Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fishing Expeditions

A while back I posted that I had a bunch of companies reading scripts, so I figured I’d bring you up to date.

I have this page in a legal pad that says CHANCES TO WIN across the top. When I send out a script or have a meeting or some other thing happens that may result in my name of some silly action movie, I write it down. Hey, it this script sells - I can continue to play the screenwriting game! If it doesn’t, I just cross it out. The thing about the legal pad is that it’s pages and pages of crossed out scripts and a couple that became paying gigs. So out of those six companies reading a month ago, I think one is a possible deal and the one is still just floating out there and four are completely dead - crossed out.

One of the companies requested a script that everyone seems to love and has almost been made 3 times. At one point, a director was hired (paid) and did location scouting on the script for my rewrite... and I hadn’t been paid a cent, yet. We were making a movie! Then there was a change in management at the Cable Net, and all of the old regime’s projects were shelved... including mine. I got the script back, and a year later someone else wanted to make it - and something similar happened. So this script is going to land somewhere someday, but I’m just waiting for the stars to align. Instant rejection from this company - after they requested to read it. This is the kind of thing that confuses me - it wasn’t the idea... was it the execution? If it was the execution, how come the other companies almost made it? My guess is that the company was looking for *something* and had no idea what... so they were reading anything that seemed to be close. Just fishing...

There’s this balance required in this biz between not taking rejection personally, and being blind to the faults of a script. So there’s a moment of “Was it the script? Do I need to fix it?” But I don’t think that was the case here. Next!

One producer instantly sent me a contract... Some boilerplate contract, but a strange one. It was designed for producers without money to go fishing with the script as bait - low option money for a long time period, and when it came to purchase it gets fuzzy and impractical, because that’s not important to this “producer”. Now, I’ve signed “shopping agreements” - which are fishing expeditions - but are up front about that. They don’t tie up the script for *years*. This was a contract that was all about the “producer” not getting cut out of any deal if they set it up... not about actually making a movie based on my script. You know, if I’m the guy who owns the bait, what do I need this “producer” for? I did not sign the contract.

I’d looked this “producer” up after they called me - a couple of “co-producer” credits on small films. One of the problems with producer credits is that it’s often hard to tell who was an actual producer and who just had access to the star they needed or had a facilities deal the company took advantage of. On one of my films, a guy got a producer credit because he *introduced me* to the actual producers. He didn’t do anything. It was a script that had been passed around, and he tore off the title page, gave it to the real producers, and told them if they wanted to buy it, he had the writer’s name, address and phone number. He got a credit and a finder’s fee for that title page! The thing is - how do you know what that producer title means if you’ve never worked with them before? I figured it was worth a shot.

Another producer read the script, liked it, and asked me how much I thought it would cost to make. Could I come up with a budget for them? Oh, and do I know any stars? You know, there are things that are really not the screenwriter’s job. I suspect fishing was involved there, too.

The fourth - oh boy! They wanted a list of all of my available scripts to show to their studio connection... and some sort of $1 option on anything the studio connection wanted to read. I explained to them that my $1 option days were pretty much over... and they told me how amazing their studio connection was - but they wouldn’t even tell me what company this guy was at. Come on!

A few years ago I got this call from a producer named “Terry” who had an office on Sunset and had heard really good things about me, and wanted to meet with me about a project. I drive over to his office, we talk about this project he has and this star who is interested in it... but they need a script to take to his studio connection. Okay, so far... but, of course, they aren’t financed, yet, so if I could write it for free... Um, no. “Come on, it will be good for your career. You’ll get a credit!” First meeting, so I had a couple of - well, probably VHS tapes at the time - in my bag. I pull out CRASH DIVE and toss it on the desk. “I already have some credits.” The guy gives the tape to his assistant who puts it in the player on the other side of the office and hits play - and the movie starts. And it has submarines at sunset... and then my credit comes up, and “Terry” looks confused. “You wrote this movie?” “Yes. And several others.” (I probably pulled something else from my bag.) Seems that “Terry” didn’t look me up - pre-IMDB days, but there was Film Writers Guide and some online databases... and he could have just asked me. But he asks me one more time if I’d write his script for free, and I decline. And as far as I know they never made that movie, and now that we have IMDB I’ve looked up “Terry” under his real name and he’s done nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’m kind of surprised, because he either had huge balls or a pea brain - and either could get him places a normal person can not go. Lotta fishing goes on in this town.

You may be wondering where I find these people... but they’re the ones who find me. Usually someone passes them a script, or someone they have worked with in the past recommends me. So they often have already read a script when they call me. I do the best I can to vet them, usually just looking them up on IMDB (unless they mention some movie I’ve heard of) - and I usually ask what they’ve done. But that doesn’t always separate the nuts from the bolts. I figure if they come through with a deal, that’s great - if they just waste a little bit of my time, well... I’ve had *studios* waste my time.

One of the last two looks like it’s going to happen - should know at the end of this month (reffed twice, now) and one is still floating around... waiting to get crossed out.

But meanwhile some other things have taken the place of the crossed out chances. One is a remake of a 1980s movie for a studio (had a meeting on that Tuesday with the producer, two weeks from now with the studio). One is a movie for Spike TV - real producer with real credits. One is a movie for another cable-net (had a meeting with them a week ago - I thought it went terrible, they want me to bring them some scripts - may tell you more about that in a later post). And I have a producer who seems interested in taking a script to a studio’s new D2DVD label - that has an odd limited theatrical possibility. Probably most of those will be crossed off the CHANCES TO WIN list next month...

I guess I’m fishing, too... but at least I own my own bait!

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Challenging The Elements .
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger at Fuddruckers in Burbank.
Movies: HOUSE BUNNY - I’ve got to tell you up front that there are three reasons why this review will not be objective.

First - I’m in love with Anna Faris. Now, you’re probably thinking, "Bill, you don’t even know her... this is some low-level form of stalking! For all you know, she bites her nails... her *toe* nails." And that’s true - what I feel for her is not real love... hey, watch it! Though that may be truem it;s not what I was thinking. Here’s the thing. Anna Faris is beautiful and sexy and really really funny. She makes fun of her beauty and isn’t afraid to do anything for a laugh. Think of all of the movies where the only good thing is Anna Faris - start with those SCARY MOVIE movies. When she wasn’t in a scene, it was 47% less funny. And what about that movie where Ryan Reynolds was fat and then thin - she stole that whole movie in a handful of scenes! You’d forget what the movie was about, she was so good. I can remember her scenes, but none of the Ryan Reynolds scenes... and he was the star! Anna Faris is the best thing about any movie she’s in... and unfortunately that includes HOUSE BUNNY. Here’s one of the thing’s that’s great about her - she’s a real actress. What I mean is, sure - she can do a pratfall - but you always believe her characters are real, no matter how silly they may be. She plays the role without winking. She commits.

Second, I *used to be* in love with Beverly D’Angelo back in her VACATION days. Kind of the same reason - she was a funny, sexy woman. You know, the big problem with *most* sexy actresses is that they take themselves too seriously - and want to play sexy roles when they’re 60. Sylvester Stallone is the same - he wants to be a macho star when he’s eligible for Social Security. Here Bev plays the villain, and plays her age - which is good. If you are looking for that bubbly blonde that Clark Griswold videotaped in the privacy of their hotel room... well, that was decades ago. But she still looks good, and kind of plays the characters she would have been fighting against a couple of decades ago. I still have a soft spot for her, and it’s always good when an actress who is over 40 gets a major role in a film.

Third, I know the screenwriters, Karen and Kiwi. They wrote LEGALLY BLONDE. We’ve been at some screenwriting events together, and several times have gotten danged drunk. Kiwi loves me - and Kiwi also loves you. She loves everyone. I believe they were at Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference the time Oscar Winning Screenwriter Bill Kelly (WITNESS) got into a fist fight with a college screenwriting professor at dinner - and food and screenwriters were flying! It was every bar room brawl from every Western movie you’ve ever seen... but with Screenwriters. Anyway, we were all drinking and eating and enjoying the entertainment. So those gals are great in my book!

The film, though, has some problems.

Anna Faris is a Playboy bunny who lives at Hef’s Playboy Mansion, but gets kicked out on her 29th birthday because she’s too old... you see, that’s like 59 in “Bunny Years”. She ends up homeless, sleeping in her car, until - while looking for a place to live on the Westside - discovers a Sorority House for nerdy brainiac girls that needs a new house mother. And hijinks ensue... just not really funny hijinks.

There are two big problems, starting with shallow, sketchy characters. Instead of characters, we get caricatures. That one line description in the casting breakdowns. The “evil Bunny” at the Mansion (who kicks Faris out without Hef’s permission) is just Eeeevilll! No real motivation or character. She has a henchman - who used to be Faris’ best friend - kind of the token male. Why does he suddenly completely destroy his best friend Faris? Because Evil Bunny twists his nipples - literally. None of the characters have anything going on beneath the surface. Now, you may think because this is a comedy, there’s no need for character depth - but we still need to believe these folks aren’t cardboard cutouts. I mean, Ted Stryker in AIRPLANE is a flawed character working through a past tragedy... and that’s a unrealistic comedy. Here, we have a comedy that is supposed to be real - the real Hef is in the film and the real mansion. These characters - all of them, including Colin Hanks as the love interest - need to be fleshed out and given some depth.

One thing I realized is that *because* Anna Faris’ character is a ditzy Playboy Bunny, the character needed to be more than surface. Because if the cliche for characters like this is that they are all surface, you need to do something to add depth - or you end up with the cliche... and that’s a caricature. Think of Forest Gump - though he is a very simple man, he is in a complex time and complex relationships and complex situations - and through these things we can see that he had deep feelings. This goes for any “type” of character - tough cops need to have an emotional / vulnerable side. In DIRTY HARRY (semi-spoilers for Emily) Harry is a brutal cop... who talks about the loss of his wife in a car accident. That shades him. That gives him an additional layer. Here - everyone is surface... and the problem with a movie about a character type who we see as all surface is that they can’t be portrayed as all surface.

Would have been nice to peel back a layer of Anna’s character and see that she is more than her surface - and the facade was created for some reason we identify with.

Colin Hanks, who looks too young for Anna, though for all I know they’re the same age, plays the love interest - dropped into this story from nowhere. He’s a nice guy who inherited a rest home and just happens to be walking down the street one day and bumps into Anna - and because he’s the only man in the film, he gets to be the love interest. Hanks has no depth, either - he’s a cliche nice guy. I don’t know why they find each other attractive, and I don’t really know what either want in their lives.

One thing I thought of while watching the movie - interesting that this is a movie about 3 homes. We have the Playboy Mansion, the Zeta Sorority House, and the Rest Home. Kind of wish the movie had thought of it.

Second big problem - the film screws up it’s own premise. Okay, you have the hot but not brainy Bunny who moves in with the nerdy and brainy sorority girls. Each has something the other lacks - which makes this a good premise. So, you know by the end of the film that Anna will teach all of these plain-janes how to be hot, and the girls will teach Anna to be more than a bimbo. Except, that doesn’t happen.

There is a scene where Anna takes the girls out to shop and spa (how they pay for this is never explained), but there is really no instruction and no transformation. When the girls return from their day with Anna, we don’t recognize any of them. I mean, we really don’t recognize them. We don’t know which plain-jane became which hottie. No step-by-step transformation, so it’s almost as if they just cast some new girls. You spend most of the rest of the movie trying to figure out who is who.

When you look at a film about characters going through some sort of physical transformation, like Kim Novak in VERTIGO going from low-class shop girl to sophisticated lady - we see each step in the process, because to some extent that is what the film is about. Eliza Dolittle doesn’t become a lady in a 30 second montage - the film is about her change.

And when Anna feels she isn’t intelligent enough for Colin, do the brainiac girls help her? No. They are not involved. We get a scene with Anna at the library reading a pile of books... and then she’s smart! This goes back to that Egri thing about character change - you need to show all of the steps, or else it seems false.

I wondered why they didn’t use the premise - and have Bunny help Brainiacs and vice versa. Did they think it was too obvious (but the 2D characters weren’t)? Too expected? Well, then set up something less expected! Once you set up the story, that’s the story. If you can’t find a “Door #3" (DEJA VU co-writer Bill Marsilli’s term for the completely original and unexpected choice or solution to the problem) then your only choices are following the logical lines of the story you’ve created... or create a *different* story. Chance the premise so that your story is less obvious. But ignoring the premise you’ve set up? Completely unsatisfying. If you are looking for the *best* solution - it’s the one where the story works, even if we’ve seen it before. The “solution” where the story doesn’t work at all? Crap. In the case of a light comedy like this - I think we all know how it ends and what we expect from the story. If the script gives us something *better* than we expected, great! But if it gives us much less than we expected - um, I’m not buying the DVD and telling my friends that it isn’t worth the ticket price. This is the kind of thing that can probably be traced back to a bad development note - hard to believe the writers who come up with the premise, then ignored it. Karen and Kiwi are too smart for that. Or it may have been in direction - the transformations may have been given enough time on the page, but the director didn't understand how important it was and just trimmed it down. That happens - directors sometimes don't know how stories work.

The story is the story. If you want some other story, tell some other story.

As HOUSE BUNNY goes through the motions of plot with the sorority girls about to lose their house to the Eeeeevilll Sorority, we get not enough laughs... except for Anna Faris doing something silly or giving a funny line reading or doing some small thing that’s funny. A serious gag & joke shortage! Never underestimate the importance of funny stuff in a comedy! Make sure your characters are more than just surface! And whatever your premise is, well, that's what it is!

- Bill

5 comments:

martinb said...

I was at the movie theatre last night and they had a full-size cardboard cutout of Anna Faris in the foyer. Man, does she have a pair of legs!

Hmmm... What do they do with those cutouts?

I last saw her in "My Super Ex-Girlfriend." She was excellent.

Steve Peterson said...

I'm curious about the guy that asked you to write up a budget (I guess writing is involved at least...). Have you thought about getting involved in the producing side of things?

I imagine that deal would've been a waste of time, but would doing budget stuff be good practice/experience for future producing work? And do you have any idea what books or training you might take for handling that sort of stuff?

Laura Reyna said...

Just read part of The House Bunny script. Couldn't finish it. Just not that funny.

Really like K&K's Legally Blonde script, tho.

Thanks for link to Kiwi's blog. Wasn't aware she had one.

Here's nice interview where they talk about how the HB script came about with Faris attached.

http://www.wga.org/subpage.aspx?id=2927

The Moviequill said...

Beverly D'Angelo, the shower scene... I rest my case (sigh)

Eleanor said...

Steve if you do a search for books on TV/Film production you'll probably come up with a whole host of stuff.

There's a book I have on my bookshelf called Producer To Producer - I forget the details and I'm at work so I can't look it up, but that seems to be a good one; covers budgets and all the rest of that good producery stuff.

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