Tuesday, July 15, 2008

As Luck Would Have It...

I’m writing this “new” spec SECOND SON - and it’s part struggle and part joy. Now, I could help you procrastinate by telling you all about the struggle part, but wouldn’t it be more fun to waste valuable time when you really should be writing (and so should I) telling you about the joy part?

First - I’m really awful at this blogging thing. I find myself killing time (when I really should be writing) on some message board where I give advice or (worse) write some opinion piece that really should be *here* on this blog. And I talk away great subjects sometimes. So, I was at the movies with some friends a week ago and mentioned something that happened while writing and we had a nice little conversation about it, and later I’m thinking “That should have been on the blog!” So here it is....

I finish the SECOND SON scenes at the Dead Sea and The Vatican, and now my story takes me to a major American city. When I first came up with the idea for this page one rewrite of an old script - that ends up not using a single word from the original so far - I wrote up a treatment. This was a couple of years ago, and motivated by an unusual factor - a Guy I Know was looking for a project that would be a well-known rapper’s first film. The rapper *did not* want to be the star, he wanted to be a sidekick. His first film, he didn’t want to have it crash and burn because it was all about him. The GIN (Guy I Know) said what he really wanted was a buddy action movie that had some horror in it... huh? Well, I had this dusty old script I had planned on rewriting some day, and I thought if I could use that script as a base, it would be quicker and easier to write. Hey, I’m lazy. Actually, I don’t know whether the chicken came first or the egg - I may have come up with the basic idea and realized that I could use that idea to rewrite the old script about the President’s Pregnant Mistress. When I wrote the treatment, it was mostly aimed at pleasing the GIN and the Rapper. The GIN loved it... and then the rapper got into some PR problems and nobody wanted to make a movie with him anymore. This was the second time a project of mine aimed at a Rapper had died because of the Rapper’s personal problems. So, I had this treatment for a rewrite and some notes... And while I was looking for notes on *another* script I was going to rewrite, I stumbled on the DEMON HUNTER (now SECOND SON) notes and decided it would be fun to write it.

When I reach the major American city part - where the rest of the script takes place - it was Los Angeles in the treatment because that’s where the producers are. It’s kind of a default location. But the great state of Michigan has one of the best filming incentives in the USA right now, so I thought I’d set the rest of the script in Detroit. Why not? Maybe some producer will read it, know about the incentives, and decide he can get more bang for his buck by shooting a movie in Detroit?

When you write scripts intended to be filmed, you walk a tight-rope between vague and specific. I have an old article about it somewhere that needs a rewrite. The problem is, no matter where your script takes place, chances are they will film it in Vancouver. So you need a script that isn’t so specific that it can’t be shot in Vancouver or Romania or wherever the good film deal is. At the same time, you don’t want your script to be bland and take place in Generic City. So a script written to be filmed needs to have locations that are generic enough that you can find them in Vancouver and Romania and anyplace else where they film movies... but still has establishing shots that can be filmed second unit in some interesting unique place. These shots are not called Establishing Shots in a spec script, it’s just an EXT. of a location without any of your actors in the scene. That way, they cut from the EXT of some interesting building to the interior, which can either be a set on a sound stage or a practical location easily found in whatever country they shoot in. You want to give the flavor of a specific location without forcing the producers to shoot there. On my big specs - which are not necessarily written to be filmed as much as they are written to sold or get me an assignment - I will put characters in locations that are unique to the city where the story takes place. So in the script I was originally going to rewrite, HOURS OF DARKNESS, the story takes place in Seattle and there are scenes on the monorail and Space Needle and all kinds of other landmarks that can not be found anywhere else. In my PAST LIVES script, the big finale takes place at the Murphy Windmill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park - you can’t film it anywhere else. Obviously, if they buy either of these scripts and decide to make them, they can either do a major rewrite so that it can shoot in Romania or Vancouver or spend the money to shoot those scenes on location. But on SECOND SON I’m writing the script so that it’s an “easy shoot” - the producer can either take advantage of the great incentives by filming in Detroit (where the story takes place) or just do some second unit work there and film the rest in Romania or Bucharest. They decide, the script doesn’t force them to shoot in Detroit.

But using Detroit was entirely arbitrary based on current incentive programs.

Once that decision was made, I hit the books and Google to find those cool exteriors. I needed a hospital and a church and some other places. Because my lead is the Vatican’s version of Indiana Jones, it would be nice if it was Catholic hospital - but it didn’t have to be. It could be any interesting looking hospital. And in the treatment, it was a Baptist church, because I figured that would fit with the rapper. Now, the character isn’t going to be played by a rapper, so it could be anything. Since Catholic churches seem to be the most ornate, I’d take a look at those as well as any other old Christian churches in Detroit.

And, as luck would have it, the 2nd oldest Catholic Church in America is located in Detroit! St. Anne’s - and it’s the kind of beautiful old church that looks great on camera. I looked at some other churches (online) and St. Anne’s is the winner. Now, what are the odds of the 2nd oldest Catholic Church being in the city I picked due to its film incentive program?

Now I’m looking for a hospital, and when I Google my criteria I get the oldest hospital in Michigan... originally St. Vincent’s, then St. Mary’s, then a notorious mental institution, then Detroit Memorial, now Providence. Wow - even the names are story related! And the pictures? Okay - here’s one:

The mental institution past? How could I be so lucky?

And my luck continues... In the treatment I had a chase where they escape the hospital, chased by demons. I didn’t want them to be chased across a parking lot by demons - that seemed silly. There was a scribbled note in the margin of the treatment - “how about tunnels?” And guess what? In another old Detroit hospital that was turned into a mental institution there were underground tunnels connecting various wings of the facility - with photos of mental patients in the tunnels! Okay, a little poetic license and Providence has these long forgotten tunnels from when it was a mental hospital. People in Detroit might catch me at combining two locations - but both are real locations, so I hope they will forgive me. And now I have this spooky looking old hospital, which is now a training hospital by the way, with forgotten underground tunnels for my chase... and all of this from a completely arbitrary decision to use Detroit as my location because it has a good incentives program.

Luck? Who knows - but there’s nothing like doing the research and finding something better than what you had hoped for. And that happens all the time. It’s one of the joys of writing - elements come together as if by magic sometimes. On SLEEPER AGENT I needed to get my characters from Turkey to Eastern Europe on some unique form of transportation... that could be easily found in any of the Eastern European countries where they might film this, and my search uncovered hydrofoil ferries. Cool! Perfect! Better than anything I cold have made up!

And that’s one of the big joys of screewnriting - when all of the pieces come together in ways you never expected. When the cool old Catholic hospital used to be a notorious mental institution. When the 2nd oldest Catholic Church in America just happens to be in Detroit instead of Chicago or New York or some other big city.

Even though the rapper isn’t really a part of SECOND SON anymore, I’m in Detroit, right? I love MoTown music... so the hospital orderly who becomes the sidekick in the story still has some music in his background. Oh, and when the Vatican’s version of Indiana Jones rents a car - it’s a vintage Mustang muscle car (great in the car chase that comes up later). Detroit.

Every script has happy accidents... I live for them! Hope you find some in the script you're writing.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Query Letters - and checking your bait.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Ceasar Salad at Fuddruckers to make up for all of the junk I've been eating.

MOVIES: HELLBOY 2 - I saw it Friday night with Q&A afterwards with del Toro.

Completely amazing film - reminded me of STAR WARS and EMPIRE in a way. Not just because of all of the creatures that seem like a much better version of the cantina scene, but the way the story juggles adventure and action and humor and romance and real emotions without ever dropping a ball. In a strange way, Hellboy is like Han Solo and Rick Blaine - a guy who sticks his neck out for no one. He doesn't care. He respects no authority - and kind of respects no one, not even himself. And, as the story unfolds, he's placed in situation after situation where he must take a side and care... and eventually he *must* care about what happens.

Here's what I think is amazing about this flick - it's a superhero movie about a megavillain who has an evil plan to destroy mankind, and the superhero who must stop him. And it has all of the story elements we expect to find in that story. But it's also weird. Imaginative. Dangerous. It colors within the lines using colors not to be found in the 120 pack of Crayolas. (Okay - it has lots of red and blue). It works as a mainstream movie - but also works as a strange del Toro movie.


My favorite action scene is with the Elemental - it is an exciting scene, an magical scene, a character scene, and has ends up *haunting* instead of happy. Red rescues a baby at the start of the action, and must protect the baby throughout the action scene - which not only works as part of the over-all emotional story for Red, it also shows two sides of his character at the same time - he's tough, violent, angry... and compassionate and protective. But this scene also forces Red to make a big decision - this is the *last* of the Elementals, can he kill the last of its kind? This gives us a no-win situation: if he kills the Elemental, he has destroyed a treasure and destroyed a part of nature. The world will never be the same. But if he doesn't kill the elemental, he may be killed himself. So a selfish hero must choose between himself and the planet... and finds himself unable to make that decision. Which prolongs the battle... and causes more destruction. This is not an easy choice - and once he finally makes it, he isn't happy with what he's done. He's the monster. He's the villain. This is not a safe scene - not a Hollywood scene. This is a *great* scene.


And the decisions don't get easier - they become even more difficult. The final battle is a completely no-win situation. And a funny little bit with Abe putting on contact lenses to look more attractive to a member of the opposite sex, and mentioning that his eyes have no tear ducts, pays off big time.


I think this may be his best movie - a great combination of mainstream entertainment and wild fantasy with very serious subject matter. I laughed, I cheered, I cried.

- Bill


ObiDonWan said...

ok. i've just drafted my query letter (to editors, for a novel) and you've talked me into going to see HELLBOY today! Now! and skip or postpone the beach.

crossword said...

Wow Bill - posting part of your Spec here for all to peruse. Man, you are fearless. :)

As well as talented!

wcmartell said...

Though I'm not going to do it with 2nd SON, on SLEEPER AGENT I posted pages every week while I was writing. I may do that again on some other script - because it's kind of like writing with an audience (writers never really have an audience).

That's the messy - right out of the brain onto the page - first draft. And I decided to only post up until things start to get good.

- Bill

ObiDonWan said...

thanks for however much you put up. it's good for us to watch your fertile imagination at work...

Jim Endecott said...

Thanks for the read Bill. I enjoyed it.


amy said...

Detroit has plenty of awesome locations. Enjoy!

Morgan McKinnon said...

Hey Bill,

Thanks for a great blog. As usual.
Gotta love that research...especially when it's made easier.

(I'm in the hunt for those "happy accidents".)

Thanks...a million!


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