Friday, March 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - Soundtrack (Amateur Friday)

A couple of weeks ago, you guys got to choose from ten loglines to determine which script should be reviewed for Amateur Friday. Today's script finished in second place!

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: When a burgeoning composer hits his head, he begins to hear his life’s soundtrack; a soundtrack that is prompting and pushing him back to his ex-fiance. But will he follow the guidance of the music?
About: Last week I held a mini-competition for 10 amateur Friday submissions and let you guys pick your favorite loglines. Soundtrack finished second, but when the first 10 pages of the Top 3 vote-getters were posted, Soundtrack received the best response of the bunch. Don’t worry, I’m not shafting the winner, Breathwork. I’ll be reviewing that next Friday (and I must say, it should be an interesting discussion – e-mail me if you want it). In the meantime, keep sending in those Amateur Friday entries (follow the submission process above!). With this new “Choose From 10” format I’m instituting, more of you have a chance to get your scripts seen by the world!
Writer: Nathan Shane Miller
Details: 104 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).

Andy Samberg for Ian?

I want to say a couple of things before I start reviewing today’s script. First, my latest obsession is figuring out what makes a script "impressive” as opposed to “worth the read.” What is that special ingredient that lifts it up into that rare air?

A big part of it, I realized, was connection. You, as the reader, have to connect with the story and the characters on a personal level. If you don’t, no matter how well that story is executed, there's going to be a divide between screenplay and reader. So the question is, how do you do that?

What I realized gave you the best chance was creating characters with depth, who are sympathetic, who are empathetic, who are relatable, and who are identifiable. If there’s something in ourselves that we see in the character, we will want to follow that character, and by association that character’s story.

But achieving that is tricky to do. You have to build a history into your character. You have to put them in situations that are relatable to others, yet still have those situations feel original and fresh. How in the world do you make something relatable yet different? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. But the point of this long winded rant is that you need to be focusing on the story of your characters as opposed to the story of your story. Because your characters are what we’re going to connect with the most.

So how does Soundtrack make out in all of this? Grab your fiddle, strum a tune, and find out.

30 year old sorta-successful composer Ian is having a tough go of it. He's got the biggest potential job of his life coming up, and he still hasn't figured out the theme song for the main female character in the movie!

A big part of that is that he still hasn't gotten over his ex-fiance, which is strange, because he doesn’t seem to like her all that much and he already has a new girlfriend, Tracy, who, while a little materialistic, is super supportive of his career. In fact, she’s the one who got him the meeting with the big producer who’s going to change his life.

But a few days before the meeting, Ian slips and bumps his head on the kitchen floor, and when he wakes up, well, I think you know what happens next. He starts hearing the soundtrack of his life!

No doubt, this is the best part of the screenplay. Nathan has taken the Blake Snyder “fun and games” adage and really gone to town with it. For example, when the not so nice Tracy approaches, Ian hears the “Imperial March,” Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars.

When someone he doesn’t like approaches his door, he hears the Jaws theme. When he's late for work, he hears an adrenaline fueled action theme. But easily my favorite moment was when he goes to see the doctor, who happens to be Asian, and inadvertently hears really racist stereotypical Asian music – not easy to explain when the doctor, in order to help him, wants to know *exactly* what he’s hearing at this moment.

But while this may be funny for us, it's not funny for Ian, who must now pitch his idea to a producer with the soundtrack of his life pumping through his eardrums. Naturally, the pitch ends in disaster (he should have read Mike Le’s pitching interview!) but the producer decides to give him one more chance. Come up with the female lead’s theme by the end of the week and he’s hired.

However, no matter how much Ian brainstorms, he can’t figure it out. Eventually, he realizes that the only person capable of giving him the feeling he needs to complete the theme is his ex-fiance, Kaitlyn. Since Ian backed out of the wedding, though, Kaitlyn isn’t exactly rearranging her schedule to help him. In the end, Ian will need to reconcile the mistakes he made with Kaitlyn to save his career.

The reason I didn’t pick up Soundtrack earlier was simple. I’ve seen these kinds of premises before, and they almost always play out the same way. Great opening. But as soon as the charm of the concept wears out, the story collapses. In other words, after that “fun and games” section, the writer sort of realizes, “Oh shit. I have to actually write a movie now.” And while Miller lasts longer than others, Soundtrack definitely suffers from the same issue. I mean, I don’t even think there were any music cues for the last 45 pages. It was almost like the story lost confidence in itself.

But what about the characters?? Isn’t that how we started this review?

Well, let’s start with the main relationship. I thought it was pretty sloppily handled. For the majority of the script, I had no idea what the specifics of Ian and Kaitlyn’s relationship were. I didn't know if they’d gone out for 10 weeks or 10 years. I didn't know who broke up with whom. Heck, I didn’t even know they’d been engaged until halfway through the script. The whole relationship was so vague that I spent more time trying to figure it out than I did simply enjoying their scenes.

This lack of clarity extended to Ian’s motivation in the relationship as well. For the life of me, I couldn't understand what he wanted out of the relationship. Did he want Kaitlyn back? Did he not want her back? Did he like her? Did he not like her? I never once got a read on his feelings, and a big part of that was how unclear their backstory was.

This vagueness was a problem in other parts of the screenplay as well. For example, I had no idea that his current girlfriend was a bad person until the musical cue of the Imperial March started playing. I was baffled. “Why is the Imperial March playing while his kick-ass girlfriend is around (who got him a great opportunity with this big producer!)?” It just didn’t make sense. Eventually I realized the girlfriend was materialistic and bad for him, but I certainly didn’t know that early on.

The moment where I officially checked out of the story though was when Ian went to Kaitlyn's parents’ house. I had no idea why they were at the house. One second they were talking at Kaitlyn’s and the next she was like, you need to apologize to my parents! Then we spend 20-some pages at their house out of nowhere. I just didn’t know where the story was going anymore. I still wasn’t even sure if Ian liked Kaitlyn so there were absolutely no stakes to getting her parents to accept his apology.

Overall, Soundtrack was an odd duck. It started out strong. The soundtrack gimmick was great. I thought Nathan's writing was good. He moved things along at a brisk pace. Then it hit the midpoint and started to lose steam, and by the end, I didn't really know what we were focusing on anymore. But Miller shouldn’t be too down about this. I see good writers get stuck in this genre all the time. Maybe picking a concept with a little more meat next time will help.

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

What I learned: Like I said, this happens a lot with these high-concept ideas. The script starts out strong because the hook is fun. But when it’s time for the script to depend on the story and not the hook, it isn’t prepared to do so and falls apart. To avoid this, make sure the basics are in place. Your character goal should be strong. Your character goal should be clear (I’m still not sure what he was trying to do with Kaitlyn so it definitely wasn't clear in this case). And make sure the central relationship is compelling enough to last an entire movie. Again, the main relationship was so muddled/undefined that when it was time for the script to rest on it, it wasn’t prepared to do so. Get those basics in place and your script has a much better chance at working.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Movie Review - The Hunger Games

While the world argues over whether Jennifer Lawrence was too beefy for the role of the supposedly starved Katniss, I try and rise above the sensationalistic tabloids and wonder aloud why this movie wasn't titled "Tree Girl."

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.
About: The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Suzanne Collins. The movie came out this past weekend and grossed $152 million dollars domestically, giving it one of the best openings of all time. It's a confirmation of the way Hollywood seems to be doing business these days with their tentpoles – via book adaptations. After Harry Potter there was Twilight. After Twilight, now, there’s The Hunger Games. Whether this new trend starts to phase out the old trend of superhero movies, we’ll have to see, but it looks like it's going to be here for awhile until the next unexpected trend hits. Let's hope that trend is original screenplays from spec screenwriters!
Writer: Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross and Billy Ray (based on the novel by Suzanne Collins)

For a poor mining town, they sure do make stylish jackets!

Hunger Games is sweeping the nation. Which means I have no choice but to blog about it. But the truth is, I've been interested in this movie for a while, even if it’s geared towards a younger audience (it’s based on a young adult novel). Why? Because I've been saying for years they need update Lord Of The Flies. Kids being forced to fight each other for survival always felt like gold to me, so to see Hunger Games find that perfect mix of ingredients for the update was a welcome surprise.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the film, “Games” is about a post-Apocalyptic future where the land has been divided into districts. Every year, each district has to send two members under 18 (or is it 16?) to the main city where they fight to the death against the other 22 district members in a “Battle Royale” contest in the wilderness. Taking its cue from movies like “The Running Man,” the entire world watches the event on TV.

Our heroine, Katniss, is part of the poor mining town of District 12. When her younger sister - sure to be slaughtered if she’s chosen to participate – “wins” the lottery as District 12’s female representative, Katniss volunteers herself instead. She's accompanied by Peeta, a young man obviously upset that he was named after a bread, and who has had a secret crush on Katniss forever.

The two head into the city where they are paraded around in sort of an America Idol way, then train for two weeks before the big competition. They are mentored by a number of people who critique everything from their fighting skills to their style. Some of the participants take pride in the fact that they represent their districts, while others are terrified, especially the younger kids, who have no shot at winning. As the training goes on, Katniss becomes one of the unexpected favorites to win the competition, while her partner, Peeta Bread, looks like an early exit.

Once they're finally thrust into the game, we see just how brutal and violent the contest is. 12 of the participants are slaughtered immediately. Katniss is able to get away, however, where she quickly learns of an alliance that the stronger members have put together, specifically to take her out. Most surprising about this alliance is that her district buddy, Peeta, is helping them. Katniss will have to call upon her survival skills – specifically her kick ass bow and arrow expertise – if she’s to have any shot at winning The Hunger Games.

I started assessing the screenwriting in The Hunger Games almost immediately. One thing I've noticed in the past is that when you have a main character who's stuffy or off-putting or reserved or prickly, you're putting yourself in a huge hole, because chances are, we're not going to want to follow that character around for 140 minutes (yes, this was one long movie!). I've seen so many screenplays sink like The Titanic (to reference another hit film) due to this issue.

But the Hunger Games started combatting the problem immediately. One of the very first scenes was Katniss cradling her younger sister after she’d had a nightmare, singing her back to sleep. When you see somebody love somebody – be protective of somebody - this much, it’s really hard not to like them. On top of that, when her sister gets chosen to be the representative, it’s Katniss who jumps up and volunteers herself instead. This is another device that makes it impossible to dislike a character. Your hero is sacrificing her own life for someone else’s? How can you not like that person?

The trifecta comes when, during the game, Collins gives Katniss another character to love, one of the younger girls in the competition who has no shot. The two have a nice little rapport going and it's clear that Katniss will do anything to protect her, just like her sister. This protective quality of Katniss overshadows her bitchy/unlikable side, a huge key in getting us to root for her.

Moving forward, I noticed the first big mistake in the script. This whole movie revolves around the emerging relationship between Katniss and Peeta. So why is it we spend the opening of the movie with Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy? Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy obviously have some chemistry, but after their initial scene, we see Good Looking Pointless Guy for a total of 5 seconds for the rest of movie. Which begs the question – why not use this opening to establish the relationship between Katniss and Peeta instead??? Wouldn’t that have been a much better way to utilize the screenplay space?

And to show you how one mistake can lead to others, because they didn't set up Katniss and Peeta in the opener, they’re forced to explain their relationship through a series of clunky flashbacks instead (showing Peeta come out of his bakery and toss bread to pigs with Katniss looking on – I think hungrily – nearby). Not only is it impossible to understand what any of these flashbacks mean, but they’re just plain clunky.

Hey look!  It's Pointless Good Looking Guy!

In fact, the flashbacks here should serve as a deterrent to any writers who want to use flashbacks in their scripts. Had they just set up Kaniss and Peeta instead of Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy, the movie would’ve moved along a lot smoother. (And I know somebody is going to say, “But Good Looking Pointless Guy’s really important for the next two movies!” I don't care. I'm watching *this* movie. All I care about is *this* movie making sense.)

My next problem with the film was the most unique screenwriting problem I've ever dealt with. I refer to it as the, “protagonist hides in trees too much” problem. Katniss seems to literally spend tens of minutes during the movie up in trees. Not only does her Tarzaness obsession get weird, but I don't like any scenario in an action movie where your main character is allowed a big fat “time out.” This is a battle royale!!! It shouldn't be as easy as hopping onto the nearest Sycamore whenever you need some R&R.

The third big problem, which was almost baffling to me, was that Katniss never had to get out of any tough situations herself. She's saved every single time by somebody else. It’s like the movie’s one long string of mini-deus-ex-machinas. Katniss will be at death’s door with a girl holding a knife to her throat when, voila, someone else will kill the girl at the last second. Even when she’s up in her favorite place, a tree, she needs to be saved by someone else.

I don’t get why writers keep doing this. Don’t they know that the audience would rather see our hero solve her own problem? Isn't it so much more satisfying when they escape via their own doing? My theory is that writers take this lazy route simply because it’s easier. Why spend four or five days sweating out a memorable escape scene, like Hannibal slipping away in an ambulance pretending to be a massacred guard, when you can write another character saving them instead (i.e. one of the guards drops a key near the cage)? It’s my opinion that this is what separates the truly great writers from the rest – the ones who are willing to do that extra work.

But maybe I'm being a little harsh. Suzanne Collins did just write a screenplay that made more money in its opening weekend than every other film in history except for two. But if I can’t analyze a screenplay to death then what’s the point of this site? :)

And in the end, I did like this movie. I thought Collins did a tremendous job with the characters (Effie Trinket was great!). There was some clumsy stuff near the middle with the love story, but I definitely loved Katniss and wanted her to succeed. And if you really want the main character to achieve her goal, then the writer’s done her job. Combined with the cool subject matter, I was totally on board with The Hunger Games.

[ ] guaranteed death
[ ] Lousy odds
[x] odds are looking decent
[ ] odds are in your favor
[ ] guaranteed winner

What I learned: The big thing I learned here - or at least was reminded of - was how protectiveness over another individual can make an unlikable character extremely likable. This is a huge advantage when you think about it because lots of stories require you to start with a protagonist who has negative traits. So if you don't have tools in place to offset those negative traits and make your character likable, chances are we're going to dislike them and, by association, your story.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Hitman's Bodyguard

The quality of screenplays this week is high. But the important question is, "Can The Hitman's Bodyguard bring us back to Manville?"

Genre: Action-Thriller
Premise: (from Black List) - The world’s best bodyguard must protect his arch nemesis, the world’s top assassin…so he can testify against a brutal dictator and save his wife.
About: Looks like the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition is becoming the place to get your script noticed. I remember a couple of years back it found the told-backwards tale, Shimmer Lake, one of my favorite scripts of that year. Today’s script, the newest Austin winner, was nabbed by Skydance Productions, the same company that did Mission Impossible: 4. Tom O’Connor, the writer, also wrote Fire with Fire, starring Josh Duhamel and Bruce Willis, which just wrapped. I heard they’re ordering reshoots though and adding more fire. The Hitman’s Bodyguard also finished on last year’s Black List, garnering 7 votes.
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Details: 118 pages – 2/7/11 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 definitely see Brad Pitt as Sean!

After Monday's screenplay sucked 43 percent of the testosterone out of my body, leaving me scouring Itunes for downloads of Ally McBeal, I knew I was gonna need a script to bring me back into balance. I'm not going to lie. It's been fun these last few days. I have a new appreciation for clothes shopping. Dishing gossip with friends is also a pastime I have severely undervalued. But at a certain point, you have to get back to reality. And for me, that meant Manville.

So take my hand fellow xy chromosoners. Follow me back to the other side. The grass may not be greener, but the credit card bills sure are lower.

Michael Bryce is what they call an executive protection agent. Which is a fancy way of saying he's a bodyguard who wears nice suits. Michael is a little anal, a little uptight. But that's because his job requires it. If you need to be protected from some of the most well-funded criminal organizations in the world, he's the guy you want to hire

On the other end of the spectrum is Irish bloke Sean Kiernan. Sean is one of, if not the, best assassin in the world. But right now, he's jailed in Europe. He's turned himself in in an attempt to save his wife, who's been jailed on bogus charges specifically so they could lure in Sean.

They tell Sean that if he testifies against his former boss, an Eastern European crime lord and one of the top terrorists in the world, that his wife will be set free. But in order for that to happen, they need to transfer Sean across the city to the courtroom, a task that’ll be near impossible with crime boss Alexander Demidov commandeering every thug in a 100 mile radius to make sure Sean is dead before he gets there. He’s already taken care of everyone else who can testify against him. Sean is the last name on the list.

True to his reputation, Sean’s van is attacked almost immediately. But while his entire police escort is massacred, Sean is able to get free and get guns. And when Sean has guns, it doesn't matter how many men you have. You lose. He's able to kill every last one of the thugs, but does get injured in the process. The lone Interpol agent who survives, a woman named Camelia, takes Sean to her apartment to dress the wound, and in the meantime, calls an old friend.

Michael Bryce.

When Sean and Michael see each other, the guns are up and the safeties are off. These two have been in just about every battle you can imagine between two people. They've nearly killed each other a dozen times. Now though, Camelia proposes her idea. They hire Michael to escort Sean to the courtroom. Of course both men balk at this idea, especially Sean, who’s never needed help in his life. But eventually he comes around, only because his wife’s freedom is his priority.

The rest of the movie is pretty much what you'd expect. The two go on the run together, encountering resistance from both Interpol and Demidov every step of the way. Yet they battle each other just as much as they battle everyone else. These alpha dogs can barely go five steps without insulting one another or bringing up some past event that they got the better of the other in. But they’ll have to keep their hatred in check if they’re going to make it to the finish line, because Demidov is dead set on a dead Sean.

If you're going to pair up two people who know each other, one of the most important things to do is give them some real history together. The more history you can create between the characters, the more conflict and drama you can mine for their present relationship.

I read this screenwriting article awhile back about how you should never bother with backstory. Audiences don’t care. All they care about is what’s happening right now. And to a large extent, that’s true. I read a lot of scripts where writers have their characters droning on about all these past events in their lives. And while it certainly adds more depth to the characters, it halts the CURRENT action of the story. So there’s a huge trade-off to including that depth.

I’ve found, however, that when the backstory has a DIRECT RESULT on the current story, it’s much more welcomed. So here, this relationship works so much better knowing how many dust-ups the two have had with each other. For example, the two keep arguing about this one job where Sean insists he killed one of Michael’s clients and Michael insists he did not. So not only do we get the backstory that adds depth to their relationship, but it fuels the conflict in their current dynamic, a key ingredient to the script being entertaining.

And the script was clever too. Whenever you write a movie about an expert in something, you have to give us scenes that convince us of that expertise. In other words, you can’t get away with someone saying, “That Michael, I heard he’s the best bodyguard in the world!” That isn’t good enough! WE need to SEE IT. You need to SHOW US.

So Hitman starts with Michael escorting a client into a car garage and asking him where his car is. His client points to a car across the way and Michael busts out his infrared vision and notices that there's a big red blob underneath the car. “Let’s take my car,” he says. “Why?” “Because they put a bomb on yours.” Once they get into Michael's car, Michael tells his client to put his head down. “Why?” “They put a bomb on my car, too.” And then BOOOOM! The car they’re in BLOWS UP. But when the dust settles, they're fine. The car is intact. Casually Michael proclaims, “Custom model.” He’d rigged the underside of his car to be bombproof. It was clever moments like this that really made the script stand out.

There are definitely some things you can pick apart though. Sean did take down 20 thugs without much of an effort when his van was attacked. So to think that he’d need a bodyguard, even with his injury…ehhh, is a bit of a stretch.

Then you have the villain, yet another Eastern European thug. These poor Third World Eastern European countries keep getting saddled with the villain roles. It’s getting cliché. Then there’s this iffy middle section of the screenplay where Sean all of a sudden decides he doesn't have enough evidence and they need to go to another city to get more. Why Demidov’s chief hitman needs more evidence is beyond me. And it turns out they don’t get the extra evidence anyway, confirming the pointlessness of the excursion.

So the script did have some blemishes but hardly enough to place an order for Proactiv. In the end, you don’t get scripts of this quality in this genre very often. So I’ll gladly take this one!

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

What I learned: That car-bomb scene really taught me something. An easy way to make your character badass at his job is to have something done to him that would’ve tricked any other normal person, yet your character is ready for it. As soon as we see him outsmart the baddies on that car bomb, we know he’s a badass at his profession. And we love him as a result of it. And it isn’t hard to create this effect. Just have the bad guys do something really bad, and have our hero already prepared for it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - Norm The Movie

Have we just found the next Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind? Be prepared for a screenplay experience that’ll warp your mind 16 ways to Sunday.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: After an unplanned night of drinking, a man wakes up to realize he’s stuck in a movie.
About: This script finished on the 2009 Black List. The writer, Sam Esmail, had a previously well received script on the 2008 Black List called, Sequels, Remakes, and Adaptations,” which I reviewed here.
Writer: Sam Esmail.
Details: 111 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).

 Ben Stiller for Norm?

I was really excited to read this. Sam Esmail is one of those writers who’s never going to give you what you expect. And in a profession where you can practically guarantee the expected, that’s an unexpected surprise.

The thing with these Charlie Kaufman’esque writers, though, is that sometimes their writing can be TOO unique. Sometimes they can take TOO many chances, and in the process lose their story.

Look no further than Charlie Kaufman's own latest screenplay, Frank or Francis. There's no doubt that there was some great stuff there, but it pushed against the grain so severely that eventually it just lost itself. So I was interested in what Sam would do with this idea.

The movie starts off with Norm Goldworm, a decidedly average 30 something with no friends and no life to speak of. Adding salt to the wound, he's deeply in love with a woman named Sally, who has no idea of his true feelings. So he’s decided that tonight, on his birthday, he’s going to invite her out and tell her the truth.

So he goes to the bar but it turns out Sally stands him up. As a result, he gets wasted and starts chatting up a strange woman who refuses to acknowledge his existence. This results in him drinking more, and he ends up getting SO drunk that he passes out right there at the bar.

When he wakes up, he immediately notices something is off. There's an orchestra-like tune playing in the background and instead of walking from room to room, he just starts appearing in them, like entire seconds have been skipped.

This jumping gets more severe as he goes to work. All of a sudden he'll be – BAM – inside a crowd of walking New Yorkers then – BAM – inside his office at work. It's almost like all of the boring parts of his routine are being cut out. And Norm is freaking out about it!

In addition to this, everybody he bumps into is either acting overly-dramatic or really clever. Nobody is acting normal. So he seeks out the one person who’s kind of his friend, the embarrassingly overweight Reynold, who spends most of his days in his pigsty of an apartment watching 90s teen flicks like Bring It On and Can't Hardly Wait. After some extensive discussion with Reynold, it becomes clear to both of them what’s happened. Norm is stuck in a PG-13 movie.

While Norm thinks this is a disaster, Reynold thinks it's great. Norm spends his entire life miserable, but now he only has to live the good parts. Instead of being the boring him, he can be the interesting him, the MOVIE him. And since a movie has to end in two hours, he only has to hang around for another 90 minutes before it’s over and he can go back to his normal life.

So Norm decides to do what he was originally going to do anyway, go tell Sally he loves her. But when he finds her, he also finds out she's getting married to some guy named Tom, who of course he's never heard of before this moment. So Norm professes his love for her, causing her to realize that she loves him to, and the two make love like they've been waiting for it their entire lives (but of course, because it's a movie, Norm misses the sex, only jumping to afterwards!).

When Norm finally decides to reveal to Sally that the both of them are living in a movie, she freaks out, tells him to leave, and recommits to marrying Tom THIS WEEKEND! But that's when the real bomb is dropped. Norm and Reynold realize that when the movie is over, they don't go back to their normal lives, they DIE! Which means they only have an hour left to figure out how to get out of this.

This script was bold.

I mean it took some real chances and just about every one of them paid off. First of all, the script was extremely clever. I kind of feel sorry for this Friday's amateur effort, Soundtrack, because it tackles some of the same subject matter, and doesn’t explore it nearly as extensively and inventively as Norm The Movie does.

I loved how when Norm was first getting used to the jump-cutting, he would jolt as if being transported into a different world. I loved how when he's finally going to have sex with the girl of his dreams, he skips to after the sex is over – missing it! I loved Norm discovering a note on his door from Sally and then Sally's voice reading it, and then him jumping and looking around frantically for Sally, but not finding her, then looking at the note again, and hearing Sally read it again, then jumping up and looking for Sally again, only to eventually realize that it’s a voice over of her voice reading the note. I love how the goal of our hero is to NOT end up at the wedding and TO NOT end up with Sally, so that the movie doesn’t end and he can keep on living. What a perfect way to exploit this premise.

I loved the idea of him discovering a beautiful extra, someone whose only job it was to sit around an office all day typing, then pulling her into his adventure. I loved watching this one-dimensional character being forced to become three-dimensional. I mean if you're a screenwriter and you don't love all these little nods to screenwriting, I don't see how you can like screenwriting. It’s borderline brilliant at times.

One of my newer beliefs is that if you want to make a comedy stand the test of time, you need to add *some* darkness. And this script definitely has darkness. They realize that at the end of the movie they’re going to die. There's a running commentary about the parallels between real life and movies where people only have certain purposes and how most of them aren't allowed to move outside of those designated purposes, leading to an unfulfilled life. That part of the script really rang true and it’s a testament to Esmail not being afraid to explore the suckier aspects of this situation, much like Groundhog Day did.

The only issue this script runs into is that it's similar to two very popular movies, The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction. It even, at one point, references The Truman Show, which I thought was a weird choice because you never want to bring up the movie you’re borrowing so heavily from. For that reason, people may be scared to make it. But here's the thing. This is a better script than either of those scripts. And I know that The Truman Show is considered to be one of the greatest scripts of all time and that a lot was changed when Jim Carrey came on, but I just feel like the imagination and the cleverness here exceed what was done in either of those movies. The question is whether the powers that be care or not. Are they willing to make a movie this similar?

Still, if you liked Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, or Stranger Than Fiction, you’re guaranteed to like this screenplay. It's as good an example as I’ve ever seen of mining a high concept premise. It’s just really well done.

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

What I learned: “Can I come up with something better than this?” - From every scene you write to every line of dialogue you write to every character you write, you need to ask yourself the question “Can I come up with something better than this?” And if your no-bullshit 100 percent real answer is, “No, I can’t. This is the best I can do.” Then great. Keep it. But if the answer is yes, then rewrite it. Because I'll tell you, from my end, I don't have time for somebody's “just good enough.” That's all I read all day is “Just good enough.” Scenes, characters, ideas, dialogue. They’re all just OKAY. It’s as if the writer wants to be commended for simply coming up with a movie that makes sense from start to finish. The scripts that always stand out are the ones where a writer has clearly gone beyond the call of duty and kept pushing themselves until they came up with the absolute best they could in every single element of their screenplay. I think this is a screenplay that demonstrates that. And I'm hoping that all of you will treat your screenplays the same.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - Rule #1

Reese Witherspoon and I invite you to a weekend spa retreat to read her newest project, Rule #1.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When a woman’s husband leaves her because of her severe OCD, she writes down a list of all her tics and tries to conquer them one at a time.
About: I'm not sure if Reese Witherspoon jumped on this project recently or she's been developing it for a while, but I know she's planning to star in the film. The writer, Terrel Seltzer (One Fine Day) adapted the screenplay from the book, “Little Beauties.”
Writer: Terrel Seltzer (based on the novel "little beauties" by Kim Addonizio
Details: 114 pages - August 22, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I opened this. All I remember was at the time, I was cooking a pound of steak, watching SportsCenter, practicing my “bro hug,” and cracking open the floors to fix my own plumbing.

I realized that I would have to abandon all of these activities immediately. Out with the steak, in with the ice cream. Off with SportsCenter, on with Real Housewives of Orange County. Out with bro-hugs, in with bubble baths. Adios plumbing. Hello red wine. I had to transform myself into my estrogen equivalent if Rule #1 had any chance of making it to Rule #2 (Carson finishes the screenplay).

So did I make it? In some ways, yes. In others, not really. I learned about a multi-tasking breast pump device which I’m sure I’ll never recover from. Let’s be honest, this is the kind of movie you pray your wife never hears about. The kind of thing you will lie incessantly about if they manage to catch the preview. “Oh yeah, I heard they accidentally killed ten puppies during the making of this movie.” Come on. You’ve all done it. But here’s the thing. Maybe, just maybe, this script is pretty good? Maybe you don’t lose your man card by reading it? Can it be? Is it possible?

Diana, our hero, is just really fucked up. When we meet her, she’s working at a baby store. Our first thought is: “Awwww, she must be so happy!” I mean, what woman doesn’t like looking at cute babies all day? Diana, that’s who. She HATES IT.

It’s not personal or anything. Diana just detests being around anything… filthy. And babies are as filthy as it gets. In fact, after her dress rubs against some stroller marks on the store rug, she’s so disgusted that she pretends to go to Starbucks to get coffee for her boss in order to go home and take a quick shower. Diana actually takes a lot of showers. It’s her sanctuary. The only time she feels at peace.

Anyway, Diana eventually runs into this wreck of a younger girl named Jamie, who’s like a pregnant tattooed version of Audrey Hepburn without the…good parts. When Jamie has her baby, it’s like the coolest experience of her life. Problem is, Jamie doesn’t have a plan in place for the baby. She SAYS her boyfriend (who’s on tour with Cirque De Solei) is coming home soon, but we get the feeling that the old bf’s left her high and dry.

When Diana then learns that Jamie’s been kicked out of her apartment and is living in a motel…WITH HER NEW BABY, that’s the end of the line for her. She can’t handle that thought. So she invites the thrilled Jamie to live with her until her boyfriend “comes home.” She certainly has the space since her husband moved out.

Oh yeah, Diana’s OCD was so bad that her husband left her. Marriages tend to go that way when your wife takes 10 showers a day. Diana (ironically just like Jamie) is under the delusion that her husband is coming back as well. If she can just conquer this OCD, he’ll love her again. So she’s written a list of 40 OCD ticks she must conquer (i.e. “allow someone else in your car.” “don’t clean your towels after every use”) and is crossing them off one at a time.

Well, the list goes through a speed round when Jamie moves in and the baby starts spitting up and bopping around all over the place. Diana must adapt or die. So she chooses to adapt. But will it be enough to win her husband back? And speaking of missing men, is Jamie’s man coming back? Check out the book or the script to find out. If you dare!

I'm surprised I'm gonna say this but this script was pretty good! The thing that really set it apart was the writing. As I've mentioned before, my issue with most comedy scripts is that they feel like they were scribbled together over a weekend. No thought has been put into the characters or the story. It’s just a bunch of comedy scenes.

One of the easiest ways to tell if a comedy script (or any script for that matter) has depth, is if the characters feel like they’ve been around before the story started. I could easily imagine the moments that destroyed Diana’s marriage. I imagined the events that led to Diana working at the baby store. I imagined Jamie’s life before this baby came around. It was all alluded to in a non-intrusive way so as to make these characters feel like they’d lived a full life, not just the life of a screenplay!

Once you add a fatal flaw to the mix (Diana’s flaw is about as big as it gets), you have a character who’s bigger than a stack of pages. That’s what people mean when they say “make your characters three-dimensional.” You have the character WE see. You have the character’s past. And then you have the character’s flaw.

And let's not discount another Scriptshadow truism - You should have a protagonist that a name actor would want to play. And Diana is about as actor-bait as it gets. I'm not even an actor or a woman and I want to play this role! It's certainly more interesting than the kind of role female actresses usually get offered, which is the wife of a big actor. So it doesn't surprise me at all that one of the A-list female actresses scrapped this up.

The big fault in the screenplay is the male love interest. You know, it's funny, because we talk about scripts written by men where the female love interest is underwritten all the time. So it's kind of surprising to see the opposite going on here. I don't even remember this guy’s name. I just remember him showing up when nothing else was happening in the story - almost like they decided, “Well, he has to be *somewhere* so let’s throw him in this sequence where Diana’s bored and not doing anything.” Then again, this is a draft from 2010 so maybe they've since given him more of a presence.

But yeah, this was a good script. It has good characters (on the female side of things), real depth, and it wasn't like anything I'd read before. That’s what really stood out about it for me. It wasn’t a romantic comedy. It wasn’t a comedy. And yet it had laughs and it had romance. It was unique. I don't know if any guys will be able to pull through it without a trip to the liquor store. But if you have some time, pick it up. You might be surprised. And may the odds always be in your favor!

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

What I learned: There are two types of stakes. There's the big picture stakes (if they don’t destroy the Death Star, millions of people will die) and there's personal stakes (if Lester Burnham – American Beauty - doesn’t make a change in his life, he’ll be miserable forever). Character driven stories tend to only have personal stakes. So you have to make sure those stakes are as high as they can possibly be. And that basically comes down to you doing whatever you can to remind the audience how important the protagonist’s goal is. Throughout this script, Diana is constantly pointing out how much she wants her husband back. She's constantly pointing out that as long as she gets rid of all her tics, her husband is coming for her. The psychiatrist scenes are specifically designed to allow Diana to talk about how much she wants her husband back. Because of this, the personal stakes are EXTREMELY HIGH. A lesser writer might have had a single scene where Diana mentions to one of her friends that she misses her husband then expect *that* to be enough to set up the stakes. It isn’t. You have to convey the importance of the goal in order for the personal stakes to be high.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Screenplay Review - Movers (Amateur Friday)

A long time Scriptshadow reader makes sure we never look at moving companies the same way again...

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A moving company specializes in moving humans.
About: Nick is one of the very first Scriptshadow fans. He’s been here since the beginning. I knew at some point I was going to read one of his scripts. Well, that time has finally come! Nick also went out and had a poster made for his script (which is becoming more and more popular!) utilizing our resident graphic design master, Brian Kelsey.
Writer: Nick Oleksiw
Details: 100 pages

I think this is a GREAT idea for a movie. A kidnapping operation masquerading as a moving company? Human cages in the backs of trucks? I don’t need much more than that. I’m in! BUT, we’re still talking about an amateur writer here. As much as I love Nick, I was worried. Would the script live up to the promise of its premise? Would there be enough here for a feature film?

Hmm, the first page had me concerned. Yes, the very first page! Our main character is introduced…without an age! A page later her sister is introduced…without an age. Now I know some of you think giving characters ages is pointless, and I admit that there are instances where it doesn’t matter. But for the most part, we should know how old your characters are! For example, here, Jessie and Kelly are heading off to college. But is this their freshman year or is this their junior year? That’s a HUGE distinction. If they’re leaving home for the first time in their lives, that’s a different movie than if they’ve done this a few times before. So it was strange that neither of their ages were listed.

Anyway, a little hiccup, but not a dealbreaker. My mind was still open. As we already covered, Jessie and and Kelly are sisters (twins actually) prepping for a roadtrip to their Arizona college. Jessie is the organized one. She’s got the schedule, the plan, and most importantly, her shit together. Kelly is the opposite. You wonder just how this mess of a girl made it into college in the first place. While Jessie is using college to start her life, Kelly’s using it to see how many boyfriends she can tally up.

So off they go, having the kind of arguments you’d expect two sisters on totally opposite ends of the spectrum to have. And when they hit their first pit stop, a motel in the middle of nowhere, Kelly decides to go have some fun at a local biker bar (always a good idea for a lone college girl). Jessie disapproves but she’s out of her jurisdiction on this one. Kelly does what Kelly wants. It isn’t much of a surprise then (to us at least) that Jessie wakes up the next morning minus one sister.

Freaking out, she charges over to the biker bar but details on her sister are scarce. Going to the cops isn’t much help either. Your sister didn’t show up last night. So what? She probably ended up with some dude. But Jessie’s twin powers unite instincts tell her something more is going on here.

Eventually this leads her to the heavy-side-burned Carter, a mover who may or may not have been seen with Kelly last night. Jessie confronts him, demanding to look in his truck, and since a few locals are curious about the uproar, he has no choice but to oblige. But guess what? When he opens it up, it’s just a bunch of moving junk. Total fail.

But Jessie doesn’t give up easily. There’s something suspicious about this moving company, “Mom’s Merry Movers,” so she starts following another one of their trucks. In the meantime, we meet Mary Wells, the rather sinister looking president of this moving operation. When she gets wind that a girl is snooping around her business, she’s not happy, and does a little “moving” herself, as in moving to find this bitch and take her out.

Jessie finally corners another one of these movers, and this is where we learn Jessie isn’t your average Calculus major. Girl’s got some moves on her and is able to take the mover down. She’s then able to get some info about the elusive moving company. And it terrifies her. They don’t move things. They move people. And yes, they moved her sister. The question is where? And how much time does she have left before her sister’s been moved…permanently?

I’m kind of torn on Movers. A part of me loves the idea and the potential for a movie. The other part thinks there’s not enough meat here. At least not yet. You know me. I’m always babbling about how everything I read is too thin. And Movers unfortunately keeps a lot of its story surface-level.

For example, the sister relationship is way too basic. They’re sisters…who don’t see eye to eye. That’s about as generic a treatment as you can give a relationship. And you can’t make the excuse that this is just a fun little movie so it doesn’t matter.  Because it DOES matter.  The entire movie is predicated on one sister trying to save the other. So if we barely know anything about their relationship, why should would care if Jessie saves Kelly or not?

Let’s look at a couple of other key film relationships. In Die Hard, John McClane and his wife weren’t having a run of the mill fight. It was way more complicated than that. She’d taken a work opportunity in another state that he assumed she’d fail at and come back home. But that didn’t happen. She thrived. And now their marriage is on the rocks because he doesn’t want to move and she doesn’t want to move. So it’s a very specific conflict. It’s not just “basic marriage problems.”

Or look at Taken. People say that’s one of the thinnest thrillers out there. But the conflict in the main relationship is actually quite detailed. This is a man who’s put his work above his family his whole life. His family basically gave up on him. Now he’s trying to make amends, moving close to his ex-wife and daughter so he can spend more time with her. When she wants to go on this trip, his instincts tell him it’s a bad idea. But his need to be loved – to make up for not being there before - forces him to give in and let her go, which of course results in the worst situation imaginable. It’s not just “daddy and daughter don’t get along” or “daddy and daughter are happy.” I wanted to see something like that here in Movers. And because I didn’t – because their relationship didn’t feel complicated or authentic - I didn’t really care if Jessie saved her sister or not.

There were definitely some things I liked though. I really liked Mary, the head boss. She was sort of an untraditional villain. And I really liked the scope of the operation. I thought it was neat that there were tiers and that the lowest tier didn’t even know what they were delivering and the successive tiers only had the specific information they needed to do their job. Nobody but the top people understood exactly what was going on.

Having said that, I was a little disappointed in the reveal. (Spoilers) When we find out that this is essentially another organ harvesting operation, my heart kinda sank. I’ve read a lot of “organ harvesting” scripts before, as well as read a couple of books on the subject matter, so to read yet another one was a letdown. I was hoping for something grander and more imaginative, and would actually encourage Nick to rethink his ending as a result. It kinda sucks that the logical choices for these kinds of operations (sex slavery and organ harvesting) have been done to death and are therefore unavailable. But that’s what writing is all about! It’s about going that extra mile, no matter how difficult or headache-inducing it is, and finding that NEW THING that no one’s ever thought of before!

I sat here for a long time wondering what I was going to rate this. I was about to give it a “worth the read” but then I wondered, “Am I just giving this a ‘worth the read’ because it’s better than most of the amateur offerings? Or am I giving it a ‘worth the read’ because it legitimately stacks up with the pro competition?” I felt I was being too generous. Movers has potential – no doubt. And Nick is a writer who can hold his own. But those two big problems I mentioned above need to be shored up before this gets a solid endorsement.

Will be interesting to see if you guys agree!

Script link: Movers

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

What I learned: Guys, your relationships are your movie. Don’t just drop some generic conflict in there and think you can get away with it. Think about all of the things that have happened in your relationships up until this point that have created the unique dynamic that they have. Your relationships need that specificity to truly feel genuine.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Interview - Talking about Pitching with Mike Le!

I met Mike Le about four years ago either on Done Deal or the Craig’s List personals section. I can’t remember which. He actually watched me come up with the idea for Scriptshadow. We eventually met when he was the vice president over at HQ Pictures. I soon learned that Mike likes to keep his fingers in a lot of pies. As a screenwriter, he wrote TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH (based on the novel by Isaac Adamson) for Fox Searchlight. The project is now at Sony with Tobey Maguire attached to star and produce. He’s currently writing feature projects at Appian Way and Millar Gough Ink. He has a TV pilot with Tapestry Films, wrote the bestselling comic book MAYHEM for Image Comics, was co-executive producer on the reality show FIRST IN for BET and is currently producing K-TOWN. He’s the former assistant to Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson and was the Vice President of the aforementioned HQ Pictures, the production company of Tyrese Gibson.

That’s what led to the idea for today’s interview. Pitching is such a huge part of this business and yet there isn’t a whole lot of information on it out there. Since Mike used to listen to pitches daily as part of his job, I thought, BOOM, he’d be the perfect guy to discuss pitching with. Let’s get into it.

SS: Hey Mike, thanks for doing the interview. 

ML: No worries, Carson. You know I’ve been a fan and supporter of your blog since day one. I remember that day you walked into my office at HQ Pictures and my first thought was, “For a guy with such an ominous moniker like Scriptshadow, he sure is normal looking.”

SS: I think the word you’re looking for is “dashing.” And yes, I had an unfortunate last second wardrobe malfunction that forced me to wear my “normal person’s” clothes that day. It will never happen again. Anyway, because of your producing and screenwriting experience, I thought, “Who better to talk pitching with than Mike Le?”

ML: I’m so ready. Go for it...

SS: All right. To start off, how many pitches have you heard? 

ML: Hundreds. Too many. From writers that ran the spectrum, from established A-listers to unknown amateurs.

SS: And how did those writers get to pitch you? How does anyone get to pitch you?

ML: When I was the VP at HQ Pictures, we had a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited material, much like most of Hollywood. That means we only accepted material and pitches by writers who were repped or came through a personal referral. But I’m a writer myself, and I used to face those same barriers, so I understand how frustrating that is to those trying to break in. It’s very disheartening to slave on a script for months, even years, and then you can’t even find someone who’s willing to read the thing. So I implemented a thing at HQ, a thing called “Free Cheese Day.”

SS: Sounds delicious. Did they get two free toppings with that or did those cost extra? 

ML: Not that kind of cheese, Carson. It was something I borrowed conceptually from THE WEST WING. In that show, President Bartlett allowed one day of the year to grant access to interest groups that don’t usually get the attention of the White House, basically opening their doors to the people. Sorkin based this off of a real thing, when Andrew Jackson left a two ton block of cheese in the White House foyer for anyone to eat. So on Free Cheese Day at my company, I basically lifted our no unsolicited material policy, and me and my assistant and team of 6 script readers opened and read query letters that had been piling up. If we found something we liked, we would call the writer and ask them to talk about the script, basically pitch it over the phone.

SS: Okay now you have me curious. Did you find anything from those? 

ML: Sadly no. There were a couple of strong concepts that hooked me but the executions were poor. I wasn’t as lucky as you to find an undiscovered gem like THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM. Which by the way is not only a great script, but Tyler is a really nice and solid dude. I would kill to find and break a talent like him. Congats on that!

SS: Thanks and yeah, I hope to have some new news on Tyler soon. Here’s my question though - what about getting pitches at other companies? How would one go about that? 

ML: You can’t just walk into a studio and start pitching. You have to be invited to pitch. And to get invited, they (Hollywood) needs to become a fan of your writing first. Take Tyler for example. He’s got a lot of heat right now because everyone in town read his script. They’ve become fans because of THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM, and based off the strength of it, Tyler will get countless invites to pitch.

SS: Hmmm, you can’t just walk into studios and start pitching huh? That explains a LOT. Okay so lets move to the pitches themselves. What do good pitches have in common? What do bad pitches have in common? 

ML: The good ones I can tell what the movie is within the first minute of the pitch. I can clearly understand who the characters are, the conflicts, the goals, etc. If a writer can make me clearly see the movie, that means the writer can clearly see the movie, which indicates the writer has thoroughly worked out the story. The bad ones are just the opposite, they’re rambling, confusing, no sense of story but just a series of situations strung together. They fall apart after a few questions. The good ones get stronger after a few questions.

SS: So you’re constantly questioning people during these pitches? Which means you gotta be able to think on the fly. I assume this is where the newbies fall apart? 

ML: I don’t know if the ability to think on the fly is indicative of a newbie writer versus an experienced writer. Some people just have a natural talent for it, and some people just clam up when questioned. If you have a natural ability to insightfully maneuver through creative questions without sounding like an idiot, than you’re ahead of the game. Execs and producers want to work with writers who love talking about story, who welcome challenging questions, who can defend their vision. Perhaps newbies suffer more from this simply because of a lack of experience. But without every meeting, every pitch, being good in the room gets easier.

SS: These days, it seems like every agent wants a writer who's "good in a room," someone who can not only write, but pitch. Why is “being good in a room” so important in Hollywood? 

ML: Because Hollywood is in the business of ideas, and pitching is a dynamic way of sharing and conveying ideas. If you’re great at pitching, that’s a pretty good indication you’re great at engaging people. It’s important to be able to pitch because it’s not just about your script but pitching yourself as a person. Hollywood wants to know if they can work with you or you’re some weirdo that should have never gotten past the studio gates. It’s okay to be a weirdo or eccentric in Hollywood, many just can’t be creepy or come off as a waste of time.

SS: “Don’t be a weirdo.” I’m learning a lot here that I wish I would've known earlier. So pitching is also about people skills? 

ML: Very much so. And that’s why a lot of writers, even professionals, are scared to death of pitching. Look, I’m going to generalize here but I’m confident in saying most writers and other creative types are probably introverts. I sure as hell was one. Problem is we live in a society that has a bias towards extroverts and Hollywood is a culture that magnifies that. Movie stars seem like mega-extroverts right because they’re so fearless and colorful on the screen. But when you meet them in person or see them in interviews, they can be awkward and unsure of themselves without a script. That’s because actors are comfortable performing as characters, but are uncomfortable performing as themselves. It’s the same thing with screenwriters, they’re comfortable telling stories through their characters on the page, but uncomfortable performing the story as themselves in a pitch meeting. The journey of the screenwriter is one conundrum after another. Writing requires solitude, solitude breeds introverts, but filmmaking is a collaborative art that requires good people skills and the ability to adapt in high-pressure social situations. You can’t be a successful screenwriter and work in a vacuum, you eventually have to get out and try to win people over. It’s not like novelists who have the luxury of being anti-social. Novelists write their books, mail off their manuscripts and hope someone publishes it and sends back a check without ever having to leave their comfort zone.

SS: You said a lot of professional screenwriters are scared to death of pitching. Can you expand on that? 

ML: It’s popular to quote Malcolm Gladwell these days, especially his theory of “10,000 hours.” In his book OUTLIERS, he says you can only become good at something after doing it over and over again for at least 10,000 hours. It’s more complicated than that because the rest of the book factors in upbringing, access to resources, etc. But for the purpose of our discussion, let’s keep focused on the 10,000 hours theory. Say a screenwriter has put in at least 10,000 hours at writing, and he goes on to sell his first spec script. Boom, his life changes, big trade announcement, everybody in town in wants to meet with him. Next thing he knows, his reps want him pitching ideas and studios want him coming in to give takes on assignments. Here’s the problem, the screenwriter has invested 10,000 plus hours at writing to become a professional screenwriter but has zero experience pitching. So now it’s baptism by fire as he’s forced head first into pitching. The writer has to transform from introvert to extrovert overnight.

SS: Whoa, you’re making this sound terrifying. How the hell do you get 10,000 hours of pitching experience to prepare you for those moments if you’ve never done it before?? 

ML: Here’s the good news: screenwriters love movies, which means they love talking about movies. Every time you’re discussing films with someone, whether it’s with a circle of friends, around the dining table with family, or around the water cooler at work, you have to treat it like a pitch. Boiled down to its essence, a pitch is much like that moment when you come out of the theater after seeing an amazing movie. You bump into a friend in the lobby and you’re bursting with excitement and telling your friend he has to see this movie and you go on to broadly explain what is so exciting about it. If you treat everything like a pitch, then you’re constantly practicing pitching.

SS: So sometimes a studio will buy a script and sometimes they'll buy a pitch. Why would they buy something that's not even written yet? I mean, how do they know it's not going to be terrible? Isn't that a huge gamble? 

ML: First, everything in this business is a huge gamble. Second, studios never buy pitches from unknown writers.

SS: Never? 

ML: Well, I’m sure historically in the 100 plus years of Hollywood a few unknown writers got lucky and sold an idea. But I couldn’t name them and neither can you. Hollywood needs proof of execution before they buy anything from you. My first studio gig as a writer was adapting the novel TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH for Fox Searchlight, but it was a project that I pitched to them. And the only reason I was allowed in the room to pitch was because Searchlight previously read my spec script NEON JUNKIES. NEON JUNKIES ended up not selling but it got a lot of heat around town and was my proof of execution. You also have to keep in mind that was a few years ago and the market is different now, it’s much more difficult to sell a pitch these days unless you’re Zaillian or Koepp who can pretty much sell anything they sneeze on. So yeah, buying a pitch is a gamble but it’s less of a gamble when you know that writer has a track record of proven execution.

SS: Let's say I have this AWESOME idea for a movie about snowflakes that come to life and start killing people. I have my first ever meeting with a producer tomorrow and I'm planning to pitch it. What should I expect? At what point am I expected to start pitching? 

ML: I would expect no one would buy your silly idea.

SS: No, you don’t understand. It’s really good and it has this wicked third act twist. I’m not going to give anything away but I will tell you that Santa Clause is involved. 

ML: Okay, I’ll play along... Given your scenario, we have to presume, as I said before, the producer is already a fan of your writing cause you wouldn’t even get in the room otherwise. The best pitches are the most casual ones, where you start off the meeting with small talk with the producer or executive. This is where you engage and connect with them on a personal level. It is so important for writers to think of these people as their peers and treat them as such. Producers would rather work with someone who they feel like they can have a beer with instead of working with someone who is obviously intimidated by them. The good producers don’t want a writer who is too scared to fight for what they believe in. Once you’ve made that personal connection within the first 5 minutes of your meeting, organically slide into your pitch.

SS: Okay now how long am I expected to talk about my story? Two minutes? Five minutes? 

ML: The shorter, the better. I think 5 - 10 minutes is best. One of the best pitches I heard was literally just a few sentences. Writer came in and said, “My script is a FREAKY FRIDAY type of comedy called WEEKEND WARRIOR. It’s about an out of shape football fan who switches bodies with the NFL’s greatest player.” Then suddenly, the door burst open and actors dressed like a football player, a regular guy, a gaggle of cheerleaders, and a marching band poured into my office. The band played a song while the cheerleaders danced around, and the player and regular guy threw a football back and forth. The pitch was less than 3 minutes. Great concept, lively presentation, I couldn’t wait to read the script. I was heartbroken when the script wasn’t good.

SS: So it’s okay to be gimmicky in your pitch then? It’s not looked down upon? 

ML: Execs and producers hear so many pitches that they appreciate anything that makes them more unique and fun. I remember a writer friend who pitched a Christmas movie in a Santa outfit. Can it be too gimmicky? I’m sure there’s a line somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed, but I don’t know where it is.

SS: So what's the basic approach to the pitch? Do I just hit on the key points (inciting incident, first act turn, character arc, etc.) You've heard hundreds of pitches. What usually works best? 

ML: You have to start with the hook aka the concept. Coming up with a new and unique hook that is easily digestible is probably the hardest part of screenwriting.

SS: Why is it so hard? Is it because every idea under the sun has already been done? 

ML: No, that’s a cop-out. We’re fuckin’ writers, our job is to come up with new and unique ideas. I think a reason why it’s hard is because too many writers don’t truly understand what the term “high-concept” means. High concept doesn’t necessarily mean bigger. It doesn’t mean more locations and bigger action scenes. Writers have pitched me these complicated sci-fi ideas that are about parallel universes on top of warring empires on top of alien races set against intergalactic politics. High concept means a broad idea with a strong hook that poses a over-arching “what if” scenario. Like the classic example of LIAR LIAR, what if a lawyer could only tell the truth? Or JURASSIC PARK, what if we were able to clone dinosaurs? Smaller movies can be high concept as well, such as MEMENTO, what if a man suffering from short-term memory had to find his wife’s killer?

SS: And what happens when I'm finished? Do they go, "Yes, I want to buy that. Let's do it?" Or "No, that's not for me?" Is there some protocol that's used? A code I have to learn like In and Out's secret menu? Like "Sounds cool" is code for "sucky idea?" 

ML: Not every executive or producer is created equal. They all respond differently. Some maintain a poker face even if they’re over the moon about your idea. Some are too excited and give you a false impression of their interest level. Those are the ones where you leave a meeting feeling great about yourself and you’re dreaming of buying that new car until your agent calls to tell you they didn’t bite. Depending on where you are on the writer’s food change, most of them time you’re not pitching to the ultimate decision-maker. So really, the executive you’re pitching to can’t get too excited because they have to re-pitch it to their bosses. So the writer may be asked to come back and pitch a few more times as the idea climbs the ladder. You can tell if they’re interested in your pitch by the questions they ask afterwards.

SS: Like what questions? I need to know the questions! 

ML: If they’re interested, they’ll ask questions that help the writer build on the pitch. Questions like, “What if the protagonist’s original sin was B instead of A?” Or, “Maybe the third act set piece could take place in B instead of A?” Those are questions that show they’re interested enough to help improve. It’s questions like, “What makes your story any different from AVATAR?” that you don’t want.

SS: What if you're in the middle of a pitch and you can see that the other person is bored out of their mind. What do you do then?? 

ML: The first rule to pitching is that you always have to be in control of the room. I’ll give a personal example, this is a true story: Years ago, I went in to CAA to pitch an agent. I was pitching as a producer cause the agent repped some directors I was hoping to get attached to a pair of projects. So the agent was on the phone as his assistant shuffled me into the office. I sat down on the couch as the agent gestured to me from behind his desk, indicating with his pointed index finger he’d be with me in a minute. As the agent continued talking on the phone, I noticed on his desk were a few empty Starbucks cups. In addition, I saw the agent yawn like three times while on the phone. He finally hung up, then joined me on the couch. He yawned again as he shook my hand, and I registered the low-energy of his body language. Dread slowly seeps in. I jumped into my first pitch and halfway through it, the agent yawned a few more times and his eyes were glazed. He was honestly barely taking in my words. As I continued the pitch, I noticed behind him were two framed photos on a mantle. One was a photo of him and his wife. The other photo was that of an infant. I immediately connected the dots: New born baby, not much sleep, agent’s been caffeinating all day, it’s 4pm in the afternoon and he’s crashing. The worst conditions for me to pitch in.

So I told the agent to stand up. He was startled by my request, stared at me blankly. I stood up, asked him again to get up. Hesitantly, he finally stands up and I tell him I’m going to show him this Vietnamese remedy that will keep him awake for the rest of the day. I backed up against the wall of his office and he did the same on the opposite end of the room. I told him to keep his heels to the wall and lean forward as far as he can without falling. I did so, he followed. Then I told him to take three deep breaths but on the third breath hold it in for 10 seconds. We did exactly that. Next I told him to shake his hands, then clap them together 3 times because that sends electrical pulses through your arms, to your spine, which stimulates the brain. We both clapped our hands three times very loudly. I could see his assistant staring at us through the door. I asked the agent how did he feel? His eyes popped wide open, said he felt great! I told him it’s a trick my mother taught and it never fails. So before the agent could even sit back down, I immediately jumped into my second pitch. This time the agent was fully alert, his shoulders perked, his eyes alive, he focused on my words. By the end of my pitch, he was excited about my projects, said he couldn’t wait to give them to his director clients. So here’s the thing... There is no such Vietnamese remedy. I just made that up on the spot because I had to do something to shake the agent up. I just needed him to stop yawning for five minutes while I pitched. Moral of the story: Always be in control of the room.

SS: Got it. So execs falling asleep during your pitch is not good. Boy I wish I would’ve known that one last week. So what are some of the pitfalls to watch out for when pitching? 

ML: The thing I hate the most is when writers read their pitches to me. One writer had his lengthy pitch written out in 10 pages and had them sitting on his lap. The whole time as he slogged through the pitch, I watched him flip the pages. So instead of being caught up in the story he’s pitching, I was thinking, “Oh my God, he has 8 more pages to go.” It’s okay to have notes or bullet points sitting in front of you when you pitch, but keep it to a page or a few note cards. I mean, these days you can have your notes on an iPad or Kindle. Some writers like to memorize their pitches, which is fine as long as your delivery isn’t rigid and feel too practiced.

SS: What about visuals? Should I and can I bring anything visual to the pitch? 

ML: Visuals are definitely encouraged. Especially if you’re pitching a huge concept that requires a lot of world building, like unique alien landscapes, futuristic technology, otherworldly monsters, supernatural beings, etc. Also, if you’re re-inventing iconic characters you’ll need to clearly convey what you’re going for. For example, everybody knows what THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA looks like, but if you were pitching a steampunk re-imagining of the character, you better have a way to show that. If you’re not a competent artist, hire someone to illustrate the images. It’s a worthwhile investment. And you don’t have to break the bank hiring an experienced artist. I believe here on Scriptshadow you will be offering a service where artists create concept art and such, correct?

SS: Hmmm, no comment on that one. We will have to see! Now pitching isn't just limited to meetings. You can pitch someone anywhere. In the elevator, in passing, at lunch. It seems like the pitches in these situations are a lot more informal. So how do you approach them? I'm assuming they're more conversational in nature? 

ML: Every pitch should be conversational in nature. But we have to be careful here. I think amateur writers, and anyone else on the outside looking in, have this romanticized notion on the culture of pitching. They think it’s like Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER where writers can sell an idea if they just get the opportunity to corner a studio exec for 5 minutes pool-side at The Standard Hotel. Yes, these things do happen because it’s Hollywood and anything can happen here (you’re talking to a guy who was discovered working at a Blockbuster by Owen Wilson), but it’s not exactly like the Wild West where roaming writers are ready to be the fastest pitch on the draw at every moment. But if you’re lucky enough to get Bruckheimer’s attention at a party or in the check out lane at Gelson’s, then go ahead and be fearless and pitch. Worst thing is he says no, but at least you’ll get a good story out of it. You should treat every pitch with the same energy, whether it’s over lunch or in the room at a studio.

SS: That’s how you landed the assistant job with Owen Wilson? I have to know more about that. And hey, we can even make it relevant, since you were essentially pitching yourself to him. So, how did that whole thing happen? 

ML: Sure, there’s actually a detailed story of it here.

SS: What was the worst pitch experience you had to endure, both as the pitcher and pitchee? 

ML: I already gave you my worst personal experience giving a pitch. But the worst experience hearing a pitch was from a really established screenwriter. I mean, this guy wrote a hit movie a few years back that held the #1 spot three weeks in a row. So when his manager called me and said he wants to pitch me an idea, of course I was excited. Writer comes in and just goes on to mumble through a 45 minute pitch. I just remember after 20 minutes, the writer said, “And that’s the end of the first act.” I almost fell off my chair.

SS: Okay so before I leave, can you give me like a checklist of the most important things I should have squared away before I go into a pitch? Sort of like a pitch kit? 

ML: Well, the process is different for everyone but to answer broadly: Make sure you have your pitch notes, any visual aid, and a notebook to jot down any questions or comments the exec/producer might have, for they may be helpful as you refine the pitch. Before the pitch meeting, pump yourself up. Whether that means listening to Eminem, gulping down a Red Bull, hitting the gym, or watching Alec Baldwin’s monologue in GLENGARY GLEN ROSS. Make it a ritual. Because if it works for you the first time, it will give a sense of comfort that it can work again, and you’ll have something in your control that improves your pitching skills and gets you in that zone.

SS: Awesome, so as long as I have you here. I have this idea for a movie. Are you ready for this? What if Robin Hood...was actually a woman? Now stay with me here-- 

ML: Carson?

SS: Huh? 

ML: I have to go now.

SS: Now is this code?  Are you trying to say something here and I'm supposed to understand the subtext?

ML: Carson, I'm leaving. Good-bye.

SS: Oh, okay, no problem. We’ll talk again I’m sure. Thanks Mike! 

Mike Le is repped at APA and manager Jonathan Hung. You can follow him on his Twitter Feed @DFTVYP.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Screenplay Review - Untitled Arizona Project

I have three words for when it comes to this whacked-out screenplay: The Squirrel Scene. Nothing more needs to be said.

Genre: Comedy/Satire
Premise: (from Black List) A satirically dark comedy about a homicidal foreclosure victim kidnapping a real estate agent and planning to kill her in the housing development where she finagled money from customers like him.
About: This script finished tied at the bottom of the 2011 Black List with 6 votes. Del Tredici is repped by WME and managed by Mosaic. He’s written exclusively in TV up to this point, penning episodes of 30 Rock and Bored To Death (among others).
Writer: Luke Del Tredici
Details: 104 pages – 8/21/10 Fifth 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).

Today's script is one I'd never heard of before. And why would I have? It doesn’t even have a proper title. Which actually makes sense because when you read it, you realize it doesn’t have a proper anything. This script is about as improper as it gets. Del Tredici is clearly an insane person. I imagine him stalking Liz Lemon in his dreams with a cheese grater. Read this script and you’ll realize that’s not as weird a statement as you think it is.

But here’s the catch. Insanity can be a good thing for writers. With the right amount of focus, insanity can lead to genius! Edgar Allan Poe was insane right? And he came up with some pretty cool stuff. I don’t know if I’m ready to put Del Tredici in the same league as Poe just yet, but I can tell you this: You will not forget this script after you read it. I promise you that.

We’re in Harding, Arizona, June 2007. Harding is one of those upscale communities that investors just decided to build. It didn’t get there after years of growth. They took the Field Of Dreams mentality: “If we build a bunch of McMansions, they will come.” Will they Ray? Will they?

Cassie Francis is a real estate agent in Harding. She’s riding the wave of this booming industry, even owning one of these McMansions herself! Everything’s going swimmingly. That is until the housing market implodes.

Cut to two years later and the community is a ghost town. Nine out of every ten houses have been deserted. Cassie is one of the few remaining stragglers and it doesn’t look like she’ll be able to hold on much longer. She hasn't sold a house in six months and her boss is coming up with more reasons to fire her than keep her. That’ll end up being the least of her worries though, since when she comes into work, she inadvertently witnesses an adjustable-rate mortgage victim sort of accidentally kill the big cheese.

This once normal but now crazed home-owner, Sonny, has no choice but to do something about the lone witness, so he kidnaps Cassie and brings her back to his home, which happens to be in the same community she lives in.

At first things are light and fluffy. Sonny looks like he's going to let Cassie go as long as she promises not to tell anybody what she saw. But then his ex-wife shows up, starts pushing his buttons, and he ends up killing her too! Now that Cassie’ been a witness to TWO murders, he realizes he has to get rid of her. In order to make sure nobody's looking for Cassie though, he decides to go to her house and snatch up her teenage daughter as well.

While that’s going on, Cassie manages to escape, and while Sonny brings her daughter back, she’s able to call the police. The thing is, there’s only one cop in this hellhole. The rest had to be let go when all these rich folks who couldn’t pay their mortgages fled town.

Now Cassie and this one cop must try and find which house she was actually being held in – not an easy task since every single house looks exactly the same! Cassie eventually finds and rescues her daughter, but with a very determined Sonny on their trail, escape is anything but guaranteed.

This script is so damn weird. But weird in a deliriously awesome way!

It all starts with Sonny, who’s one of the most unpredictable villains you’ll ever meet. One second he’s cozy and comforting and telling our heroine that he’s going to let her go. The next he’s a psychotic serial killer having our poor protagonist and her daughter dig their own graves. This dude was like a giant suspense yo-yo, with no rhyme or reason to his actions. And boy did that make him terrifying.

But none of his actions compare to the best scene I’ve read in a script all year. I'm not going to spoil it because you have to read the scene yourself to believe it. I will refer to it only as…The Squirrel Scene. I have never been so terrified of squirrels in my life. This scene has made me reevaluate squirrels as animals. I'm thinking of calling the National Animal Control Center and seeing if there's a way we can get rid of all squirrels on the planet just because of this scene. It's such a great scene, in fact, that I think this movie is worth making JUST for this scene. And I realize how ridiculous that sounds but this scene is just so unexpected and so weird and so terrifying that I stand by it.

Outside of that, there’s a nice little statement going on about the housing crisis. While I didn’t personally feel the sting of that implosion, I know people who did. And I just remember how helpless and angry they felt – like they’d been duped and there was nobody out there willing to help them. I remember them having to jump through a million hoops just to get a minor extension and how oftentimes, even when they did everything right, they’d still get screwed. In that sense, Sonny embodies everybody’s frustration. And without getting too deep, there’s a strange part of you that understands him – that understands why he’s gone nutzos. And it’s that subtext that makes this screenplay more than just a silly exercise in weird comedic choices.

I only disliked two things about the script. The first is it felt a little clunky at times. The writing wasn’t as smooth as maybe it could’ve been. And the other was the ex-husband stuff. Cassie has this ex-husband who's now dating a 24-year-old fluzie who’s quite possibly the dumbest girl in the world. He’s the only person she’s able to contact for help so he has to drive back to save her with his nagging girlfriend tagging along. It's not a terrible subplot by any means but it just gets old quickly. We keep cutting back to the car, listening to the same argument over and over again (“Why are we doing this?”). I suppose it had potential but I’d rather have stayed back where all the action was.

In the end, I think you gotta admire Del Tredici for taking so many chances. When I read scripts like The Knoll or Selfless, I’m always bummed out by how predictable they are. The writers never take a single chance! They do everything exactly by the book. This script is the opposite. And it’s really original as a result. I challenge anybody to read this script and forget about it. It's impossible. This one would get people talking if it ever became a movie. Let’s hope that that happens.

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

What I learned: One of the easiest ways to write an original scene is to ask yourself, “What's the last thing my audience expects this character to do right now?” Everybody knows what the character would *likely* do. We've seen enough movies to be able to predict that. So put your thinking cap on and ask what it is they’d *least likely* do. When Sonny kidnaps Cassie, bringing her to his house, we think we know what's going to happen. He's going to tie her up and threaten her and blah blah blah. But the writer asks that question, “What’s the last thing the audience expects Sonny to do right now?” Why: Give Cassie a tour of the house of course! So we get this awkward but intriguing scene where Sonny gives his kidnapped captor a tour of his place. Not only is it original, but it creates the added benefit of making our villain seem even scarier. If this guy is so delusional that he's giving the girl he kidnapped a tour of his place, then how crazy can he be??