Monday, May 26, 2008

Top Ten Reasons NOT To Be A Screenwriter

Screenwriting sucks. It is a brutal occupation. You get crapped on all the time. But I wouldn’t change jobs for a million dollars... I love writing screenplays. So, here we are with more answers to those questions you posted a few month ago...

Question: Can you give us some reasons *WHY NOT* To Write A Screenplay?

I'll start:

1. How to write a Feature Film Script is *elusive*. Unless (of course) you are a glutton for continuous mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical pain…

Answer: Have I ever said it was easy?

2. It's almost impossible to sell a script. There are around half a million scripts in circulation ever year, and a couple hundred films made.

3. Oh, and once you sell or option a script - almost impossible to get it made.

4. And once they make it, they screw it up so bad it doesn't resemble what you wrote.

5. And critics will blame *you* for all of the bad parts, even though all of that stuff was their stupid rewrite.

6. And, as I've said before, if you were to just focus on a day job and work really hard - you'll probably make about as much (if not more) than you will writing scripts. With less hassle and more peace of mind.

7. David E. Kelley is the exception that proves really hot actors/actresses do not sleep with screenwriters.

8. The minute you sell a script and they completely ruin it, someone comes out of the woodwork saying they would have bought it and made it as written.

9. But if you sell a script for less money to someone who says they won't change a word - when they are done, they will point out that *one* word they didn't change.

10. And once you’ve gone through the seven circles of Hell required to sell a screenplay? You are unemployed... and must return to GO and begin the whole process again... Then again... Then again... Then again...

But Wait! There's More!

This is a brutal, difficult business. Someone once said that you can make a fortune writing screenplays, but you can’t make a living. That’s not entirely true, but the point is that when you read about some writer making a lot of money, those are the very very few at the top of the food chain. Every year, half of the WGA membership makes $0 (zero, zed, nothing)... and the median for the other half is around $100k. So, you can kind of plan on making $50k a year as a professional screenwriter - and that isn’t much. Of course, some people make more money... which means others have to make less money. And some people go a couple of years without work, so that others can work every year. There is no regular paycheck, and every time you sell a screenplay... it may be your last. You don’t know. Or, maybe this is the sale that will be made into the hit film that will change your career. You never know.

I just finished the rewrites on movie #20, and now I’m unemployed (I'm good 'til the end of the year, but what about next year?). So I’m running around trying to get someone, somewhere, to read a script and then buy it. Saturday night I had dinner with a producer... which lasted a couple of hours longer than expected... and after all of that time, do I have a job? I don’t know. We talked about potential projects, but nothing that seemed like a contract and a paycheck. May happen, may have just wasted half a day with this guy. There are a lot of time wasters out there. Lots of meetings that lead nowhere. This business has ups and downs - not all rollercoaster rides are in the cineplex. I have had years where 3 scripts were sold... and 3 films were made from them. Other years where I sold nothing and lived on savings from the previous year’s sales. I’ve also had years where I worked my butt off on a project that crashed and burned - I got paid, the film didn’t get made. There’s a stretch of time between credits on IMDB where I earned a living - they just never made any of the films. Problem is, go long enough without something going to screen and you start to go crazy. Am I doing all of this work for nothing? For a check? So that I can pay the monthly bills and at the end of the year have no new credits and no movie to watch with my name on it?

Hey, I could tell you tales of terror from the screenwriting trenches... in fact, some are coming up. The statute of limitations have expired on a couple of stories, so I’m gonna blog about them in the next few weeks... while I’m looking for work.

The amazing thing is - this is my 18th year as a pro screenwriter. I have managed to put together a living for 18 years, now. Through good and bad. You might look at my credits (or my credit reports) and think I'm a failure... I mean, look at all of those bad movies! But I think I'm a success - I am doing what I love, and have been doing it for the past 18 years. Some good years, some bad years - all *screenwriting* years.

Recently all of the “Entertainment News” shows (which rarely contain any actual entertainment news, but lots of celebrity news and scandal stuff) did a story on Anne Heche’s divorce - she’s behind on her spousal support payments and her ex dragged her into court... where she said that her TV show had been cancelled, so she is currently out of work and has no offers, and no idea when (if ever) she will be employed again. This is some sort of scandal! Broke TV star! How can that be? Well, it’s actually fairly common in the entertainment biz. No regular pay checks, no regular employment, no idea what will happen next. Live like a star, and you may end up broke before the next gig. What if you were “flavor of the month” and the month is over? What if that was it?

Because I’m often the guy with the facts and figures about just how tough the job of screenwriting is, people sometimes think I’m a pessimist... or, at the very least, some sort of spoilsport trying to destroy their dreams. Wrong on both counts. I am a *realist* - I don’t live in fantasy land, I live here in the real world, and want to know how to survive in this world. In either STAR WARS or EMPIRE, Han Solo says, “Don’t ever tell me the odds!” I think he’s a fool. If I know how difficult something is in advance, I can make sure I put in enough effort to win. I can prepare myself. I can make plans, do research, find the best method for success... Of course, Han Solo wasn’t really one for plans, so maybe knowing the odds was just unimportant to him. I want to know what problems I am likely to face *before* I have to face them - then I can come up with a solution and not just get beat down. Many people get beat down because they think their dreams will come true if they just keep on dreaming. Problem is - the real world doesn’t care about dreams. It’s hard work and problem solving.

Here’s the thing - once you know that there are going to be a million boobytraps ahead, and that there are 50,000 scripts registered every year, and probably ten year’s worth of scripts in circulation (that is half a million, folks) and that they only bought something like 98 spec scripts last year, and probably made around 10 or something, you may wonder how anyone can *not* be pessimistic... and there’s the key to being a screenwriter. You have to be an optimist. Once you know how crappy the odds are, once you know that your career could be over with one script sale, once you know that even if you have 19 films made from your scripts and they all turned out crap... you still believe you can make it. You still believe that someone, somewhere, will actually make your script the way it was written... or maybe even be a great director who will interpret your script using their directing talent (which has zip to do with writing) and the film will be better than your script. Hey, and maybe some great actor will play the lead and add their talent to your script (again - acting talent doesn’t mean changing the script, it means *performing* it). And the film becomes better than you could have imagined! And you maintain this optimism through crappy film after crappy film... through rejection after rejection. And when your hair begins to gray, you still *love* the writing part of this job. You still *love* coming up with stories and characters and going on those mental adventures for 110 pages.

I love to write. So, even if #20 was it and I end up working in McDonalds for the rest of my life, I will always have writing. I will always be able to do what I love.

Being a screenwriter is just like anything else in life. There are highs and lows. There are days when you think God hates you. Most days, though, you just wonder if He even knows you exist. A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a coffee shop, talking on my phone, surrounded by other people... and a bird shit on me. It didn’t shit on anybody else. Just me. A few months ago, I went to pick up some printing at a copy shop and they told me my credit card didn’t work. What? I called the credit card folks they told me that I had reported it stolen. What? I told them I hadn’t - and they argued with me. Eventually, I got far enough up the chain of idiots to get someone “in charge” who said a mistake must have been made and they would send me a new card... You know, it’s been one thing after another and many phone calls later I still don’t have that replacement card... I'm better off without it... and just use another card, now. Someone spilled coffee on me a few days ago. Burned my leg and stained a new pair of jeans - fresh from the laundry! Things go wrong every single day of your life - and you don’t quit, do you? You don’t give up on living because some bad things happen - because there are obstacles. Hey - same with screenwriting. I can tell you right now - you will have all kinds of problems in your screenwriting career. You will have producers back stab you, you will have agents blow deals, you will have managers cheat you, you will work your ass off on some film... and credit arbitration goes against you and your name isn’t on the film. There are a million things that will go wrong in your career as a screenwriter, just as there are a million things that will go wrong in your life. But if you love screenwriting, you’ll keep doing it....

Just make sure the producers don’t shit on you too much. And when they do, just remember there are other producers - some will probably shit on you less... and some may not shit on you at all. And, if you’re an optimist, some producer somewhere will read one of your scripts and know how good it is... and do everything in their power to turn it into a great film. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but I have faith that it will.

So, I’m working on a new spec... a family film about getting back up on your feet after life knocks you down. Inspirational. Optimistic... and also realistic. In the immortal words of Rocky Balboa, "It ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits."

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Bank Holiday in the USA, so it's Hero Comes Late. - but some new tips are in the works... one on IRON MAN I'm working on...
Yesterday’s Dinner: Broccoli Beef at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: I've seen a whole bunch of movies, including the new Indiana Jones film, and will report on them in the coming days...

Movies: NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN - I thought the first NARNIA movie, THE LION THE WITH AND THE WARDROBE was just okay. When my nieces were kids I gave them all of the books to read, not so much because they were secretly Christian books as because they were books of imagination. Kids need to exercise their imaginations! They need to have an escape! When I was a kid I read all of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stuff, but those were kind of boy books - the Narnia books had girls in them, and they’d be perfect for my nieces. They called them “chapter books”. I have no idea whether they saw the movie or whether they liked it, but for me by the time LION got to the big battle scenes, they were kind of *generic* battle scenes - and I didn’t care.

So, maybe they figured all of that out in the sequel?

Nope! PRINCE CASPIAN is bland and boring and impersonal... and also completely non-Christian... not that that matters to me, I haven’t set foot in a church in decades, but you’d think it would matter to the guys making the film. That is part of their audience, right? I mean, the reason why SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES died was because it was the non-Christian fantasy film, right?

LION has a great opening scene - Nazi planes are bombing London in WW2 and our 4 kids are racing to the bomb shelter, when one of the boys races back inside the house... the very house that is about to be bombed! The other kids *order him* not to go, but he does anyway. Bombs are destroying homes. People are being killed out there. It’s an exciting, suspense filled action scene. This is a kid with problems.... and when he gets back into the bomb shelter we find out what was so important to him... a photo of his dead soldier father. Okay, that is a great scene because it’s all about character - and it’s also exciting and involving.

CASPIAN begins with a fist fight between boys - and we don’t know what started it or even who these kids are. Our two lead boys end up involved in the fight in the subway (tube), but we don’t know what it is all about... meanwhile some geeky kid is hitting on the oldest girl, and she tries to get away from him. That’s when the subway train comes... and the four kids see Narnia. They are transported to Narnia...

That isn’t nearly as cool as the hide & seek from the first film. No magic.

Once they get there, they discover a whole bunch of time has passed in Narnia, that runs on some sort of dog-year time or something. Narnia has been taken over by a bunch of evil humans who have killed all of the cute talking animals (can’t really say I blame them) and killed all of the weird half-man/half-horse things that have 6 appendages and may or may not have 2 sets of genitals (again - can’t say I blame them - those things freaked me out in the first film). There is an evil king, of course, and he has this evil plan to build a wooden bridge over this river. Much like Darth Vader, he kills people who get behind schedule... so I’m thinking this is the Death Bridge. No one ever tells us why this bridge is so important, or what the king;s evil plan might be... so we just watch guys build a bridge and don’t really care. It’s not like they are going to use the bridge to destroy a planet or something - it’s just a freakin’ bridge! So we don’t care.

When the evil king’s wife pops a boy, Prince Caspian is in the way of his evil bridge building plan, so he decides to kill him... but Caspian escapes, because the film is named after him. The film isn’t called Narnia: Cute Talking Badger.

Caspian does bump into some cute talking animals and some dwarves and our four kids, who are all legendary kings in the world of Narnia. Though the evil king and his bridge building henchmen think all of the damned talking animals and dwarves in Narnia are dead, seems that some survived and are living in the woods. Now here is where being a writer means I make sense of a story that really doesn’t make sense in order to explain it to you - the talking animals basically hide all day because they have no one to lead them into battle with the humans. That isn’t in the movie at all, but it should have been. And, though not a single talking animal ever mentions Aslan the Lion from the first film, who was secretly Jesus, it seems they need some Lion guidance. Again, I’m making sense of the movie and adding that the animals have lost faith, when that is never mentioned, shown, alluded to, hinted at, or anything else in that actual film. It’s as if all of the important stuff in the story never made it into the script - it just stayed in Adamson’s mind.

The talking animals and Prince Caspian, who speaks with Chico Marx’s accent, want the four kid kings to help them - even though this is barely discussed. This is a movie where things happen in the most boring and unemotional way possible - as if it’s designed to put you to sleep. It never tries to include us in the story or involve us in any way... and none of the characters have any emotional conflicts at all ... so there is nothing to feel. They decide to attack the evil king in his castle - because they’d never expect that - and we get a big, pointless battle scene.

Now, I’ve said this in a dozen Script Tips - an action scene is a *character* scene. In one of those danged LORD OF THE RINGS movies, there’s this great battle scene where one of the King-guy’s daughters, played by Miranda Otto (didn’t even have to look that up) is in love with Viggo Mortensen’s character. When all of the soldiers put on their armor and go into battle, she dons armor and tries to blend with the others. One of the short guys - I think the one on LOST - sees that this soldier is a woman... the Princess. Will he keep her secret? That adds an element of suspense, along with just the basic concept that this is the *Princess* in the battle, not a soldier. Of course, the biggest, meanest, most evil monster-soldier of all kills his way to her. Now she is fighting the ultimate warrior... and we know it’s the Princess, not a soldier! The ultimate warrior thing fights her - and it’s one heck of a great fight, but she’s completely out-gunned. This ultimate warrior thing gets ready to kill her, and says, “No man can kill me.” And she does an absolutely amazing sword move and kills the sucker, then takes off her helmet, lets down her hair, and says, “I am no man.” That’s a freakin’ great moment in a huge battle scene! And that is only one moment out of *dozens* in that one battle scene. That’s the key to a great epic battle scene - it’s all about individual fights within the battle, and the amazing emotional moments in those fights. But with CASPIAN we just get this big battle - lots of long shots of fighting, but no *moments*. These are the most boring film fights since the last Narnia movie!

Oh, and Tilda Swinton pops up in a one minute cameo as the evil ice queen... which brings up character arcs and emotional conflicts. Even though the battle scenes were boring in the first film, the film was still okay because of the characters. The problem boy from the first film was lured to the dark side by the Ice Queen, and a major part of that first film was the battle for that boy’s soul. Here, no one is even tempted! None of the four kids has any emotional issues they are struggling with at all - that makes them boring. They are flawless - and characterless. Maybe they thought after the kids found Lion in the first film they had to be perfect... but that just makes them boring. No weakness means no strength. You can’t get up if you have never fallen.

Okay, once they have retreated from one pointless battle scene and fallen back to their crumbling hide out in the woods, the evil King decides to follow them and kill them all. All cute talking animals and half horse / half men will be destroyed! And you know how they get to the Narnian hide out? You guessed it - the Death Bridge! This makes no sense at all, because they thought there were no more talking animals, so why would they build the Death Bridge over the part of the river that leads right to their hide out? I mean, they’d have to have flipped to the end of the script to find out where the hide out would be (it wasn’t a hide out until there was a reason to hide out) so this makes no sense at all - just really really bad writing. The writer may know what comes next, but the characters don’t. And in this case, the evil King is building the bridge before they discover that there are still cute talking animals and before our Kid Kings return.

Eventually the evil King and his army cross the Death Bridge and we get to another big pointless battle scene - with no character and no drama and no moments in between - this film is flat and boring and long. For some reason which they do not tell us, they send the youngest girl, Lucy, on horseback into the forest. Oh, and there are bad guy soldiers in the forest. Why is she riding in the forest? What the hell is this all about? Instead of letting us in on the story, so that we can worry that she won’t accomplish her mission in time or whatever, we’re kept completely outside the story - and have no idea what the heck is going on. They keep cutting back to Lucy evading the soldiers, and we wonder why they sent a little girl out into the woods in the first place. Are they trying to get her killed? Did she piss off her brothers and sister and they want her to die?

Instead of including us in the story, the film excludes us and confuses us.

And we don’t care.

By the way, the one thing I still don’t understand about these epic boring bloody battle scenes - are they really in the spirit of being Christian? Instead of bloody battles where people are brutally killed, shouldn’t we be turning the other cheek? Shouldn’t we be finding some sort of peaceful answer? Should we be teaching our kids that when people have a different opinion than yours, you should kill them? There’s a moment in the film where a character can be forgiving or use their sword... and we don’t end up with a very Christian solution to the fight. The good Christian character lifts his sword to kill the bad guy, hesitates... then hands the sword to another character and says: You kill him! Like I said, I haven’t set foot in a church in decades, but I believe that you always have to do what is right - and that isn’t the message in this film. At the end of the day, this film is about brutally killing people. I don’t think I want my now-adult nieces to see this film... and I worry about the kids in the audience. There are more moral discussions and more moral actions in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies than in these supposedly Christian films. The scene in, I think the second LOTR movie, where Frodo and Sam are suspicious of each other... and eventually they must make peace with each other and forgive each other.... that’s a good message. The LOTR movies are about throwing away the most precious thing in the world so that the world can be at peace. You know, when people are killing each other over *oil*, maybe we need to skip the next NARNIA movie and re-see those LOTR flicks. Plus, they’re much much better movies.

Pages: Kinda goofed off for a few days after the rewrite, but now I'm working on the girl-horse project... and kind a poking around on the Big Rewrite Project.

Bicycle: Raining and overcast in LA - so I haven't been on the bike over the long holiday weekend.

- Bill

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Accidental Movie Cameo

A couple of weeks ago I did an entry on my friend Danny’s short film CHILDREN OF SCUM: A RETROSPECTIVE that was playing at L.A.’s Mockfest. Even though I was cut out of SCUM, I planned on going to the screening just to lend my immoral support... but something happened and I missed it. Actually, I had a terrible day in 100' plus heat where I (like an idiot) cycled to a Starbucks I’ve only been in once before to work only to discover that their A/C was broken... and by the time I’d done a little work and cycled home, I was miserable and overheated and sunburned...

But even though I wasn’t there in SCUM and I wasn’t there in person, I *was* at Mockfest...

In another movie...

One I had no idea I was in...

Thanks to Danny for giving me the heads up about my cameo in DESPERATELY SEEKING PAUL McCARTNEY. They filmed me at a pitch clinic put on by Alameda Writers Group, where I was on the panel dispensing advice to people pitching their projects. I remember being on the panel, I have no memory of cameras in the room. But they had to be there, because I’m in the film telling this woman that the main problem with her doc about marrying Paul McCartney is that it requires Paul McCartney... and he may be difficult to get hold of.

When I tracked down the film, I found the trailer... and I’m in it! (Blink and you'll miss me - I guess in the film I have dialogue.)



Strange! Where will I turn up next? TMZ?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:


Pages: Finished the rewrite, delivered it to the director.
Bicycle: Riding today - not really adding to my distance, but maintaining it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indiana Jones And The Half Dozen Screenwriters

Hey, I have tickets for the new Indiana Jones movie Friday night... I can't wait!

But what the heck am I gonna see?

I bought the new DVD of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with all kinds of extras...including a new doc that has everyone talking about how great Larry Kasdan's script was. Spielberg says they had this meeting with Kasdan that took the basic concept and turned it into something great... and then the screenplay he delivered was even better. If you managed to miss who Kasdan is, he's one of the great screenwriters of our time. He wrote RAIDERS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and BODY HEAT and RETURN OF THE JEDI and BIG CHILL and SILVERADO and GRAND CANYON and CONTENTAL DIVIDE (great film - John Belushi) and THE BODYGUARD and others. But not a single frame of the doc shows Kasdan - he isn't interviewed, he isn't shown.

Kind of a mixed message, there. The script was great, Larry Kadan is a great writer... but we didn't think he was important enough to be on the doc about the movie he wrote. The invisible screenwriter.

The reason why it has taken 19 years for a sequel is always said to be finding the right screenplay. After THE LAST CRUSADE, the screenwriter of that movie (Jeffrey Boam who also brought the LETHAL WEAPON series back to life) wrote a screenplay that everyone except Lucas liked. Since then, Tom Stoppard and Steve Gaghan (TRAFFIC) did drafts that were rejected... and then it was given to Frank Darabont (SHAWSHANK) who was one of the writers on YOUNG INDIANA JONES. When I met Darabont many years ago, in the house where he was living up in the Holywood Hills, he showed me the brand new car he bought with Young Indy money. He wrote a draft of INDY 4 that Spielberg loved and Ford loved... and Lucas rejected. Drabont was kind of vocal about it - you can Google it, and find his complete tirade. Then a draft was written by M. Night Shamalamadingdong... probably with a twist ending. That draft was also rejected. I'm sure I left someone out - every hot writer has done a draft - some were rejected by all, some were only rejected by Lucas. Finally they found a script they all agreed on by David Koepp.

Koepp is kind of the go-to guy for big blockbusters - like WAR OF THE WORLDS and JURASSIC PARK. I'm a fan of his early thrillers (APARTMENT ZERO, BAD INFLUENCE, etc), and even like the stuff he's been writing & directing lately (his great little film TRIGGER EFFECT may end up the better version of Shamalamadingdong's HAPPENING film). I saw him on a panel once, and he talked about writing big films - often the director gives you a list of scenes and your job is to run a story through them. This means he probably took dictation from Spielberg and/or Lucas... hell, maybe even Ford. So Lucas gets *exactly* the script he wants...

And is that a good thing? I mean, look at the three STAR WARS prequels. Is that what I'm gonna see on Friday night? Indiana Jones meets Jar Jar Binks?

They always do director's cuts - you know, where Lucas screws up his old movies - but I'd really like to see the Writer's Cut - the Darabont version, the Night version, the Boam version, etc. Would those movies be better? Different? More interesting? Less Jar Jar?

Wouldn't it be cool to have all of these scripts on the DVD when it comes out?

What do you think the new movie is going to be like? Better than LAST CRUSADE? Worse than that awful second film?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Mixed Genre Salad and my 20th film.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Ceasar salad at Fuddruckers.

Movies: THE VISITOR - I was fan of STATION AGENT when it came out, so I had to see the writer-director's new movie. Character actor Richard Jenkins plays a very uptight college prof who is practically forced to give a presentation in New York. When he arrives at his unusued NYC apartment... there are fresh flowers on the table. Someone's belongings in the living room. Someone is squatting in his empty apartment. Then he hears a noise from the bathroom - someone in the tub! Ends up a young immigrant couple have been living there - and they think *he's* the intruder. Once he proves it's his apartment, the couple agrees to leave... but when he sees them on the street he decides to let them stay temporarily. Until they can find a place to stay.

The woman (Zainab) is from Senegal, the man (Tarek) from Syria. She makes jewelry, he plays the bongos in several night clubs. Completely different than Jenkins' stuffy college prof.

The movie opens with Jenkins taking piano lessons, and not doing well. So we know he has some interest in music. He also has many CDs of a female pianist playing classical music. When Jenkins comes back from his event to find Tarek playing his bongos in the living room, he's interested in the music. They may be reluctant roommates, but they have music in common. Tarek offers to teach Jenkins how to play the bongos, and it's funny to watch the stuffy guy playing a wild instrument.

McCarthy's STATION AGENT was about accidental relationships, and so is this film. Though Jenkins has nothing in common with Tarek, they bond over the drums... and a scene where Tarek takes Jenkins to play in the park with a few dozen other bongo players is a high point of the film. But just when you think the story will be about a closed off man learning to losen up and the healing power of music, the story takes a major twist... and nothing is the same.

One of the things I loved about this film were the small moments - Jenkins delivers a letter from Zainab to Tarek at one point, and turns away as he reads it to give him privacy. Tarek's mother prepares dinner, and measures salt into her hand. Little bits of reality and character. There's even a nice little reveal about why Jenkins is taking piano lessons (the story may seem like McCarthy is making it up as he goes along, that life is just playing out; but in reality this is a carefully constructed script where some minor thing early in the film plays off later).

This is a nice little art house film, that takes a stuffy upper-middle class college professor and immerses him into a world of immigrants trying to make it in America.

- Bill

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Different Characters, Different Voices

More answers to those questions....

Question: How to make a character fully dimensional? How to avoid the characters sounding the same?

Answer: Movie dialogue is better than real dialogue - it's that clever come back you came up with two days after the argument.

You don't want all characters to sound the same - each should have their own *distinctive* voice, vocabulary, pet words and phrases, and sentence structure - they should all be distinctive and unique... not boring and normal.

First - each of your characters needs to be different, see the world differently, react to the world differently, and have a secret agenda that drives them... and they need to have different attitudes, likes and dislikes, different pet words and phrases.

If all of your characters sound alike, it's because you don't know them. My characters talk *through* me - and I can hear their voices in my head (which makes me crazy).

I write in various coffee shops, and in one there is a girl behind the counter who could find the silver lining in the end of the world. She is *relentlessly* positive. That's her character, and it comes out in almost everything she says. After a while, I just want to slap her... but she'd find something good to say about that.

Another coffee shop has a guy that is all about himself - no matter what he says, it's about him. If the world were going to end in 5 minutes, he's find the way to make that all about him... as if nobody else mattered.

I have a friend who takes everything personally - another form of selfishness - if you say hello to someone else first, he thinks that's a snub.

I know another guy who is ultra negative - he'll find the cloud for every silver lining. You win the lottery, he'll tell you how lottery winners end up broke and miserable. Even when he pays you a compliment, it's got a negative spin on it.

All of these things are *character* - if you really know your characters, they will speak differently because they are different people. Know what is below the surface, what secretly drives them, how the see the world around them.

Next - on a purely cosmetic level - look at pet words and phrases. Make sure no two characters use the same common words: yes, no, true, false, hello, goodbye, etc. Make sure they don't have the same favorite curse word. And take a look at sentence structure - you may have a character that says almost everything in the form of a question. Or someone who talks in long run-on sentences. Or no more than three words in a sentence. Or talks backwards like Yoda. These are the voices I hear in my head when I write.

Knowing your characters is the key to every character sounding different.

Actor Proofing Your Dialogue - Timing is everything in comedy... and one thing we can't really write. That is brought in through performance.

Things we do control are situation and the actual words within the material. So that's where I concentrate. I don't write comedy... I write movies that often end up starring non-actors who are pro athletes. So I can not depend on the acting (delivery) of any line. I have to create an "actor proof" script. A script where *I* do the acting through my writing. That means I have to create a strong emotional situation that Wilson the volleyball could win an Oscar for. Then find lines of dialogue that have double meanings or are packed with emotion - again, something that will work if the actor reads it off a cue card in a monotone. Basically, my script is carrying the actor.

And that is not easy, but I thing some of those things translate to comedy writing. The material has to be funny just sitting there on the page, not dependent on an actor to add that zing that makes it funny. That zing is the bonus.

If we want to hear real conversation, we can just walk down a street. When we pay $11.50 (what it costs to see a movie in LA) we want to see something special. We want interesting dialogue, distinctive dialogue.

Here are some interesting bits of dialogue from the same movie...

"A pocket fulla firecrackers - looking for a match!"

"Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me."

"The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!"

"Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?"

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."

"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"

"You've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!"

"I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?"

"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

"Don't remove the gangplank, you may wanna get back onboard."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway..."

"Crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg."

"Tell me sir, when he dies, do you think he'll go to the dog and cat heaven?"

"Start thinking with your head instead of your hips."

"This syrup you're giving out with... you pour over waffles, not over me."

Different characters in the same movie released the year I was born. Movie dialogue has always been clever, witty, interesting - that's why we quote it, instead of quoting what the clerk at Safeway said about paper or plastic.

In fact, even in "realistic" movies, nobody talks like the characters talk. Watch any Scorsese movie - that's excellent, well crafted dialogue. Realistic dialogue isn't real - it's crafted to sound real, but more clever, witty, and concise.

You want the best possible dialogue in your screenplay - dialogue that shows us the character, and is memorable enough that the reader will be talking about it for years to come... after they’ve made the movie.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Non-heroic leads.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Lamb plate with yogurt cucumbers and marinated lentils at Falafel King in Westwood, gearing up for...

Movies: OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES - Imagine carefully recreating one of those 1960s James Bond rip-offs, even down to the cheesy rear-screen projection whenever anyone is in a car or on a motorcycle. The same lighting style and film stock and use of stock footage and the occasional model plane as in those old films. The same costumes and acting style and... well, it looks like a film they found in a vault somewhere and are showing it for the first time. That’s OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES. Because an early 60s spy movie would look silly, now, they give this film the full AIRPLANE treatment - the characters are dead serious, the film is absurd.

The OSS 117 spy series has been a staple of French cinema since 1956, when OSS 117 IS NOT DEAD was released, but really kicked into gear in the James Bond era with a film a year for a while in the 60s. OSS 117 TAKES A VACATION brought the series to an end in 1970... but this film brings back the character in a great mix of Bond parody and GET SMART. The spy (whose name goes on forever - even in the non-parody films) is this completely clueless moron who accidentally manages to save the day. His main talent seems to be saying the exactly wrong thing at the wrong time - angering everyone around him. Movie opens in WW2 where our hero and his best friend Jack steal the plans for the V2 from the Nazis in a scene that could be from one of those serials INDIANA JONES is lifted from. One of the silly things in this film are the title cards - we get a stock footage shot of the Colosseum... then the word ROME in huge letters. The Eiffel Tower stock shot lingers before we get PARIS in huge letters.

Our hero (Jean Dujardin) gives the crazy code phrase at a restaurant, gets the counter phrase, and is taken to a back booth to meet his boss, who tells him that Jack is dead! He was working in Cairo, where a militant Muslim group, the Soviets, a King’s niece, and a bunch of other bad guys are all involved in... something.

They’re sending our hero down to find out who killed Jack and what all of these bad guys are up to. But first - a flashback to our hero and Jack frolicking on the beach together... Which seems *very* Gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that... by the way, this is the 10 year anniversary of SEINFELD’s final episode). From here on, every flashback of our hero and Jack becomes more and more Gay until they are in that beach scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. And later in the film, a henchman has a flashback of him and another henchman on the same beach frolicking together.

Anyway, our hero flies to Egypt, where a dozen suspicious looking guys in the airport follow him, and we get every spy movie cliche... done to the comedy extreme. The French espionage agency’s cover in Egypt is a poultry company - with a warehouse full of chickens that crow when the lights are turned on, because they think it’s morning. This isn’t just a running gag - our hero can spend hours turning on and off the lights. Unlike other spy movies where the cover job is just a cover - there are shoot outs (and fights using chickens as weapons) with other countries spy organizations over the poultry business. It’s not enough that millions of dollars in Soviet arms were stolen... the German poultry business is losing money to the French poultry business in Egypt!

My favorite gag in the film has our hero wake up with one of the hot women from the story, with a terrible case of “bed head” - hair sticking up everywhere - but when he runs his fingers through his hair it ends up *perfectly* in place. Another gag has one of the fellows following him giving him the wrong code phrase again and again - each time our hero beating the crap out of him. Eventually, the guy gets it right - he’s not some bad guy spy, but his contact from the British Secret Service. He also shows the girl how his gun cocks... um, again and again. He causes an international incident when he stops a priest from calling people to prayer (and a dozen other times he is so insensitive to the locals that you wonder why they don't kill him). The double-triple-multiple crosses. An underwater scene where our hero holds his breath for about ten minutes. Enjoying a massage wayyyyy too much. And there’s a musical number that really gets out of hand. This movie has so many silly things going on in it, I was always laughing at something. Sometimes, just the way the movie gets some 1960s cheesy spy thing dead on is funny. The film play until Friday at the NuArt, but will probably pop up on DVD... and has already spawned a sequel in France.

Pages: Plugging away on the rewrite.

Bicycle: Riding every other day - so I rode my bike cross town to a city bus ($1.25 - what's that? A third of a gallon of gas?) that got me to Westwood, then cycled from there to the movies - and did it all in reverse. Westwood Blvd has bike lanes! Cool!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Big Rewrite Project

A couple of days ago I finished an old spec script.

Well, finished it for the second time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my ongoing projects is to do page one rewrites on a bunch of old specs I have sitting around. I’ve probably written close to a hundred scripts - and many of them suck. Or, at least, don’t work. When I was working the day job, I wrote one good page every day, and that translates to 3 screenplays a year... and over ten years that’s 30 scripts. Now add in all of the scripts I’ve written since moving to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and subtract the ones that sold, and I have a huge stack of scripts. Some of them are great, some of them are not great. But all of them are *mine*, and just like I do a clean-up rewrite on the ones that work every few years (to add cell phones or Blackberrys and subtract PanAm Airlines and companies and devices that are no longer with us), I want to see if I can figure out how to make the bad scripts good.

Some just need a fresh coat of paint. Some need a remodel. Some need an addition. Many need to be bulldozed and rebuilt from the foundation up.

There are different reasons why these screenplays don’t work. Often there’s some story issue that I couldn’t crack, and I hope as time passes I’ll figure it out. This month I was supposed to be doing a page one rewrite on my DEAD RUN script, which has a weird history. I pitched the story to a producer who was about to do a slate of 5 theatricals for a respected mini-major. He loved it, and it was part of the slate... there was a thing in the trades about it (under a different title). I did a treatment... then the mini-major had a string of flops in a row... and went out of business. The producer still liked the idea, and wanted to set it up somewhere else at a fraction of the budget. I didn’t think this was the type of story that could be made on a limited budget - it travels all over the place - and voiced my opinion. The producer had me write up a new treatment - reflecting the budget. Um, this time the story didn’t really work. He wanted me to go to script, and the result wasn’t pretty. And wasn’t made. So I bought it back. Now I owned the worst version of this story possible. But it was a completed script. So I did a rewrite it years ago, with input from my wheeler-dealer lawyer who thought he knew what studios wanted. So, there was a helicopter chase, and lots of dumb explosions. That version of the script also did not sell - and was basically the low budget version with big expensive scenes glued on. So now I’m going to throw everything away and start from scratch - sure, some of the scenes will make their way back in, but probably half of the rewrite will be new material. The helicopter chase? Out!

But I’m not working on that rewrite this month - I’m doing the Hawaii script rewrite (since it shoots in September) and probably writing a family script that I have some people interested in.

The other scripts on the rewrite pile have problems ranging from story problems to bland ideas - many of these scripts have okay characters and scenes, but they don’t have a high concept or any real hook. They’re just average genre scripts - and no one wants an average script. So I’m looking to infuse them with some sort of fantastic hook or raise the stakes or graft on a high concept. I think I mentioned the dirty cop rewrite, THE DIVISION, which is an ancient script about police corruption. Before it was just about some bad cops and one good one... I saw SERPICO at a tender age. Well, two things are being added to that script - one is a real unsolved murder of a policeman I know about that is *really* strange, and the other is this weird idea that the bad cops form their own gang that takes on another gang... and anyone else who gets in their way. What if Al Capone in UNTOUCHABLES had been a high ranking cop - and all of his gang were cops? What do you do when the gangsters are cops? Who do you call? That’s not exactly a high concept, but it’s a hook. I’m really focusing on the idea of cops as gang members this time around - and trying to come up with some scenes you’ve never seen before in any previous cop movie. I’m puttering around on that one.

Another one I’m puttering around on was a typical urban crime film... Great characters and lots of cool plot twists and a couple of the best scenes I’ve ever written (oddly enough, a friend of mine who read this about 15 years ago mentioned one of the scenes a couple of days ago - he didn’t know I was rewriting it). The problem is - we’ve seen this one before. So I tried to find some way to make it unique... and thought about “recasting it in another genre” - what if it was sci-fi? What if it was a musical? What if.... Hell, what if they’re cowboys? I often joke about that - it was the worst note I ever got on a script: What if they’re cowboys? But I started to wonder what this urban crime film would be like if it took place in the modern west - maybe in New Mexico, which has great film incentives (so producers are looking for scripts that take place there). There was a Lee Marvin movie called PRIME CUT directed by the late, great Michael Ritchie, about the Kansas City Mob - they worked out of a slaughterhouse and when they killed a guy, they sent his family and friends hot dogs made from him. Yikes! Not a great movie, but hard to forget due to the hot dog thing.... and Sissy Spacek nekkid for most of the film’s running time. What if my urban crime story took place on ranches and cattle towns? You know, they did train robberies in westerns - what if I used trains in my crime story? Every scene changed - and that script is becoming something very different than any crime film you’ve seen in the past twenty years. Not a high concept, but really unusual. It has more personality than it ever had before.

Most often it’s a page one due to a high concept injection - I take the basic plotting and characters and overlay a new high concept. Easiest way to do this is to play with the stakes or the device used in the story, or just add a weird element... So one of the projects is called DEMON HUNTER (for now - I hate that title) and it used to be about a bodyguard and a woman pregnant with the President’s kid - and the President's people want her dead so that he can be re-elected. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME meets what’s in Bill Clinton’s pants. This was pre-Clinton, and was kind of a JFK-like Prez and a non-movie-star type Marilyn Monroe. But there have to be a dozen movies like this now - from 1600 with Wesley Snipes (or, Prisoner #5462864 as he’s known now) to that Clint Eastwood movie where he witnesses the Prez kill a babe. I wrote this back when I didn’t understand that high concept isn’t just doing search and replace to make it The President or make the bad guys into Vampires or have the story take place In Outer Space. Though some of these rewrites are basically doing that - the best thing to do is to find a new high concept for the story... and the DEMON HUNTER story is *now* about the Vatican’s version of Indiana Jones who unearths the key to cracking a code in the Bible... and discovers that the second coming is about to take place - the Second Son will be born in a certain hospital on January 6th... So the archeologist jets to the hospital to find and protect the pregnant woman from Satan’s minions - who want to kill her before she gives birth. Various forms of demons attack (instead of The President’s handler's secret hit squad) and each form of demon is some cool kind of monster. I tried to make the demons all kind of high concept. Coming up with them was fun. And the new end twist - she gives birth, and it’s *Satan’s* son! Okay - kinda OMEN meets CONSTANTINE meets THE BODYGUARD... but much better than the stale script it began life as.

But that wasn’t the one I finished either - but I wrote FADE OUT on a new old script a few days ago, or maybe it’s an old new script. Whatever - it’s something else I can sell. Something to add to the inventory.

So now I’m back rewriting the script I’m *supposed* to be working on....

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Opening Scenes.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fish Tacos at Islands in Burbank.

Movies: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS - yes, I should have seen SPEED RACER, but the reviews were bad and it had a huge line... so I saw the chick flick. Which was an okay idea, but done so by the numbers that it was old before they made it. And, did they give Kutcher the haircut from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for a reason? Here’s the strange thing - I like Cameron Diaz... and she can only play one character, and she’s getting too old to play that character. When you see her in this film, she looks... well, her age... but she’s still playing Mary - the sweet ditz who *must* be shown in her underwear at least once in the film. The whole movie seems cobbled together from other films - including a whole segment lifted from MR. MOM of all films. The story idea - couple gets married while drunk then are forced to live together and eventually fall in love - was done much better back in 1928 by Buster Keaton in SPITE MARRIAGE. And I wonder why they didn’t just buy the rights to that film and remake it... with the Vegas thing instead of the rebound Broadway actress in the Keaton version. (The Keaton version is about a poor dry cleaner who gets accidentally married to a hot Broadway actress after she gets dumped by her star boyfriend... the Kutcher version is about a poor furniture maker who gets accidentally married to a hot businesswoman after she gets dumped by her CEO boyfriend.) (And in both versions, they are stuck married to each other.) The Keaton version is filled with all kinds of comedy that doesn’t seem like you’ve seen it ten times in the past year in other films.

Here’s a clip:



Okay, that's one scene (with new music added) and it's funnier than anything in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Maybe I'll see SPEED tomorrow....

Pages: 6 pages to finish that rewrite (that I was plugging along on for a few days) - and nothing really for the past couple of days except notes on the Hawaii script.

Bicycle: Didn't ride Friday, but today (Sat) I did some riding and feel pretty good. About 20 blocks or so. My legs have grown to accept this torture... and I feel better. You know, the blood is, like, circulating!

- Bill

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back On The Chain Gang

Monday I finally bought a bicycle.

I used to bike all over the place - I never drove anywhere. If I had a meeting at Universal or Warner Bros or Disney, I’d bike there. Those studios are close to me, and when you drive there they put you in some guest parking structure about 10 miles from wherever your meeting is. If you bike, you can park right at the building where you are meeting. Right after Clint Eastwood took a golf club to some guy’s car who parked in his spot on the Warner’s lot, I had a meeting with the company next door (Weed Road) and purposely parked my bike in his parking spot. I was hoping he’s smash the hell out of my bike and I’d end up on the news... but that didn’t happen. Eastwood was shooting a movie somewhere. I would ride everywhere though - a friend of mine had a barbeque on the other side of the valley - I rode there. There was a dollar theater in Northridge - I’d ride there if they had some movie I wanted to see. These are insane bike rides for you folks out of town. But the most insane bike ride I ever took in Los Angeles wasn’t distance, it was danger - I rode into Hollywood a few times on the very narrow, very twisty, traveled by a zillion speeding cars *and* speeding busses, Cahuenga pass. You get clipped a half dozen times by car side mirrors! I did that.

Then, my bike got mangled and stolen... and I just drove everywhere. You know, it’s easy to do - get in the car and drive over the pass - and it’s your side mirror hitting the cyclists. Hey, man, that’s on Van Nuys Blvd - I’m gonna drive there (used to ride all the time). Hey, that’s in Burbank - I’m gonna drive there! (Used to ride to the movies in Burbank about twice a week - even in winter when it can get cold.) Never replaced the bike.... and eventually, Hey, Ralphs is half a block away... I’m going to drive to get groceries. I mean, carrying them is a lot of work. Next thing you know, I’m like the opening titles in whatever season of GET SMART had the Sunbeam Alpine ROARING... across the street and parking. I would drive down the street rather than walk...

And I got fat.

I mean, my job is sitting on my ass and typing all day. No exercise involved at all. My *fingers* get a work out, I guess. But that’s about it.

My blood doesn’t circulate, it just kind of sits there. This is not healthy.

So, a couple of years ago I decided to buy a bike and start riding again... but I never got around to buying the bike. I *did* decide to do more walking. I don’t drive a half block to the grocery store anymore, I walk. I also walk here and there - and every once in a while take a fairly long walk. A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting in Toluca Lake, and walked there. That was a real walk! And it felt pretty good. The blood began circulating again. Some of it even got up to my brain - and I could think again! Hmmm, this exercise thing may be a good idea for my writing?

That was one of the great things about the bicycle - In the old days I would skip my local Starbucks and cycle to Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake - that was my office. I would write a few pages there, then get on the bike and ride into Burbank and work at the Coffee Bean on San Fernando near the movie theaters. The great thing about the ride in between was that I got the blood circulating and had time to think about the scene I was about to write. By the time I got into Burbank, I had dialogue and actions erupting from my brain - I had to lock the bike and open the laptop quickly to get all of that stuff typed up! This resulted in the most prolific period of my career - I wrote like a madman!

Now... well, I just don’t write as much. I’m lazy. I’m sloth-like. My blood doesn’t move at all. My brain doesn’t do much.

So, Monday, I bought a new bike.

The thing about bikes in Los Angeles - if you buy a really nice bike, you are probably buying it for someone else. When I first got here I had a really expensive bike... and it was stolen right away. They used a blow torch on the pole I locked it to. The LAPD told me this happens all the time - there are guys in trucks with blow torches cutting through chains and locks and even the poles you lock it to. I replaced that bike with the exact same expensive model - and it was also stolen. Eventually I bought the cheapest bike I could find - the basket cost as much as the bike - and that bike took much longer for them to steal. That became the plan from then on - buy a cheap bike, see how long it took them to steal it. Sometimes it was years! So, this new bike? Target. Cheap. A Schwinn SunTour.

Now, in my mind I’m a bicycle guy. In my mind I can ride from here to Northridge to see a movie. In my mind I can ride all the way across the valley. I got on the new bike, and rode it about 6-8 blocks home... and my legs felt like rubber. All of those muscles required to ride a bike? I don’t got them anymore. They went away when the fat came. I thought the walking might help - different muscles. The walking muscles have absolutely nothing to do with the bicycle muscles. I went to bed Monday night with throbbing legs. Tuesday, I rode 8 blocks... and thought my legs might explode. When I got off the bike, I almost landed on my head. My legs just did not want to work. They rebelled against me. Yesterday - 8 blocks... and my legs were a little better. Today - the plan is to ride *miles*. I’m typing this from Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake...

I’m not riding into Burbank, but I am riding home from here. And when that becomes “easy” I’m going to keep expanding the ride until I am in Burbank.

Hopefully my legs won’t give out on me.

- Bill

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Children Of Scum - and Cutting Class

Last year I mentioned that I had a line in a friend’s short film, but I never told you what happened after that...

Here is the trailer for the short film (I'm the pizza guy):



But in the finished film, I am nowhere to be found. I got cut. The film showed at the Beverly Hills Short Festival a few weeks ago, and I showed up for the screening... and Danny (the writer-director) wondered why I was there - and apologized for about the 100th time for cutting me out of the film.

Now, I don’t know the reason why he cut me out of the film - maybe my performance sucked? But, my guess is that I was cut for time. When I first read the script, I thought - heck, I’m the punchline! The movie is a fake DVD extra for what has to be the worst film ever made - even though none of the people involved seem to know this - and the humor comes from the “stars” and creative team going on-and-on in interviews about how brilliant the film is, intercut with scenes of the really really bad movie. My character was *not* a member of the cast and crew... well, maybe the crew - I was a pizza delivery guy who delivered food to the set. So I was the easy cut for time... the difficult cut? One of the lead actors had this amazing speech that was silly on the page, and he made a million times sillier. This was one of the scenes from the bad film, and he did some amazing bad acting. It’s not easy to act that bad. On set, it was difficult not to laugh while he was doing the scene. It was hysterical... That scene was trimmed to the nubs. That was a huge loss.

My character could easily be cut for time, was kind of a silly character in the real life section of the film, and I think was also the only character who was in behind the scenes footage from the “past”... I was the easy and logical cut.

And, you know, compared to that actor who had us all trying not to laugh on set, my performance probably wasn’t all that hot.

I would have cut myself for time.

Frequently on message boards someone posts that they have a 137 page script and wonder why the evil powers that be don’t want scripts that long... and they have no idea how they can cut their masterpiece down to 110 pages. Well, the answer is, you have to cut it down. A screenplay is a *precision* document - and the reason why they want that 110 page script is because, using that ballpark page-per-minute guide, they need a film that can play every 2 hours with enough time in between showings to sweep out the popcorn and pry any shoes stuck to the floor with sticky soft drink residue. There’s a reason for it - and that means you need to cut your script.

You need to make tough decisions and creative decisions. You need to make sure everything in your script moves the story forward, is entertaining, and exposes character. If a character can be cut - cut it! If a scene can be cut - cut it! If a line of dialogue can be cut - cut it! It’s easy to become so attached to a line or character or scene that you can’t imagine cutting it - guess what? You still need to cut it!

I have had conversations with writers who have been told by a dozen people that a scene or character didn’t work - but they were fighting to keep it. Everyone they give their script to tells them that it’s too wordy... but they don’t want to trim it down. Everyone tells them some character serves no story purpose... but they refuse to cut that character. Everyone tells them something doesn’t work... but they don’t want to fix it. They were arguing to keep it. It’s like they were looking a second opinion that would agree with them. So they keep giving it to people... and they all say the same thing - the script needs work. They don’t want to make the changes, they would rather argue... and search for that one person in the world that agrees with them. That doesn’t solve the problem - they need to make the cuts, however painful those cuts may be.

If one person tells you something doesn’t work, that might just be that person’s opinion. But if everyone is saying the same thing, you need to take a look at that.

Also, there’s this great line from THE WILD BUNCH that says it’s not whether you give your word, it’s who you give it to... so not all feedback is equal. If your mom loves your script and someone in the business has problems with it, you might give more credence to the person in the business, no matter how much you love your mom.

It’s not about what works for you - it’s about what works for the script. Sometimes we hang on to some scene because we love that scene or maybe we’re just stubborn. But once we have written FADE OUT and let the script sit for a while and we’re going back to do the next draft, it’s time to look at the script *objectively* and make the hard choices that make it a better screenplay.

The first draft of my VOLATILE script had 8 tasks and several scenes with some funny interactions with other people... but the script was missing something, and I tore it apart and re-assembled it... and cut out 2 tasks (including my favorite) and all of the funny stuff that didn’t advance the story. Scenes I loved - gone. Some characters - gone. But the screenplay - a hundred times better - sleek, to the point. But if a bunch of people tell me the same thing is a problem with the current draft? I’m gonna fix it.

Would you rather have your script exactly the way you first wrote it, or the very best version of your story?

CHILDREN OF SCUM is playing at Mockfest in Hollywood on Saturday May 17th at 5 pm.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Conflict and character
Yesterday’s Dinner: Sesame Chicken at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: IRON MAN - best superhero movie I've seen since the first SPIDER-MAN. Great match of actor to role with Robert Downey jr's bad-boy image perfectly fitting the spoiled party boy Tony Stark. Film has to great emotional scenes right up front - including a romantic open heart surgery scene! This turns a "kid's film" into a "adult film". Stay until the end of the film or you'll miss Samuel L. Jackson's cameo!

Pages: Friday - 5 pages on a screenplay. Saturday - 8.5 pages on a screenplay. Sunday - 20 query letters and a pile of e-mails to producers.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Meetings & More Meetings

Meetings! One on the odd indie film project, one on a low budget horror thing (my script) with some friends, and one with a director about some of my action scripts. All of it is just talk for now, so I'll tell you when someone whips out a contract and checkbook.

PS: You know, I'm going to talk a bit more about this director looking for action scripts. I have never worked with this director, he's a friend of a friend and read one of my scripts about a year ago and really liked it. He just directed a high profile movie that will be released at the end of the year, and thinks that there will be some buzz on the project... and wants to be prepared. So he's looking for a bunch of potential projects for when opportunity knocks. If he gets a meeting and they are looking for an action project, he can pitch some of my scripts (and probably some other writers' scripts). He comes off looking like a guy with access to all kinds of great scripts.

But what's in it for me? Well, this soon-to-be-hot-director has all kinds of doors opening for him that may not be open for me, and all kinds of contacts that I don't have... and he's taking *my* scripts through those doors. And it's working the other way, too - if I find some project looking for a director, I'm going to suggest him (the hot director). Works for both of us.

This is the way you get your scripts out there... This is how you get your scripts to people you don't know... This is how you increase *your* contacts, because if these people love your script they will want to meet with you.

Part of our discussion was the ground rules for various scenarios - what happens if they love my script but don't think he's the right director? What if they hate my script but want him for something else? What kind of paperwork will we need to make sure neither of us gets screwed? If we both know where each are coming from and what we expect, there's less chance we will end up on People's Court or Cops. And the better the chance we can help each other.

The very first step in a deal like this is: you need scripts that people think will open doors for them. Scripts that they think can help advance *their* careers. This director may end up in some very impressive offices, and he wants to hand them a script that won't embarrass him.

Writing that script - that's the hard part. But once you have some great scripts, you want to get them out there so that they can open doors for you.


- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Dialogue Tips
Yesterday’s Dinner: Hawaiian BBQ Chicken at the Hawaiian BBQ place in Studio City.

Movies: THE FALL - or “When Production Designers Attack!” This film answers that question, whatever happened to the guy who made THE CELL? Back when that film came out, I posted somewhere that it was a beautiful film that made no sense. They took a cool idea that was kind of like DREAMSCAPE and so over-did the “dreams” that it completely overpowered the rest of the film... and then the story is set up so that when J-Lo goes into the dreams to find the missing person, it doesn’t matter! They find the missing person some other way, which makes the whole “dream” thing just a bog waste of time! Okay, THE FALL is actually a step forward - though the weird fantasy stuff still overpowers the rest of the film, the story kind of makes sense.

The movie is a cross between THE PRINCESS BRIDE and THE WIZARD OF OZ, and okay for kids (except an animal is killed in the story, and that might upset them... it almost made *me* cry). Story is set around 1915 has a cute little girl in the hospital with a broken arm from a fall, meets a silent movie stuntman paralyzed after an on screen fall. In order to get her to steal morphine for him (so that he can kill himself) he tells her a story, one chapter at a time, with her stealing pills in between. The story is a big adventure (with characters named after adventure writers) that evolves and changes the longer he tells it. But the story (by Dan Gilroy) doesn’t matter to director Tarsem - to him, it’s all about the visuals. Everyone wears weird hats. No setting is realistic - there’s a middle eastern city where all of the buildings are shades of blue. People wear masks - just for fun. When one character is killed, he is wrapped in a banner that stretches a hundred feet into the sky... and the red stain of blood creeps up the banner as we watch. Beautiful - and it all seems like they did it without any CGI.

The adventure story is about a group of very different outcasts seeking revenge against the evil ruler who has hurt all of them... and the characters in the fantasy are played by the same actors who are in the real world of the hospital (much like the OZ characters are the same as the people Dorothy knows in Kansas). Nothing in this fantasy adventure is realistic looking - everything is production designed to the limit. Colorful, strange... and beautiful. Also, distracting. Though the meat of the story is the impossibly cute little girl and the paralyzed stuntman in the hospital, this isn’t as important to Tarsem as the fantasy.

One great touch is when the stuntman is telling the story, one of the heroes is an Indian... and from the way he tells it, he means a Native American... but the little girl imagines a man from India. This creates some humor. I don’t know if a young audience, who may love the fantasy elements, will want to sit through the production design for the sake of production design scenes that are all about art and *not* about story... but if they can keep from kicking the chair in front of them, they may like it. I still think the best thing to do with guys like Tarsem is to not let them rewrite the script and even *force them* to shoot the story as written... with their unusual style. That way we get a story that makes sense, where the scenes are about the story rather than the “art”, but we still get that strange vision (just in service of the story). If you think of this film as a trip to the art gallery rather than a story, you’ll love it.

Movies: HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE - The Arclight Cinemas in Los Angeles are the cream of the crop - no commercials, no one seated after the film starts, assigned seats, and they have a restaurant and bar and gift shop on site. They also cost more than other cinemas, but with ticket prices going up every few months, the difference isn’t as much as it used to be. I used to only go there for special screenings (they often have writers or directors or cast for Q&A afterwards, when Ted & Terry did a screening of SHREK I was the guy interviewing them afterwards), but now I might see something there if it’s convenient. After Fango wrapped, my friend Rod wanted to see HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE, and it was playing at the Arclight... at one of their cocktail showings. They have special showings where you can bring drinks from the bar into the cinema. Cool.

I ran a Script Tip about pairing characters with their opposites to bring out drama a few weeks ago, and that also works for comedy. The film starts a few minutes after the previous film ended, with Harold taking a shower (he’s the neat freak of the two) and being interrupted by Kumar being very noisy on the toilet (not the neat one). This gives us everything we need to know about these guys - and as the story progresses, the differences between them will be a source of drama and story and comedy. The film sets up *fast* with them hopping a plane to Amsterdam, marijuana capitol of the world, so that Harold can catch up with the woman he loves. But on the plane, while Harold is being the perfect passenger, Kumar is in the bathroom trying out his smokeless bong. Things go wrong, the bong is mistaken for a bomb (and no matter how many times Kumar says “It’s a bong!” he is misunderstood) and the two end up in Guantanamo Bay Prison with all of the other terrorists. That’s in the opening few minutes of the film. Then they escape, and end up on a journey to Texas where Kumar’s ex-girlfriend is marrying a rich @ssh@ole who has enough government connections to get them out of trouble.

Kal Penn and John Cho have great chemistry together - they’re the Hope and Crosby of the stoner set - and *are* these characters. We usually see Cho in comedies, but Penn has shown his dramatic acting chops in movies like THE NAMESAKE and on 24 - and it’s hard to believe that the same serious dramatic actor is this silly stoner. Time for someone to give Cho a big meaty role so that we can say the same about him.

The film seems like they shot a rough draft of the script - often there are scenes that seem to be filled with potential humor, but they just scratch the surface. Here’s an example - at one point the two find themselves (like many ethnic comedy characters before them) stuck at a Klan rally wearing sheets and hoods. There are a million possible gags here, but as soon as they get swept up in the group, the hoods are removed! Hey, they got the funny situation, but they forget to milk it for jokes! They don’t even try to stretch out the uncomfortable situation - the Klan guys are supposed to tell what terrible thing they did to a minority today, and they *start* with Kumar! Would have been a better scene if they *ended* with the two imposters, because every other Klan guy’s story would be a build (and laugh) to what our imposters would say.

The film does a great job of making fun of ethnic stereotypes - presenting a character in such a way that *we* jump to a conclusion about them, then exposing who they really are. A Homeland Security Agent hot on their trail jumps to stereotype conclusions we would never even consider - a scene in the trailer has him using a translator to interrogate Harold and Kumar’s typical middle class parents... who only speak English.

One thing that really didn’t work in the film was the guy playing President Bush. You know, we see the President of TV all the time and know exactly what he looks like and sounds like, so when an actors plays him, it doesn’t work very well... and the longer that actor is on screen, the less it works. Here we have a *long* scene with a fake W, and the more he’s on screen, the less the scene works.

Even though they missed a bunch of jokes, the film was still kind of entertaining (of course, I’d had a couple of beers) and Neil Patrick Harris is great at playing a drugged out whoring version of himself... stay for the post end credit sequence that deals with his character!

Pages: Mostly getting caught up on my sleep from Fango, and meetings.
- Bill
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