Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Leonardo Job

There hasn't been a good art heist screenplay in over a decade. Does The Fugitive screenwriter finally crack the code?

Genre: Action/Adventure/Heist
Premise: A pair of rival art thieves must team up to steal a Leonardo da Vinci painting that nobody knows exists.
About: This is a spec script written by David Twohy. Twohy is probably best known by today’s moviegoers as the writer of Pitch Black. But his most well-known work is, obviously, The Fugitive. Right now, Twohy is currently filming the new Riddick movie with Vin Diesel. If they’re filming the same script that I read, that one will go back to Pitch Black’s roots, keeping things simple (Riddick stalking a group of men on an isolated planet).
Writer: David Twohy
Details: 117 pages – April 16, 2011 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 kind of love David Twohy. How can I not. He wrote The Fugitive, the best thriller ever. He also penned one of the great sci-fi screenplays of all time with “Pitch Black.” Not only did it have one of the coolest central characters you've ever seen in a sci-fi film, but talk about a midpoint shift! An entire planet turning dark and billions of aliens shooting out of the planet's core to feed on anything they can find!

Where I'm still smarting, however, is in Twohy’s last effort, The Perfect Getaway. That movie was awesome for about 90 minutes. And then……well, and then…the ending happened. The “big twist.” And oh boy was it not good. It was everything you don't want your twist to be. Manufactured. Forced. Nonsensical. So while my love for Twohy still remains, I still haven’t gotten over that flick.

But I have good news. Twohy is back! And if The Leonardo Job turns out anything like the script, it’s going to be great.

Steve Styles is a gadget heister. He's the kind of guy who will build a $50,000 mechanical dragonfly to scout out the room that houses the painting he's about to steal. And that's exactly how this movie begins, with Styles deftly using a number of gadgets to get into a museum and steal a 3 million dollar painting.

But as he’s speeding away in a getaway car, he's unaware that a man on a sled is secretly breaking into his trunk, stealing the very painting he just stole…AT 65 MILES PER HOUR. When Styles figures this out, he knows exactly who’s responsible: Kofax.

Kofax is much older than Styles and doesn't believe in gadgetry. He believes in good old-fashioned hard work. And this is just one of the many differences between these two rivals – art thieves who hate each other with every bone in their body.

After Kofax steals from the stealer, he learns of a big deal going down in Europe and so he flies there, where he eventually meets Gina, a woman who claims to know about a secret 23rd painting from Leonardo da Vinci. But this isn't any ordinary painting. It's a fresco. That means it's the size of a giant wall. It's also hidden behind another wall in a museum due to a misguided construction choice 500 hundreds years ago.

Kofax thinks the job is impossible (how do you even get behind a wall in an active museum?) and isn't convinced that the painting exists anyway. So he’s out. Enter Styles, who's eager to take on the challenge. But once Kofax realizes Styles is on, he wants back on too, and Gina’s solution is to have them work together.

Of course, since this is a Twohy script, there are lots of twists and turns along the way, and just when you think you know what's going on, you realize you don't. There is plenty of jockeying to figure out who here is telling the truth, who’s lying, who you can trust, who you can't. In the end, someone’s going to end up with this painting – if it indeed exists. The question is…who?

Let's start off with the obvious. This script is expertly written. This is what a script looks like from a seasoned professional who’s mastered his craft. Let me give you an example.

The movie starts out with an art heist. It's a reasonably simplistic scene that we've seen many times before. It's well written but nothing special. Yet here’s the difference. Most amateurs would stop there. They’ve written their opening heist scene. They’re done.

What makes Twohy different is that he’s not done. As Styles races away, we cut to somebody on a sled, picking the lock of the trunk. This surgeon of a man is about to lift the painting this guy just lifted. Now THAT’S something I’ve never seen before. In other words, the writer pushes himself to do something different – to do something fresh.

The next awesome choice Twohy makes is in the construction of the heist itself. Whenever you create a heist scenario, it's imperative that you make the heist look impossible. If it doesn’t look impossible, then we’ll have no doubt our hero can pull it off. And if there’s no doubt, there’s no movie. The doubt is what creates the drama! So the more of it you can produce, the more exciting your movie will be.

Thirdly, Twohy creates a ton of conflict between the two main characters. No, we're not talking Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan conflict here. Styles and Kofax have tons of history together and absolutely despise one another. They've stolen paintings from each other worth millions of dollars. So we have a real conflict and a real distrust between the two. That makes every scene between them fun.

On the flip side, there were a few things I didn’t like. One thing that always bothers me is when a writer starts the movie off with one character, then switches over to another character, who becomes our hero. The reason I don’t like that is because, mentally, I’m always waiting for that first character to come back and lead the story. He was introduced first, so naturally I assumed he was the hero.

So I kept waiting for Styles to reemerge, until, after 25 pages, I realized Kofax was the protagonist. Complicating this is that Kofax is introduced as the bad guy. He's the one who stole the painting from the guy we liked. It would be like in Raiders, if after Belloq stole the idol Indy just secured from the cave, that we followed Belloq for the next half hour. Do we really want to follow him? Or do we want to follow the guy who stole the idol in the first place?

I admire that Twohy likes to explore the antihero (as he did with Riddick), but it threw me off guard as I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be rooting for for the first 40 minutes.

Twohy also makes the questionable decision to bring in our villain late. I don’t think he shows up until page 75. This is something I tell writers to avoid if at all possible. Not only does the audience need someone to root against in these kinds of films, but it's really hard to build up an entire bad guy with just 45 pages left in a screenplay. So I wish Twohy would've found a way to get him in earlier.

Still, Twohy is such a great screenwriter that even with these unconventional choices, he finds a way to make it work. And like I always say, you have to do something differently in your script or else it feels cookie-cutter, which can sometimes be worse than writing a straight up bad script. So in the end, this is definitely a script worth celebrating.

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

What I learned: To spice up a predictable scene, add a ticking time bomb. There's a nifty little scene early in the movie where Styles is chasing Kofax after Kofax stole the painting Styles stole. Styles, in order to catch him, calls the On-star people on a fake police line, telling them that Kofax’s car is stolen. The Onstar people remotely turn Kofax’s car off, inadvertently stopping it in the middle of some train tracks. This allows Styles to confront Kofax, while in the distance, a train approaches. With the painting tucked into the trunk, neither of them will leave until it’s safely secured. – Notice how the ticking time bomb here adds tension to the scene. If Styles had simply run Kofax off the road, hopped out, and demanded the painting, there’s no “ticking time bomb,” there’s no reason to take care of things immediately. It might’ve been an okay scene. But it wouldn’t have been nearly the scene that’s in the script now. So add a ticking time bomb to your scenes to bring them alive (you’ll notice that we had a similar scene in The Fugitive – with Richard Kimble trying to get out of the bus before the train hit).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - Jeff, Who Lives At Home

The screenwriting duo that is The Duplass Brothers follow up Cyrus with their new screenplay about fate.

Genre: Drama-Comedy-Indie
Premise: A thirty-something man who still lives at home unexpectedly bonds with his brother when the two try and find out if his brother’s wife is cheating on him.
About: “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” is coming to theaters soon. It stars Jason Siegel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon. The screenplay is written by writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass. Their previous films include Cyrus, Baghead, and The Puffy Chair.
Writers: Mark and Jay Duplass
Details: 87 pages – June 1, 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).

Some people blame the Duplass Brothers for pioneering the horror that is Mumblecore. You know what I’m talking about. Those movies shot on video with available lighting and a handheld camera and characters who improvise. It's not that the movies are bad so much as they’re terrible. I mean, you’re not supposed to want to throw your TV out the window during a movie, right?

My problem with the Duplass Brothers is that they have a tendency to back away from the moments that define a movie. For example, in Cyrus, I kept waiting for something interesting to happen with Cyrus but it never did. Cyrus was only *sort of* psycho, so you always felt safe, like our hero was going to be okay in the end. And was that movie a comedy? I’m still not sure.

However, I’ll always give the brothers a shot for one reason: Baghead. Baghead was one of the weirder movies I've seen. It’s about these four people who head up to a cabin in the middle of the woods and start getting stalked by a man with a bag on his head (we’re unsure, of course, whether the stalker is one of them or someone else). It walks this unpredictable line between humor and horror that I’ve never seen baked up that way before. It's a film you should check out if you have the chance. But be prepared for something really different or you’ll leave disappointed.

That brings us to “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” about a guy named Jeff (Jason Siegel) who, well, lives at home. While we’re not clear WHY Jeff lives at home, the implication is that some traumatizing event happened to him as a child which never allowed him to grow up.

When we meet Jeff, he’s sitting around, thinking about how the movie Signs is the best movie ever, mainly because it was about fate and how we all have a purpose. So Jeff starts thinking, what's his purpose? What signs are out there to guide him through his life?

Right at that moment, Jeff gets a call from someone asking for “Kevin.” There’s no one named Kevin who lives there, but Jeff thinks this is a sign, and rearranges the letters in the name “Kevin” to come up with “knive.” He then goes and checks the silverware drawer, grabs a knife, and finds the word "Delta” carved on the handle. Cut to Kevin in his closet where he finds a group of Delta Airlines playing cards. He throws them against the wall (no, I'm not kidding) and the only card that is face up is the ace of hearts. This is the end of the sequence.

Naturally, at this point, I was thinking about peeling the skin off my body with a potato peeler. But I forced myself to press on. Jeff then goes to pick up something for his mother but since he can't drive, he takes the bus. On the bus he spots an African-American kid about 18 years old who’s wearing a jacket with the name "Kevin" on his back.

So he follows him to a basketball pickup game and ends up somehow playing. It turns out Jeff’s really awesome at basketball (even though this has nothing to do with the story at all). Afterwards, he and Kevin become quick friends until Kevin robs him. Friendship over.

At this point I was getting so angry at the pointlessness of the story that I wanted to pillage my neighbor’s basement. But I soldiered on. Eventually, Jeff runs into his brother who he has an even worse relationship with than Snooki and The Situation (sorry, I had to get a Jersey Shore reference in there). He and his brother become convinced that his brother's wife is cheating on him. So they decide to follow her around.

During this time, Jeff shares his new revelation about fate with his brother, who thinks his theories are insane. We’re also intercutting with their mother, who spends the movie in a cubicle at her office, and finds herself the recipient of a secret IM’ing admirer.

Eventually, the three of them come together in the end and encounter an unexpected event that may or may not prove Jeff’s theory about fate.

 Jeff, at home.

Where to begin here. The first 25 pages of this script where almost unreadable. I don't like scripts where no story emerges within the first 25 pages (I don’t like scripts where no story emerges within the first 10 pages!). I want to know where my story is going. We don't get a whiff of that here so Carson not happy.

But when Jeff's brother enters the equation, the script takes a turn for the better. Maybe it's because we were thankful that at least SOME purpose had entered the story, but I thought the conflict between the brothers was actually pretty authentic. As soon as you present a relationship that needs to be repaired to an audience, the obvious response is going to be wanting to see if that relationship can be repaired (which means - most importantly - we want to keep watching!).

As for the cheating stuff…I don’t know. Here was my problem with it. We only get one scene with the brother and his wife that establishes their relationship. And neither of them seemed to like each other. So when the brother becomes devastated by his wife’s cheating, I’m not sure we buy into it. I mean, I barely know these people. Why do I care if his wife is cheating on him?

That’s the problem with an 87 page screenplay. You don’t have enough time to establish the relationship to the point where we care what’s happening with it. And it doesn’t help that you spent the first 30 pages of your script with one of your characters throwing cards at a wall.

I also felt the subplot with the mom was too thin. It basically entailed a secret admirer IM’ing her from inside the office all day. It’s a nice little surprise when we find out who the person is, but the storyline itself was so lightweight that it felt like padding to get the script up to feature length.

The script’s shining light is probably its ending. I like indie movies that go big with their endings and the climax here definitely has some weight to it. I just wish there was more of that weight throughout the rest of the script.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Flesh out your subplots. Thin subplots feel empty and pointless. To combat this, try to add as much detail and thought to your subplots as you do your main plot. The mother’s storyline here amounts to a woman at a cubicle receiving IMs. I don’t know what the mother does. I don’t know what her company does. It seems like there’s nothing for her to do all day other than answer IMs. That’s not how the real world works (well, for most of us anyway). Build up the details of your subplot world. Give her company a purpose. Maybe she’s a debt collector (would explain why she’s angry all the time). Or maybe she’s a customer support person (again, would explain why she’s so angry – she gets yelled at all day!). Have her boss demand that something be done by the end of day. Now those IMs are interrupting all the calls coming in AS WELL AS a deadline. It’s much more compelling to watch a character make a tough choice (do I answer this IM or keep working?) than freely answer IMs to her heart’s content. Flesh out those subplots people. Add details. Add reality. Or else your subplot is nothing more than a boring distraction.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Awesome screenplay finally arrives in theaters!


It's National Grey Day my friends!  Yes, it is the day where you tell your boss you're leaving work early to go see The Grey.  If he has a problem with this, give him my e-mail and I'll have some words with him.  Explain that I've been trumpeting the awesomeness of this script for a couple of years now and that movie watchage must occur on opening day.  Explain to him that Liam Neeson cannot be fighting wolves with glass shards strapped to his knuckles and you NOT be there.  It's simply impossible.  If he's still giving you a hard time, tell him to go read my review of the script here.  Of course, there's a strong possibility that he will now want to come with you so only use that as a last resort.


Screenplay Review - The Augmented Geologist (Amateur Friday)

A period sci-fi screenplay with some amazing writing. But does screenwriter James Hutchinson do enough with the story to get that rare Friday "worth the read?" 

To submit your script for an Amateur Review: Send your script 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 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.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from writer) In Victorian England, a respected geologist studies a strange crystal artifact that grants him incredible powers, tears his life apart and sends him on a deadly chase to discover its unearthly origin.
About: This is the part of his query that really got me interested in reading James’ script: “Here's why I think you should read it: This is big budget original sci-fi with a twist (in that it's set in the past). Imagine HG Wells writing about nanotechnology, or Sherlock Holmes crossed with District 9. These are not your usual science fiction characters, and it's a pretty unique and exciting world, hopefully I've done it justice.” Count me in!
Writer: James Hutchinson
Details: 96 pages

Jude Law for John?

First of all, I really like this writer. I really like you, James. In a purely platonic screenwriting man-love sort of way. Your writing is just so…smooth.

It’s now showy. You’re not trying to impress anyone. All you care about is telling the story.

Okay, it’s getting creepy that I’m talking to you directly so let’s regroup. Basically, this is some wild subject matter “Augmented” is dealing with. Nanotechnology, alien crystals, augmented powers. And yet I was never confused. I was never at a loss for what was going on. That may not seem like a big deal but I can’t tell you how many amateur scripts I read where I get confused by characters doing something as simple as walking across the room, the writing is so clunky.

Here’s a paragraph from the script, a POV from John as he’s experiencing his augmented powers: “A searing amount of INFORMATION captured at inhuman speed. Each column, paragraph, sentence, letter is rapidly scanned by boxes of light. The alphabet is being deciphered. And - TIME SLOWS. People inside the carriage are FROZEN. The rattle of the speeding train is now a soothing CLUNKING sound. Scenery glides gently by.”

That image isn’t easy to convey. And yet I imagined it as if I was right there in the theater. So why am I not giving The Augmented Geologist a big augmented thumbs up? Read on to find out...

London. 1894. A young archeologist is out on a dig and finds something remarkable. But we don’t see what it is yet. Cut to John Haldane, a 30-something bookish gentleman with polio. He hobbles into Godfrey Colleton’s home with an excitement he hasn’t felt for a long time. Godfrey shows John what they found on the dig – some sort of polygon crystal buried inside 500 million years’ worth of sediment.

The crystal is unnaturally pristine, which has John desperate to study it. Godfrey allows him a few days to conduct some experiments before he puts it on display at the museum. But when John brings it home, the crystal starts changing, gradually smoothing out into a sphere and finally a liquid. The liquid emits such a strong aroma that John ends up drinking it. And that’s when everything changes.

His vision becomes enhanced to the point where distances and measurements appear inside his eyesight. He can hear animals communicate with each other in bare-bones English. His polio disappears. He becomes stronger. Smarter.

However, while all this is really cool, it’s not what John was expecting, and it’s not like the guy’s had a steady diet of Terminator and Predator films to prepare him for becoming a cyborg. He’s living in 1897. They won’t even have the internet for another 10 years. So naturally these advancements are scary as hell.

This causes him to be manic, out of control, sort of like Britney during her whole hair-shaving incident. His already deteriorating relationship with his wife gets worse as a result. And soon Godfrey is back, looking for his crystal. John tells him that someone stole it, and the local cops start looking into possible suspects. But when it becomes clear that it wasn’t stolen, they center their efforts on John. So John decides to hightail it out of there and go back to the crystal’s origin, hoping it will provide some answer to what’s happening to him.

Okay, so like I said, I love the writing here. I also thought the story was AMAZING for about 40 pages. It was building. It was mysterious. It was different. I felt like I was reading a screenplay I’d never read before. And that doesn’t happen often. So it was exciting.

But here’s where I think The Augmented Geologist became unagumented: A true story never emerged! Or at least, not a big enough story. Essentially, what we have here, is a guy who gains superhuman abilities, lies to his friends about it, then runs to a mountain. I mean, for a premise like this, that’s not a big enough choice. People don’t want to read about a guy running away from people when he has superhuman powers. They want him encountering scenarios where he can UTILIZE his powers.

Let me try to be more specific. Once we hit the midway point, our hero’s powers no longer matter. He’s just running away from people. He could be ANY person in the world at this point and the story wouldn’t change. So that was upsetting.

Also, I didn’t like the passiveness of the storyline. When you have a hero, especially a literal hero with super powers, you’d like him to be dictating the story. You’d like him to be making choices that push the narrative forward. John spends most of this movie running away or avoiding things. Dramatically, it’s just not very interesting.

Now I’m not saying that The Augmented Geologist needs to become Spider-Man or Iron Man. But I do think in order to get the most out of this premise, there needs to be a foundation that takes advantage of the situation. You have a man with powers here. Let’s conceive of a few scenarios that put those powers to use.

Obviously, you can go a bunch of different ways with this but the most obvious is to create some sort of threat that only John (and his augmented body) can stop. There’s this late-story revelation that Godfrey is also augmented. It feels tagged on and therefore doesn’t work. But if you brought this up earlier in the story, and Godfrey started taking advantage of his power, and John had to stop him? That could be pretty cool.

Assassin's Creed

Another thing that bothered me was that in the second half, this felt a hell of a lot like Assassin’s Creed. Ironically, that’s the only video game I’ve played in the last two years (so if I hadn’t played it, I never wouldn’t have caught this). But everything from the way he sees things to the story’s setting to the way he’s running around on rooftops – it feels like that game. This is another reason to ditch the “running away” storyline and make our hero more active.

Finally, I thought the ending was too trippy. It was sort of cool but once you commit to these metaphysical abstract endings, it starts to feel like you’re fudging things. That may not be your intention. But that’s how it feels to the audience. I mean, I’m still not sure what happened exactly. He was a beacon? So the alien race could find earth? Hmmm… Kind of confusing.

But like I said, I think James is PACKED with talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3-4 years from now, you see him writing some big Hollywood sci-fi film. And hey, if he can get a handle on this story and give us something more mainstream and less existential, he might be able to salvage it. Either way, he’s a writer to look out for.

Script Link: The Augmented Geologist

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One thing you want to be conscious of, especially with high concept ideas, is that each successive plot point in your story be better/more interesting than the last. Because what I see with a lot of screenplays is the opposite. The script starts off REALLY good. But then every leg of the story becomes less interesting than the previous. The opening to The Augmented Geologist – with the mystery behind this crystal - was great. Ingesting the crystal and gaining powers was also great. But after that, each leg got less and less interesting. He fakes the crystal robbery. He suspects his wife is cheating on him. He tries to find a random dude and pin the fake robbery on him. He runs away from everyone. None of those choices were nearly as interesting as that opening act.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Screenwriter Interview: Jane Goldman

The "X-Men: First Class" co-screenwriter talks screenwriting and her latest movie, The Woman In Black, with Scriptshadow.


Jane Goldman has had the kind of screenwriting career most writers dream of.  She co-wrote "Stardust," "Kick-Ass," "X-Men: First Class," and most recently, "The Debt," all with Matthew Vaughn.  This week, she offers her first solo screenwriting effort, an adaptation of "The Woman in Black," about a young lawyer who travels to a town only to find out it's being haunted by the ghost of a scorned woman.  The movie stars Daniel Radcliffe and comes out next weekend. 

SS: You seem to have a lot of different career opportunities (presenter, model, producer, etc.). What is it that draws you to screenwriting, a path that’s more low-key and that some might say doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as those other ventures?

JG: I’m honestly the least ambitious person I know in terms of a desire for recognition - the idea of being “known” has not only never appealed to me, but actually gives me panic attacks, as I’m chronically shy!

I’ve occasionally strayed off the writing career path as and when opportunities have presented themselves, but writing is what I’ve done my whole life, and what I wanted to do ever since I was a child.

I started freelancing while I was still at school – I used to spend my summer vacations hanging around in magazine office lobbies badgering features editors, which miraculously paid off! When I left school, my first full-time job was as a junior reporter on a newspaper and from there I moved on to working for magazines and writing books (eight non-fiction titles and one novel) before I wound up moving into screenwriting six years ago.

Along the way, I got offered various other jobs in other areas, and I always think it’s worth giving things a shot out of curiosity or just for fun. In the case of TV presenting, I turned out to be pretty crap at it and really didn’t enjoy being on the “wrong” side of the camera! Producing I love, however, and it’s the one other thing I still do when I can, alongside screenwriting.

I genuinely prefer the notion of a low-key career, as I’ve never craved recognition, and with screenwriting, I especially like the fact that you are part of a team rather than having to push yourself forward as an individual.

SS: I have a large UK following and a lot of UK’ers ask me how to break into Hollywood from another country. Can you give any advice to those trying to make it from the UK (or any other country)?

JG: My advice would be to do the very best work you can in order to break in to the film industry in your own country first, as anyone whose work has had even a small measure of success and recognition in their own country will likely be approached by US agents offering representation. Or at the very least, you can legitimately approach US agents yourself. I’d say that’s a far swifter and less stressful approach than moving to LA and trying to get a foot in the door without having anything substantial as a calling card.

The UK has the huge advantage of having radio as a very accessible stepping stone for writers, leading to getting an agent and opening doors into TV and film. But in these days of cheap HD cameras and Youtube there’s also always the option of just getting out there and making a low budget short – write something wonderful and find an aspiring director to make it, or even direct it yourself.

I thought the character development in X-Men was some of the best I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie. What’s your approach to building characters and what do you think the key is to creating a truly memorable character? 

JG: Thank you SO much, that’s extremely kind of you! My initial approach is quite clinical and technical, in trying to make sure that a character has enough traits, complexities and flaws that they feel three dimensional. If I were trying to describe my best friend to you, I’d probably be able to reel off five or six adjectives or phrases without having to think too hard, so my aim would always be to strive for a similar level of detail in a fictional character, even if some of that detail never makes it onto the page. Ideally, you want to know your character so well that you know exactly what they’d do in any given situation. Then the next step is ensuring that all your characters who interact have traits that spark off one another – you want them to push each others buttons, yank one another out of their comfort zones, force each other to see things they don’t want to see. You want them to provide each other with obstacles or be catalysts for change – even the ones who get along.

Putting a touch of yourself, or people you’re close to, into your characters obviously doesn’t hurt either, in terms of making characters who feel real and relatable, and that’s certainly something I – and I think most writers – do.

Being objective, I’d say the key to creating a memorable character is to create someone with familiar traits, but in an uncommon combination, or someone who is a recognizable archetype with a surprising twist. For instance, one of my favorite characters is Maude from Harold and Maude. She’s the archetypal eccentric free spirit with a passion for life and scant regard for law or convention, and if she was also young and pretty with dyed hair and crazy clothes and too much mascara, it would all be eye-rollingly tedious, but the fact that she’s an octogenarian (and, it’s hinted, a holocaust survivor) makes her character fresh, affecting, extraordinary. By the same token, so many memorable characters play the game of combining traits you’d normally use in creating an unlikeable character, with other traits that make you adore them despite yourself – Ferris Bueller is a spoilt, manipulative rich kid who does whatever he wants, Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets is a rude misanthrope, Tyler Durden is a psychopath, terrorist and all-round reprobate, Dexter and Hannibal Lecter kill people for kicks. But we love them all.

SS: I find that most screenwriters focus on the wrong things when they first start out. What was the primary thing you focused on as a beginning screenwriter and what’s the primary thing you focus on now? Do you look back and roll your eyes at the silly stuff you used to obsess about?

JG: The primary thing I focus on now is economy and pacing. I try to be really strict with the rule that every scene, every beat, every word of dialogue should be doing a job, or else it shouldn’t be there.

I feel like I made most of my mistakes, and hopefully learned from them, when I wrote my novel. I’m not sure that I focused on a specific wrong thing, but I deeply regret that what was published was essentially a first draft and it could have been a million times better if I’d gone through it with a critical eye, been brutal about editing, taken it apart, put it back together again and polished it until I was positive that every scene, every beat, every word was doing a vital job. I was just so happy when my editor didn’t suggest any changes that I cheerfully let it go to print as it was. I really regret that.

SS: You’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of talented people. What’s the best piece of story/screenwriting advice you’ve received from them?

JG: One director I worked with was a particular influence, although I unfortunately can’t name him, as the re-write job I did for him was a non-public thing. He had a really interesting policy about minor characters – he believed that whatever function they are serving, you can usually do away with them entirely and find other ways of making the same thing happen without them, and it’s a lot cleaner. I thought that was very interesting advice and have found on numerous occasions since that he’s absolutely right. He also likes his scripts to be notably shorter than the “standard” length for whatever genre, which made so much sense to me. Pretty much every movie’s first assembly in the edit room is always not just a little too long, but way too long, and losing scenes and moments that you love is never a nice experience.

SS: You’ve now written/co-written 5 movies. Which one of those movies was the hardest to write and why? 

JG: Every project has it’s own challenges and pleasures, so it’s hard to single one out. X-Men: First Class had the tightest deadline, and the first draft needed to be delivered very fast because they were waiting to begin preproduction. That essentially meant a few weeks of writing seven days a week, essentially every hour that I was awake - literally only stopping for food, bathroom breaks and bedtime. My back eventually gave out from sitting in an office chair, so I started writing lying down on my couch instead, which has remained my favorite writing position ever since!

The most technically demanding was a screenplay that I recently completed, an adaptation of an incredible novel by Peter Ackroyd called Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (I believe it has a different title in the US, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree). It’s multi-stranded, strays into the esoteric and involves a monumental plot twist that is brilliantly concealed in the book by a literary conceit that you couldn’t possibly employ in a film! Figuring out how to approach an adaptation of it was immensely challenging but also unbelievably rewarding.

SS: You take some crazy chances in your screenplays. I particularly remember Stardust having some totally off-the-wall things going on (I loved the ending with the “dead person” swordfight). Do you deliberately try and buck convention or do you follow the traditional screenplay “rules” (3 acts, inciting incident, the protagonist arcs, hero must be likable, etc.)?

JG: Thank you! Re: the swordfight, a friend of mine remarked that it was typical of me to be working on a fairytale and find a way to slip a zombie in! I’d put zombies in everything, if I had my way :)

I think confounding expectations within storytelling is vitally important, but when it comes to structural framework, I don’t see any great need to buck convention - most of the traditional “rules” are there because they work well. It’s like building a house. You could build a house out of poptarts just to be different, but surely it’s more appealing to build it out of bricks and then buck convention in the design itself, knowing that it’ll hold strong.

To do away with things like inciting incident and protagonist arcs would seem a little bloody-minded and self-defeating to me. Some rules you can play with though, I think. In fact, Matthew recently noted that the screenplays we’ve worked on together could sort of be viewed as having four acts, rather than three. I’m not sure that a hero has to be likeable, either - just this year Young Adult and Submarine both played with that convention very effectively - but it obviously requires a different narrative drive to replace the one that is lost. There’s got to be something else that makes you want to see how the story is going to play out.

SS: I’ve been trying to come up with a good ghost story idea myself for years. What do you think the key is to making a ghost story work?

JG: I think the best ghost stories have an emotional core, but the main thing is probably mining what actually, genuinely scares you. I think with other genres you can approach things technically, but with horror – just like comedy - you’re actually trying to invoke a physical reaction in yourself and others. I think it’s not about finding something that seems scary, but a notion or collection of elements that actually make your skin creep, or send a shudder down your spine, or have you looking over your shoulder, even if you don’t believe in ghosts.

SS: What were some of the unique challenges you ran into while writing The Woman In Black and how did you go about solving them?

JG: One unique challenge was trying to ensure that it was scary! Writing descriptions of what are essentially visual beats, in a way that would convey their essence and my intentions clearly to a director, was a challenge because you need to be very specific. I’m used to writing action scenes, so conveying non-verbal beats wasn’t new to me, but at the same time, this was very different – it really required a lot of focus and careful choice of words - even punctuation! - in order to transfer from my head to the page what were often intricately timed moments, and their intended emotional and visceral effects.

SS: One of the issues I’ve noticed in these slower darker movies is that all of the characters are very restrained, and therefore it can be hard to write dialogue (in Kick-Ass for instance, every character has so much personality that I’m sure the dialogue flies off the fingertips). How do you conquer that problem and still make the dialogue pop? 

JG: I actually made a conscious decision with the Woman in Black to let dialogue take a back seat and to keep things very simple, restrained and un-showy. I realized early on that this would serve the plot and the atmosphere best, and it was an interesting exercise as a writer, as you have to find other ways to convey character. It was also a good exercise in humility and ego-checking, as dialogue is the area where it’s easiest to show off!

SS: An always controversial discussion in the screenwriting community is the importance of theme. Do you put a high value on theme, and if so, can you explain how you incorporate it, and more specifically how you incorporated it into The Woman In Black?

JG: I do think theme is important, in that I think that if it is absent, a film risks having a sense of being directionless. Sometimes that sense is only vaguely tangible, other times it’s pretty obvious. I think incorporating theme is just about ensuring that there are plot points and scenes throughout that speak to your theme in a way that is consistent. It’s also pretty key that those thematic elements should involve not just your main character and their central dilemma or drive, but also ideally your supporting characters in parallel, related or opposing situations.

In the Woman in Black I guess the pervading theme is loss. And more specifically, the different ways in which people respond to loss. Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, we learn that the Woman in Black herself is driven by grief, anger and vengeance, so I wanted to ensure that Arthur, the main character, reflected another facet of that experience, an alternate reaction to bereavement. And, in fact, pretty much every supporting character also inhabits a different point on that same spectrum.

SS: Finally, it looks like this is the first time you’ve written by yourself. What was the biggest screenwriting lesson you learned that came out of that experience? 

JG: I’ve done quite a few solo screenwriting jobs since Woman in Black, but yes, it was my first. It wasn’t really a markedly different experience, though, since Matthew and I don’t have the work habits of a traditional writing partnership – usually he works on the structure alone first, then we discuss it, then I go off and write alone, he gives me notes on the draft and then I make revisions. I just followed the same procedure – writing an outline, then the draft, then going through it with a critical eye and making improvements. I did miss having him to bounce ideas off at the structural stage, or to phone up to chat things through, or just to ask “I’ve just had an insane idea for how this scene could go – do you think it’s insane, or shall I try it?”

I guess I’d also written alone for a couple of decades before that, too, as a journalist and author, so it probably didn’t feel like a new enough experience to learn from it. I love the collaborative nature of screenwriting, though – whether you’re working with a director, a producer or directly with a creative partner. For me that’s probably one of things I enjoy most about screenwriting – the feeling that everyone is working together towards the common goal of making sure that you write the very best version of your screenplay possible.

Great interview!  Thank you to Jane for stopping by.  I learned a ton from her answers.   Hope you guys did too. :)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Screenplay Review: He's Fucking Perfect

A million dollar screenplay with a little help from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A woman uses her amazing internet skills to stalk and seduce the perfect guy.
About: This script finished Top 10 on the Black List and I believe Top 3 on the Hit List (list of best spec screenplays of the year). This is reportedly Kahn’s first script, but I have serious doubts about that. Nobody writes this efficiently their first time out. Either this is misinformation and they meant it’s the first script she’s gotten notice from, or she’s had help from producers guiding her along (like Diablo Cody did with Juno). Kahn was also Will Ferrell’s old assistant. Some people have told me he gave her notes on the script. Anyway, the script sold last year for a million bucks!
Writer: Lauryn Kahn
Details: 114 pages – August 22nd, 2011 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).

Hmmm, Zoey Deschanel for Charlie?

Well here’s a funny story. I’ve been going around telling everybody for the last two months that “He’s Fucking Perfect” is really fucking bad. I’d shout it from the rooftops when I could, only because I didn’t want anyone to waste their time. So it continually confused me when so many people wrote me saying, “Um, Carson, I don’t think this is that bad. I actually liked it a lot.” This led me to believe that everybody in the world was insane. But at a certain point, when, like, the 30th person in a row told me it was a good script, I began to wonder, “Am *I* the one who's insane?”

So finally, the other day, I picked it up and re-read the first 10 pages. Every reader has bad days when no matter what you put in front of them, they won’t like it. And I was wondering if I had had one of those days.

It took me about two pages to realize….this was a different script! This entire time I was confusing THIS script with ANOTHER script that had the word “Fucking” in the title. Hey, I’m sorry okay? I read a lot of scripts. This sometimes happens. But it would be helpful if everyone and their mom wasn’t putting the word “Fucking” in the title of their screenplay!

Anyway, as I started reading, it became clear to me, this script was EVEN WORSE than the other script I read!

No, I’m kidding. I’m KIDDING. Truth be told I was laughing within the first two pages. And it only got funnier from there. I’m just going to say it: This script is fuckin perfect!

Well, no, that’s not true. But it’s really good. In fact, the read so inspired me, I decided to create an impromptu list of “5 Ways You Know You’re Reading A Great Script.” Here we go!

1 – For the 100 minutes you’re reading the script, writing seems like the easiest thing in the world.

2 – Afterwards, you immediately want to go write a similar script in the same genre.

3 – You’re bummed when it’s over and wonder, “Why can’t every script be this good?”

I actually don’t have a 4 and 5. That’s what happens when you go impromptu. Man, I am not doing this review justice. Maybe now is a good time to get to the plot, no?

29 year old Charlie (Oh no! A female character with a male name in a romantic comedy – maybe this *is* Lauryn’s first time writing a script) is a Google ninja. Her biggest talent is her ability to research guys her friends are dating to determine whether they’re marriage material or not. She’s gotten so good at it, in fact, that women are now coming to her willing to pay for her services.

This culminates in an old bitchy acquaintance of hers asking to look into her new boyfriend, Evan, who seems too good to be true. Charlie does just that and for the first time in history, she doesn’t find a SINGLE thing wrong with the man she’s researching. He’s hot. He’s kind. He climbs mountains. He plays instruments. He volunteers at children’s clubs (he’s even a “Big Brother!”). He’s fucking PERFECT.

So what does Charlie do? Well of course she tells her acquaintance that she found out Even has gonorrhea and then goes after him herself! But not the way normal people go after someone. Charlie learns every single thing about the guy on the internet so that she can become his perfect match!

After stalking his foursquare movements, she “accidentally” bumps into him one day, and because she’s able to play to his every interest, he quickly falls for her.

But what Charlie starts to realize is that dating the perfect guy is HARD WORK. It means that YOU TOO have to be perfect. And since Charlie is anything but perfect (she’s not a vegetarian, she doesn’t play instruments, she doesn’t like culture, she doesn’t want to feed the children in Africa), making this relationship work is taking a LOT of effort.

What’s complicating things even more is that Evan’s best friend seems WAY more like her crowd. I mean, he doesn’t have 8 pack abs and isn’t changing the world, but he likes to smoke pot, he likes to eat meat and he’s generally more…relaxed. Like Charlie! As Charlie tries to navigate these conflicted feelings – being with the man she believes she’s supposed to be with or being with the man she’s actually supposed to be with – her not-so-secret plan begins to unravel, possibly destroying her chances with either of them.

This screenplay was just fucking good. There’s usually one really good comedy script every year and this is the one, without question. I mean, I don’t even know where to begin.

The characters! The characters were great. Besides the main three, we have Betsy, Charlie’s best friend, who may be the dumbest girl you’ve ever met, and yet the funniest. Little quirks like her always messing up popular phrases (“I’m waiting on eggshells.”) were perfect.

Then there’s Doug, the weirdo potential stalker/rapist who Betsy hires to help Charlie stalk Evan. Even though Charlie fires him the first day, he still somehow finds his way to every single event and date that Charlie goes on with Evan.

Lauryn also got the best out of every scene she wrote. This is really what separates the okay comedy writers from the great ones. Every single scene is good. Not every fourth scene. EVERY scene. For example, there’s a scene early on where Charlie prepares to ‘accidentally’ bump into Evan at the bookstore. She spots him, picks up a random book to look busy, and just as planned, he notices her. They start chatting and in order to impress him, she makes up a story about buying the book for her “younger sister” from the “Little Sisters” program. But Charlie hasn’t actually looked at the book yet and when she lifts it up, it’s one of those weird inappropriate fantasy books with naked alien women on the cover. Evan’s weirded out, but she’s able to talk her way out of it AND secure a future date with the hunk. Except Evan suggests they get their little brother and sister together to bring with them. Of course, Charlie doesn’t have a little sister, so she has to go find one for the date. And it’s all hilarious. Every scene here is full of funny situations like this.

One thing I noticed about “He’s Fucking Perfect” is that it had a few “Let’s Get High” scenes (Charlie smokes pot with Evan’s friend) JUST LIKE Two Night Stand from last week. And if you remember, I took that script to task for the lazy choice. Usually, when you have two characters wanting to get high, it means you’ve run out of ideas for your story.

But here’s the difference. In “He’s Fucking Perfect,” the “Let’s get high” scenes are integrated into the characters and plot. The whole point here is that Charlie’s trying to be this “perfect” person in front of Evan. But “getting high” is who she *really is.* It’s a secret she keeps from him. So when she’s given the opportunity to secretly get high with his friend, she’s making a choice steeped in character – go back to who she really is or be this “new person” that she wants to be. The scenes also push forward the relationship between her and Evan’s friend, making them plot-related as well. In other words, the choice to include the “let’s get high” scenes is necessary for the story.

In Two Night Stand, it boiled down to a writer who didn’t have any ideas so he threw in the infamous, “Wanna get high?” scenario.

In the end, what I really loved about this script though was how infectious and fun the writing was. There was no strain here. The words on the page seemed to emerge effortlessly, as if they were coming right out of Lauryn’s mouth.

This is so contrary to what I usually read, where sentences and paragraphs feel heavy – almost *too* constructed. Don’t get me wrong. You want your script and your writing to be polished. But there’s a point where it becomes too perfect and the writing doesn’t feel natural anymore. You want to watch out for that, ESPECIALLY in a comedy, where the writing is supposed to feel loose and fast.

I don’t know what else to say. This script was really good. It might even make my Top 25 after I sit on it for awhile. If you’re a comedy writer, this is the bar. This is what you’re aiming for.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The other day, Tawnya talked about how theme is the opposite of a character’s flaw. Let’s see that in action here. The theme of this script is a simple one: “Be yourself.” Charlie’s flaw is what? She’s trying to become someone she’s not. There it is. Flaw and theme are the opposite of one another.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

And here are your 2011 Academy Award Screenwriting Nominations!

For a full list of all of the nominations, head over to Slash-Film.  Basically, the writing nominations this year are sort of lacking.  There's nothing that sexy, nothing with any HUGE buzz attached to it.  In the adapted category, I'm thinking the bigger names have a leg up on the competition. That means Moneyball and The Descendents are your frontrunners (Payne, Zallian and Sorkin are hard to say no to).  If you asked me which SCRIPT was the best, I would say "The Ides Of March."  I remember reading that when it was Farragut North and really liking it. I just don't think it has the cache to stand up to those other films.

The original category is more interesting (as it usually is).  I mean, it has Bridesmaids in there.  Now let me say this.  I REALLY LIKED Bridesmaids.  But if a straight comedy gets an Oscar nomination in screenwriting, it's probably a weak year.  I'm a little surprised to see Margin Call in there.  I liked the script and I loved JC Chandor's success story (he struggled his ass off before writing this script). But he's likewise probably helped by a weak year as well.  The Artist has a shot but I find it hard to believe people will give a screenwriting Oscar to a movie with no dialogue (I'm not saying *I* would penalize it - I'm saying others probably will).  I'll be honest.  I don't even know what "A Separation" is.  So I can't comment on that.  And that leaves us with the huge favorite in the group, Midnight in Paris.  Allen will almost certainly win this one.

Some people have asked how I feel about Drive being snubbed by the voters.  I can't say I'm surprised.  It's just a weird little movie and I'm not sure they campaigned for it very well.  So I'm a little bummed but I'll get over it.  Here are the nominations.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
“Hugo” (Paramount) Screenplay by John Logan
“The Ides of March” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
“Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin Story by Stan Chervin
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Focus Features) Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

Writing (Original Screenplay)

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Written by Michel Hazanavicius
“Bridesmaids” (Universal) Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
“Margin Call” (Roadside Attractions) Written by J.C. Chandor
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Woody Allen
“A Separation” (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Asghar Farhadi

Bodies At Rest

Genre: Contained Thriller
Premise: A group of masked thugs break into a morgue, demanding access to a body that contains evidence to a crime they recently committed.
About: Information on this one is mixed but I believe it originally went wide in 2010 and then finally ended up selling (possibly after a few rewrites) at the end of 2011. David Lesser, the writer, has been around for a long time, working mainly in TV. He wrote for “Who’s The Boss,” and wrote episodes for “Coach” and “Sabrina The Teenage Witch.”
Writer: David Lesser
Details: 106 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).

I guess what happens when you get into the later stages of your screenwriting career is you stop writing spec scripts. You usually have a family, children, people who depend on you. So you don’t have the luxury of spending those precious few hours each day on writing something that doesn’t guarantee a paycheck. Instead, you go where the money is. And the money is in a steady paying TV job or assignment work.

For that reason, it’s always cool to see a veteran writer still writing specs - still taking a shot. And to that end, I love what Lesser has done here. He’s come up with a cool little idea with plenty of conflict and a cheap production tag.

With that said, Bodies at Rest is one of those screenplays that exists in the floating netherworld of spec sales. It’s good enough to get purchased, but something’s missing from making it that break out “talked about” screenplay. Sometimes I bring up the notion that certain stories (namely dramas and thrillers) need TEETH. They need to bite down on you, wrestle you, make you feel like you’re not going to get away. They need to feel DANGEROUS. That’s how I felt yesterday. I felt like The Stanford Prison Experiment dug its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go. With this script, I feel more like the characters are blowing bubbles at me. They’re winking and smiling when the cameras aren’t looking. Nobody ever feels threatening or threatened. For that reason, it was hard to become invested.

For example, it seemed like over a dozen times the villain said to our hero, “If you try and screw around ONE MORE TIME I’m going to [some clever saying about the method in which he was going to kill him].” But that moment never came. Once you get past 3 empty threats, it’s hard to take anything the villain says seriously. The irony is that in The Stanford Prison Experiment, we knew with 100% certainty that those characters were safe - that nothing terrible was ever going to happen to them. And yet I was a thousand times more terrified for them than I was the characters in Bodies At Rest. And that’s because that script had TEETH.

Anyway, Bodies At Rest follows the beautiful Lia and the mischievously handsome Abe. Both of them work together at the morgue, tearing up dead bodies and trying to figure out how they died. The two have a bit of a romance going, but Lia wants more out of it than Abe, and that causes just the slightest bit of friction between the two. She’s ready to take the next step. He’s not.

Well that white picket fence Lia’s so obsessed with is about to get mowed down, because three armed men in masks burst into the morgue, demanding to see a woman’s body. Now you’d think our body carvers would be terrified by this development. I mean, it’s not every night that someone breaks into a morgue and threatens to kill you. But for whatever reason, our heroic duo is as calm as the dead body lying on the table in front of them.

We soon learn that the trio wants a bullet taken out of a female body. Abe, who is somehow more relaxed now than he was when Lia was asking for a commitment, shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Sure, why not?” He goes in the back room to extract the bullet from the woman. The thug watching him is so grossed out, he can’t look. Abe gives the man his bullet and the group leaves.

Once they go, Abe reveals to Lia that he didn’t give the men the bullet they were looking for. He extracted a bullet out of a different female body. Now he wants to find out why the men wanted that body. Hmmm. So instead of calling the cops, Abe wants to play Sherlock Holmes? Of course, the thugs realize that they’ve been had and charge back into the morgue all over again, demanding the REAL bullet.

What follows is a psychological game of cat and mouse as Casual Abe leads the thugs on and the thugs keep catching on, menacingly threatening Abe each time but never actually doing anything about it. In the end, when they’ve really truly honestly had enough of Abe’s antics, it looks like they’re REALLY going to kill him. Casual Abe will then have to come up with one last trick to get he and Lia out of this mess.

So I’ve already given you my main problems with the script. But here’s the thing I’m stumped over. There are certain movies where the main character is essentially a super-hero. He’s not afraid of anything because he knows he’s more powerful than everyone else. Many of these movies are popular (Mission Impossible, James Bond). But isn’t it more interesting when the main character actually exhibits fear? When he (and we) feel like there’s a possibility that he can be beaten/defeated/killed?

Because if we’re not worried that anything’s going to happen to our protagonist, then what are the stakes? What’s dramatically interesting about a person who can’t be hurt? That was my issue with Abe. He just seemed WAY too sure of himself and was never once afraid. Since he wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t afraid. And if I’m not afraid, I’m not going to be into the movie.

Still, I admit this kind of character works in some scenarios. One of my favorite characters of all time, Wesley from The Princess Bride, is this kind of character. He always knew he was going to come out okay and so did we. So what’s the difference here? Why does Wesley work and Abe not work? Or do we only accept these characters in larger than life scenarios?

This same approach was extended over to Lia. There’s a moment early on, when the thugs send Abe off to extract the bullet, and Lia is left standing there with the men. What is the first thing she says to them? “Do you mind if I get back to work?”

Uh, wait a minute. What did you just say?


Oh yeah, that would definitely be my reaction if someone was pointing a gun to my head. “Hey guys? I know you want to kill me n’stuff but I REALLY need to get this blog entry up. If you can just hang out for a moment? There’s food in the fridge. Believe me, if you knew Grendl, you’d know why I need to do this pronto.”

Anyway, this gets to the heart of why the script didn’t work for me. Nobody acted like people would really act in this situation. For example, when one of the bad guys is about to rape Lia, she tells him she’s into weird kinky sexual shit and asks if she can spit on him. The thug answers “yes” for God knows what reason and she asks him to hold out his hands. He does, she spits on them, and then kicks him backwards into a freezer where his wet hands get stuck on the frozen doors. This, apparently, was her plan all along. I mean let’s be serious for a second. Is this in any way believable?

My philosophy is always to put yourself in your character’s shoes. Ask the question, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” If your characters are doing something completely different from that, you better have a great reason for why. And I couldn’t find that reason with Bodies At Rest.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think it’s important that the audience FEARS your villain. If we don’t fear the villain, there’s a lack of tension and uncertainty in the script that’s hard to make up for. Star Wars has a great moment early on when Darth Vader holds a rebel soldier up off the ground by his neck, choking him to death. So right away, I’m scared of Darth Vader. But it’s not just that he killed someone (the villain in Bodies at Rest kills a few people). It’s the manner in which he does it. It’s cold, it’s heartless, it’s brutal. I just never got that feeling here from the villain. He was never very frightening.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Genre: Drama
Premise: Based on a true story, in 1971, a Stanford professor initiated one of the most controversial university experiments of all time, recreating a simulated prison environment with volunteers. Within hours, the experiment spun out of control.
About: The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 2006 script written by Christopher McQuarrie and Tim Talbott for McQuarrie to direct. McQuarrie had assembled a great cast that included Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, Jamie Bell, Ben McKenzie, and others, but just as the project was getting ready to go, Valkyrie emerged, and McQuarrie had to make a tough decision on whether to produce that film or direct this one.  It was a difficult choice but he ultimately went with Valkyrie. You might remember I reviewed a more recent McQuarrie screenplay, One Shot, a couple of months back.
Writers: Tim Talbott & Christopher McQuarrie
Details: 122 pages – August 7, 2006 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).

So I’d been hearing about how good this script was for-evvvvv-er but the reason I hadn’t picked it up is because I’d seen “Das Experiment” (A German film covering the same territory - it was pretty good) and figured I already knew the story, so what was the point? But this script had a nasty habit of not going away. It just kept popping up on my radar. And due to the recent slate of less than stellar scripts here on Scriptshadow, I decided to read something I knew was going to be a quality screenplay.

Whereas Das Experiment took the subject matter and went all “creative license” with it, Chris and Tim seem to be more interested in exploring how things *really* went down on that fateful week in 1971. The event centers around an arrogant Stanford Professor named Dr. Philip Zimbrado who thought it’d be interesting to study the effects of how prisoners and guards interact with one another in a prison setting.

So he put an ad in the paper and narrowed the applicants down to 30 people, most of them in the 19-25 age range. 9 of them were made guards and the rest prisoners. Zimbardo then set up a make-shift jail and began the experiment.

Immediately, things started getting weird. The volunteers were led to believe this was going to be a fun little experiment they could leave at any moment. Zimbardo had another plan, however. His goal was to strip away every “prisoner’s” humanity, make them feel like dirt, and study how this affected them. So right when they arrived, the prisoners were literally stripped naked and de-liced. They were then given smocks that barely covered anything. The experience was humiliating but they still went along with it, figuring things would get better.

They didn’t.

One of the guards, a cocksure 18 year old sociopath named David Eshleman, decided to take his role very seriously, to the point where he changed his Northeastern accent to a Southern one. He took on the persona of a meaner creepier version of himself who didn’t take shit from anybody. He began harassing the prisoners with a vengeance. And if any of them got out of line, he’d send them to “the hole,” a box so tiny you couldn’t even stand up in it.

One of the prisoners, 22 year old Doug Corpi, quickly realized that if the prisoners didn’t stand up for their rights, they were about to experience two weeks of torture. So he began rebelling, refusing to eat food and barricading the cell entrances so the guards couldn’t get inside. Eshelman didn’t back down. He told the other inmates that unless Corpi started abiding by the rules, they wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t get bathroom breaks.

It was a standoff. A hatred began building between the two sides, fueled by Corpi and Eshelman, and it was clear that only 48 hours in, things were out of control. But did Zimbardo stop? No. He was too fascinated by the interaction. He wanted more.

Soon, the psychological exhaustion of dealing with the relentless guards began to take its toll, and the prisoners started breaking down. They went to Zimbardo, begging for help, but since they never specifically asked to leave, he wouldn’t let them go. He’d force them right back into their cells to endure more psychological terror.

His biggest fascination, however, was Eshelman. He wanted to see how far he would go. The problem with that was Eshelman wanted to see how far he could take it. So he just got worse and worse and worse until he was a bona fide monster. But since no one was telling him to stop, he kept going. He devoted his entire shifts to torturing the inmates.

At a certain point, things became so ridiculously out of control, that Zimbardo had no choice but to stop the experiment, a mere six days in. It was not due to any sympathy on his part. It was only because his staff couldn’t bear it anymore. And just like that, it was over. The prisoners were released from their cells and told to go home.

Man, I don’t even know if I can talk about this script in screenwriting terms. I was just so fucking…..ANGRY at Zimbardo and Eshelman. These people were tortured for six straight days and there were no consequences for their torturers! They just got to smile and shrug their shoulders at the end and call it a day.

I think this is why this script leaves such an impression. There aren’t many movies where the bad guys get to mercilessly torture the good guys without any payback. It just feels so…unfair.

Especially in the case of Zimbardo, the smarmy piece of shit who came up with the idea. He just watches the whole thing with this evil little grin on his face, allowing these men to be berated and humiliated. I wanted to find out where he lived and conduct my own little experiment on him.

And you want to talk about a script with awkward mechanics. You know our hero? Corpi? Yeah well he goes insane and leaves the movie at the 65% point. So our main character is just gone. It’s a little like Psycho in that sense. After Corpi leaves, we’re sitting there going, “Who is it we’re now supposed to follow? Whose story is it now?” And at a certain point we realize it’s Zimbardo’s. We’re stuck with this manipulating douche-bag monster for the rest of the film.

You’ll also notice the script has a ton of characters, which I thought I’d bring up because last week I went off on Cities of Refuge for having too many characters. First of all, it’s important to remember that McQuarrie was directing this himself. So the only person who had to remember all these characters was him. But he and Tim also do something unique with the characters at the beginning of the screenplay. They tell you they're going to name them, but to pay no attention to their names. Because they’re not people in this movie. They’re rats in a maze. They’re nobodies.

Truthfully, the only people we have to remember are Korpi, Eshelman, Zimbardo, and a few minor characters.

This isn’t a GSU movie either. The driving force behind the movie is not a goal – it’s a question. What’s going to happen to these people? What’s going to happen in this situation? And because the situation is so compelling (every single scene is packed with conflict), we want to find out.

The thing about the script that baffles me most, though, is the lack of stakes. Going into this, I thought for sure I wouldn’t care because the stakes were so low. It’s just an experiment – and an experiment at a prestigious University at that. You knew nothing could get *too* bad. I mean any of the prisoners could get up, say they had enough, and walk out without any consequences.

And yet despite this, I was still riveted by their predicament. I’m still not sure how Talbott and McQuarrie managed to do this. I think part of it may be that humans always respond passionately towards a) people being taken advantage of, and b) people abusing their power. Since both of those scenarios were on full display here, we were invested in the story from the moment those prisoners walked into their cells.

I’m still pissed off there were no repercussions for Zimbardo and Eshelmen though. I wanted somebody to go down at the end of this. But you’ll have a tough time finding another screenplay out there that pulls you into its story as effectively as this one.

[ ] What The Hell Did I Just Read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A lot of writers are looking for that perfect “save the cat” moment, the thing that’s going to make the audience fall in love with their main character. They forget, however, that an often more effective way of making us like the main character is to “kick the owner.” If we see the bad guy beat down our protagonist, a much stronger “sympathy” bond is created between us and the character, resulting in our steadfast support of him for the rest of the movie. You see that here in spades (you also saw it in The Shawshank Redemption). So remember, saving the cat isn’t your only option. Kicking the owner creates a similar – and often – more powerful effect.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Interview with Tawnya Bhattacharya from Script Anatomy!

Tawnya is basically one of my favorite people in the world. She’s sweet, smart, cool and has a staggeringly high screenwriting IQ. So when she told me she was starting up Script Anatomy, which would teach both TV and feature writing (in Los Angeles), the first thing I said was, “Well we have to get you some students.” Not for Tawnya’s sake, but for the students’ sake! I knew that anybody I could get into her class was going to become a hell of a lot better screenwriter.

To give you some background on Tawnya, she taught at the Writers Boot Camp for 4 years. She now writes on USA’s “Fairly Legal” with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. The pair are in development on two original pilots, and have optioned a few features, one being packaged by CAA. They are repped at CAA and RABINER/DAMATO Entertainment. Feel free to jump over to her site right now or sign up for spots while they’re still open (I don’t know how long they’ll be available after this post). Or get to know her and her philosophy on screenwriting first in our interview. Enjoy!

SS: So why did you get into screenwriting? Are you a masochist?

TB: I started out as an actress. I had gone to an Acting Conservatory. Worked in the theater in Seattle, Chicago, Vienna and Prague and then moved to LA. After struggling, not getting enough auditions and doing a slew of crappy B films (if we’re letter grading they’d be D minus at best), I’d had enough. The writing was awful. The directing was awful. I was awful. And it was painful. This was years ago, and my boyfriend at the time was in the business and doing pretty well as a writer/director. I think I was the only actress in town for whom the casting couch failed -- he never gave me any work. Bastard!

I started writing because I wanted to write a short for myself but I ended up catching the bug. I knew inside that I was really a writer. I quit acting and started writing. Two screenplays in and one thing was clear: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. So I set out to change that. I read books. I read scripts. I took every class and workshop under the sun: Robert McKee, William Martell, Jen Grisanti, Blake Snyder, Michael Hague, John Truby… I went to Writers Boot Camp for 22 months, where I then ended up teaching for four years. Am I a masochist? Isn’t every writer?

SS: You and I have chatted about the craft before. What do you think is the hardest thing about writing a screenplay?

TB: Writing the screenplay.

Seriously, I think what’s difficult about writing a screenplay is going to vary depending on the individual and where they are with their craft and process. I feel like dialogue and scene work were always strong suits for me. Early on, getting the structure right did my head in. Later, it was theme and arcing the character throughout their journey. I worked hard on those and now specialize in them as an instructor. Not many instructors out there teach theme and how to apply it, which blows my mind because it’s so important.

Anyway… focusing solely on my last two scripts, I’d have to say the most difficult part was getting the opening right. There are so many ways in, but maybe only a few ways that will get your story off on the right foot. On the most recent one, we (the producer, my writing partner, and I) had a two hander and there was some disagreement as to whose story it really was. We went back and forth. We ended up making the right choice - but it wasn’t without trying it many different ways. On another project, I was hired by a director to write his idea. Looking back, I shouldn’t have taken the job. I wasn’t excited about the material, which made it a long and hard row to hoe. If you don’t love what you’re writing -- if your heart isn’t in it -- you constantly have to pull out the defibrillators. Even when you love what you are writing, rewriting over and over again without losing enthusiasm for a project can be challenging. Writing is rewriting. It’s how you turn something good into something great -- yet if you lose your passion it shows on the page.

SS: You’ve also taught a lot of screenwriters. In your experience, what was their biggest misconception about the craft that you needed to correct?

TB: I think the biggest misconception is that structure kills creativity. That if you’re writing a smaller independent film, structure doesn’t matter. Of course, that would launch me in to breaking down the structure of Another Earth, Lars and the Real Girl, Happy Accidents, The Swimming Pool or In the Bedroom and what have you. All storytelling adheres to structure -- it’s just whether it’s weak, ineffective structure or strong, effective structure.

SS: What were some of their common mistakes? And don’t hold back!

TB: I think the usual suspects are:

- Weak concept or no concept at all
- Poor structure or no structure at all
- Passive writing
- Inactive characters
- Too many characters
- Characters who don’t have distinct voices
- No conflict or stakes
- Dense action lines
- Dialogue heavy/action light
- On the nose dialogue
- Taking too long to get into the story
- Unmemorable characters that lack a flaw and therefore possibility for growth and change.
- Characters who are two-dimensional archetypes instead of three-dimensional humans. If they don’t come alive we can’t possibly care about them and their story.
- No theme
- Too much directing on the page. Pet peeve: CUT TO. When you write a new slug line that is a cut.
- Typos
- Incorrect formatting
- Scripts that are too long
- Lack of surprise
- Getting into a scene too early / getting out too late
- Lack of craft in transitions
- No story. Yes, that’s right. No story! Just a lot of words and bumbling about that doesn’t lead anywhere.

SS: Wow, you really didn't hold back. Okay, so, let’s move on to something more positive. I always have a lot of writers asking me how to write great dialogue. I find it one of the harder questions to answer. What’s your approach to teaching dialogue?

TB: I like Elmore Leonard’s list, especially, “Leave out all the boring parts” and “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

After going over a long list of dialogue no-no’s, I teach dialogue techniques and give writers examples of those techniques from existing TV or feature scripts. Sometimes I show clips as well. In class, students rewrite one or two of their scenes implementing the techniques they’ve learned. A partial list is: tangents, parallel construction, reversals, unexpected response, comeback zingers, exposition, subtext, character interruptions, echoing, similes, character on own track, response implying answer, set ups and pay offs, comic contrasts… etc.

Here are a couple of examples…

EXAMPLE 1 - From the MAD MEN Pilot written by Matthew Weiner, illustrates a few techniques: SET UP AND PAY OFF, an UNEXPECTED RESPONSE and a COMEBACK LINE.

We should get married.

You think I'd make a good ex-wife?

Don sits up and grabs a cigarette off the end table.

I'm serious. You have your own business and you don't care when I come over. What size Cadillac do you take?

EXAMPLE 2 - From UP IN THE AIR, screenplay by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, uses ECHOING and PROGRESSIVE DIALOGUE.

Today I took my first crap in two weeks. Hallelujah.

That’s me, applauding.

That’s me, passing blood.

That’s me, hanging up on you.

SS: What’s your general screenwriting teaching philosophy? What do you focus on most? 

TB: Character, character, character. And structure and theme. My TV and feature classes begin with concept and continue through full development of a writer’s first draft. However, because of the depth of in class exercises and tools I teach, usually the resulting first draft will look more like a second or third. I really believe in investing the time up front – developing ideas and characters, brainstorming infinite options and outlining vigilantly before writing pages.

SS:  You seem to be hitting on theme a lot. It’s definitely one of those things screenwriters struggle to grasp. Can you give me a basic breakdown of what theme is in your opinion and how you apply it?

TB: Theme is the foundation on which your screenplay is built. Theme is the spine, the core, the heart and soul of your story and what makes it relatable and universal and meaningful. Because it’s the lesson or moral of the story and expresses your unique point of view about the world and the state of humanity, theme is your voice.
And how do you express theme? Through symbolism and cinematic imagery, dialogue… many ways… but most importantly, through character and transformational arc. I do a workshop on theme and I hate to simplify because it’s actually more complex than this but I’ll distill it here for “page” length purposes.

Theme is the opposite of the main character’s flaw.  (Carson note: I like this!  I've never heard it expressed this way before)

Your Main Character or Hero is flawed. They have a goal they are not getting because of this flaw. To achieve the goal the MC will have to change and grow, overcoming the flaw throughout the second act journey - hence learning the lesson. (In some cases, the character doesn’t grow or learn but the theme is still articulated). This process is the transformational arc. We see this evolution occur as the MC confronts his flaw via conflict and obstacles, a strong opponent and a catalyst character(s)… we see them “become the theme” in a sense.

Like I said, there’s much more to it - in class I focus on it in more depth as writers develop their projects.

In TV, theme works a little differently. You’re obviously not arcing your characters in one episode to the point of alleviating their flaw. If Nurse Jackie cures her drug addiction do they still have a show? Her med addiction is so connected to the concept, character and arena, they have to draw out her transformational arc – but - she has other flaws to play with that stem from the addiction: lying, cheating, stealing… Which brings me to branches of theme. Theme is like a tree. There might be one primary theme that is the trunk, but other secondary facets of theme, like branches, stem from the trunk.

A show will likely have a series theme and possibly another theme per season, and individual themes per episode - which all may or may not be related.

SS: You work in both TV and features. What would you say is the big “writing” difference between the two mediums?

TB: Writing-wise it’s obviously much more manageable to tell a 24 to 60 page story than it is 110. There’s a lot more to track in a feature. And much more room for mistakes.

Work/Career-wise, the TV and feature world couldn’t be more different. Writing features can be a lonely business. It’s collaborative in that you might get notes from the studio or a director, but you’ll go off and write by yourself. Working in television you’re surrounded by other writers and it’s a collaborative process. Movies are difficult to get made and it can take years whereas everything about TV is fast. You can start working on a TV show and within months you can have a produced credit. I think most writers would think that’s golden.

SS: I’m curious. Which one do you think is easier? 

TB: Oh boy. I don’t think it’s ever easy to write well, but… but TV. As I mentioned, it’s an extremely collaborative medium. The room usually breaks story as a group. If you’re lucky, like we are on our show, you have an amazing showrunner with a strong vision and voice. Writing an episode is much more manageable than a feature just by way of page count but also because some of the work has been done for you: the template, characters, tone, the world, relationships and conflicts are pre-existing. Writing an original pilot is as difficult as writing a feature, it just takes less time. The real challenge of writing for television is the pace. It’s incredibly fast. Recently we (my writing partner and I) had two days to outline our episode and two weeks to write it.

SS: Which one do you think it’s easier to break into? 

TB: I’d say TV. There are more jobs in television. There are also specific ways a new writer can break in such as becoming a writers’ assistant and then getting bumped up. Acceptance into one of the prestigious Studio Writing Programs (I did FOX’s Diversity Initiative and NBC Writers On The Verge) can be a great launching point for a writer. Neither is easy to break into, but it can be done.

SS: In your experience, is an agent necessary to become a successful screenwriter? 

TB: I’ll most likely contradict myself, so here goes: yes and no.

No. Writing careers are like snowflakes. There are no two alike. And everyone’s way in is different. I really believe that great writing will rise to the top and get noticed eventually if you are putting yourself out there. That may be through friends and contacts or a reputable screenwriting contest or fellowship. Hell, it might be because your script got caught in a tornado and five pages landed on Spielberg’s desk. If those pages knock his socks off he’ll come find you even if you’re not repped. Maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe not, but I’ve always done my best to believe that anything’s possible in a career that sometimes feels like the lottery.

Yes. An effective agent or manager can help build your career. They have relationships in the business that you don’t -- especially starting out. They can guide you, connect you with the right people and help sell you to those people. A big agency might package a project. And then of course, it doesn’t hurt to be validated by someone respected in the business. People feel more confident about you if you’ve been vetted. That said, I have friends who have agents who are ineffective yet they stay because they’re afraid of not having one.
In our experience, our agents and managers were crucial in getting a job on Fairly Legal. We’re really happy with our reps and their involvement in our career.

SS: You’re repped at CAA. How did you find your way over there and what can Joe and Jane Writer do to get there too?

TB: I can't make an exact trail map for Joe and Jane, but I can tell you how we got there… (sorry we should have left bread crumbs!)

My writing partner and I have a feature with a producer attached. This producer had given our script to a talent agent at CAA who happened to like it for his star client. A few weeks later my partner and I went to The Austin Film Festival. At one of those panel discussions we noticed a CAA TV agent who stood out as being incredibly savvy and smart. After the panel, we introduced ourselves and asked her a question. During the conversation we managed to slip in that were currently in NBC’s Writers On the Verge program. A few weeks later our feature producer put in a call to the agent. The rest was history. Just kidding. Nothing happened after the call. The agent, more senior in the company, had mostly established writers on her list and wasn’t exactly looking for new writers. After NBC WOTV was over, the head of the program made a call, but it wasn’t until our mentor, who at the time (he’s since been promoted) was the Sr. Vice President of Drama Development at NBC, made a call that we got a meeting. Now we have 4 people on our team there -- two TV and two feature agents aside from our two managers.

SS: I know you’re pushing me to stop by your classes. But you know I’m a busy guy! If I came by, what should I expect? What would an average class be like?

TB: You are a busy guy! And I’m so proud of you, by the way, for all you have created with ScriptShadow and all of the exciting things coming up. Still… you should stop by one of my classes! So, um… what to expect… well, nothing average. Haha. You should expect to learn a lot about screen or TV writing (depending on the class) and to become a better writer through not only lecture and theory but more importantly through exercises and tool work. You should expect to gain an applicable process (or improve the process you already have) that will serve you throughout your screenwriting career. My next TV Workshop is already in progress but my next Feature Class is ten weeks long and starts up February 25th.

SS: Before we finish up, do you want to do a shameless plug for the show you’re writing on?

TB: It’s an “all new” FAIRLY LEGAL Season 2 which will air on USA March 16th on Friday nights at 9pm. “All new” because the entire writing team from the showrunner down is brand new. Expect some very exciting changes. My episode, which I wrote with my writing partner, Ali Laventhol, is “Gimme Shelter”. Hope you enjoy it.

I’m already on the Tivo. Does Tivo allow you to tape shows two months in advance? Anyway, thanks Tawnya for dropping by and sharing your wonderful insight. I think I need to take your class for dialogue alone. I’ve never even heard of some of those terms before but I like them. So, if you guys want to learn a little more about Tawnya and her site, check out Script Anatomy. Or if you want to grab a spot while they’re still available, here’s the site where you can sign up for her classes. Good news for Scriptshadow readers. If you sign up before this Sunday at midnight (Pacific Time), it’s 10% off. When it asks for the promotional code, just enter “Scriptshadow_22.” If you have any question about the classes, feel free to e-mail Tawnya at tawnya@scriptanatomy.com. What are you waiting for! Go become a better screenwriter. And who knows? You might even see me there. :)