Monday, July 21, 2008

The Batman Effect

You are reading this *after* I have seen THE DARK KNIGHT, but I am writing this a few hours before I see the film. I have Arclight tickets for Sunday night, which was (is as I write this) my birthday. Some friends of mine and I are having dinner somewhere (maybe Cat & Fiddle) and then going to see the bat man. Usually I’m in Vegas on my birthday, but for the past two years there’s been some complication that has kept me in LA... Last year I had just returned from London and decided to postpone my Vegas trip until August, this year it was a combination of writing projects and a meeting with a producer - I’ll probably go to Vegas later in the year... or maybe just go to Hawaii and watch them shoot my flick instead.

Last year on my birthday, there were no good movies opening. The big film that weekend was I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY. I don’t remember what the second tier movies were - but they were crap, too. The best new movie that weekend was SUNSHINE - playing in limited release. That’s what I planned on seeing... but someone ordered an extra round of beers at dinner and by the time we got to the cinema we were late... but there was a showing of CHUCK & LARRY in twenty minutes. You know, wouldn’t have been that bad if the film hadn’t just plain sucked. I expected Jessica Beil in her underwear to be a highpoint of that film - I didn’t expect it to be *the* highpoint.

So this year is automatically better - THE DARK KNIGHT. Tickets bought 2 weeks ago.

I am a huge fan on BATMAN BEGINS - that’s one of those movies on the shelf of films I’ll watch on DVD every year (I watched it last night to get in the mood for DARK KNIGHT). It’s my new example for Payback Lines in the revised version of my Action Book (I’m still working on). It’s that rare movie that is both a great mainstream popcorn film *and* a serious film about guilt and revenge and justice and responsibility. You know, a *good movie*. Without the funny costumes and big action scenes, it could play art houses. So I’ve been excited about the sequel since they announced it. And every image or teaser trailer or poster or clip has just gotten me more excited.

And it appears that I am not the only one. I predicted on some message board that of all of the summer films this year - and it’s a very crowded summer - the one movie I thought would be the biggest hit was DARK KNIGHT. I thought it would do better than the Indiana Jones movie (without having seen it). I had no idea IRON MAN would be so good. And my prediction was early enough that it may have even been before Heath Ledger’s death in January. BATMAN BEGINS was a good film that people were still talking about... and they couldn’t wait to see the sequel. Add the death of Heath Ledger and you turn this from *the* event movie of the summer into, well...

So the movie broke midnight show records with $18.5 million.... That would be a good opening weekend for many films, but this was just Thursday’s midnight shows!

Friday, the film broke even more records - $68 million on Friday. How is that even possible? Now, the funny part is that there were some predictions that it might make $100 million over the weekend - man, it was close to $80 million by the end of Friday!

The Saturday numbers are estimated at $48 million - I don't think that's a record, but last Weekend's #1 movie, HELLBOY 2, made $11.6 million on Saturday.

The weekend estimates are a record breaking $155.34 million... and that's just for the movie! Add in the popcorn and candy and sodas, and the meals before the shows...

So, I’m typing away on Saturday in a Starbucks in a shopping area that includes movie theaters and lots of restaurants. Same place I was typing last Saturday. Last Saturday the Starbucks wasn’t very crowded, and when I broke for dinner, I went into one of the nearby restaurants and was instantly seated - oh, and I some choices on tables. “Would you like a booth or a table?” “Can I get a booth in the back?” “No problem.”

Yesterday (Sat), completely different story. Starbucks is packed - and there’s a *huge* line. The people are coming in waves, though, with about half an hour between rushes. So I get a place to sit at Starbucks... and then spend the day watching the line expand every half hour. All of the restaurants in the area are *packed*. Lines waiting for tables. The shopping area is crowded, too. Oh, and the ice cream place - take a number and wait an hour! Now, last week these places were doing okay weekend business, but nothing like this. I mean, NOTHING like this. When I break for dinner, I have to walk far away from the cinemas to find a restaurant where I don’t have to wait... ends up being El Pollo Loco - and they seem to be more crowded than usual, too! I walk back to Bucks and have to wait for the cycle to end before I get a table... and quickly plug in the earphones and crank up the Goldsmith because everyone is talking about the bat man.

I’m wondering if this is happening all over the USA - people are going to see THE DARK KNIGHT as *the* movie they see this year... and they’re going out to dinner before the movie and out for ice cream or coffee afterwards?

You know how our economy was in trouble last week? I wonder if THE DARK KNIGHT is helping to pull it out? Not just the ticket sales, but the restaurants and food places and coffee shops and ice cream parlors and bars and... how many people bought something in one of these stores near the cinemas before or after the film? Will retail sales spike this weekend?

Okay, I’m going to see the movie in a couple of hours and later in the week I’ll report on it. And if it’s good, I’ll probably see it again in IMAX. And if there’s a slow weekend later on in summer... I may see it again. But I have to tell you - this section of town near the cinemas is PACKED with people.... and I wonder how many of these people will see it again? And whether one movie can have an impact on a nation’s economy?

PS: Thanks to everyone who e-mailed me, Facebooked me, MySpaced me, carded me, skywrote me, and wished me a happy birthday in some other way I forgot. I was really hoping that someone would send me Salma Hayek as a gift... but maybe next year.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: The Wrong Goal and BOURNE ULTIMATUM.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Breast, corn, black beans at El Pollo Loco.

MOVIES: TELL NO ONE - So, what is wrong with American producers? Don’t they know a good thriller? Don’t they want to make a good thriller? Why is it that all of the good thrillers are coming from France these days, and America is making crap? Don Westlake (the greatest writer alive) (and an American) wrote this amazing thriller called THE AX... and it was made into a film in France, by Oscar winner Costa-Gavras. Why the heck didn’t any US producers buy it and make it? Now, the big bestseller by *American* thriller writer Harlan Coben, TELL NO ONE has been made into a movie... by French guys! What is wring with the studios in this country? Why aren’t they buying and making these American thrillers?

TELL NO ONE is the story of Alex Beck (Dave in the book) and his childhood sweetheart Margot (Elizabeth in the book) who are happily married. On vacation they visit the lake where they first met... and Margot is *murdered* and Alex is knocked out. He wakes up to find himself a suspect in his wife’s murder... but the police eventually connect Margot’s murder to a serial killer... but they never stop suspecting him.

Eight years later, Alex still hasn’t gotten over her murder. He has never had another relationship, and visits Margot’s parents on the anniversary of her death. Margot’s parents think he should just get on with his life. Her father is a retired cop, and knows how traumatic an event like this can be (heck, it was his daughter who was killed), but even he thinks Alex needs to move on with his life. Problem is, Alex is still in love with her - always has been. Part of his lack of closure may be that he never saw his wife’s corpse - he was in the hospital recovering. Her father identified the body, and Alex missed the funeral.

On that 8 year anniversary of her murder he gets a strange e-mail... from his dead wife!

Meanwhile, the police have found two long-dead bodies at the lake where the wife was murdered... with evidence leading to Alex. The police want to re-open Margot’s murder case, thinking that these two may have been Alex’s accomplices (the guys who knocked him out to give him that great alibi). They want Alex to supply a DNA sample.

As Alex receives more e-mails from his dead wife, many containing information that only she would know, some witnesses and friends of his wife from the past are murdered... with evidence leading to Alex. Now Alex must go on the run to find proof of his innocence... and find out how his dead wife has access to a computer.

A bunch of critics are calling the film “Hitchcockian” - and I just want to know if those critics have the same IQ as the US producers who don’t buy thriller novels or think making I KNOW WHO KILLED ME instead of THE AX was a great idea...

Do these critics think Hitchcock = thrillers? If that’s true, what about all of the other great thriller directors? Are Fritz Lang movies Hitchockian? Are *all* thrillers Hitchcockian? If so, doesn’t that make “Hitchcockian” kind of a pointless made up word? Why not just say “thriller”? Fewer letters, more accuracy. And what about those movies like THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and MR & MRS SMITH (1941) and all of the other movies Hitchcock directed that are *not* thrillers? Are those not Hitchcockian, even though Hitchcock made them? What the heck do these critics mean when they throw around the made up word “Hitchcockian”?

When *I* think Hitchcock, I think *visual control*. Hitchcock was all about the image, the juxtaposition of images, and how they made the audience *feel*. Every shot in a Hitchcock movie was given great thought - is this the best composition? The best framing? The best angle? The best distance between subject and lens? The best lens? The best movement of the camera? The best... and how do all of these elements combines transfer the exact feeling I want to the audience? In the Hitchcock/Truffaut book he talks about everything from the Kuleshov experiment in editing to the use of the color red in MARNIE to the reason why the shot through the window of the 2 henchmen in THE 39 STEPS is the only angle that works - and the remake used a different angle and the scene loses all of its tension. Hitchcock selected every element of every shot for a specific reason - he controlled what you see and how you see it... and used the camera to tell the story. Since that’s 95% of what he talks about in Hitchcock/Truffaut, I would think that “Hitchcockian” means “visual control” or using the specifics of cinema to create emotions in the audience and tell the story. And the difference between a thriller that’s shot in a bland, pedestrian way (like my HARD EVIDENCE movie) and a thriller where the camera is used to tell the story and create emotions in the viewer (Hitchcock movies... and even French films like DIABOLIQUE) would be “Hitchcockian”. Hitch’s comedy, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, is Hitchcockian - there’s a shot of the dead guy’s *feet* that makes you laugh. The angle, the composition of the frame, everything in that shot is designed to make you laugh. Hitch made the feet look funny. That’s “Hitchcockian” to me.

(ASIDE: One of the things in Hitchcock/Truffaut that really got me thinking about how movies work when I read it as a teenager, was an example Hitchcock gives about a couple sitting at a table lit by a chandelier. Though the chandelier might have been established in a long shot, when we cut to a shot of the two of them sitting at the table, the chandelier may not be in the frame - even though it is still the source of the light. Problem is - the light without the chandelier might look artificial... so Hitch says you have to lower the chandelier until it shows up in frame - even though it is not naturally in frame. That way, the audience can see the source of the light, and the shot seems more real... even though it is not. What is important in film isn’t what is real, but what appears to be real - and you often have to change what is real to make it appear real on film... reality may look fake! The face may look real! The job of the filmmaker isn’t to shoot what is real, but to have what is shot look real - no matter what lengths you must go through to achieve the look of reality. The results are what matter.)

The problem is - film critics who have no idea what they are talking about, not even the basic knowledge of film, who somehow didn’t read Hitchcock/Truffaut (even though Truffaut was a critic when he did the interviews), people who are not qualified to do the jobs they are being paid for, who think any movie that is a thriller is “Hitchcockian”. Hey, if you want to use a word, have some idea what it means (or use some other word that you do know). And these guys are calling TELL NO ONE “Hitchcockian” when it is the exact opposite. The film is “Anti-Hitchcockian” - and it often looks like angles and camera placement were completely random... and editing is without rhythm... and nothing is designed with the intent to make the audience feel anything.

The director of TELL NO ONE doesn’t use the camera to tell the story - he just places the camera somewhere and lets the story happen... which isn’t the best way to make a thriller, but the story here is so strong that the movie works despite itself.

Two great stunt scenes are very realistic - when Alex runs across the freeway to escape the police causing a huge pile up - cars skidding close to hitting him - you wonder how they managed to get a crashing car so close to *the star* without killing him. Though CGI could have been used, it doesn’t look like it. France has that great precision driving team from RONIN and the BOURNE movies, so maybe they were involved in this. This scene, by the way, is right from the novel. The other great, realistic stunt scene I don’t remember from the book - and I suspect was an accident that they used in the film - Alex is running flat out, trips, and does a very realistic face plant on a sidewalk. You can’t help but say “Ouch!” outloud.

The thing that elevates this from just being another just thriller (Hitchcockian or not) is the love story aspect - and the end of this film is powerful due to the love story. Alex and Margot are soulmates - and the great flashbacks to when they were kids and first fell in love give this film a gravity and depth that stick with you long after the house lights go up. The tree where they carved their initials in a heart when they were kids... is still on that tree the night Margot is killed... and 8 years later when Alex is brought back to that spot at the end of the film. There are big emotions involved, here. By the way - the flashbacks to when they were kids? In the novel, though handled really well in the film.

One of the elements in the story (book and film) is a MARATHON MAN subplot element with some local thugs who become Alex’s little army when the police *and* the badguys are chasing him. A few of the reviews have mentioned that the actor who plays Alex (Francois Cluzet) resembles Dustin Hoffman - and that probably adds to the MARATHON MAN echoes.

British actress Kristin Scott-Thomas plays one of Alex and Margot’s friends, and she speaks fluent French and *acts* French in this film... it takes you a moment to recognoze her!

As strange plot twists mount and the bodies pile up, the mystery of Margot’s e-mail frm beyond the grave becomes more and more complicated... and you begin to wonder how the hell they’re going to come up with a solution that covers everything that has happened... and that’s when the film begins to go south. Because there are a half dozen crimes in the past that resulted in the murder of Margot... and the film sinks under the weight of too many backstories, We end up with kind of a Rube Goldberg explanation of what happened to a dozen characters who aren’t even part of the present story which lead up to this twist ending... But it’s like a half hour of backstory! The film just goes into reverse!

You know, scripts are written in the present tense... and a film story should move forward and be about things happening now - not things that happened a long time ago that result in big chunks of exposition. TELL NO ONE gives us the exposition and flashback combo - so we see all of these long ago things... but they are still long ago events. And there are *so many of them* that the whole film seems to be moving backwards instead of coming to a conclusion - for about half an hour. And just when you thought the backstories were all over... we get a *different* version of one of the backstories exposing a character’s lie. All of this is just too much - someone should have simplified all of this stuff and cut away all of the unrequired complications - there is one event that could have caused all of the present problems - we didn’t need every bad thing that has ever happened to Alex throughout his life to be explained... and part of some conspiracy! Make sure your scripts are about what happens *now* - not what happens before the film starts. (Yeah, CITIZEN KANE and MEMENTO... but those are the exceptions). You want to keep the story moving forward... and keep the backstory to a minimum.

But the very end of the film is saved by a flashback to the lovers as children - showing just how strong Alex and Margot’s love is... it has lasted beyond the grave. In a strange way, the end reminded me of another film critics wrongly called “Hitchcockian” - CACHE. That film had such a strong image (the suicide) near the end that you forgave all of the problems that came before... and here the unending love of two people makes us forget all of that backstory...

TELL NO ONE is a riveting story with some great plot twists... But the romance and story of undying love make it more than just THE FUGITIVE with a bunch of French people. If you can forgive the chunk of backstory tying up all of the story threads at the end, this is an interesting thriller. Note to US producers - why let the French guys make all of the great thrillers?

- Bill

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Push To Open

Part of writing is understanding characters - understanding human nature - and I am stumped.

I am confused by people who don’t get it. One of the Starbucks I regularly write is kind of shaped like a T - with the seating area on the top of the T and the register at the bottom of the T. The bathrooms and some other things are actually at the bottom of the T - so the area between the counter and the back wall is *also* a passage to get to the bathrooms, and for Starbucks employees to get to the counter entrance, and for customers to look at the pastries... also, of course, for customers who have just ordered their coffees at the counter to get to the seating area at the top of the T. So, it’s *obvious* that the line can not block the passage. The first time I walked into this Starbucks, I could figure that out. In fact, *most* people can figure it out.

But obviously some people can’t figure it out. Today I am standing at the “next” position in a short line at this Starbucks with a gap in front of me so that people can pass... and this guy walks in, ignores the line, ignores me standing there with money in my hand, and blocks the passage by standing behind the customer at the register. Someone else in line said, “Excuse me, buddy, there’s a line” (I wanted to - but I’m usually the person who just grumbles to myself and lets the guy take cutsies) and the guy looks at the line, shakes his head, and *doesn’t move*... but when the customer in front of me is finished ordering - he *must* move so that they customer can get to the drink pick up place and the tables... and that’s when I step up to the register and kind of force the guy to stand in line. He’s pissed off...

But it’s not just the line at this Starbucks - there are all kinds of situations where some people don’t seem to get what everybody else figures out instantly. Why is that?

Another Starbucks has doors with handles on both the inside and outside - and it clearly says “Push” on the inside next to the handle. Yet, when I sit in that Starbucks writing, there’s always one or two people who pull on the handles. And when one door doesn’t open by pulling, they try the other door - pulling on that one. And they keep pulling despite the sign that says “push” and never even *try* to push the door open. When I pull on a door and it doesn’t open, I try pushing. In fact, most of the people who go through those doors and may not have noticed the (obvious) sign will push if pulling doesn’t work. But there is this percentage that will not push no matter what. It takes them forever to figure it out. It’s like - if they keep pulling on the door, maybe it will open.

I have no idea how this applies to screenwriting (or characters) but I can’t figure out why these people can’t figure out those things that nobody else even has to think about. I don’t think they are stupid - the guy who took cuts in line was wearing a suit and a Rolex and looked like a successful business guy - probably not “mentally challenged”. Is there some form of intelligence that governs things like this? Can you be a brilliant businessman and not understand what a line is?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Story Vs. Character - and THE BANK JOB.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burgers at Carls jr.

MOVIES: BAGHEAD - Last night I saw BAGHEAD with the directors, editor, cast, etc, doing Q&A. They said they just began making movies - and made a pile of bad ones before they made anything that anyone wanted to see... and on BAGHEAD they had studios interested in funding the film as long as it was commercial. They turned that money down and made their own movie with private funding based on the studio's interest in distribbing. Now, here's the part that's the curse & blessing of making your own movies: you hit the ceiling fast.

BAGHEAD works as a quirky small movie made by a bunch of friends... it's funny and eventually becomes scary. But it's mostly "soft". The story is about 4 out of work actors who attend a film fest screening of a friend's film - that sucks. Afterwards they decide they could make a better film - starring themselves, natch - and decide to go to an isolated moutain cabin to work on the script. Once they get to the cabin, we get a bunch of conversation and character stuff - these aren't really two couples, but two males and two females. One set used to be an item - but now they have broken up and remained friends. The other set has yet to hook up, despite the guy doing everything he can think of to get her into bed. In fact, he thinks the isolated mountain cabin is his big chance to hook up with her. We know that will never happen.

So after a bunch of pointless meandering conversation (some of which is funny) the title character shows up - a guy with a paper bag over his head who is hanging around in the woods spying on them.

The thing about BAGHEAD is that it is endearing as hell - it really does look like it was made by a bunch of friends with a camera for $5. It has that loose, film students having fun quality that allows you to excuse the lighting (not always great), excuse the loose script and improv acting, and even almost excuse the annoying we-don't-believe-in-tripods-or-focus camerawork. It looks like they took their least steady friend and gave him the camera - but never taught him how to use the focus. The danged thing is constantly going in and out of focus - and checking focus in the middle of shots which calls attention tio how artificial all of this is. Kind of at odds with the improv... the camerawork is so unlike what the eye sees that we know it's a movie. This is *different* than BLAIR WITCH or CLOVERFIELD because those films were supposed to be through the lens of someone's camera - here there is no camera, no POV, this is just the way the film is shot... and my eyes focus much better than this after a night of heavy drinking. I see the world more clearly - and the human eye does nothing as artificial as checking focus. Anyway, it's charming because it's unsophisticated - probably made over a weekend on pocketchange. I remember when I was a kid with dreams but no real skills making little movies...

But BAGHEAD doesn't work as a mainstream film... or even as a film made for over $500k (their budget). The ragged, thrown together, improv look and feel of the movie is endearing on a low budget, but looks unprofessional and, well, thrown together and improvised on a big budget. In fact, when the closing credits rolled and I saw how big the crew was - they had a second unit that was bigger than many pro movies first units that I've worked on, I was shocked. When the directors said they had a 3 week shooting schedule, I was even more shocked. Three weeks? That means they had the time (and crew) to set lights and shots and do all kinds of retakes and... My STEEL SHARKS movie had a 3 week shooting schedule and we exploded submarines! You'd think with all of those people on the crew and all of this time...

And then I began taking points off the movie in that mental scorecard I keep. Sure it was funny and had some great moments - but those were based on this being a film made for pocket change by a bunch of friends in their backyard. As a professional film? Well, that stuff was kind of sloppy. Sure, I know it's a "style" called "mumblecore" - but it looks like it was thrown together by people without any filmmaking skills. As a pro movie from Sony with a 3 week shooting schedule and a big crew - it's not impressive at all. In fact, it's not even unimpressive. It's negative impressive. I can't imagine these guys ever getting a studio gig off this - and maybe they don't want one... except they said that's what they were going for. They want to make mainstream films... just in their own unique way. Huh?

I think it's much easier to ignore the "rules" (like focus) than to follow them. I'm all for letting these guys make their own little movies in their own little way - but I can't see them doing HELLBOY 3. I don't see any evidence of the *competence* required to do a mainstream film. Del Torro does these wild quirky films - but his non-mainstream films are really well made... and his mainstream films (HELLBOY 2) are weird and quirky *and* really well made. He splits the difference - these guys? Well, they should keep making pocket change films - because a film like this made for next to nothing is *fun*... but a film like this made on a 3 week schedule with a real crew?

They end up trapped making low budget films forever, and they may nor be interested in struggling for the rest of their lives.

- Bill

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

As Luck Would Have It...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

MILD SPOILERS

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

OKAY - BIG SPOILERS - DON'T READ UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE.

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

SPOILERS OVER

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

- Bill

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

People Are Reading Screenplays!

You’d think with a potential SAG strike on the horizon that might close down the biz for a few months (which I don't really think will happen - but the threat is there), no one would want to read a screenplay... but suddenly everyone wants to read my scripts. I have no idea what this is all about. Though I’ve been sending out query letters like crazy, most of the people reading are coming from other places.

There are a half dozen producers reading my scripts right now, as well as an agency and a management company. Literally six producers... plus I have some folks e-mailing me about reading scripts. Now, I’m sure this will all come to nada, but right now I have lots of possibilities - lots of “Chances To Win”.

All of the production companies are indie - so maybe they have SAG waivers and are looking for material to make if there *is* a strike. One of the odd things is that the scripts aren’t all low budget stuff - most are in that medium budget range. All are thrillers or action, by the way - no one is requesting horror.

In fact, I’m kind of worried that there are so many people reading, there won’t be enough scripts to go around. What if, by some miracle, all of these people want to buy a medium budget action script... I’m not sure I have enough to go around! I’d better get back to work on the new spec!

Hopefully one of the reps will bite. It’s frustrating to have scripts passed around town and end up at a studio based producer... then just sit there because there is no one to push anyone into making a decision. I brainstormed up *70* high concept sequel ideas for a particular studio’s library... but I don’t have any direct connection with that studio, so I’m at the mercy of the producers I know. Heck, I could generate 70 high concept sequel ideas for any studio - if someone could get me in the door. As it is, anything that happens in my career is an “accident” - someone reads a script and hands it to someone. It would be nice to have a career on purpose.

Of course, by the end of the month this flurry will be over, and nothing will have happened - but it would be nice to sell another script this year.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Submission Definitions.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Nothing.
Pages: Still cranking on the new spec... haven't finished the day, yet, so I don't know my page count.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm Grumpy!

I’ve been more grumpy than usual for the past few weeks - sorry. A month ago I got a letter from my building manager saying that they would be re-painting the building and making some exterior improvements. That sounds like a good thing, right? I thought it was a good thing at the time. Hey, they’re taking care of the place! They aren’t going to bulldoze it and put up a new building (in Los Angeles, they often tear down a 20 year old building because it is “old”). The place would be freshly painted and look nice.

But when the very noisy construction guys began sawing and hammering and scraping and yelling at each other at 7:59am every morning, it wasn’t such a good idea. I know I’m getting no sympathy from most of you - 8am? What the heck is Bill complaining about? I’m up at 6am or 5am in order to get to work! Hey, but you don’t go to sleep at 2am or 4am like I do. Lately it’s been 4am, because of the bike. I often ride home at midnight, by the time I get there I’m hungry and my blood’s flowing, so I have something to eat and then watch Kimmel... and then catch the rebroadcast of the news at 1am, just to make sure the world didn’t end or something, then at 2am I begin to wind down... and sometimes I might watch a DVD.... and next thing you know it’s 4am.

Okay, I can sleep until noon, and still get in a bunch of writing during the day before Starbucks kicks me out at midnight. But when these noisy guys start pounding at 8am? I wake up and can not get back to sleep.

So I’ve been cruising on 4 hours a night, except on weekends when construction guys are off, for a couple of weeks. I thought once they finished getting the building ready to paint, it would be smooth sleeping... but do you know how loud a freakin’ air compressor is? Now that they are painting, it’s just as noisy... maybe even more so.

And after a couple of weeks of 4 hours sleep a night, I’m feeling like crap. Oh, and the week before they began making all of this noise we had a record breaking heat wave in Los Angeles, and by the time I’d get home every night my apartment was an over. It took forever for the AC got the apartment cool enough to sleep. So it’s probably been three weeks of bad sleep. The good news is, they are finished *spraying*, so I will be sleeping soon. And probably less grumpy in the future. How much noise can a paint brush make when they do the trim work?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: ONE (IDEA) IS NOT ENOUGH - and Semi-Pro's comedy shortage.
Yesterday’s Dinner: BBQ food - hot dogs and potato salad.

MOVIES: HANCOCK - The first trailer for this film had me laughing, the second trailer - with the prison scene - had me laughing even more. Add to it that this was a hot spec script - on the Black List. I never read the script, but just the idea of a dysfunctional superhero is great - and like all great ideas, my imagination began looking at the possibilities. Being a superhero means you are responsible for other people’s lives - and what if you don’t want that responsibility? It also means when you make a mistake, people die. What kind of guilt caused him to become this foul mouthed drunk? There was a solid dramatic element underneath the comedy idea. So when the reviews came out and were mixed - and not in a good way, I hoped they were just cranky critics who didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I hated the movie. Okay, hate is too strong - basically, I didn’t enjoy it. They took a great concept, and screwed it up.

I hated the direction - it was like Michael Bay on speed. Constantly moving hand held camera, quick cuts, and these long-lens extreme close ups often with “garbage” in the frame - usually the unlighted back of the head of someone else in the scene. Okay, maybe this is just “old man syndrome”? Maybe all of the noise really is music? Afterwards, in a Dennys, my friends and I talked about this... and, to be fair, we are all old men. No 20 year olds among us. But all of us disliked the direction, and for the same reason - it pulled us out of the story instead of brought us into the story. It was style without purpose - “look at me, I’m the director!” stuff. Instead of using the camera to tell the story, it was constantly fighting the story. One of the guys brought up this article he’s read where Kathryn Bigelow was interviewed about James Cameron’s directing style, and vice-versa (they were married at the time). And the article showed how each had a different style, but both styles were based on *purpose* - they were using the camera to tell the story. I mentioned the bonus material on THE LONG GOODBYE where Altman talks about wanting to give the viewer the feeling that they are voyeurs - spying on the people in the story. So the shots are often looking through a window at people arguing or peeking around a corner or rising over a fence - the camera moves were all based on a purpose - a feeling the director wanted to create in the viewer. It wasn’t just a bunch of style the pulls you out of the story.

I also hated the music - it just didn’t fit the story. We open up with a blues sound track, which you might think fits the drunk superhero thing - but it’s existing music and doesn’t match the rhythm of the film... and the thing about genre bending films is that the closer they stick to the elements we expect from the genre, the more effective the story twist. The more HANCOCK seems like a superhero movie, the better the drunken foul mouthed part works... let alone the later dramatic elements. In a way, the blues music was telegraphic that this wasn’t going to be your standard superhero movie *plus* completely undercutting the differences. But the blues stuff just seemed like a bad idea, it wasn’t until they used the theme to SANFORD & SON as the underscore to a scene that I really *hated* the music. Because first, the tone of the music didn’t fit a prison confrontation... and second, a few notes into the music you think, “Hey, isn’t that the theme to SANFORD AND SON?” which completely pulls you out of the film and makes everything you are seeing completely artificial. We always want to believe that what happens in the film is *real* - even if it’s a superhero comedy.


The story *happens*, but didn’t involve me - and I’m going to blame the music and direction for most of that - but there were things in the story that didn’t work as well as they should have. Now, maybe these things were in the script but didn’t make it to screen, or maybe they were removed in the rewrites (this script has been around). The big story problem for me was that they didn’t “water their plants”. There are three big emotional events that happen near the end of the film that had almost no emotions because they were not set up well, or set up and forgotten. Usually when we plant and pay off information, we *want* the audience to forget that Ripley is an expert with the loader, so that when she fights the Alien Queen in the loader we go - “Right! Cool!” instead of “I knew that was going to happen.” But when a character is going to do something that changes their nature, we need to establish that nature and continue to show that nature (and the conflict it creates) so that the scene at the end is a *big* scene, an *emotional* scene, not just another ho-hum scene.

END SPOILERS!

Okay, there are twists in the story that I’m not going to spoil for you - though I alm going to talk about things that happen at the end. Hancock the drunken superhero is kind of “adopted” by PR guy Jason Bateman, his wife Charlize Theron and their son. Theron hates him - he’s a foul mouthed drunk. But Bateman’s career has hit a bump and he sees a way to help Hancock *and* help his career by becoming his PR guy. The “Hancock Makeover” is the basic story, and his interactions with Bateman and his family are an important part of that... theoretically.

Bateman’s son is young enough to see Hancock as a superhero and not really notice the swearing and drinking and bad attitude. By the end of the film, Bateman does something heroic - and his son is in that scene. So that seems to be set up and payoff. But the son doesn’t really display any hero-worship for Hancock. He likes Hancock, but the Feral Kid in ROAD WARRIOR worships Max more than this kid worships Hancock. And the kid never likes Hancock *at the expense* of his father. There is no sense that Bateman is losing his son to Hancock in the film. There is a scene where the son gives Hancock a present... but Bateman isn’t in that scene. And when Bateman does his little act of heroism at the end - we don’t see it from the kid’s POV... in fact, we don’t really see the kid much in that scene, even though he’s there. What could have been a *moment* - and seems to have been written as a moment - is just another thing that happens in a big action scene. To make it an emotional scene where Bateman becomes his son’s hero, we need to show the progression of Bateman losing his son to Hancock. We need scenes that show Bateman realizing he is losing his son. Scenes where the son chooses Hancock over Bateman. We need to do more than just plant it, we need to keep watering that plant throughout the story, so that the scene at the end has power... then we need to give that scene power.

Bateman’s PR guy is introduced in a scene where he’s trying to sell a company on this concept of doing a good deed for the publicity. They turn this down, and later Bateman and Theron are in bed and he says that his PR thing is really trying to save the world. Okay, by the end of the film Hancock helps Bateman with his quest to save the world... but I thought that was just a PR gimmick. I never believed Bateman really wanted to save the world - even though he does the “Save the world PR spiel” twice. The problem is, he’s a PR guy - and PR guys are full of crap. And Bateman is never shown as a particularly charitable guy - he never does anything himself that shows him really trying to save the world. Since the idea of doing a good deed to get good publicity is pretty basic PR stuff, I never thought it was anything other than him doing his job... and when he tells Theron that he wants to save the world while they’re in bed, I thought he was just trying to look like a good guy to his wife so that she won’t just roll over and go to sleep. I try to look like a good guy to get laid, too (so far, hasn’t worked very well). So when we get to this scene at the end that pays off Bateman trying to save the world, it’s just a thing that happens. In fact, it seems a *forced Hollywood crap ending* thing, instead of the big emotional moment - showing Hancock’s friendship and appreciation for Bateman - that it was probably intended to be. You need to make sure we know the “save the world” thing isn’t just some PR gimmick, but Bateman’s dream - his big goal. That means you need to keep watering that plant so that we know this is who Bateman *is* - that his purpose in life is saving the world. His actions in scenes that *aren’t* speeches about saving the world need to show him doing little things to save the world.

Third, there is a big emotional sacrifice a character must make at the end of this film that is tied to the plot twist - so I am not going to get into specifics, and the film doesn’t want to give it away so that the audience jumps the gun. But there were things they could have done to hint that would have worked withing the early scenes that wouldn’t have given away the twist at all... and *after* the twist they needed to do some more watering so that the sacrifice at the end was a sacrifice. We do get a scene that is *almost* the type of magical scene we need... but you can’t just water a plant once and expect it to grow. There is a reference in the film to positive and negative which made me think of magnets. And I think if the magnet idea had been used throughout the story, in several scene, that sacrifice would have actually been emotional - rather than just a scene. It’s like they had all of the elements in that scene to make it work - to make it into a big scene... but they didn’t spend enough time setting it up. And when I say “time” that doesn’t mean more pages in the script or more running time in the film (though at 92 minutes, they could have spent a couple more minutes if they wanted) - it means *better* using the minutes they had. And again, this may have been all in the poor direction - the script may have used that magnet thing throughout (since it was in the dialogue - and maybe that line of dialogue was a payoff to what happened in scenes... but the director neglected to focus on in previous scenes). But the film squanders the end scene by not spending enough time building up to that end. Not enough watering.


Last, there is the twist itself - which comes off as the most insane coincidence imaginable, because it was not set up. Again - the fear on a twist is that the set up will give away the twist, but that is where the skill of the writer (and director) comes in. At Dennys afterwards we discussed ways this twist could have been set up so that it becomes natural and motivated - instead of fake - without giving away the twist. One possibility was to have Hancock explain why he came to Los Angeles. Another had to do with the contents of his little tin of treasures - that was a great place to plant a clue to the twist... instead we get a stick of gum. But even that gum could have been used. We must have come up with a dozen ideas to make that twist logical - which made us all wonder why the filmmakers didn’t come up with any of them? The real tragedy would be that one or more of these ideas were in the original script - and developed out over the years.

The key to planting information that will be payed off with a change to the status quo or an emotional pay off at the end is that you have to do more that just set it up and forget it, you need to water it regularly... so that it becomes the normal world. That way, the pay off at the end is what changes the normal world... giving it power and emotions. I’m now curious about the HANCOCK script (TONIGHT, HE COMES) and want to see whether these problems came from development or poor direction... or if they were things on the page that could never be seen on the screen. You never want to leave the story on the page - you want to make sure everything can be seen or heard.

Pages: Still cooking on the SECOND SON spec - 5 pages - a bit behind because of the holiday on Friday and a party on BBQ Saturday. Though this is technically a page one rewrite of an old script, there isn't a single word in act 1 from the original script. It's all new material.

- Bill

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

I Can't Wait!

Which James Bond you like depends on how old you are. If your first Bond film was with Roger Moore, that's who you think Bond is. If your first Bond film was with George Lazenby - you're screwed. My first memories of James Bond was watching some Connery film (maybe GOLDFINGER, probably YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) reflected in the back window of my parent's car at the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies when I was *supposed* to be sleeping in the back seat. This made Bond both forbidden (there was violence and nekkid chicks) and something adult... something to look forward to. Eventually I saw Connery Bond films on TV, and that's who I think is the "real Bond". Connery punched people. He wasn't elegant - he was savage. The joke was when Moore took over that Connery was the Bond who had a wetsuit on under his tuxedo... Moore was wearing a tuxedo under his wetsuit.

One of my favorite opening scenes is in THURDERBALL. It begins with a funeral for "JB" - James Bond is dead? Then Bond is revealed at the funeral with that hot Japanese chick who might have been Kissy Suzuki... and we discover the funeral is for a SPECTRE agent named Jacques Bouvar. Bond and Kissy watch the funeral procession... Then, at Bouvar's mansion, Bond shows up to pay his respects to the widow, Mrs. Bouvar.... then hauls off and punches her in the face! What? Then Mrs. Bouvar returns a punch - and this massive savage fight begins. What? Revealed that it's not *Mrs* Bouvar - but Bouvar himself, who has faked his own death. Bond figured it out when she opened her own car door at the funeral. Heck, everything you think you know about the story so far keeps changing! The fight is amazing - no pice of furniture in that room is not used as a weapon and subsequently destroyed. Chairs, sofas, fire pokers - if it's in the room, it's used to hurt someone. They just don't make fight scenes like this anymore... except for in the last Bond film.

For me, the Bond reboot CASINO ROYALE was a return to the Bond I grew up watching. Though my first "legal" Bond film was LIVE AND LET DIE (also at the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies - Mom allowed me to actually watch the film, and that meant my little brother and little sister could watch, too) with Moore, I always think of Bond as the guy who can really throw a punch. There was all of this talk that Daniel Craig was too wimpy to be Bond, but that opening scene where he basically destroys every appliance in a men's room with a bad guy's *head* gave me confidence. And the rest of the film, though flawed, delivers that Connery style Bond I'd been craving. Part of the reboot was Bond for the BOURNE audience - a more realistic style of action. When I was writing my SLEEPER AGENT script, I was trying for something between FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and the BOURNE movies...

There were rumors that the new Bond film was going to go back to teh Roger Moore style - that it was going to be filled with dopey action and quips and not nearly as brutal. Okay, here's the trailer... you be the judge.



Don't know about you, but I'm excited. One thing I think is cool is that it seems to take place *seconds* after the last one ended. And that Bond is still that violent renegade agent who smashed through anything that gets in his way. Where do I stand in line?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: You Need A Busload Of Scripts To Get By. New script tips M-T-W this week!
Yesterday’s Dinner: Panda Express in NoHo on the way to my friend's movie premiere.
Pages: Lots of pages of new tips! Probably because I'm supposed to be working on something else. I've also poked around on the DEMON HUNTER script, which I think I'm going to call SECOND SON, even though there is a Charles Sailor novel from 1979 with that title that is also about the second coming... though completely different than my story.
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