Thursday, April 10, 2008

Magic Time

So, the assignment was turned in last week, and they’ve read it and like it. There’s always a certain amount of writer’s paranoia that has me worried they will drive over to my place, light the script on fire and leave it on my porch, hit the doorbell, then drive away. *I* like the script, but you never know if anyone else will. You hope they will.

Because I have a deadline, and must be able to plan out my writing so that I have a finished screenplay on time, I use an outline. I usually outline, but I’ve done a couple of experiments working without an outline... which usually serves to remind me why I need an outline. Some people think that an outline handcuffs you, but I think it frees me. I know where the story is going, I know what has to happen... but I don’t know exactly how it happens. And sometimes that means there’s some sort of magic that happens while you’re writing a scene, and the scene is exciting and entertaining to write.

Here’s an example: The script is a fun monster movie, similar to TREMORS. There’s a sequence I called the Tides Restaurant Scene (from THE BIRDS) where the monster chases a bunch of folks into a building, where they discuss where the monster came from and how the heck they’re gonna deal with it... while the monster tries to break in to eat them. Sort of a town meeting during an attack. That’s basically what I had in my outline - I knew key story points and all of the things that I was setting up for later... but I didn’t know the *how it happened*.

While writing the scene, I came up with all kinds of funny bits that entertained me as I wrote the sequence, and then I came to the halfway point, where the monster would break in and eat some people, which forces our folks to stop talking about where this monster may have come from and figure out how they’re gonna kill it. When the people run into the building to take cover from the monster, they reinforce the doors and windows, making them “monster proof”. But the monster breaks in, destroys the reinforcements, grabs a couple of people and goes outside to chow down. Our hero realizes they have nothing to reinforce the doors with - they will have to hold them closed themselves. He asks for volunteers, and one guy says he’s crazy, the monster is right out there, it’s going to break in again, and he doesn’t want to be anywhere near the doors when that happens. They hero makes the big speech (fun to write) and then...

Well, magic happened.

One of the townspeople got up, walked to the doors, and used their body to hold them closed... then another person got up, and another, and another, and another... until *everyone* was against the doors, holding them closed as a group, except the naysayer. Who didn’t want to be left out, so he joins all of the others.

Okay, this was a scene where they find something else to reinforce the doors to keep the monster out in the outline... and that’s what happens. But I think this is going to be one of those “I am Spartacus” moments. One of those amazing big moments that make the audience emotional. And it just happened by magic - I created it as I was writing the script, because *something* needed to reinforce those doors. Oh, and it’s thematic, because the story is about how all species need each other to survive (the monster was created by fooling with mother nature). Look, this is a silly monster movie... no one is going to give it 4 stars, it won’t make critic’s lists... critics won’t even know it exists. It’s just a silly movie. But I still want it to be emotional, and funny, and scary and something that you watch and don’t thing was a total waste of your time (only a partial waste). So I need scenes like that. And even with an outline, even knowing what happens next and who gets eaten before the final credits, there’s still room for lightning to strike - still room for that magic to happen on the page. I live for scenes like that - the ones that come from nowhere and have me tearing up as I type them. I live for those funny lines that come right off the top of my head. I live for that one thing you invent in the fly that turns a bunch of words into a living, breathing *person*.

That’s the magic. We take a bunch of words, and turn them into emotions.

That’s what I love about writing.

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Burrito at Tortas in Studio City.

Movies: LEATHERHEADS - George Clooney needs to think more about focus... not the camera, but the story. You can’t do everything in one film, you have to make decisions. You can’t please everyone, and though Ricky Nelson is right that you have to please yourself, it’s also nice to please some segment of the paying public while you’re at it. The problem with making a movie that tries to please everyone is that it usually pleases no one... and LEATHERHEADS suffers from trying to be all things to all men and women and ending up being nothing.

The film tries to be every single kind of 1940s comedy in one film: a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, a prat-fall physical comedy that seems Keystone Coppish, a Preston Sturges style ironic comedy, and a half dozen other styles and tones... all at the same time. Plus, it’s a newspaper story and a romance and a football story and a war hero movie and another half dozen subjects all crammed into one film. They may have been able to pick two types of comedy and two types of story and come out with a film that works, but we end up with everything but the kitchen sink.

There are some laughs, but it doesn’t add up to anything... so the laughs don’t build,

George Clooney is a pro football player when teams played in cow pastures and were sponsored by small businesses, the way they sponsor little league teams today. They have one football, and if anything happens to it - the game is over. When the team’s sponsor pulls out, everyone goes back to their day job except Clooney - he has never done anything but play football. When he finds out that *thousands* of people go to Princeton football games every week to see Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) play, he decides to find some way to get the college kid to play on their team. Meanwhile, in another plot, Rene Zellweger is a saucy reporter who is given the assignment to expose a war hero (Krasinski) who is cashing in on his fame, is really a fraud. Oh, wait, they’re the same guy. And he has a shady agent, played by Jonathan Pryce... even though he’s a college player and there really isn’t any such thing as pro football at this point... so why does he need an agent? Anyway, when Clooney makes them an offer to go pro, pro football is kind of born. Zellweger now covers the birth of pro football, as she also tries to expose Krasinski as a fraud... and this leads to a love triangle, and hijinks ensue.

I think they should have just gotten rid of the whole fake war hero thing and focused on football. Had Zellweger given the assignment to cover Krasinksi due to his product endorsements (which don’t get much time in the film, yet are a major part of the world of emerging pro football). By removing the whole war hero thing, we could spend more time on football - instead of *talk* about how pro football has all of these fun, colorful plays, we could *see* them. We get a Statue Of Liberty, but I want to know what the Crusty Bob is. When Krasinski first joins the team, there’s a ten second discussion about the difference between college plays and pro football plays... but it would have been nice to see them try some college plays in the pro world. Since an important part of the story seems to be the difference between the structured world of college ball vs. the unstructured world of pro ball... and how that changes when pro becomes “legitimate”... it would be nice to see more of that on film.

It would have been nice to see more of the guy’s day jobs, and more personality and character for the other guys - they don’t have much screen time right now. And they miss some great moments - when Clooney tries to sign up for unemployment, they ask what skills he has and what jobs he’s had... and that’s the end of the scene. They could have had him say he’s been playing pro football for the past 20 years, “You can’t make a living playing football”, and Clooney responds that is why he’s here. And find some other ways for Clooney to show his love for the game - which we really don’t get in the film.

Though Rene Zellweger is great at banter, she wears an expression of serious constipation throughout the film.

There are some laughs here and there, but I also wonder if a story this muddled and difficult to describe is the best choice for a period film - where the average audience member may not identify with the time period... and the cost of recreating that time period makes the film somewhat expensive to make. A straightforward romantic comedy against the background of the birth of pro football would have been less confusing and maybe appealed to a larger audience... and that's where most of the laughs come from, anyway.

Pages: Working on an article for Script.


Martin said...

Killer blog on outlining – and great tip of the day about adaptation. I got two tips of the day for the price of one. Thanks Bill!

ObiDonWan said...

I like LEATHERNECKS primarily because I was able to persuade my wife (extremely reluctant film-goer because of nasty shocks in the past) to go see it with me. It became a "date movie". She enjoyed it--mirabile dictu! So all your points are well-made but they don't take into account the "wife factor".

PLUS: I need to write a 3-4 page treatment. Can I take your old 1-page summary and expand on that, or do you have a good sample of a longer one?

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