Thursday, April 29, 2010


Genre: Action-Comedy
Premise: Merlin assembles a group of modern-day knights to battle a resurrected ancient evil, but all that’s available are an alcoholic ex-Olympian, a geriatric actor, a grumpy billionaire, and a nerdy scientist.
About: Brian K. Vaughn has quickly become an all star on the writing scene. When the comic book and Lost writer puts a spec on the market, all of Hollywood stops. A couple of years ago, Vaughn had a huge bidding war over this spec, which Dreamworks won. Pretty much everyone considers it to be the next Ghostbusters.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Details: 99 pages – First Draft, May 2008 (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).

Jack Black, why haven't you signed on to Roundtable?

You know, it’s no wonder they’ve been desperately trying to make a third Ghostbusters for two decades now. There really is no other movie franchise like it. Every movie that has ever tried to be the next Ghostbusters has fallen flat on its ass with a big resounding THUD. The franchise found that elusive combination of comedy, mock horror and action that SEEMS like it should be easy to replicate, but in actuality, is damn near impossible. It’s like Coke or Kentucky Fried Chicken. You generally know what’s in there, but you don’t know how it’s all mixed together. Well, Brian K. Vaughn must have broken into the Ghostbuster labs and stolen the recipe, because he’s written the next Ghostbusters.

Roundtable starts out back in the olden days when Merlin was a badass and knights ruled the roost. An evil old witch named Morgana spent her time flying around killing people for fun. Luckily, Merlin and the knights of the round table are all about turning this bitch into a pop-tart, and eventually battle her down into the ground where she becomes trapped inside a tree. As long as there are knights to protect England, Merlin proclaims, their country will be safe from Morgana, and safe from evil.

Michael Caine, why have your agents not gotten in touch with Dreamworks?

Jump forward to modern day New York City.

Merlin now lives in a Brooklyn apartment (which he’s had for over 300 years) and spends the majority of his time scarfing down twinkies and playing World of Warcraft. Due to a Morgana curse, if Merlin were to ever leave England, he would never be able to come back. So Merlin popped over to this land England bought, thinking it would be a quick vacation, only to find himself stuck here once the United States declared their independence. This is a very big deal because he’s just gotten word that some numnuts back in England who wanted to build a mall, ran over the tree that was housing Morgana! This is officially a worst case scenario situation. Morgana is back in business and Merlin can’t go back to stop her!

Since the only other thing that can stop a witch are Knights, Merlin is forced to recruit four knights from the modern-day coffers. Of course, since these days they knight anyone with a pulse, the pickings are slim. He ends up with Simon, a dweeb who was knighted for his expertise in ecology, Ricky, a former Olympic javelin gold medalist who’s now a slobbering drunk, Edmund, a stuck up angry billionaire supermarket CEO, and Michael Caine. As Vaughn writes in the script, “Yeah, THAT Michael Caine.”

Ricky Gervais, this would be the funniest movie you've ever been in.

Merlin zaps these four to Brooklyn where he informs them of the task at hand, and they predictably tell him, in no uncertain terms, HELL NO. They don’t even have their own lives together. What makes them think they can take out a witch? So back to England they’re zapped, believing they’ll simply be able to watch Wimbledon, hang with Becks, and inhale strumpets. But they quickly learn that the situation is more grave than they considered. Morgana is turning everyone into ogres and quickly taking over England! These knighted men each look deep into their souls and somehow find the courage to step up and fight for their country. They’re not sure they can do this, but because they’re England’s only shot, they have to.

And thus begins the story of Roundtable.

In all the scripts I’ve ever read, I don’t think I’ve ever read a screenplay as FUN as this one. The Hangover was close, but this beats it. It’s just a blast from page 1 to page 100. It all, of course, starts with the characters, who are hilarious. A lot of the script has them squabbling with one another other and it’s some of the funniest squabbling you’ll ever read. For example, they only remember Michael Cain for his bad movies like Jaws 3-D and The Muppet Christmas Carol. None of them have any idea that he was in iconic successful films like Alfie or The Italian Job, and it pisses the shit out of Caine.

I know they wanted Simon Pegg, but Simon is all you Martin. Make the call.

Just look at how the script opens: “A crowd of SCREAMING PEASANTS charges over the rolling green hills of sixth-century Britain. But just when you start to worry that this is going to be a shitty historical drama, we push in close on one of these moaning peasants to reveal WORMS crawling through the flesh of its reanimated corpse-face. Oh, okay, neat. These marauding farmhands are actually an ARMY OF THE UNDEAD.”

Vaughn even throws out casting suggestions on the fly, informing us that Merlin shouldn’t be old and boring, but should probably be played by Jack Black.

I’ll be honest with you, I can’t fathom how this movie hasn’t been fast-tracked into production. It’s easily one of the best spec script ideas in the last decade and there isn’t a single character in the script that wouldn’t be a blast to play. Why hasn’t Jack Black committed to this? Why hasn’t Ricky Gervais committed to this? There’s a scene in a celebrity wax museum that would easily be one of the greatest scenes of all time, right up there with the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man. This has “classic” potential written all over it.

Having said that, this draft isn’t perfect. Not everything has been fleshed out yet, and the second half of the screenplay, in particular, seems to go too fast. The final battle also kind of comes out of nowhere and after it was over, I felt like I hadn’t gotten to know these characters well enough. It’s rare when I say a screenplay has to slow down, but I think Vaughn may have underestimated just how lovable this team of misfits was. We needed some drawn out moments towards the end of that second act, and I think if they'd done that, the finale would've played out better.

Very enjoyable read. I’m left with only one question. When the hell are they going to make this movie???

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

What I learned: In a screenplay, near the end of the first act, there is usually something that’s fancily referred to as the “Refusal of the call.” What it is is your hero initially refusing to accept the challenge that’s been put forth before him. Obi-Wan asks Luke if he’ll come with him to Alderran. Luke says no way. He can’t leave. He has to help his Uncle on the farm. In The Matrix, Morpheus is guiding Neo to safety out on a building ledge when Neo finally says, “Screw this shit, this is too dangerous,” and allows himself to be captured. The Refusal Of The Call actually makes sense when you think about it. The challenge set forth in the movie is usually so above and beyond what your protagonist is capable of, that it wouldn't make sense if they DID accept it right away. You need that transition moment where the hero says, “I can't do it,” because, hey, it's the same way we'd all react, and it sets up your character for the change they'll have to make later in order to arc. When our four heroes are tasked to take out the killer witch here, they all say, “No friggin way dude. We're not committing suicide.” And they walk away. It's only when the witch begins her path of destruction that they realize, "Hey, we don't really have a choice here. We have to do this." ---- Note, however, that a refusal of the call is not always necessary. In the film this script was inspired by, Ghostbusters, the technique was never used.

Note: I'm still figuring out the comments section here. I upgraded to the newest version of Disqus but it seems to have made it so nobody can comment (is that what an "upgrade" is supposed to do?). Do me a favor, even if you don't normally comment, leave a "test" in the comments section just so I can see if the comments work for anyone. Brownie points if you simply leave your system and browser (ie Windows XP, Firefox 7) Also, if you are familiar with Disqus or blog code and can see why Disqus is having such a difficult time working for me, please let me know what you find.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Sky Is Falling

Genre: Action/Drama
Premise: When a pair of priests discover proof that there is no God, they go on a path of destruction.
About: Back in 1995, Tri-Star made one of the most famous spec purchases of the decade. The 400 thousand dollar sale about two priests who find out there is no God is on several “Best Unmade Scripts Of All Time” lists and is, by far, the script I get asked about the most. However, if there was a project that defined Development Hell, both figuratively and literally, it would be "The Sky Is Falling." As rewrites continued through the decade, no writer could find the elusive tone that both captured the original writers’ intent, while making the story accessible to a mainstream audience. I wasn’t able to get the spec sale, but this is the first attempt by the original writers at a revision. Although I’m sure the two did plenty of assignment work after "Falling," it appears they were never able to get anything into production, except for Singer, who recently wrote the Clive Owen starrer, “The International.”
Writers: Howard Roth & Eric Singer
Details: 110 pages – October 27, 1995 draft

There are violent specs and there are VIOLENT specs and this, my friends, is a VIOLENT spec. Natural Born Killers? Tame. Fight Club? G-rated. Resevoir Dogs? A Sunday stroll in Disneyland. Pulp Fiction? Playing this weekend at your local Chucky Cheese. None of these movies and their supposed violence and debauchery hold a candle to the sheer bombasity of this insane screenplay. And make no mistake, Howard Roth and Eric Singer are clearly insane people. You’d have to be to write this. Because it is so out there, so bizarre, so twisted, so violent and reckless, that you’re going to need anti-anxiety medication just to make it out of the first act. I will now attempt to summarize this story. But beware, if you are a moral person, if your typical night involves baking cookies and exchanging work tales, if you saw “Passion Of The Christ” 7 times, you should not read on.

Cli-click [me strapping on my seatbelt]

Okay, so here we go. Monsignor Felix Crowley and Father Ringo Michaels were involved in a Nevada desert excavation. Nobody knows exactly what happened but what they do know is that 30 plus excavators were brutally beaten to death by a hammer and Felix and Ringo are nowhere to be found. That is until they show up on a security video at a local casino, hopped up on a cocktail of narcotics, robbing the place like they're Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. And when authorities get a call that the duo are tearing through the city in a stolen vehicle, they send some units out to partake in a car chase that would make even your most reckless Grand Theft Auto afternoon look like Super Mario Brothers. Oh, and just to give you a feel for how weird this script is, the officers chasing them are named “Officer Frick” and “Officer Frack.”

Ringo and Felix, who, despite the constant chaos around them, always speak plainly and to the point, have discovered, through this excavation, definitive proof that God doesn’t exist . They are keeping this proof in an orange fanny pack which they treat like a deity (why they treat something like a deity if they no longer believe in deities is beyond me). All the two care about now are doing as many drugs as possible, stealing as much money as possible, murdering whoever they can, fucking whatever they find, and finally, their main purpose, finding Felix’s old high school girlfriend so Felix can tell her he loves her before, presumably, offing himself.

Hans Langerman, the man who owned the excavation site and a devout religious dude, is terrified of what may happen if the contents of the orange fanny pack are shown to the world, so he calls his old friend, Hitman turned God’s Man Frank Doyle. He wants frank to come out of retirement so he can save religion. Doyle is a bit of a curiosity himself. He has some sort of terminal disease - and I wish I could explain his condition better but since I had no clue in hell what was going on, I can only say this: Frank places worms inside his body, possibly (though I'm not sure) to battle the disease. So he’ll be talking to you and a worm will slither its way up underneath his forehead. No additional comments are needed. Doyle agrees to do the job on one condition. He wants absolution of all his sins both past and future. Doyle wants to go to heaven when it's all over.

From this point on, it’s a not-so-standard chase film, as Doyle tries to find and take down the heretics. And if guys with worms in their faces weren't enough to hook you, we have a scene where Felix and Ringo are in their hotel room….WITH THEIR CAR. There are no holes in the wall. It’s just a normal room. Yet somehow they found a way to get their car in it. Oh! And there’s a scene where a character is just hanging out, then grabs the end of a bungie cord, a missile attached to the cord shoots into the sky, he rides it, where he is then picked up by a passing airplane. So you get plenty of wacked out weirdness delivered with your story. Except I'm still not sure which is the main dish. Is this weird with a side of story? Or story with a side of weird?

The thing is, amidst all the craziness, there’s an actual theme here, an attempt to explore some meaningful debate about faith. When Doyle, maybe hours from death, finally catches up with the lunatics, the notion of what’s in the fanny pack becomes the central focus. Is God real? Is he a figment of our imaginations? And does Doyle look before he dies? Can "the truth" really override faith? I mean, it’s not The Ten Commandments, but it’s pretty thoughtful for a film with men on bungie cords being picked up by 747s wearing orange fanny packs.

Look, let's not kid ourselves on why this has never been made. It’s so relentlessly bloody and hopeless and cruel, even for risky independent fair, that everyone’s probably terrified to risk 60 million bucks on it. And I’m sure that’s why they’ve rewritten it so many times. They’re trying to lighten it up to a point where it’s digestible. Not audience-friendly mind you. But *digestible.* as in, people don’t start rioting after the screening. But the problem is, if you lighten it up, you take away everything that's unique about it.

I don’t’ really know what to make of this. It’s definitely unlike anything I’ve ever read. While there’s a noticeable 3-Act structure here, it definitely doesn’t care about conventions. It might be an interesting exercise to ground this idea in some sort of reality, but I wouldn’t want to be tasked with that assignment because then you run the risk of making the script preachy and boring. I wouldn’t say I liked this screenplay, but if I told you it wasn’t worth reading, I’d be lying. It’s just so weird and different and unpredictable that it’s one of those anomalies you just have to check out.

I may have to make up a new category for this one.

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

What I learned: I remember when I first started writing and I would read a Tarantino script or a Shane Black script and think, "Okay, this is how you have to write to be successful." So I'd go ahead and write a script like that. And it would suck. And it took me awhile to figure out that just because someone else was successful with a particular style of writing, doesn't mean you're going to be successful with that style of writing. I bring this up because "The Sky Is Falling" has a very ballsy aggressive style to it, a style that's fun to read. And I've found that whenever you read scripts like that, they tend to influence you in your next script. This happened most recently after - yes I'm going to say it - Juno. After that script, everybody and their grandmother wrote super quirky cute clever dialogue. Some were successful at it. Most weren't. My point is: Never forget the things that matter: Plot, character, structure, theme. Focus on those things first and allow your style to emerge organically. If you try to ape somebody else's style because it's the hip style of the moment, your script won't work. Cause it's not you.

Shoot. I think the comments are broken again. E-mail me at if you can't comment. I just "upgraded" the Disqus software.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview with Chad St. John

Chad St. John had a great year in 2009. He sold his first script, "The Days Before," which I reviewed here. He also sold a script titled "Motor City," which has only a couple of lines of dialogue in the entire script. Both scripts made the 2009 Black List, and "The Days Before," landed in the Top 10. This led to St. John selling another spec, "The Further Adventures Of Doc Holliday" to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Paramount. That film is said to be a Pirates Of The Caribbean-esque action adventure story, with a basis in history. Since St. John spends hours upon hours in the shadows writing his masterpieces, he had no problems jumping into a Scriptshadow interview.

SS: Can you tell us what led up to your sale of “The Days Before?” How long had you been writing? How many scripts had you written? How much had you committed yourself to the craft of screenwriting?

CSJ: Years. I had written quite a few things. I think you have to write 100 rotten scripts. No one writes a great song till they’ve written a hundred awful ones.

I would work the “real job”, then come home and write for another 3 or 4 hours and on the weekends. I considered that my real work. The more desperate and irritated I’d get with workin’ for The Man, the more I’d immerse myself in writing. I used to call it “writing for my life”.

SS: Okay so when you say 100? How many did you really write before that first sale?

CSJ: Including all the ones I wrote for just me, as exercises? I’d say somewhere just north of twenty.

SS: Why did you write “The Days Before?” Was it because you wanted to write something marketable? Was it because you were passionate about the idea?

I definitely try to write things that I think are marketable. It’s the business of entertainment, after all.

As far as DAYS, I always wanted to write an alien invasion story. But, I could never figure out a nifty way for them to show up. Seems like a bunch of massive alien craft cruising towards earth might be the kind of thing somebody would notice. That is, unless they just popped up out of nowhere. Like popping out of hyperspace, a wormhole, or some dimensional mumbo jumbo. But, none of those ideas really blew my skirt up.

One day I noticed a homeless guy with a sign. It’s something I’ve seen hundreds of times in L.A., but this guy stuck out for some reason. It was one of those “Ninja’s killed my father. Need money for karate lessons” kind of signs. I honestly don’t remember what it said, but it reminded me of that cliché of the crazy guy with a “Repent! The end is near!” sign. I thought, what if it had been one of those signs. And, what if he was right. What if he was the only person in the world who knew the world was ending. Today. Man, what a drag.

So, the idea of an alien invasion, and that homeless dude careened around in my head for a few weeks. At some point, they crashed into each other. Aliens show up out of thin air. One guy knows and has to try and warn the world. Etc. etc. I got pretty jazzed about the concept once it all clicked. It was a cool new take on an old idea.

SS: Can you give us a blow by blow of how the sale happened?

CSJ: I finished it in November of ’08, and gave it to my agents. They flipped for it. But, things were awful as far as spec sales were concerned at that time. The economy had just taken a nosedive, and not too many folks were buying. Not to mention, DAYS is something you either get, or don’t get. I’ll admit it’s a far out concept, and I had originally imagined it as a “Lethal Weapon in tone/don’t take itself too seriously” kind of flick. We didn’t want to burn it by going out with it, and no one buying. So, we decided we’d sit on it till the new year, and see what was what marketwise then.

Still, just to test the waters, one of my agents slid a copy with no cover page to someone at Warner Brothers he trusted, to get an opinion on the marketability of the script. That was on a Friday night. They bought it Monday afternoon. Just like the aliens in the story, I never saw it coming.

SS: You also wrote a script called “Motor City” that is 75 pages and has almost no dialogue. Can you tell us why you decided to write that script and why you think it was received so well. Also, what’s the status on the project?

CSJ: Honestly, it wasn’t my idea. Greg Silverman over at Warner Bros., one all around bad ass dude, tossed that one my way. After they bought DAYS and I had rewritten it based on their notes, Greg offered me a two script blind deal. I was definitely salivating for the chance, but I really wasn’t keen on the blind aspect of it. I wanted to have at least one of the scripts spelled out before I said yes. I thought it was crucial to follow DAYS with something just as unique. So, Greg throws this idea at me. Then, he says the magic words…“and there’s no dialogue.” A “silent” revenge movie.

I said yes before he finished the sentence. The artist in me leapt at the chance. Beside, when the hell is another Exec this far up the food chain in a studio going to ask me to write a “silent” movie? I was all over it. It was audacious and ballsy. Of course, then I spent a week banging my head into a desk in front of my computer thinking, “What the hell have I done?”

Why was it received so well? I was just humbled that it was. Truly. I still am. I think part of it is definitely that it was just so ballsy and different. Maybe it was a reminder that a script doesn’t need to have an explosion a minute. Or, even dialogue. You’ll have to ask all those cats who like it. I just aim for “Don’t Suck”.

I rewrote it for Dark Castle. And, yes, added dialogue. I’m really happy with how it’s coming along. We still go back and forth as to which version is the right one to get made. I suspect it might be a version that combines the no dialogue and dialogue versions. We’ll see.

SS: How did you get your agent?

A friend of mine gave something I had written called THE GIRL to a young lady at ICM they call Ava Jamshidi. Reading them didn’t cause her any physical or emotional discomfort, so I met with her and Lars Theriot. I liked them both on the spot. They didn’t have me thrown out. Been partners in crime ever since.

SS: What was "The Girl" about?

CSJ: It's a black comedy about a low level hitman, who is actually a woman, that has an overwhelming, debilitating fear of blood. She screws something up for a mob boss, and is tasked with bringing said mob boss the head of someone that screwed him over. So, she kidnaps the next guy on her hit list, and promises him his life back if he’ll do the deed for her.

SS: Cool. And how long did you have your agent before you sold Days?

CSJ: We'd been together for 5 or 6 months before we sold DAYS.

SS: If you were to start all over again, knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently to speed up your path to success?

Develop my voice as soon as I could. Anyone can write a story, but only you can write it like you do. Hopefully, people become a fan of that last part.

Personally, I know enough to know that I wouldn’t change a single thing. I had to write everything I wrote, I had to bust ass, I had to get my teeth kicked in, I had to struggle exactly the way I did to get where I am today. It makes you a better writer. Story is conflict. So is life. One seasons the other.

SS: What’s your writing regimen like? (How many hours do you write a day? How much rewriting do you do on a script, etc.)

CSJ: Balls to the wall comes to mind. Usually, I do little else when I’m working on something. I get consumed by it. Totally immersed. I forget to eat. I’ll spend fourteen hours in front of the computer before I realize it. I usually don’t do a lot of rewriting. But, I do many, many passes. Changing a word here and there. Tweaking in places. Etc.

SS: How do you know when your script is ready? Do you have an extensive system where you give the script to certain friends and get feedback, or is it more of a feel thing?

CSJ: There are only one or two people I might show something to, barring my Agents. And, they’re not in the business. The absolute best judges, as far as I am concerned. People with opinions I completely trust. We make what we make for the people who aren’t in the business, after all. There are exceptions sometimes, but that’s usually how it goes. No extensive system. I just try to write what I would like to watch.

SS: I asked this question to another sci-fi writer. What do you think the key is to writing good sci-fi?

Character. The same thing that is the key to writing everything else. I think a good sci-fi story is one that can be lifted out of that genre, placed in any other setting, and be just as good. Think of every great sci-fi story. You love them for the characters.

[SS note: This is almost the same answer Ben Ripley gave. And yet I keep getting sci-fi scripts that focus on the world more than the characters!]

SS: “The Days Before” has such a unique structure in that you’re jumping through time repeatedly. How challenging was it structuring that story? Or was it easy?

Not as bad as you’d think. There’s really only one “jump” that changes everything.

SS: You had such a successful year in 2009. I’m always curious, does it feel like you thought it would feel when you imagined breaking through? Is it exciting? Or does that feeling wear off and you immediately begin thinking about the next level?

All of the above, really. I wouldn’t say the excitement wears off for me. Rather, I just don’t think about it. It’s mighty tough to get anything done when you’re geeking out every ten minutes. I know. But, it is every bit as awesome as you’d imagine, being able to make your living doing it. I have honestly worked harder than I ever have in my life (and I’ve worked in steel mills and on farms), but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

SS: Staying with that, what was the biggest surprise about the industry once you sold that first script? Were there things you weren’t prepared for? Or was it exactly how you thought it would be?

Meetings. The sheer number of meetings. With everyone. Everywhere. They don’t tell you that in the handbook, but a huge part of this gig is meetings. You develop the social skills real fast.

SS: Can I ask what you're working on now?

CSJ: My 3rd pot of coffee and SGT. ROCK, with SPYHUNTER on deck.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fair Game

Genre: Real Life Political Thriller
Premise: The story of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who was outed after the U.S. could not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
About: Fair Game stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson. It was directed by Doug Liman and will be premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (in what may be the most brilliant marketing tactic ever – an anti-Iraq War film premiering in France). For those who remember, Liman directed the original Bourne Identity, so this is somewhat familiar territory for him. Oh, and for Modern Family fans, of which I am one, Ty Burrel also has a small part in the movie, playing one of Valerie’s friends. The writers, Jez and John Butterworth, also wrote Michael Mann’s next film, about war photographer Robert Capa's relationship with fellow photojournalist Gerda Taro while they were each covering the Spanish Civil War.
Writers: Jez and John Butterworth (based on the memoir by Valerie Plame Wilson)
Details: 114 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

So this is the big script I was talking about the other day that a friend recommended to me. This is a guy who reads a lot of scripts and he proclaimed to me, point blank, that this was the best script he’d read in three years. When a fellow reader says that to me, I have no choice but to put it on top of the reading pile. But there was only one problem. We didn’t discuss what it was about. And if we had, we probably would’ve determined that it never stood a chance with me.

“Fair Game” explores the inner workings of the CIA leading up to the Iraq War, specifically in relation to their hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Ah yes, the whole WMD fiasco. Did we or didn’t we know the truth ahead of time? That is the question. Well, let me just explain why I never got into the whole debate. To me, WMDs were never the real issue with Iraq. We were going into Iraq no matter what. We’d been wanting to get rid of Saddam Hussein for 15 years, and September 11th gave the U.S. that opportunity. If it wasn’t going to be WMDs, it was going to be something else. I guess people were interested in the scandal and the government lying. But to me it was like, “Well no shit they lied. They needed to start a war and they needed to do it quickly.” I would’ve been more surprised to find out they hadn’t lied. So the whole conspiracy had no drama as far as I was concerned.

But for the sake of the review, let me lay out the story because the script has a funky structure to it that I think is worth discussing. “Fair Game” takes place not long after September 11th, and introduces us to Valerie Plame, a young CIA agent who’s been tasked with gathering intel on Iraq’s weapons program. Around that time, Iraq supposedly made a purchase from Niger that included millions of aluminum rods, the kind of rods that scientists use to enrich uranium. You know, so they can build nuclear bombs. So Valerie put together a small group of undercover Iraqis who agreed to go into Iraq and question family members in the weapons program to find out if they had nuclear capability. In return, she promised, she would get them and their families out of Iraq and into safety.

So away her footsoldiers went and they found out what we know now. There were no weapons. The nuclear program had been dissolved over a decade ago. As Valerie then tried to give her report to her superiors, the U.S. decided they had the information they needed, and invaded Iraq anyway. After the invasion, when no WMDs were found, the press started sniffing around, and the U.S. realized they had to cover their tracks. So those same people Valerie swore she would protect were now marked targets of the U.S. Government. Since they could attest to the fact that the U.S. knew there were no WMDs before their invasion, they had to be taken out.

Just as this fallout starts ramping up, however, the script takes a big left turn, shifting abruptly to a Washington Post article that outs Valerie as a CIA operative. What appears to have happened is that Valerie’s husband, a U.S. ambassador, had written an article accusing the U.S. of knowing the truth about the WMDs because of a report he had given to them. In retaliation, someone from the White House leaked Valerie's CIA status to the Washington Post.

Whereas everything up to this point (a good 60-70 pages) had been about the plot which led to the invasion of Iraq, now the script became this personal journey about how a CIA operative lives with being outed. She has to go to all her friends and apologize for lying to them for 20 years. She has to explain to her kids why she’s being publicly shunned. Things like that. I suppose this won't matter as much if the marketing for the film educates the public on Plame's story, so that they anticipate this turn of events, but for me, someone who didn't know anything about her, I was stuck going, "What kind of movie is this supposed to be??"

If Modern Family isn't the best sit-com on television, what is?

Because if you think about it, this easily could’ve been four different movies. We start out with Valerie being a James Bond/Jason Bourne like super-agent, traveling the world and gaining access to top foreign leaders. Then the story shifts into this extensive procedural about the minutiae of how we gather information and the specifics that led up to the invasion of Iraq. Then the script shifts to the fallout of said invasion. And finally, it shifts to Valerie’s life after she was outed. Each one of those could’ve been explored as a full film. So having them all in the same film was a bit jarring for me.

But, like my buddy who recommended this, I expect those of you entrenched in the WMD scandal and in Plame’s story in particular to eat this up. It reminded me, in many ways, of Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” (not surprising then, that he liked the writers enough to hire them on his next film), which is another film that demands a lot from you. So, if you enjoyed Russel Crowe’s turn in that movie, you’ll want to check this out for sure. Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention the great reveal/payoff at the end of the script. It’s truly terrifying, and will definitely make you think twice about what’s going on inside our government’s walls. If only this story would’ve been a little more straightforward, I may have enjoyed it. But my simple brain can’t handle all this zigging and zagging. Just wasn’t my thing.

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

What I learned: A common mistake writers make in their pursuit of trying to get you to like their hero, is being too transparent in their attempt. They’ll have the hero save a dog in the opening scene, or carry groceries up for the old lady who lives next door. Having your character be helpful (or "heroic") isn’t the only way to get us to like them, and many times, can be so obvious as to have the opposite effect. In Fair Game, they get us to like Valerie in a pretty nifty way. In the opening scene, Valerie is on a mission to speak with a very rich Arab man on false pretenses (she’s presenting herself as a business woman). But she must first make it past his suspicious nephew, who starts asking pointed questions, questions it seems like Valerie isn't prepared for. The first is if she’s from America. No, she assures him, she’s from Canada. Toronto to be precise (hoping that will be the end of it). He quickly asks her if she’s a Maple Leafs fan. No, she tells him, she’s not (we believe so that she won’t have to answer any specific questions about the team). Really, he notes. So then you’re the one person who lives in Toronto who’s not a hockey fan? A pause. Is she busted? What does she do now? Then, out of nowhere Valerie says, “Oh I’m a fan. Dad’s from Vancouver, so I’m a Canuck. Between us, the Maple Leaves suck. They should never have signed Mark Bell. Guy’s a liability on an off the ice. So who’s your team?” -- And boom. Right there, we like Valerie. How did they do it? Simple. They had the main character outsmart an asshole (or “bad guy”). Everybody likes a person who puts the bully in their place. So just remember, be creative with your scene that makes us like your hero. If you’re too transparent, we’ll see through it and dock you for trying to manipulate us.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Back East

Back East sounds like a Carson script! Not a Roger script! Yet here Roger is stretching his reading muscles and stepping out of his comfort zone. Good for him. While he does that, I'm preparing for a week with a writer interview (hopefully!), and two very popular specs, one from a couple of years back, and one from the nineties. Both lit the spec world on fire in their own way. Finally, I'm reviewing a script that one writer gave me and said, "This is the next 'All The President's Men. Best screenplay I've read in three years.'" Whoa! That's a big claim. Was it that good? Find out tomorrow. And finally, if you're an aspiring or semi-professional writer looking to get your script reviewed on the site, don't forget to check out the "Amateur Month" post. All the information is there for how to sign up.

Genre: Indie Drama Premise: A young man living in LA heads back east to help his aging folks, only to find himself stranded in a nearly deserted desert town after his car breaks down. While fixing the car, he meets and falls for a sexy traveler heading west to LA with her boyfriend. About: Zack Whedon co-created and co-wrote Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog with his brothers Jed and Joss. Before that he co-wrote an episode of Deadwood and wrote and acted in an episode of John from Cincinatti. Most recently, he's been working on J.J. Abrams and Orci-Kurtzman's show, Fringe. "Back East" was on the 2007 Black List with two votes. Writer: Zack Whedon
Details: 92 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. 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)

When it comes to the Brothers Whedon, sure, you can consider me a fanboy. From
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I usually love everything these guys do. But every now and then there's a bump in the road. For every Whedonesque Astonishing X-Men comic I like, there's an episode of Dollhouse I don't like. Which brings us to this Zack Whedon spec script, "Back East".

Is it unfair of me to say that I prefer Zack Whedon's writing on something like Fringe over this small Indie Drama, "Back East"? Maybe I just prefer tales where a guy transforms into a weird spiky monster in an airplane bathroom over a slow burn coming-of-age drama where a depressed twenty-something protagonist shares a few flirtatious moments with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who is already taken.

Or maybe it's just that I want more drama in my character studies. I want more personality, dammit.

Who is this about, Rog?

It's about a depressed twenty-four year old named William. William seems to be drifting through the days in his life, not really moving anywhere. The way he stares at the LA landscape with his headphones on, how he might be physically present at his boring office job while his mind is clearly somewhere else.

He seems numb.

Through a conversation with his mother in Connecticut, we learn that his father's health is failing. His mother, in an effort to connect to her son, brings up how she just found the ticket stub from when he played a part in the King and I in fifth grade. One wonders if this ties into whatever his LA dream is, and his mother responds to the lack of his reaction, "You don't care."

"I care."

William contemplates his situation. Apparently he doesn't show up at work one day, and when they try to call him, he drops his cell phone in his fish tank.

He's made the decision to leave Los Angeles.

He packs everything he can in his little Chevy Nova, and before he leaves his apartment complex, his neighbor Susan catches him. She hands him an envelope. Inside is a joint. "For the road."

We learn more about William as he drives east, talking to himself, presumably addressing an audience in his mind:

"The thing you don't realize when you're writing something like that is the impact it is going to have for so many people...In the midst of writing it you're so caught up and wrapped up in simply getting it done, getting anyone to read it at all, that the reaction of a wide audience is beyond your realm of consideration."

Holy shit. Is William an aspiring screenwriter?

Zack Whedon knows readers should be smart. He doesn't need to spell everything out for us, instead giving us just enough information to make our own conclusions. I like that.

But yeah, based upon other snippets of conversation in the script, and because Los Angeles is the center of what was once William's plan, I have to deduce that he's an aspiring screenwriter.

At twenty-four, he's throwing in the towel pretty early.

It's not something we dwell on, but this giving up so easily, it's something that's gonna have to change for William. And that's where the town of Dry Lake comes in.

Is Dry Lake the desert town William gets stranded in?

Yep. William's Chevy Nova breaks down, but luckily, an old tow-truck operator named Jeffrey helps him out. Jeffrey is my favorite character. He's a retired mechanic, and seems to spend most of his days sitting out in his backyard, trying to remember life when he was younger.

Every now and then he mentions his wife, how she went east to watch the colors change with the seasons, how strange she was. How happy he was with her.

Jeffrey owns a shop, but he tells William, "I'm 79 years old, son. I don't fix shit anymore...I can do all the thinking and you can do all the working."

So William, who knows nothing about how to fix vehicles, is going to have to diagnose and repair the Nova himself.

Since this is going to take some time, he takes up residence at a nautical-themed motel and restaurant called The Mariner.

So who's the cast of characters at The Mariner?

Well, there's William's foil, Avery. A congenial guy in his late thirties who runs the reception desk of the motel. His parents, or more specifically, his mother, Joan, have spent the entirety of their lives in Dry Lake, running The Mariner.

Avery seems insecure that he's from Dry Lake, and although he's lived in places like Phoenix, he seems uncomfortable that he's back in Dry Lake, helping his mom run her business. He seems to have bigger plans, and they don't involve Dry Lake.

Then there's Tamara, a beautiful traveler heading west to LA with her rich boyfriend, Evan. Her and William automatically hit it off while she's drinking her iced tea at the bar, and William not only dislikes her boyfriend for existing, this stance is solidified when he sees Evan wearing socks with sandals.

I like the idea of Tamara.

I like the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You know, that ephemeral Holly Golightly female that exists as salve for the emotional wounds of the broody male lead.

Unfortunately, Tamara's character ended up disappointing me. And this is where I lost interest with the script.

What sort of problems was Tamara having with her boyfriend, Evan?

I'm not sure exactly. I guess they're complicated. She loves Evan, who is from LA. She is not. But she is moving there, and this scares her. She doesn't seem gung-ho about ingratiating herself with all of Evan's wealthy LA friends.

But she really seems to like William. In fact, she spends most of her time in Dry Lake talking to William. And these conversations are the salt and light that William seems to crave, that he seems to need.

She represents hope and possibility, but it sucks for him because she's with Evan. He doesn't understand why she's with Evan. Hell, I don't either. I just didn't get why she was spending so much time with William.

So what happens?

William has to put some effort into learning how to fix his Nova. I suppose, for me, this was the best part of the script.

Jeffrey does teach William a valuable lesson about life, "You got to learn how to do something to know how to do it. The only things you're going to do without learning how first is waking up and breathing, after that it's up to you."

And to me, this is what the script is about.

From fixing cars, to learning musical instruments, to writing, you can't expect you're going to automatically know how to do it. You've gotta learn. You've gotta work at it. Not only is that a fine attitude with which to approach the craft of screenwriting, but it's the attitude that we should adopt while approaching life and our dreams in general.

See, I get that. I like that. That's what I took away from this read.

But William wants Tamara.

He yearns for her so much, in fact, he may sabotage Evan's Jeep Cherokee so that they're stuck in Dry Lake longer, buying him more time to try and convince Tamara to go east with him.

I guess it's supposed to be complicated, but if anything, it frustrated me. Although, I did like the final note of hope at the end of the script concerning their relationship.

So what was the problem?

For the first act or so, William intrigued me. And it also helped that Tamara seemed like a mystery (at first, anyways). I immediately wanted to know what sort of territory these characters were heading into, especially since Tamara had a boyfriend, yet spent a lot of her free time at Dry Lake with William.

But, because, to me, Tamara wasn't that interesting (other than that she pretends to really like ghost towns), I ended up clocking out of the script around the mid-point.

To me, "Back East" felt more like a short story I could find in a literary journal like Zoetrope or Glimmer Train. As prose fiction, the story could work because the writer could do much of the heavy lifting through use of language. But as cinema? I think "Back East" needs more dramatic meat. Perhaps one of the issues is that Whedon is going for notes that are delicate and subtle, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When it works, I marvel at the craft (the drive belt in William's bag was a nice touch), but when it doesn't, it feels too understated, almost skeletal.

I saw what the writer was attempting to do, but because I wanted more (more personality, more depth in the relationships) from the characters of William and Tamara, I wasn't moved like I should have been. I think there are notes that could hit the right emotions on celluloid as a tone poem, but as is, the whole doesn't feel greater than the sum of its parts.

Script link:

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

What I learned: I wasn't exactly compelled by the characters in this script, and because this is a tale where not exactly a whole lot happens, my attention kept wavering. The weird thing about these coming-of-age Indie Dramas is that if the characters don't keep me glued to the page, I start to miss something like plot. Sometimes plot can do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to pace and narrative drive. Plot can keep you turning the pages even if you aren't ultimately moved by the story. In that way, plot can be like a band-aid for the existence of less-than-stellar characters. But when you have something like a character study or an Indie Drama, you can't use band-aids. The characters have to have be three dimensional, unique, and possess flaws and shortcomings that creates conflict amongst the characters and an anticipation to find out what happens next. In that sense, character is the engine that drives the story. But in my mind, even if you have awesome plotting, the story should still be character-driven. It should still be moving. At least that's the high watermark I think we all should aim for.

To get in touch with Roger, you can e-mail him at:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with Jim Mercurio

So today I wanted to do a little interview with Jim Mercurio, one of the many friendships I’ve been able to formulate through the Scriptshadow blog, and let you know about his contest, The Champion Screenwriting Competition, currently running, which has a $10,000 Grand Prize. I first became aware of Jim through a contest I held over at the Done Deal site. He wrote this unique script about a seriously dysfunctional relationship that was sort of like a Woody Allen film if it were on speed. It was called, not surprisingly, Dysfunction Junction. Wanting to know more about the warped mind behind this story, I got in touch with him, where I found out he’s been at this game for a while, having worked as a development executive for Allison Anders, directing the first six years of the Screenwriting Expo’s screenwriting contest, and written a column for Creative Screenwriting magazine. In between making a low budget film every other year, he now manages to put out his own free monthly ezine Craft & Career. I used the excuse of promoting his contest to get myself some free screenwriting advice!

SS: First of all, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and your contest? What inspired you to start it?

JM: The name of my contest, Champion, says a lot about what I’m trying to help these writers achieve. I want to encourage writers and help them grow, and when they’re ready, give them access to the industry. Almost ten years ago, Erik Bauer, then-owner of Creative Screenwriting and founder of the Screenwriting Expo, asked me to design and run the Expo competition because he thought I had the risk-taking gene. All of us writers are risk-takers. Choosing this career and writing on spec is a huge gamble. I hope the excitement of vying for $10,000 motivates these writers to do their best work, and it feels great to be able to reward them. I also invite the top writers to a weeklong party called the Champion Lab. We’ve got to feel rewarded as writers, on some level, or it’s tough to stay motivated.

SS: In general, are contests worth the risk?

JM: If your writing is competition quality, then contests can be a smart and reasonable investment. There are other benefits aside from the Grand Prize -- the excitement of waiting for results; making friends and connections on message boards like Done Deal and Movie Bytes, and having a deadline, which helps you to crank out those pages. However, if you enter a dozen contests where your script is the sort that the contest purports to reward and you don’t advance in any of them, consider spending the next $600-$1000 educating yourself and honing your work with classes, coverage, consultants, etc.

SS: You’ve read a ton of scripts, I’m pretty sure way more than I have. What is the big difference you see between amateur scripts and pro scripts? What really sticks out in your mind?

JM: If you don’t want this to turn into a 20-part interview, give me some leeway to give a smart-ass answer or at least a creative one.

SS: Go for it.

JM: I am going to make up a word. Most aspiring writers’ scripts don’t have a high enough “story density.” Story density is the amount of good storytelling you can cram into 110 pages. For beginning writers, there is often too much dead space between the good shit in their script. For some, it might be cumbersome language or style. For others, it might mean the antagonist’s plan in their action script doesn’t have enough twists. In a non goal-oriented script, it might mean a sequence goes slightly astray and wastes our time. Check out the first page of The Beaver. The Beaver’s first page has high story density. I know, that sounds bad.

SS: Okay, let's get more into craft later. What do you personally look for in a screenplay?

JM: I think some contests and university writing programs overvalue the “heaviness” of a subject. Let’s say we take To Kill a Mockingbird and The Nutty Professor. When the writer aims for the To Kill a Mockingbird masterpiece but only accomplishes 55% of his goal, you can’t argue that it is a better screenplay than a well-crafted broad or high-concept comedy that accomplishes 95% of what it set out to achieve. Screenplays can’t be compared or quantified like that. Their aim is not to be literature. The best screenplays are blueprints for stories meant to be told on film that will meet their audience’s expectations. The closer writers get to accomplishing their goal with a script, the more of a chance they’ll have to satisfy their audience.
I look at scripts for what they are trying to be. I want them to aim to surpass what the other writers in the genre have already consistently achieved. And then I look at how well the craft and execution achieves that goal.

SS: If you were a new writer, sitting down to start your next script, how would you approach it to give yourself the best chance of selling the screenplay?

JM: It depends on how new the writer is.

SS: What do you mean?

JM: If you are a beginning writer, write WHATEVER script you want to write and then finish it. Use it to develop your craft, learn your strengths and weaknesses, and grow as a writer.

SS: Yeah but come on. You remember what it was like writing those first few screenplays. The last thing you wanted to hear was that your script was basically worthless, that all it was good for was “to get better.”

JM: True, but that’s what screenwriters have to learn. This industry isn’t a cakewalk. It takes several scripts, sometimes up to a dozen, for most writers to reach a tipping point with their craft. And that’s okay. Don’t think of it as “it doesn’t matter,” think of it as practicing free throws at 11pm when everyone else has gone home for the night. This is your preparation for the big leagues. So write whatever material you’re passionate enough to FINISH, and when the moment comes, pick a genre you know or love so you can transcend it. You have to be willing to do the research or brainstorming to make sure you can nail a genre. For instance, if you aren’t up to the challenge of finding a hundred clever and integrated ways to exploit, say, the first-person camera technique, then don’t write Rec or its American remake Quarantine, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield.

SS: Okay, so this leads to one of my favorite questions: “Should I write a more character driven piece, something I can put my heart into? Or should I write something more high concept, despite my heart not being in it?” The argument is that the character-driven piece will have more depth, but Hollywood is scared off by the fact that it’s not marketable. The high-concept script is more marketable, but is often labeled as “not having enough heart.” Which route should I take?

JM: I think the answer is both.

You are going to write several scripts on your way to learning the craft, so I suggest writing each kind of script at some point.

SS: Well cause I know Dysfunction Junction is a passion project of yours, and that comes through in the writing. But it’s still a hard sell, right?

JM: Unfortunately, it’s true. The problem is, even if something’s good, that might not even be enough. When I entered the industry in the 90s, I fell in love with movies like Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. Maybe they gave me hope…or false hope… that personal cinema could be done in and around Hollywood.

If you have a character-piece, decide one of two things.

1) It’s a sample: Spend six months on it. Get it done. Move on to the next script.
2) You are going to make it: You can’t really control if it gets made, but you can make it actor bait, easy to shoot, and maybe even have rabble-rousing material (In the Company of Men, The Woodsman). Be or find a “producer.”

At some point, you should write a high-concept script, but be warned -- writing a well-integrated, high concept piece is labor intensive. Look at the first draft of your high concept story and circle the conflicts that are unique to the script’s specific set up. And then circle the ones that are generic (like the drugged out sequence in Land of the Lost, wtf?). If you are not at an 8:1 or 9: 1 ratio between the cool/specific-to-the-concept stuff and the could-be-in-any-movie stuff, then you are not going to compete with Leslie Dixon and Freaky Friday or Charlie Kaufmann and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You have to hit most of the character beats of the character piece but you have to cleverly wrap it ALL around the concept.
One of the goals of in my workshops is to illustrate the subtlety of craft and how understanding the exploitation of concept and the inner workings f character and theme are both essential to writing scripts that have a chance in the marketplace. I actually wrote an article about it here.

Why can’t movies be both character pieces and high concept? If writers do have a tendency or skill toward one or the other, then the real skill is to make sure that they can complement the high concept or genre script with character, or the character piece with some hook.

Are Chinatown, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather smart character pieces or high concept fare? I went old school on purpose. But what about Memento, Wall Street, or The Sixth Sense? If Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have great characters and really honest things to say about memory, shared experiences, and love, it comes off as a confusing gimmick.

SS: As long as I have you here, I’m going to be selfish and get your thoughts on a couple of things I’m always trying to improve on. What are the keys to writing good dialogue and strong characters?

JM: Your readers can check out your Facebook from earlier this week for a link to a longer piece I did on dialogue in Craft & Career. But basically, with dialogue, your creative freedom comes from the clarity of the beats, not the words themselves. Go and watch the famous “I could’a been a contender” scene from On the Waterfront. There is all this heavy stuff about the depth of his brother’s denial and betrayal, about life-changing epiphanies and how relationships will be forever changed and possible lives lost. Brando is overwhelmed with the surprise and revelations. And his response is simply… maybe the first modern hip usage of the word: “Wow.” It only takes those three letters to capture his shock, disbelief and sense of loss.

As far as character goes, I don’t think that there is much debate about the theory. A story challenges the character’s deep-seated beliefs and hidden wounds until the character comes to a crisis and a chance to change. I think what it comes down to is craft. Can the writer find the action and situation that can make these inner machinations external? Can they succinctly show us the character’s essence?

Let’s say you want to show that your character is smart. You have a scene where he uses three or four explicitly spelled out and logical steps to make a deduction. That’s not going to work for a Jack Ryan or Gregory House character. Cut out most of the baby steps and let your character make one big leap of logic, intuition or faith. In every Harrison Ford thriller, there will be a scene where a subtle visual cue will be all the character needs to jump into action. In Air Force One, he sees milk dripping from a bullet-riddled cart -- CUT TO: he dumps gas from the fuel tank. Okay, he’s smart. But the challenge is at the scene level -- can the writer reveal it succinctly with elegance or cleverness?

SS: What is the biggest mistake you see writers make?

JM: Hmm, having read half a million pages of screenplays, I am not sure I can pick just one. Here are a few.

Not writing. If you’re a beginning screenwriter, write a few scripts. They may suck. So what? Keep writing.

Beware of the faux masterpiece. What is that? That’s when you try to tackle something huge like a critical piece of history – the Holocaust, slavery, World War II – or try to set an expensive politically-charged love story against that sort of backdrop. You might be a deep thinker and have an unparalleled understanding of the subject, but as a beginning writer, your craft is not going to be able to do the story justice.

You don’t write The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Atonement as your third or fourth script. When a writer aims for that sort of script – one that only works if it’s a masterpiece – then whether they achieve 50% or 75% of their goal, it’s sort of irrelevant. They haven’t crossed the tipping point where the script has any viability.

SS: Great point about the faux masterpiece. I see a lot of those. But does that mean writers shouldn’t try? Aren’t you the guy who is supposed to be championing people? Ore you are contradicting yourself…you said writers should write whatever they want when starting out.

JM: Fair enough. If you are writing your attempted masterpiece to learn about screenwriting, go for it. And get it over with ASAP. The skill you need to pull off the masterpieces come from finishing several non-masterpieces.

So, let me contradict myself again. One of the biggest mistakes is to not have high enough expectations. Writers shouldn’t just nail a genre. They should innovate and transcend it, too. For example, The Hangover is an okay mystery but the genre-crossing makes it a great comedy. When you come up with a hook like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you will spend several hours banging your head against the wall to find your way through it. If your script isn’t driving you nuts, then you didn’t challenge yourself enough.

And when you are finally in control of your craft… PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ALERT, CARSON! … If you want to be calculating and commercial-minded, aim for modestly budgeted high concept fare with a good hook.

SS: Choir preached to indeed. I know each contest is different, but is there a specific type of script that does better in a contest?

JM: It’s the writer’s responsibility to research who’s running and judging a contest. Look at the winners from previous years. If the contest is giving away 10K or 20k to period biopics, stuffy dramas and literary-sounding faux masterpieces, then don’t enter your “Die Hard in a skyscraper” script, right? Be aware of their tastes and limitations.

Because the stakes in the production world to find good in a screenplay or to find a good screenplay at all are higher than in the contest world, I suggest making your contest script a little bit more the “theoretical good script” that the screenwriting education niche prescribes. You know -- being a good read, having no typos, having a brisk pace, setting up the reader’s expectations very quickly regarding tone and genre and being less than 120 pages.

SS: What types of scripts do better in your contest?

JM: I have an inner film snob that appreciates film as an art form. My last script’s influences are Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, the plays of Patrick Marber and Neil Labute and a few French films like Romance and Dreamlife of Angels. And I have made three low concept features as a director or producer. On the flip side, I am also first in line at the Thursday midnight screenings for The Lord of the Rings and Iron Man and have given development help to some of the most commercial-minded people in Hollywood.

I pride myself on being able to appreciate good screenwriting “across the board.” Last year, Champion feature winners were a high concept comedy, a coming-of-age drama, and quirky buddy picture. One of the shorts winners was a masterpiece (non-faux) and the other a smart comedy.

We have a prize (and a micro-writing deal or option) for best low budget horror and our short categories include prizes for serious scripts, comedies and best script under three pages.

SS: I think contests are a great way for new writers to test their mettle. If your script is good, it will do well, which gives you confidence, pushes you further along in the industry, and buffers your bank account in the process. But I always believe in a multi-faceted attack. So while these writers are waiting for their names to be announced as winners, what else should they be doing to break into this industry?

JM: Writers need to know what stage they’re at in their writing career and act accordingly. The basic stages:

1) Learning – They need to knock out a couple scripts, get some feedback, read scripts, watch movies, take in every opportunity to improve.

2) Mastering the Craft – Here, writers start choosing scripts with some practicality in mind and are writing a couple of scripts per year. They enter contests and share their work with peers or professionals who are willing to give feedback. Don’t blow a potential contact by submitting a script before it’s ready. When you have confirmation via peers, contests and professionals, then you are ready for the final stage.

3) Marketing – Spend some time studying queries and loglines. Consider pitch services and get your material to producers and managers, or people who can help you get your script read. Contests might be a part of your strategy but use your wins or advancements as ammunition in cold calls and query emails. Spend some time with the “salesperson” hat on and get your script out there.

SS: Can you tell me anything else about your contest? Entry fees? Deadline? Where you sign up? Any tips you have to improve the readers’ chances?

JM: With WithoutABox discounts our entry fees are still less than $45 and shorts are $20. I think our prices are the lowest of any of the contests with a Grand Prize of $10,000. For an additional $40, entrants can enter our Coverage Category (and get a free copy of my DVD Killer Endings) and receive a page and a half of notes. Coverage will never be the Holy Grail of insight into improving your script, but I designed the category to help writers advance to the next round where their script garners additional attention. It’s meant to take some of the luck out of the process.

May 15 is the Regular Deadline and the last chance to use the Coverage Service.

Enter at

Even if you aren’t entering the contest, please sign up for my free newsletter there.
If you have any questions about the contest or anything else, please feel free to drop me a line:

SS: Last question. I understand you just got back from Paris for work, right? How the hell did you get out of the country? Did you take a tramp steamer back here?

JM: Yeah and I met a hobo on the tramper who was working on a script. We made a barter deal. In exchange for a semi-stale baguette, I told him his second act was way too long.

SS: And that’s it. Thank you Jim for taking the time to let Scriptshadow pick your brain.

JM: It’s all good. Thank you.

SS: I hope you find the next Aaron Sorkin in your contest. (And I hope he's reading this sentence right now!)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Matt Bird Reviews Books!

So, I'd like to introduce you all to Matt Bird, a screenwriter and book lover who will be occasionally contributing to the site. I've toyed with the idea of creating a Sunday "Book Review" segment for awhile and while Matt's schedule won't permit him to commit a review every Sunday, he will pop in from time to time, and give us advance word on some newer properties, or chime in on an un-optioned property that's just dying to be made into a movie. If the segment works out, I may bring in another reviewer or two to fill in the gaps, so the Sunday review can be a weekly thing. But for Matt's introductory post, he's going to be filling you in on six books you should be adding to your Ipad book queue. Enjoy and don't forget to say hi to Matt.

Hello Scriptshadow readers: You don’t know about me, less you have read a blog called Cockeyed Caravan, but that ain’t no matter. I’m a big Scriptshadow fan and a working screenwriter. When Carson ran pieces by Roger and Michael, recommending books that they’d like to see turned into movies, I knew I'd found my calling, and got in touch with him right away. Carson asked if I could focus more on books that are upcoming and not yet sold. I thought that was great idea, so here goes--

My wife reviews books for a bunch of places, including her blog on School Library Journal, so I had plenty of youth-oriented Advanced Reader Copies at hand. I decided to start off spotlighting some Young Adult books that might have cross-over potential for those elusive four-quadrant movies. You’ve seen how the “Twilight” movies have intensified Hollywood’s youth obsession… well, imagine how much bigger that youth-quake has been on publishing side, where the books are an even bigger phenomenon. As a result, there are a lot of talented writers sticking a toe into this material. The hottest properties sell the movie rights long in advance, but a lot of good stuff has slipped through that net and is now approaching publication without a sale. According to IMDB Pro, there are no movies in development based on these promising properties:

The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford, comes out next month. In his piece, Roger recommended a recent alternate history adult novel with an almost identical name. This one is The Boneshaker. (The author blogs about her panic when she found out about her doppelganger here). That book used the term to describe a drill, but the term was originally a nickname for early bicycles, and that’s what it means here.

Natalie is a 13-year old girl in 1913 Arcane, Missouri whose father tinkers with bicycles and automatons, but nothing as intricate as the terrifiying perpetual motion machines built by Dr. Limberleg, who has brought his sinister medicine show to the edge of town. Limberleg is accompanied by four inhuman assistants who each specialize in a different nostrum: nightmarish versions of phrenology, animal magnetism, hyrdrotherapy, and amber therapy that show off the author’s flair for creepy visuals. Con-men used the phrase “burn the town” back then, but Dr. Limberleg means it in more ways than one. What he doesn’t suspect, however, that he’s stepped into the middle of a battle that has already been brewing in Arcane for years, between Satan himself and a Robert-Johnson-esque guitar player.

I picked this one because it reminded me of some other properties that have attracted attention: Like Scorsese’s next big adaptation, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, it includes some steampunk elements introduced into a real-world setting. Like “Holes”, one of the most successful adaptations of a kids book in the last ten years, it ties together many American myths into one neat little package, using real-life tragedies to spice up the mythology and add weight to the story (such as the “jake leg” scandal)

In fiction, steampunk has been an idea that has proven very popular with authors (if only somewhat popular with readers) but it’s barely crossed over into film. I think that that’s because most steampunk books (like the other Boneshaker) have been alternate histories, and movie audiences just don’t have the time or the patience to figure those out (see also: the Golden Compass movie) Give material like to this to a director like Guillermo Del Toro and I think the visual appeal of clockwork creatures and steam-powered junk science could finally make for a great movie.

Fat Vampire by Adam Rex comes out in July. Rex is a very funny writer and this book is one of many hoping to be recognized as “the anti-Twilight”. It’s got a neat central metaphor: Doug was a fat 16-year-old loser when he was bitten, and now he realizes that he’s never going to lose any more weight or become any cooler—a nice reversal of the usual “strong and beautiful forever” conception of teen vampires.

Rex’s great talent is for hilarious dialogue and fully-rounded characters (no pun intended) We cut back and forth between the worlds of Doug, his dry-witted Indian exchange student crush Sejal, and the reality TV host of “Vampire Hunters”, who is on the hunt for his first real vampire (Everyone they’ve caught on the show so far has turned to be merely non-superhuman Eurotrash). Doug, inspired by a viewing a “Lost Boys” type teen-movie, thinks that he can cure himself by killing the head vampire, a dubious quest that brings together all the players for the final confrontation. Unfortunately, the metaphor doesn’t pay off as well as it could in the end, but a good screenwriter could use this material to craft a more linear and cinematic narrative than the book provides.

By far the best book I found was actually a British book that came out over a year ago, but it’s remained merely a cult hit so far, so it still fits the “new and undiscovered” category. The sequel is about to be published here and I suspect that it’ll give this series the break it needs. The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd is a far more realistic version of “The Day After Tomorrow” crossed with “Scott Pilgrim”. It follows a snarky16-year old trying to launch her punk band as she suffers through London’s first year of carbon rationing, brought on by the increasingly extreme weather that is destroying many cities. This has a very cinematic escalating structure and a real epic scope, nicely telescoped in this one girl’s dawning awareness of the problem. It all culminates in a harrowing flood that snaps all the elements together, including a surprisingly effective low-key romance.

I hear that the sequel, “The Carbon Diaries 2017”, which I want to get my hands on, will show the punk band getting more revolutionary, putting them in opposition to the reactionary anti-rationing forces that are turning to violence across the country. Any producer who feared that Laura was too much of an observer of the problem in the first book could synthesize the two and get enough active-protagonist material for a thrilling movie.

I think the main thing holding back the first book from crossing over so far is how British it is. For one thing, it’s about a 16-year old going through her first year of college, which just seem totally wrong to Americans. Would a movie need to be Americanized to give it a broader audience? I don’t see why not, but the trend now is definitely towards super-faithful adaptations, and I think it could work in the original setting too, though you’d probably want a smaller budget, just to be safe. This could work as a smaller film, too, because it’s a disaster story driven more by strong characters than spectacle.

Don’t you want to see Carey Mulligan in punk get-up, smashing the windows of high-polluting cars? I know I do.

So that’s the state of upcoming teen books. Of course any production company that chases after hot ARCs quickly learns that it’s a tough way to make money—the most cinematic books have the most bidders, and many producers who pre-buy a book based on hype find themselves stuck with a dud after it comes out and fizzles. It always surprises me that prodcos don’t spend more time tracking down forgotten literary properties. As Roger and Michael did before me, I’ll spotlight a few of my favorites. Of course, as you can probably guess, I’ve been unable to interest my own managers in adaptations of these books, but I still think that they’d make great movies:

Michael covered “High Rise”, but here’s the J. G. Ballard book that I’ve always thought would make for a great cheap indie thriller: Concrete Island. It’s such a beautifully simple premise and a great metaphor for modern malaise: “Robinson Crusoe on a traffic island.” It’s that simple.

Robert Maitland is an asshole architect is driving back and forth between his mistress and his wife, both of whom have gotten used to his absences, when his car flips over a highway divider, stranding him on a large traffic island in the middle of a massive suburban highway interchange. He thinks that he’ll get up the steep embankments surrounding the several-acre ditch easily, but he’s injured and nobody zipping along the highway can see him down there. Days pass and each plan for getting out fizzles. Then, just like his literary predecessor, he finds another set of footprints. Eventually, Maitland comes to see that the highway makers bulldozed over an older neighborhood and the basements of various businesses are still there under the surface. He identifies his own his own nightmare-version of “Friday”, a brain-damaged homeless man, but he also finds a young woman living there who doesn’t want anyone to ever leave the “island”.

Obviously, the first half would be plagued by the same problem that any survival-drama has: the lack of anyone to talk to. This would probably have to be solved through narration, but there are other solutions too, such as the personified volleyball in “Cast Away”. Or you could just compress that half of the novel and get to the interpersonal conflict sooner. The movie needs to get made simply because it’s the ultimate high-concept: everyone who hears the one-line pitch gets an instant smile from picturing this situation and the metaphor it implies. Someone can take that seed and grow a great movie out of it.

“Concrete Island” shouldn’t cost that much to option, but you can get off even cheaper if you can find something in the public domain that’s ready for adaptation. Of course, since it takes almost a hundred years these days for copyright to expire, those savings usually disappear because properties that old demand super-expensive 19th-century-set adaptations, right? Well don’t tell Spielberg, who made some nice money on “War of the Worlds”. So what else could get the same treatment?

I’ve always been shocked that they’ve never made a movie of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”. It’s over a hundred years old, but its premise could not be more edgy: in a terrified city rocked by anarchist bombings, a young cop is assigned by his secretive boss to infiltrate a terrorist cell, whose members are named after the seven days of the week. He follows a nightmarish path into the catacombs of the city to find the leaders. He eventually becomes the new Thursday, but as he confronts his fellow terrorist one by one, he finds that each one is also an undercover cop, or at least thinks they are.

The book’s resolution is probably too surreal for an updated movie adaptation, but, just as they’ve done with all those Phillip K. Dick adaptations, a screenwriter could convert this concept into a more traditional, but still head-trippy thriller— something like “The Adjustment Bureau”.

Another upcoming adaptation that has passed through Scorsese’s hands is “High and Low”, which has the cachet of being based on Kurosawa film, but guess what? Kurasawa’s film was based on an American crime paperback that nobody over here had spotted the value of. This still goes on, with the French selling “Tell No One” back to us after we couldn’t get the movie made ourselves. The novel that “High and Low” was based on was “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain, one of 56 books he produced about the detectives of the 87thprecinct, a series that only recently ended with McBain’s death in 2005. Instead of watching different A-list directors fight over who gets to direct the remake of the one art film that was already made from this material, why not pick one of the other lean, mean novels in this series and find the value in it, just like Kurasawa did?

In the final ten years of the series, McBain introduced a new detective that quickly became a fan favorite: Fat Ollie Weeks was a crude racist slob who drove the more conscientious detectives crazy simply by being too good to fire. In two of the best books from this period, “Money, Money, Money” and “Fat Ollie’s Book”, McBain started the painfully awkward process of turning Ollie into a better person. After uncovering a CIA front-company run amok in the first book, Ollie decides to fictionalize that story into his own debut crime novel, in which he’s replaced himself with a sexy-young female supercop. After his terrible manuscript is stolen from his car, Ollie realizes that the only way he can get it back is to find the criminals who are now trying to recreate the impossible crimes he’s described. Meanwhile, he’s shocked to find himself falling in love with a young Latina street cop who sees past his surface vulgarity. McBain is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time great dialogue-writers. With the introduction of Fat Ollie, he was able to invest his neat little police procedural plots with a bigger emotion payoff.

These books could become two movies or one. The best American adaptation of an 87thPrecinct book was the good-but-not-great Burt Reynolds movies “Fuzz”. That movie made the smart move of drawing on multiple books in the series. After all, if Orson Welles could pull together all of Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes into one movie for “Chimes at Midnight”, there’s no reason that a few novels couldn’t be stitched together to make the ultimate Fat Ollie movie.