Tuesday, June 28, 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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