Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mark Twain's Rules Of Writing

Mark Twain's Rules for writing, based on his reading of James F. Cooper's DEERSLAYER:

"Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction--some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style."

Most of those also work for screenwriting.

After turning in the first draft of the remake, I have been waiting for the call where they fire me... but instead have had positive responses. Hey, the thing needs work, I know this... but so far, I'm still the writer. I have traveled back to my home town for the holidays, so there may not be many blog entries for a while.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Over the next 2 weeks I'm running some older tips that need a rewrite... but haven't run in a couple of years. As usual, the new year will bring a bunch of new tips!
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pork Chops & Stuffing made by mom.

PS: My interview continues on the Writer's Bloc Show on Virtual TV Network, with part 4, about moving to LA and falling into a career writing cable movies:


PPS: My movies on TV...

Movies4Men2 (UK):
December 24 - 18:20 - Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

You have been warned.

- Bill

Friday, December 19, 2008

0 to 110 in 60 Seconds

FIRST: I have *finally* finished the first draft of the remake project, handed it in, and now kicking myself over all of the things I forget to write in the script. I’m actually planning on doing a touch up on the script while they are reading it. But mostly I’m happy with it, even though the whole project has been a challenge. Sometime in the future I may blog about the difficulties of remakes - do you remain faithful to the original or try to do something different and interesting?

SECOND: Between part 3 of my Writer’s Bloc interview and John August’s great blog entry on real world deadlines, you probably have a lot of questions about deadlines, and Grant was first to ask in the comments section. Because I’m sure many of you have the same question, and the answer is probably too long for the comments section, I’m answering here.

Grant has a good method for writing a script that allows him three weeks of prep time to really work out his characters and story before going to script. I have said this before - most people jump into their scripts way too soon, and don’t know their story and characters well enough - and it shows. Characters are inconsistent - or sketchy, and often the script wanders around looking for the story. Sometimes the best way to tell the story isn’t used - and it’s told in the easiest (and dullest) way. So spending the time to realy think through the story and characters before you go to script is a great thing....

But how does that work with real world deadlines?

Though in the interview I talk about a couple of times where I’ve had 2 weeks to write a script, that’s not how it normally works. Depending on the project, you are usually given a month to 12 weeks - sometimes more, in your contract. But, as John August mentions in his blog entry, just because they give you several months in your contract doesn’t mean they want you to wait until the last minute to turn in the script. I know a pair of writers who turn in their scripts at the very last minute... and I think their careers have suffered because of it. Just like anything else - you don’t want to wait until the last minute. Usually what will happen is the producer will call for a progress report, and though they sound happy and cheerful, what they really mean is “Where the hell is my script, slacker?” I got that call on the remake project because, even though I have a good prep method for writing scripts, I screwed up by abandoning it with this one. Instead of taking a couple of days to completely re-outline and write up a new treatment after getting the last minute changes, I thought I could just work those things out while writing the script... and boy was I wrong! I spent *weeks* trying to make the script work with the last minute changes - writing, throwing away, rewriting, reworking, throwing away, rewriting scenes. Much like my protagonist, I learned a valuable lesson.

When you are working on an assignment, usually it works in steps... and that means you won’t have to do everything at once. The first step is a treatment, and on many of the projects I’ve done I’ve had as little as a week - but never less than that. (Actually, I have had less time on one of those 2 week brain killer projects - but that’s unusual.) So much of your prep work will take place in that week. If you can figure out the basic story and characters and then do a beat sheet that you can turn into a treatment in 7 days, you’ll be okay. Most of the time they wanted about a 15 page treatment, and I could write that in a day from a beat sheet. Though you may need to compress some of your prep work to get that treatment done within the week, and you may end up skipping some steps... and maybe even putting in some long hours. But here’s your ace in the hole...

Once you turn in your treatment, there is a “reading period” - usually a week, or as long as the time allotted to write the treatment. That’s right - it takes them as long to read it as it took you to write it. Some of them probably move their lips while reading and have to look up “hard words” in the dictionary. But what this means to you - you have another week of prep for the script. While they are reading, you aren’t working on your tan in Mazatlan, you are doing all of the prep work that you couldn’t accomplish in that one week where you had to write the treatment. So you may turn in your treatment with a limited understanding of your characters and work that out while they are reading, or that place in the story you couldn’t quite figure out - so you faked your way through it in the treatment, you now have a week to figure out how to make it work.

None of this is leisurely. Whatever writer said that his wife didn’t understand that when he was looking out the window for an entire afternoon - he *was* working... well, that guy isn’t going to be spending as much time looking out the window. You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to inspire yourself. You have to work your butt off. The good thing about writing on a tight deadline - even though you may be pulling a lot of all-nighters and might become a stranger to friends and family, it’ll be over before you know it!

The thing about treatments - though WGA MBA says a producer can not reject a treatment and force you to rewrite treatments until they accept it, I would rather do a reasonable number of treatments (which means do some work for free) and get the story right before we move on to script, than go directly to script with a bunch of notes that completely change everything about the story... and have my first draft of the script be kind of a story experiment that everyone realizes doesn’t work... and you end up replaced by some other writer before there’s a story everyone agrees on. It seems like less work in the long run to write a few treatments than to have every draft be a completely different story with completely different characters. Sometime I will tell the story of my year writing treatments and scripts for a producer... you need to know when to say no!

Okay, so two weeks after they fire the starter gun, you have a meeting where they talk about the treatment they had a week to read - and often didn’t read - and if they want to go directly to script without continuing to play around with treatments, they’ll send you off to write. Your contract will a writing period for the first draft and a reading period for them to read it... or read the coverage... or have their assistant give them a 2 minute briefing on the way to the meeting. My 2 week situations have all been about meeting an airdate or production start date... and whenever there’s a hard deadline - be it 3 weeks or 3 months - it’s all about some real reason why they need the finished script. Whether it’s a pre-production date or a window for a star or a funding source - they need the script, so you need to get the rear in gear and write it. If there isn’t a hard deadline, and you’re just going by your contract - the producer will want it sooner rather than later - even though they may sit on it without reading it for weeks. Once they’ve commissioned the script, they want to see it as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean do a half assed job writing it - turning in crap on time is still turning in crap - but it does mean getting the work done as soon as possible.

I guess everything depends on how rough your rough draft is. Rewrites are part of a step deal, too - but that first draft you turn in has to be something that looks and reads like a script. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be good enough. Even though I’ve just turned in my first draft, while they are reading, I am tweaking. As long as that first draft reads okay, you’ll be doing the second draft... and that will be much better because you’ve been working while they were reading.

The main thing to do is not worry. Okay, worry a little. The first time you have to make some deadline, you may think it’s impossible - and you may go crazy getting the work done and panic every other day... but once you’ve handed in the draft on time, you realize you *can* do it. It’s like sky diving or bunjee jumping - the first time you are sure you will die. Once you survive, you have the confidence to do it again. You figure out how to adapt to whatever the situation is.

One thing I’ve learned about writing scripts on a deadline - you find some specific skill you have that is “coasting” - Oddly, I learned from NINJA BUSTERS and DROID GUNNER that I am pretty good at buddy banter off the top of my head - so if I have to write a script fast, I want it to be a buddy action script so that I can use that odd skill to turn out some pages that everybody likes quickly. I’ve also learned that my subconscious comes up with some great things when I don’t have time to think - and I’m sure yours will, too. And you will also discover that you will be able to come up with some great ideas on the fly - I never thought I could come up with anything off the top of my head (except hair pulled from the approaching deadline) but I come up with some amazing things when I’m in the middle of a scene - one trick of mine is to come up with *details* that may later pay off, and if they don’t - they are still good details.

Most of the time you will be given a reasonable amount of time to write your first draft. The producer does want the script as soon as possible, but they also want a good script. This *is* a business. There are deadlines. You need to be able to write on a schedule and get work done on time. You’ll get the hang of it.

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How To Study A Script.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger King on the run... Friday - mom's home cooking.
Pages: No pages yesterday, but I finished the danged script!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Black List & Bill On TV Part 3

Thursday they released The Black List - a list of best scripts compiled by development people. Many years ago, Vanity Fair magazine ran their 10 Best Unproduced Scripts list every year. Over a decade ago, when Script Mag was looking for article ideas, I came up with the concept of polling development execs to find the best unsold or unproduced scripts of the year. Script already had a column about hot new writers, and I thought this would be a good companion piece to that. But here was the problem - like many of the cool article ideas I proposed, I wasn't offering to write them. My connections with development people is limited, other writers on the mag had much better connections. So, the article never happened. Every year for over a decade, when Script asked for article ideas, I basically sent the same list including the Best Unproduced List idea. And nothing ever happened. Then, a couple of years ago the Black List popped up. It was a good idea, and someone else came up with it, too.

So here are the scripts on the Black List - almost all of them have been bought by someone, and way too many of them are assignments. (My list would *only* be originals.) The script, then how many votes.

67 Mentions (First Place)
THE BEAVER by Kyle Killen

61 Mentions
THE ORANGES by Jay Reiss & Ian Helfer

44 Mentions
BUTTER by Jason Micallef

42 Mentions
BIG HOLE by Michael Gilio

40 Mentions
THE LOW DWELLER by Brad Ingelsby

39 Mentions
FUCKBUDDIES by Liz Meriwether

34 Mentions

29 Mentions
BROKEN CITY by Brian Tucker

24 Mentions
I’M WITH CANCER by Will Reiser

22 Mentions
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS by Peter Straughan

21 Mentions
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS by Quentin Tarantino

20 Mentions

16 Mentions
GALAHAD by Ryan Condal
THE WEST IS DEAD by Andrew Baldwin

15 Mentions
MANUSCRIPT by Paul Grellong
THE TUTOR by Matthew Fogel

14 Mentions
THE DESCENDANTS by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
SUNFLOWER by Misha Green

13 Mentions
THE AMERICAN WAY by Brian Kistler
NOWHERE BOY by Matt Greenhalgh
RAINDROPS ALL AROUND ME by Reed Agnew & Eli Jorne

12 Mentions
A COUPLE OF DICKS by Mark Cullen & Robb Cullen
GAY DUDE by Alan Yang
UNDERAGE by Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber

11 Mentions
CODE NAME VEIL by Matt Billingsley
THE FOURTH KIND by Olatunde Osunsanmi
FOXCATCHER by E Max Frye & Dan Futterman
THE PHANTOM LIMB by Kevin Koehler

10 Mentions
THE F-WORD by Elan Mastai
UP IN THE AIR by Jason Reitman

9 Mentions
BACHELORETTE by Leslye Headland
JONNY QUEST by Dan Mazeau
THE KARMA COALITION by Shawn Christensen
KEIKO by Elizabeth Wright Shapiro
KNIGHTS by Nick Confalone & Neal Dusedau
TWENTY TIMES A LADY by Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden

8 Mentions
CLEAR WINTER NOON by John Kolvenbach
ROUNDTABLE by Brian K Vaughan

7 Mentions
THE LAYMAN’S TERMS by Jeremy Bailey
THE MALLUSIONIST by Robbie Pickering & JaceRicci
PLAN B by Kate Angelo
WHAT IS LIFE WORTH? By Max Borenstein

6 Mentions
ACOD: ADULT CHILDREN OF DIVORCE by Ben Karlin & Stu Zicherman
BAD TEACHER by Lee Eisenberg & Gene Stupnitsky
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY by Charles Randolph
CHILD 44 by Richard Price
EASY A by Bert Royal
GIANTS by Eric Nazarian
GRAND THEFT AUTO by Jason Dean Hall
LONDON BOULEVARD by William Monahan
MEMOIRS by Will Fetters
SHRAPNEL by Evan Daugherty
YOUR DREAMS SUCK by Kat Dennings & Geoffrey Litwak

5 Mentions
AFTER HAILEY by Scott Frank
THE BLADE ITSELF by Aaron Stockard
FRESHLY POPPED by Megan Parsons
GAZA by Frank Deasy
GROWN MAN BUSINESS by Justin Britt-Gibson
THE HERETIC by Javier Rodriguez
HOW TO BE GOOD by Cindy Chupack
MAN OF CLOTH by Josh Zetumer
THE SPELLMAN FILES by Bobby Florsheim & Josh Stolberg
A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Beau Willimon
UNLOCKED by Peter O’Brien
THE ZERO by Stephen Chin

4 Mentions
RONIN by Chris Morgan
BOBBIE SUE by Russell Sharman, Owen Egerton, & Chris Mass
BOBISM by Ben Wexler
DEADLINE by Soo Hugh
THE DEBT by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
HEARTSTOPPER by Dan Antoniazzi & Ben Shiffrin
I KILLED BUDDY CLOY by Nick Garrison & Chase Pletts
JAR CITY by Michael Ross
THE MOST ANNOYING MAN IN THE WORLD by Kevin Kopelow & Heath Seifert
MOTORCADE by Billy Ray
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HELL by Brian McGreevy & Lee Shipman
SAMURAI by Fernley Phillips
THE SCAVENGERS by Nate Edelman
SWINGLES by Duncan Birmingham & Jeff Roda
‘TIL BETH DO US PART by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg

- Bill

PS: My interview continues on the Writer's Bloc Show on Virtual TV Network, with part 3, about how to get pages actually written:


Sunday 12/21, Movies4Men2 (UK) - 19:10 - Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

Monday 12/22, Movies4Men2 (UK)- 16:35 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

You have been warned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quick Updates

You may have heard that Los Angeles has decided *not* to prohibit paparazzi from ambushing stars at LAX. This has lead to packs of roaming paps at LAX waiting to jump on some star who has just deplaned from a 14 hour flight from Europe... But they never expected to spot movie star Cameron Diaz asking for donations after she dropped out of Hollywood to join the Hare Krishnas...

And NASA continues to come up with interesting ways to deal with their budget cuts, including a program to replace the aging Space Shuttles, not by building new shuttles, but by *mating* the shuttles with 747s to create larger new shuttles...

And you can watch an interview with me here:


By the way, Scriptwriter's Network is a great organization. Two meetings every month, one with a big name screenwriter (or producer or director or agent) and one educational meeting... all for a low yearly membership. And there are dozens of other great things you get when you join!

Okay, now I have to get back to work...

- Bill

Monday, December 08, 2008

Desert Island DVDs

I own hundreds of DVDs, some still in the packaging. Others I end up watching at least once a year - often every few months. Movies that I just can't live without. There are some movies that I'll drive to see no matter where they are playing on the big screen. Here are five movies I can't live without. If I were dropped on a desert island and only had 5 movies to see again and again, I would take these... and retain my sanity.

NOTORIOUS - Ben Hecht - a heartbreaker of a thriller about a shy CIA agent (Cary Grant) whose job is to train a party girl (Ingrid Bergman) to infultrate a group of Nazis in South America... and falls in love with her in the process. Only he's too shy to say so. Nice story if it ends there, but the mission is for her to sleep with one of the Nazis (Claude Raines) and discover what they're up to. Grant is sure she'll refuse, Bergman is sure he'll stop her - neither does anything and she's screwing a Nazi for the CIA. They end up hating each other... then the Nazis find out she's an agent, and try to kill her. Will Grant realize what's happening and save her? Does he *want* to save her after she's been doing it with a Nazi every night? Romantic, heart breaking, and it's a Hitchcock suspense film.

POINT BLANK - David & Rafe Newhouse and Alex Jacobs - Pro thief Walker is double crossed by his wife and best friend, who kill him and take his money. But Walker's anger is more powerful than death, and he tracks the pair down, causing the death of anyone who gets in his way. Violent. Weird. Trippy. A movie that you can see 100 times and each time it seems to be a different movie... not because it's vague, but because it is so packed with details that you can follow a different story thread every time you see it. Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson, Carol O'Conner, and John Vernon.

DELIVRANCE - James Dickey - 4 guys go on a weekend rafting trip... into hell. Four great characters, and each deal with their worst fears... and maybe your worst fears. You could watch it just as an adventure film gone wrong and enjoy it... but it has got to be the best movie about what being a man is all about, that has ever been made. When Jon Voight is climbing the side of that mountain and drops the photo of his family into the river hundreds of feet below, it just kills me every time I see it. It's like he's lost his last connection with civilization to the wilds of nature.

IPCRESS FILE - Bill Canaway & James Doran - Sort of the “anti-Bond”, but made by the same producers. Harry Palmer is The Spy Who Does Paperwork in this predecessor to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. For every boring stake out assignment, every time you requisition a car, every time you even think about drawing your firearm, there is an endless pile of paperwork. Harry hates paperwork, but he’s a genius at sifting through it for clues - to find an enemy agent with no known address, he checks for parking tickets. Harry uncovers a plot to kidnap British scientists, brainwash them until they spill all of their secrets, then wipe their memories clean so that they are unable to function. The cool thing about this 60s film is that it uses all of the real brainwashing devices the CIA was experimenting with in their MK-ULTRA program, which wasn’t made public until the 70s. I love movies where intelligent guys get sent into the field, where they are clueless, and must fight to survive. Harry gets in so much trouble, and the story is so clever and twisted and has so many double and triple crosses that I can watch it again and again... oh, and it’s visually really really cool.

AMARCORD - Fellini - A year in the life of a small town and all of it’s interesting residents, told through a year in the life of a high school boy. I saw this film when it came out, and I was a high school boy - and even though it was in Italian, I completely understood everything that kid was going through. This film is funny and magical and for a movie with a large cast - you know and understand every single person. I dare you to see this movie and *not* think of the Peanut Vendor for months afterwards. Or the woman who owns the tobacco shop (though men will probably find her easier to remember than women). This film is full of great vignettes, and each of those stories are so much fun on their own that you can see the movie again and again. But mostly, it will remind you of *your* home town, and that age between childhood and adulthood where you did many things for the first time.

Wow... What do these 5 films tell you about *me*?

So what are *your* Desert Island DVDs? 5 movies you can watch again and again? List your films and a sentence on why you like them in the comments section! (So that this blog entry can last a whole week so that I can get this script finished.)

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: HANCOCK and the Rule Of Three - Brand New Tip about establishing info.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pollo Loco, chicken, corn, black beans.
Bicycle: After not much bike riding, I figured I'd hop on the bike and ride to some distant Starbucks to write... and while typing this it began raining. Really raining. Now I have to either wait out the rain or get soaked. Swell.

MOVIES: JCVD - It’s one thing for the critics to be throwing around Mickey Rourke’s name in the same sentence as the word “Oscar” (when talking about his performance in THE WRESTLER) - Rourke was a promising actor who had done some great work... then crashed and burned. Rourke could have been a contender.. And maybe he still can. But I’d read a couple of reviews of JCVD that mention Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name in the same sentence as “Oscar” - and they weren’t talking about bologna. They said he gave an Oscar calibre performance. This, I had to see.

So Wednesday night, instead of working on the script I'm way behind on, I went to see JCVD. Um, my excuses were: I was pretty much brain dead after trying to make up for lost pages and needed to take a break... and the reviews had mentioned a bank robbery aspect, that the script I should have been working on has an armed robbery scene, so, you know, it was like research. Some of my friends have also read reviews, so there was a group of us that went to the only cinema in L.A. showing the film and paid to see an *art house* Jean-Claude Van Damme film.

JCVD is a *dramatic* movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme's life. His divorce, losing his daughter in a custody battle, his career that has gone to hell, his fame and failure. Though for me, the high point of the film was a scene where JCVD has a complete emotional breakdown over losing custody of his daughter a couple of my friends thought his big (emotional) monologue was the high point - he just lets loose with all of the crap he has to deal with in his life, ends up crying... and you may get choked up, too. Though I think the whole Oscar thing is hyperbole - critics trying to convince the art house crowd to see a movie staring Jean-Claude Van Damme - he’s no threat to anyone on the short list for nominees, he still really can act. One review snarked that he’s a great actor when he’s playing himself, but I think that’s more difficult than the let’s pretend put on a costume acting those other guys are doing. Several times in the film I wondered why other producers don’t take advantage of Van Damme’s acting? The film deals with his life in Belgium, has his mother and father as characters, and talks about his drug addiction and many wives - some he married more than once, his painful divorces and personal failures... and that child custody battlepover his daughter where he breaks down. It's the biography of a B movie action star...

But wait... art house, acting, monologues, Jean-Claude Van Damme... you may be thinking this is a boring movie. The great thing about JCVD is that it is both a dramatic movie *and* a Jean Claude Van Damme flick.

The movie opens with an amazing sustained single shot as Van Damme shoots, kicks, and punches about a hundred bad guys while protecting this woman. No cuts. It’s like the opening of TOUCH OF EVIL, except Van Damme *fights* through the whole shot. The fight scene ends as Van Damme enters a building, and the guy behind him opens the door and knocks down the set - this lengthy shot (which is still going on) has all been part of a movie, and the director is some punk Chinese kid playing games instead of watching the monitor. Due to the set falling down, they’ll have to do it again. Van Damme is exhausted, sweating like crazy. We’ve just seen him do this massive extended fight scene - obviously doing all of his own stunts - and now they want him to do it again? He tells the kid director that he’s 47 years old, and this epic length shot is not easy to get right every time. The kid director doesn’t care....

After the film wraps, Van Damme hops a plane to Belgium, grabs a cab at the airport, and then goes into a bank (actually a post office) to pick up some money that has been wired to him... and the bank is being robbed. JCVD is held hostage in an action situation right out of one of his movie (and that plot helps explore character more than if it had been a straight bio - we can contrast his screen persona and his real life persona) and the robbers have JCVD talk to the police when the SWAT Team surrounds the bank and the Hostage Negotiator calls... and the police and press believe JCVD has robbed the bank and taken the hostages! Again, this ends up giving us more story than a standard bio, because we can explore the way fame is a blessing and a curse... and how the fans and the press reacts. By creating this larger than life situation, we can go much deeper into character than if it was just a standard bio.

The movie is much closer to DOG DAY AFTERNOON or RESERVOIR DOGS than a biopic... and that allows the story to dig deeper into character and emotion than a biopic. When someone has a gun to your head and you expect to die any moment, you tend to reflect on your life more than when someone just asks you about it. And you tend to be more honest about your screw ups. And when people get shot in the head and die, or when a child is used as a hostage and you have to watch... thinking of your child who may also be sort of a hostage in your divorce... you can really get into the character and emotions in ways that re impossible if this were *not* a fiction film where an army of SWAT guys are surrounding a bank.

And the film itself is interestingly made. It kind of does an ATONEMENT thing, where we start off seeing the story from the point of view of the two guys who work in the video store across the street from the bank. When one of them sees Van Damme get out of the cab, he grabs his camera and asks the star if he will pose with them. Van Damme is obviously in a rush (the meter is still ticking on the cab - it does for the entire film) but he makes the time to pose with his fans and is good natured about it... until they ask for one photo too many, and he’s got to go. Instead of going into the bank with Van Damme, we hang with these two, as shots are fired, a policeman is shot, and every policeman in Belgium ends up surrounding the bank. The video store ends up the command center - which is another interesting contrast between reality and movies. The Hostage Negotiator is actually the Chief Of Police, who is suddenly in the middle of an international media event... in his underpants. Oh, one of the hostages has been injured and Van Damme says on the phone that the only way he will let a paramedic treat the injured man is if he comes in naked. Being a crack negotiator, the Chief gets that demand changed to underpants. The Chief and a paramedic go into the bank, where Van Damme is holding a gun to a hostage’s head... and acting crazy. Van Damme ends up fighting the two, and getting them to leave - and leave the medical kit behind. Nothing funnier than a Chief Of Police trying to maintain control and dignity in his underpants. This actor was really good, by the way.

But just when we think Van Damme may really have lost it and taken over the bank, the movie does that ATONEMENT thing and zips back to Van Damme before he hopped the plane for Belgium - at the custody hearing for his daughter... losing her. Then at his agent’s office, being offered a terrible film role (a very funny bit)... which he must take because he’s just blown all of his money on lawyers who lost the custody case. Then the long plane flight, no sleep, grabbing the cab in Belgium, where the driver is a bitch who complains about Van Damme’s attitude - when he hasn’t said or done anything. This time we see the video store guys - but from Van Damme’s POV, and then we follow Van Damme into the bank.... which is being robbed. Van Damme is taken hostage, and when the Chief of Police calls to do his Hostage Negotiation, they put Van Damme on the phone in case the police are recording the call - they won’t get the robber’s voices. And from Van Damme’s point of view, we see all of the things we have seen before, only everything is entirely different. Van Damme has and empty gun held to the head of a robber who has a gun aimed at Van Damme.

The monologue is also clever. Van Damme is sitting in a chair - a hostage - completely at the end of his rope, and he turns to the camera and lets loose... as the chair begins rising toward the ceiling... passing the false ceiling to the movie lights above. All the world really is a stage. Knowing that he’s going to be killed by the robbers, he talks about all of his life’s failings. It’s raw stuff. Then the chair begins to descend, and when it reaches the floor again, Van Damme turns to face the Robbers - and we are back in the scene. The film really does belong in an art house.

If you strip away the fiction - the life or death bank robber and hostage situation - and just focus on the real life story of JCVD (an international movie star, so he's had a special life) - it's too boring for the big screen. The guy may be famous, but he's got kind of a normal life. Divorce, custody battles, idiot bosses, money problems, aging parents... hell, all of this stuff could be me.

And there's the key to a great script - the *emotional* experience and the emotional truth of the characters. By using a fiction story, we can dig much deeper into the character of Van Damme than if we stuck with a straight bio. Because of the way the movie ends, I don't think this really happened to Van Damme. (Well, it *couldn't* have happened to him.) All of the emotional stuff, but not the story we see on screen. That was the lie they used in order to tell the truth. And there were some great fantasy scenes where Van Damme imagines what he would do if this were a movie he was starring in - how he would kick the robbers’ asses big time. But in real life? He’s afraid they will shoot him, or kill one of the other hostages. Being a hero in a movie is completely different than risking your life and the lives of those around you in real life. But the story leads to that point where he must decide to do something (or not) and the added pressure of his on screen persona weighs heavily on his decision.

Though Van Damme doesn’t need to get up early on that day they announce he Oscar Nominees for Best Actor, he does need to clue in some of these B movie producers he’s working with that he can actually do a dramatic scenes... and maybe some studio guys will see this and realize that, as the movie says a couple of times, when John Woo came from Hong Kong to Hollywood to make movies, the star he wanted to work with first was Van Damme. The guy deserves better than what he’s been getting.

- Bill

PS: Monday on Movies4Men2 (network): 16:00 Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

Thursday on M4M2: 18:30 Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

You have been warned.

Friday, December 05, 2008

THEM vs. Us

One of those movies I saw as a kid on CPM Theater Sunday afternoon on KCRA 3 out of Sacramento-Stockton. Movies like this scared me when I was a kid...

...And this film ended up influencing my SPLICERS script (about the experiment to create the ultimate tunnel dog to go after Osama in the tunnels of Afghanistan... genetically spliced with a desert scorpion and just a hint of Afghan box spider! Then we decide to skip Osama and go to Iraq, and the danger things are in some "Enterprise Zone" lab in L.A. until a rolling blackout pops open their cages and they end up in the L.A. subway tunnels, eating passengers. So we have to send in a bad-ass Special Forces Team to find 'em and kill 'em.

- Bill

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oscar Winner Can't Sell Scripts

News Story from a month ago:

ROME - Michael Cimino, who won the 1978 Oscar for best director for The Deer Hunter but who fell from Hollywood's grace after his 1980 film Heaven's Gate became a costly flop, expressed his frustration over been shunned by his peers during a news conference at the Rome Film Festival on Thursday. "It's horrible," Cimino said after he was greeted by the assembled news writers with a standing ovation. "It's like being unable to sing." (His last film, 1996's The Sunchaser, was panned by critics when it opened in limited release and earned just $23,107.) Cimino had been invited to attend the festival as a "special guest" and is presenting a documentary that features classic dance numbers from movies. There was no indication whether it includes any scene from Footloose, which Cimino was originally hired to direct. (He parted company over "creative differences" with producer Craig Zadani, who later said, "Cimino wanted to make a darker movie. We wanted to make an entertainment.") He told the Rome news conference that he had written numerous screenplays that he was unable to sell to producers. "But I have just finished a new script and perhaps now is a good time. I believe we will shoot it soon, and I will bring it to the festival."

One of the things new writers often think is that if they can just break in, get over that massive wall around Hollywood, they'd have a career and wouldn't have to work so hard. Another thing that often comes up is that that wall around Hollywood is to make sure the professionals keep working and that the superior new writers don't steal all of the jobs. Oh, and that once you win an Oscar, everyone wants to buy everything you have - winning an Oscar is what you should aim for if you want a screenwriting career.

Well, I guess none of those things are true. Once you break in, you have to work even harder to keep your career going. I've said before - you are always breaking in, again and again. You can coast a little on a big sale - other people will want to meet with you and some of those meetings may turn into assignments. But if you don't start pedaling soon you're going to hit that hill before you're ready and will have lost any momentum.

Hey, and it seems that even professionals have to works their butts off to stay in the game, and even guys with Oscars have trouble selling a script. I had an old script tip, long since retired because the info was out of date (and it was too much trouble to research and rewrite it every time I ran it) about Oscar winning screenwriters who had scripts that did not sell or did not get made. There are lots of them. I think Robert Bolt was my poster child for guys with lots of Oscars who had lots and lots of dead scripts. There is no guarentee that what you write will sell or will get made if it does sell. I know writers who have made those big $1.2 million deals, where they get $200k for the script and a bunch of drafts and get the $1 million when they make the movie... except they never make the movie. Hollywood makes less than 10% of what they buy or develop. So that big script sale is really a lot of work writing drafts for the trash can. Remember, over half of the WGA (professional sold writers) are unemployed every year. No one buys their screenplays or hires them for an assignment. It's difficult for *name writers* to make a living in this business. Along with the 10% of *sold* screenplays that make it to the screen, there is the difficulty of selling the script in the first place... something that Cimino is struggling with now. I once did the math and estimated that there are 1,000,000 screenplays in circulation at any one time... and only about 100 of those sell every year. We've had years where only 58 scripts sold. I feel blessed that they keep buying mine or hiring me to write something every year. Next year will be 20 years in this business, always working on something. No major struggles like Cimino is dealing with (though lately, as I've worked on higher profile projects... they have been in that 90% that don't get made! Too many big variables! When a big name star or a director has a scheduling conflict and drops out, it kills the whole film. On my HBO films, we had Scott Glenn drop out of CRASH DIVE and the next week had a replacement "star" from the HBO Approved List and the movie got made!). "Nothing in life comes with a guarantee," as they say in BLOOD SIMPLE. You will always have to work your butt off in this business.

And Cimino's Oscar means that people will meet with him, but after that it depends on the project. On message boards I often rail against artsie-fartsies that want to only write "Oscar worthy material" - and that's not because I dislike those movies. Two films from this year that I really love are THE VISITOR and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. But there is a difference between enjoying a movie and seeing that kind of movie as a logical and promising career path. THE DEER HUNTER is a great film, but Cimino has tried to model a career from that movie and films like it... and has had a lifetime of struggling. His other good film was his complete sell-out gangster action movie, YEAR OF THE DRAGON. I think Cimino would have had a better career if he just focused on bringing his brilliant artistic sensibilities to mainstream genre films. If he had continued to make action and thriller films (and stayed on time and on budget... and delivered the genre juice) he would have made a film every year and those films would be genre films we would be talking about for decades to come.

Look at Eastwood - how many years has he had *two* films released? This year we have CHANGELING and GRAN TORINO... one is a true period story about a mother's quest for her missing son, the other looks like GRUMPY OLD DEATH WISH... and *both* are getting Oscar buzz! Eastwood makes his films on a tight budget and tight schedule and even when he makes a genre movie, he makes it a good one. Eastwood has figured out what many others after him have - that you can work within the system and still have a vision. I think DARK KNIGHT is the ultimate proof - the second most successful film of all time, yet still an edgy indie flick about morality and terrorism and the darkness within all of us.

But if Cimino didn't want to make YEAR OF THE DRAGON type movies for a career, he could have gone the other way and done his own thing in the indie world. One of the great things about Soderbergh is that he has a foot in each camp - he can make a big silly OCEAN movie, or make a small experimental film like BUBBLE, or combine both sensibilities and make OUT OF SIGHT or THE LIMEY. I think one of the big problems Cimino has with the indie world is that he wants to make big lavish films on studio budgets... that are not studio-type stories. You have to make a decision. If you want to make a film on a big studio budget, it's probably going to be the kind of film the studio wants to make... and that's something that will sell to a mass audience. If you want to make the kind of film that appeals to a niche audience or has a limited appeal, you need to make it on a limited budget. That is the decision you make. The epic indie film? Doesn't make sense with today's audience and today's economy. After MALL RATS flopped, Kevin Smith went back to making indie films on indie budgets - $250k for his next film. I believe CHOKE was made for $400k. If you want to make and edgy indie weird movie that isn't all about the mass audience, you can do that... if you find the funding yourself and make it cheap enough. A labor of love is not about the money... and that includes the cost of making the film. You're making it on love, not money... so you need a project that you can afford to make on love alone.

This is not an easy business, but people do break in every year. Script Magazine has a section in every issue devoted to first sales. And if you don't coast too long without pedaling, you can make it up most of the hills this biz throws in your path. Just don't underestimate the difficulty of those hills, and don't think you're going to get on the bike for the first time and not take a couple of spills. It's not easy, but I think it's worth it.

- Bill
Classes On CD On Sale!

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Show The Goal - huge tip using ROMANCING THE STONE and SLUMDOG as examples. Last ran in 2001 when it was only 1 paragraph.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Caesar salad at Fuddruckers.

Pages: I've been trying to make up lost pages with mixed results. 7 pages some days and the 5 page quota on others... yesterday was 8 pages.
Bicyle: Not much cycling - between the rain and holidays and a couple of days when I wasn't feeling great.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Why I Always Outline

According to my Big Board, I am finished with the first draft of this screenplay. According to my page count, I am not...

You would think that after doing a stack of treatments for this sucker, writing the script would be a breeze... that’s what I thought, and I’m fairly sure that’s what the producer thought, too. But this thing has taken me much longer than usual. Here’s why:

That stack of treatments. Each one different than the one before - locations have changed and completely different antagonists and plot lines and scenes and structures completely different - some of them where chronological, some used a flashback structure, some used a little of each. Most of he treatments were about 40 pages. And before I wrote each one, I did an outline to incorporate the changes and new characters and new plotlines. I needed to make sure that the story flowed and that there weren’t to many of one kind of scene back to back and that supporting characters didn’t vanish for an extended length of time and that the pacing of the “juice” scenes worked. In one case, the notes had the story doing a complete 180, and I did an outline and turned in a 40 page treatment within a week. Eventually, after being broken in like a wild horse, I wrote a treatment that everyone seemed to like - one member of the team said he’d gladly put this version into production. Okay - we finally had a winner!

Everybody liked it and the decision was made to go to script.

But, at the last minute there were some additional notes. Some scenes were cut, others reordered, a new supporting character was added, one of the 2 main locations was completely changed - and that story thread had to change to reflect the new location, and some other things were changed.

Because I was now on the “script clock” and needed to get this thing written (with holidays and Expo and AFM and the Final Draft Big Break Awards and... all kinds of other things approaching). So instead of doing outline number whatever, I figured I could just plug in the changes to the script as I wrote it. You know, not waste any time.

Except, I ended up wasting a bunch of time. You see, all of these last minute changes may have seemed minor (actually, they didn’t) but when you cut a couple of scenes here, suddenly two similar scenes butted together and the new character was a third wheel in a bunch of scenes and the logic of scenes taking place at one location was completely lost in the new location and that whole part of the script needed to be rethought... and instead of working all of this out in an outline, I wrote and scrapped and rewrote and scrapped and rewrote and scrapped and... well, wasted a bunch of time. Would have saved time by working out the bugs in an outline.

So, now I’m through most of the rough patches and headed into act 3... but way behind schedule. I feel like I’ve blown it. Instead of speed and accuracy, I’m that writer who said the script would be finished on one date... and will actually be finished about two weeks later. Not very professional on my part.

Next time, I’ll do one more outline before I write FADE IN.

- Bill
eXTReMe Tracker