywhere else but here. One of my professors was five years younger than me (I was 23 at the time) and she would break down into hysterics at least once a month. And trying to get a camera to shoot on there was the equivalent of fighting in the Serbian-Bosnian war. It was just not a pleasant experience.

Describe your relationship with managers and agents.
A unique one. In many ways, I do exactly what they do, the difference being that I don't have a horse in the race. All of us are looking for the best material out there. All of us want to read something that makes us excited and that we can tell other people about. The difference with me is that I might celebrate something that's not as commercially viable as the agents and managers because the agents and managers have to go out there and sell the script whereas I just have to enjoy it.

Are you dealing with managers as much as agents in seeking material?
I would say moreso with managers than with agents. Agents don't really develop material. They just try and sell it. Whereas managers are very interested in making scripts better, which is why they like the site, because that's the kind of stuff I talk about - what needs work in a script.

What is your process for writing notes on scripts you read?
I have a very specific way I approach critiquing a screenplay. When I open a script, the last thing I'm thinking about is all the rules of screenwriting. I'm not sitting there going, “Nuh nuh nuh, it's already page 15 and you haven't gotten to your inciting incident yet. You lose.” All I care about is being swept away, being entertained. It's only after I'm finished with the script that I go back and try to figure out why a script did or did not work. For instance, I might say, "Man, that second act was really slow. Let's go back and try to figure out why." And I might find out that the hero wasn't active enough. He may have been sitting around and waiting for things to happen too much. That's how I analyze screenplays.

Is it gratifying to see scripts get better through the development process?
Oh definitely. I think it's one of the most rewarding things about what I do. One thing I've learned is that the majority of writers out there, even the good ones and the ones with talent, aren't always able to navigate the problems in their screenplays. They need the guidance of people who have read thousands of screenplays or made tons of movies. And with the right guidance, even inexperienced writers can write great scripts. That's what happened with Oscar winners Diablo Cody, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. None of them really understood how to write a screenplay when they wrote those scripts, but they had some great people guiding them, telling them what to get rid of and telling them how to improve what already worked.

Are they getting better most of the time as they are developed?
No, unfortunately not. You're at the mercy of the writer’s talent as well as how the writer chooses to execute your notes. If someone has bad instincts, or simply instincts that are different from what you intended with a note, they can easily make a script worse rather than better. Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie self admittedly did this for an entire decade before he got back in the game with Valkyrie. Either he didn't understand the producer’s notes or the notes themselves weren't very good and he just ended up writing scripts in circles that never ended up being good enough.

Are you reading many spec scripts each week? Or just projects in development?
I read unsold spec scripts, sold spec scripts, as well as projects in development. I mainly try and read spec scripts because those give the best education for the writers that read my site. They get to see a review of the actual material that a writer came up with on their own that sold. That's a completely different process from a studio developing something in-house.

How does the spec market look from your side?
Well right now it looks great. There've been double the amount of sales this year than each of the last two years. So people are out there buying for sure. It isn’t like the 90s of course, but it's still pretty darn good relatively speaking.

Are the films better than the scripts once they are shot?
Personally, it seems that the scripts themselves are usually better and I think that's because making a film is so hard. You have to compromise so much in terms of money and time that you usually just don't have what you need to live up to the script. The exception would be the really big budget movies like Transformers 8 and Pirates Of The Carribean 13 where the scripts are so bad that it's impossible not to come up with something better.

What are the most important criteria in your evaluation process?
Character and structure. Those are the two things that are butchered time and time again and that's because it takes a really long time to learn how to create great characters and plot your movie in such a way that it doesn’t drag. There are plenty of other super important things of course, but those two are the biggest in my eyes.

Do you have conversations or contact with other people who you consider great readers?
Yes, all the time. That's one of the great things about my blog is that it allows me to meet a lot of other people who do what I do - read a lot of scripts. Needless to say, we always end up complaining about the same issues that we see over and over again in screenplays.

Can anyone read/evaluate a script?
Of course! A Scriptshadow reader sent me a review once, timidly disclosing that it was the first time he'd ever read a script. He gave his opinion and bookended it by saying it was probably pointless because he was so inexperienced. But some of the most honest critiques come from people who know nothing about screenplays. They say things like, “That one scene where he killed the guy was so stupid.” It may not have any fancy-schmancy screenwriting terms in it, but this is the kind of thing an average movie goer is going to say. It then becomes my job to go back and ask "Why did he think that scene was stupid?" It may be because it was cliché. It may be because it wasn't set up well. It may be because both of the characters were boring. But everybody's opinion is valid. Now can anyone read a script and give thoughtful critical analysis that can help a writer improve his material? No. That takes a lot of skill and experience.

Is style as important as story?
Definitely not. I would say not even close. I always tell people that screenwriting is not a writing competition. It's a storytelling competition. That said, you do have to have some style to your writing. You can’t write like a robot or the reader’s going to be bored.

Can style make a script work even if the structure and characters end up being shaky?
No way in hell. Actually, I take that back. I’ve read like three scripts (out of thousands) where the style was so fun that even though the story was kind of stupid, I enjoyed them. I reviewed one of them on the site. It was called “Fiasco Heights.” Here’s the log: “A gunman returns to the crime-ridden city of Fiasco Heights and teams with a degenerate gambler/private eye on the run from a syndicate to look for a beautiful femme fatale.” But this is a very rare exception. Style almost never makes up for lack of substance.

Do the scripts you see trend in any direction in terms of areas that seem to work?
Yes. The scripts that tend to do the best on the market are scripts that have a lot of urgency. So if you have a movie about a guy who needs to do something in 72 hours, that's probably going to have a better chance on the spec market than if you have a movie about a guy who has to do something in 72 years. As scary as it sounds, a movie like The Proposal, which takes place over a single weekend, would have a better chance on the spec market than a script like When Harry Met Sally, which takes place over like 15 years.

Should every writer have a two sentence logline in their head before they start writing a script?
I think it's helpful and I'll tell you why. When you write out a logline, you give yourself a focused synopsis that helps you control your story. One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of amateur screenplays is stories that wander all over the place. If you come up with a very specific logline that has a clear direction for your main character with clear stakes and clear conflict, then you'll never be at a loss as to what to write next. When people don't know what to write next or get lost in their story, it's almost always because their central idea is muddled and unclear.

Are some reads more alive, spontaneous though flawed in certain ways?
Yes. I actually run into a lot of these types of screenplays where there's definitely an energy and uniqueness to the story that makes you want to keep reading, but the structure might be all over the place, the plot might be muddled, a few of the characters might be lame. I usually see this with really talented writers who are just starting out. They obviously have an interesting imagination and a unique way they see the world, but they haven't yet learned how to write a screenplay. What new screenwriters have to realize is that writing in different mediums is like speaking in different languages. And out of every storytelling medium out there (novels, plays, video games, short stories, poems), screenwriting is the hardest. It's the Chinese language of storytelling. So it just takes a really long time to learn how to speak that language, no matter how talented you are. It took me a long time to realize that but boy is it true.

How many “uncommercial” “non-genre specific” script projects are there in the studio system vs. the more mainstream projects?
I was just reading that leaked e-mail exchange between Scott Rudin, the producer of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and the critic who jumped the review embargo on the film. In it, the critic expressed frustration that the studio system only made 8 good movies a year and they were all crammed into the last two weeks of the year. And he's right. So that's my answer. Eight. And the worst part about that stat is that none of them are ever spec scripts. They're always some sort of adaptation. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for uncommercial or non-genre specific projects outside of the studio system.

Can you feel the writer’s passion for their project in the writing?
Definitely. Unfortunately, it doesn't always mean that the script itself will be good. I just read this sprawling period epic from somebody who had clearly worked on the script for years, and I could feel his love for the subject matter on every page. But the script itself was boring. The subject matter was too confusing, too sprawling and too ambitious. And I told him that. It's really hard to make movies like that unless you're already entrenched inside of the studio system with a high level production deal. But the simple answer to your question is yes. And it should be noted that it's even easier to tell when a writer has no passion for what they're writing about.

What are your top 10 favorite movies?
This list will change depending on the week but…
Star Wars
Back To The Future
The Fugitive
The Shawshank Redemption
When Harry Met Sally
Rosemary's Baby
Good Will Hunting
The Princess Bride

Top 10 favorite scripts?
It’s pretty similar to the movies I listed above. But as far as unproduced material, I have a top 25 list on the right side of my blog that lists all of my favorite screenplays.

Are there great movies that didn’t come from great scripts?
I think it's a rare but it does happen. I mean I love Terrence Malick's movies but trying to get through one of his scripts is like trying to read the dictionary. The best movies that come from subpar scripts tend to come from visionary directors, guys like Malick and Aronfsky.

Are there great scripts that just did not work as movies? Why?
Yes, a lot of them. And I actually just learned this lesson to a severe degree this year. Two of my favorite scripts were Everything Must Go and Happy Thank You More Please. Unfortunately, both of them were bad movies, especially Happy Thank You More Please. Now a big reason why “Happy” was so bad was because the budget was so limited and the director was a first timer who was shooting everything like he was in his first week of film school. But I think what I learned in both instances was that movies that are solely based around character development can work really well on the page, but once they get up on screen, they sit there. Movies are visual. So if all you see is the same thing over and over again, your brain starts to get bored. Will Ferrell is sitting down in his backyard for 80 percent of Everything Must Go. That didn't really bother me when I read it. But once I saw it up on screen, I just wanted to scream, "Go somewhere!" There are other factors involved of course (I’m not sure Ferrell was right for the part) but if there's too much of a stillness to your movie, if all that's happening is characters sitting around talking to each other, you might be in trouble when it comes time to film.

How important is great dialogue?
Really important and not really important. I say that because 45 percent of screenwriting is getting the structure right and 45 percent is getting the characters right. Dialogue is just that last 10 percent and it doesn't matter how good it is if you didn't nail those first two things. I actually laugh whenever actors say they "rewrote a script" by changing a lot of the dialogue. The only reason you were able to change the dialogue was because a writer did a year of work building up your characters and all the scenes surrounding your characters to a point where they'd be entertaining. Once you’ve done that, dialogue is fairly easy. Having said that, if dialogue is really bad, for example stilted and on the nose, then that can really bring a script down.

Are there great scripts without great dialogue?
It depends on what you mean by "great." There are certain genres that depend on dialogue and there are genres that don't. Comedies for example require a real ear for twisted, funny, cute, clever dialogue. Thrillers on the other hand are much more about tension and suspense. The audience doesn't care if the writer can write a line like, “Oh my blog” in Black Swan. But that doesn't mean I didn't still love Black Swan.

What do you want screenwriters to do better, to work on, in general? What is missing
in the scripts you are reading?
Just a clear commitment to your script. One of the biggest problems I see with young writers is that they're okay with 60 or 65 percent. They don't push themselves to make every single scene as good as it can possibly be, every single character as good as they can possibly be. They have this mentality of, "well this is good enough". So I read a lot of average scripts and it's because the writer isn't pushing themselves or trying something unique or adding a new spin or trying to make every scene pop. Now some of that has to do with the writer not yet understanding how to do that stuff yet. But no matter what stage you're at, you should be giving 100 percent effort.

Any other advice?
Write as much as you can, read as many screenplays as you can, and learn as much as you can about screenwriting. The more time you put into those three facets the better you're going to get.

Would you like to produce films?
On the development end? Definitely. But certainly not on the production end. I can barely schedule my day, much less the days of 250 other people!

What are the most important things you have learned about Hollywood from your work?
That the gatekeepers aren’t these mystical wizards who wave a magic wand over a script to either let it come through or not. It's much more black and white than that. The people who run Hollywood are people who have jobs, just like you have a job. And they want to keep that job. And the only way they can keep that job is if they find movies that are going to make money. I don't see enough screenwriters recognizing that fact. They hold onto this delusional ideal that they can write a coming-of-age film about an albino pastor living in 1782 Germany and that somebody out there is actually going to buy that. Think about that for second. If you were a producer with a $2,000,000 discretionary fund tasked with finding 4 or 5 scripts a year to turn into movies that will make the company money so they can KEEP making films, would you bet on your script? I’m not talking in the fun dreamworld scenario where you have nothing on the line by saying “yes.” I'm asking if you were a real producer who had the power to buy a few scripts a year, and you knew that if you screwed up even one of those purchases and bought something that had no chance of being made because it had no financial potential, that you would get fired, would you buy your script? That's how you have to think of this business, and writers are shooting themselves in the foot by not seeing it that way.

What are the most surprising things you have learned?
How long it takes the average screenwriter to make it. I always assumed that if you were a good screenwriters you would make it in Hollywood in less than a year. But it takes most screenwriters 7 to 10 years to really figure out how to write a good script. I know that's terrifying but that's what I’ve found to be true. If you can make it in five or less, you are way ahead of the game.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

31 Days Of Larry

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: Finding it more difficult to kill himself than he thought it would be, a depressed man offers a cash-strapped woman his life insurance money if she’ll marry him and make sure the suicide succeeds.
About: This spec sold to Lionsgate last year. The writer, Corinne Kingsbury, was actually an actress and had a small part in Old School back in 2003. She’s since moved on to writing. Derick Martini, who directed 2008’s Lymelife, was attached to direct at one point. But at last count, the project was trying to reel in Tom Vaughan (What Happens In Vegas) which, no offense because I know how difficult it is to get movies greenlit and part of the challenge is finding a director the studios are willing to fund a movie with, but I really hope this doesn't happen. This needs a director with a little darkness in him. Martini was a more appropriate choice.
Writer: Corinne Kingsbury
Details: 110 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).

Thin Jonah for Larry?

Wait a minute. WHAT?? This script wasn't on last year's Black List?? I guess that's what happens when you sell your script in January. People kind of forget about it 11 months later. I wonder if the screenplay market will ever become like the movie market where everyone will try to get their script sold in the last two weeks of November, so they can make the December Black List. Oh well, it's a good thing that the Black List isn't the only place to learn about great undiscovered screenplays!

Now I can already hear the commenters chirping away about the manufactured setup of this movie (marry me to help me kill myself and I’ll give you my life insurance money) and I can’t argue with you because I admit it's the weakest part of the screenplay. But if you can get past that, you'll find a really well-written story with some great characters.

Larry is 29 years old, depressed as all get-up that his girlfriend left him, and has resorted to suicide to make the pain go away. The problem is, he's not very good at it. While trying to hose carbon monoxide into his car, the trash guys come by and tell him to move so they can get his trash. Later, when he tries to drop a toaster into his bathtub, the plug comes out just a few inches shy of the water. To make matters worse, Larry writes these really lame suicide poems to his ex-girlfriend right before the deed, usually analogies to really geeky movies, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. In the end, he comes to the realization that he needs help. No, not like psychiatric help. Help offing himself.

Penelope Fletcher is 24 years old and smoking hot. But she's also smoking poor due to her obsession with expensive footwear. Her credit debt has eventually caught up with her and if she doesn't come up with $13,000 soon, she's going to jail.

Every day at work, Penelope and her best friend Amy watch as Larry stumbles around outside, drooling while staring in at Penelope. It's creepy but they know he’s harmless so it's more of an annoyance than anything. But after one staring session too many, Penelope goes out and tries to scare Larry off. It turns out that Larry has overheard about her money problems and thinks he has a solution.

He tells her he needs somebody around to make sure his suicide attempt is successful and is willing to put her on his life insurance policy for 250 grand if she'll do it. Penelope is game but the two find out that in order for her to be on the policy, they need to be married, and more specifically married for at least 31 days. So the two head over to the courthouse, do the deed, and then basically wait for 31 days to expire.

When Penelope finds out that Larry has to pass some health exam to validate the insurance, she forces him to get off his ass and start exercising - not easy for Larry since a typical day for him involves the marijuana merry-go-round. But pretty soon, Penelope finds herself helping Larry in other ways as well - getting his apartment cleaned up, getting him a better wardrobe. In a couple of weeks, Larry actually starts looking like a presentable person.

Of course because they’re spending so much time together, they become close. But like a lot of this script, it doesn't go exactly how you think it's going to go. There's an unpredictability to this story because of Kingsbury’s unique sense of humor and knack for finding the less traveled path. So will Larry end up killing himself at the end? Or will he and Penelope create the single most unlikely pairing in relationship history?

Hot Blake Lively for Penelope?

I really liked this. Yes, there's the issue with the formulaic setup that’s going to send people running. Maybe even back to “The Call Up,” gasp. But I’d implore you to stick with it. Why? Because the characters are pretty damn awesome, that’s why.

I thought Larry’s failed attempts at killing himself were hilarious, reminiscent of a certain cult classic, Better Off Dead, and so I immediately liked him. And Kingsbury somehow made the impossible possible - she made a smoking hot chick who could have anything she wants, sympathetic. So before we get to the clunky conceit of the concept, we get to know and like both these characters enough so that we sort of don’t care.

The thing that really puts this above so many romantic comedies I read though is that it doesn't go for the predictable lame fairytale approach. It's not so much that I hate that type of romantic comedy, so much as I know exactly what's going to happen every step of the way so they bore me to hell.

31 Days Of Larry is a dark script. It's about a guy trying to commit suicide. And as forced as the marriage thing is, you don’t see many romantic comedies where one half of the couple is trying to end their life. Darkness elevates comedy in such a way that it feels real. We’re not pretending to live in a world that doesn’t exist. Bad things happen on this spinning rock and to see a romantic comedy recognize that is refreshing.

Not only that, but it just offers up choices we’ve never seen before. I mean the female lead here is waiting for the male lead to kill himself so she can get her money. That brings up the kind of conversations that you DO NOT SEE in rom-coms. NEW conversations. DIFFERENT conversations. In a world where we know the exact dialogue exchange that’s coming up 15 minutes before our couple does, how refreshing is that? It's something I've preached on the site and will continue to preach. You have to find a different angle into a familiar story. Because pretty much all the stories have been told. They just haven’t been told from your unique point of view.

And I just love when stories place their romantic leads on completely opposite ends of the spectrum to the point where you think there’s no chance in hell they’ll get together. I love when writers explore that challenge because when I was introduced to these two people, I thought, “How in the hell is this writer going to convince us that these two would ever end up together?” And most writers fail (they eventually start forcing things so that the relationship feels unnatural) but in this specific universe that Kingsbury created, she somehow did it. I believed that these two fell for each other.

There's really very little that I didn't like here. It was only that forced set up. If Kingsbury can find a way to smooth that out, this script will be bulletproof. I hope somebody figures that out and yanks this thing out of development hell.

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

What I learned: I know this is going to sound nuts, but when I see a slugline with “I/E.” at the beginning (as I saw in “31 Days Of Larry,”) I know I'm usually dealing with a good writer. “I./E.” is short for “INT./EXT.” which is short for “INTERIOR/EXTERIOR.” Why? Because I know it takes most writers five or six scripts before they encounter a situation where they need to be both inside and outside on a location and know how to actually represent that. And then it takes even longer to learn about the abbreviated version (I./E.). So it’s just a very advanced location indicator.