Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Flashback: The Instant Pitch

A rerun from 2007...

Screenwriters have to be able to think on their feet. You never know when an opportunity will present itself, or where an idea night be hiding, or when a chance to sell a script might pop up. A novelist has the luxury of time, a screenwriter has to come up with the solution to a story problem in a meeting with the producer right after he points out the problem. One of the things I've learned is that the longer a problem goes without the writer solving it, the more likely someone else will jump in with a solution that just doesn't work... but it's now your job to make it work...

After selling the script that got me to Los Angeles, I made the mistake of locking myself in a Van Nuys apartment for two years writing scripts and NOT networking until my money from the sale was almost gone. I thought that my sale to a company on the Paramount lot would result in my phone ringing off the hook from other producers - didn't happen. Though my sale was announced on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter, the film was never made and the producer went back to TV... leaving me without even the connection that got me to town in the first place! Now I had a mound of scripts and didn't know anybody to sell them to. But I did know about the American Film Market - where independent films are sold to independent distributors. Though the AFM wasn't open to the public, I had connections with my hometown newspaper and managed to get a press pass into the event. I now had nine days to meet a producer and sell a script, or I would have to begin looking for a day job.

Though I have nothing against day jobs, and there's no reason to be embarrassed if you're paying the bills while waiting for your screen writing career to kick in, I'd rather sell a script than do heavy manual labor. So I was REALLY motivated.

I passed out business cards and script synopsis to everyone who seemed likely to buy a script from me. I met a director who was cranking out films for Roger Corman and had a new horror movie premiering at the end of the market, did I want to see it? Sure! Though I didn't know anything about this director, I did know about Roger Corman. He's responsible for giving half of Hollywood their start. Francis Ford Coppola make DEMENTIA 13 for Corman, Jonathan Demme's first film was for Corman, Scorsese made a film for Corman, Ron Howard directed car crash films for Corman, John Millius wrote some biker films for Corman, Jack Nicholson wrote and starred in a bunch of Corman films, and one of my screen writing idols, John Sayles, began his screen writing career with a string of great scripts for Roger Corman films. Corman gives raw talent a way to break into the business - like a film internship. The only drawback - he doesn't pay much (but it's better than working at Kinkos copies or McDonalds). This director had a particularly colorful Corman story - he'd began as a janitor at the company and worked his way up to director. I wondered what kind of movie a janitor might make.

After making some more good connections - even passing out some scripts - the end of the week rolled around, and the screening of the janitor-director's film. I bumped into the director and I got to tell him about my scripts on the way to the screening. He asked to read one - but told me most of the films he did for Corman were shot on existing sets. He was sort of the B Team - after the A Team had finished a film, he would shoot on their sets. Interesting.

We get into the theater and I see what kind of film a janitor makes... It had a funny script that poked fun at the horror genre, but the direction was crude.

Afterwards the director asked what I'd thought... more thinking on my feet! I told him I thought it was funny and mentioned a couple of the places where the direction was okay. I lied a little.

A couple of months later I got a call from the director. The A Team would wrap shooting a film tonight, could I show up at 6am, tour the set, then pitch him the best story I could come up with using that set at 7am? Sure! Why so early? Well, there was still a day left on the construction crew's contract, and if the set couldn't be reused they'd have them use that day to tear it down. Corman loved to save money by getting every last minute of labor out of his crew. I told him I'd tour the set at 6am and see him at 7am.

I'm not a morning guy. The last time I saw 6am was when I stayed up all night. The big challenge was going to be waking up and staying awake.

The next morning I drive out to "The Lumberyard", Roger Corman's studio in Venice. Venice is a beach community with a row of trendy shops and restaurants... and a really ugly industrial section where the city's bus repair yard and a couple of junk yards compete with overgrown vacant lots of "City's Greatest Eyesore" prize. The Lumberyard is a couple of old warehouse-style buildings surrounded by mounds of old sets and props. Parts of plywood rocket ships and sections of fake castle walls and parts from a plastic mini-sub mock-up. It looked like the junkyard at the end of time. I parked in the lot and the head of the construction crew opened the door for me and pointed out the sets: about five rooms.

You've probably never seen a set in natural light. They look fake. I once toured the STAR TREK set on the Paramount lot, and it looks like it's made out of plywood and Styrofoam (it is). When we shot GRID RUNNERS, the cloning lab was the old operating theater at a run-down mental institution. The construction guys painted only the places that would show on camera, and did a slap-dash job. It looked like an abandoned building... but from the right angle with the right lighting looked like a high tech cloning lab. All of the things that looked fake in real life looked real on film.

The set at The Lumberyard was no different. It was a futuristic night club, a spaceship interior, and a high tech office complex of some sort. Most of it was made out of Styrofoam hot dog and hamburger containers - like the kind your Big Mac used to come in. Sheets of these Styrofoam containers covered plywood walls, adding texture. They were painted a metal gray color, and didn't look like hamburger containers at all.

But the Big Mac container walls reminded me of what I'd be doing if I didn't land this job. As I toured the set, drinking coffee and brainstorming, I came up with a fantastic idea. Each section of the set added to that idea. Hey - I had a great lead character, a high concept conflict, some big emotional scenes, and a way to make use that nightclub set for a couple of pivotal action-packed scenes. By 7am, I was fully caffeinated and ready to pitch my great idea to the director.

The director breezed in at 7:05 and I sat him down and pitched him my brilliant idea. The coffee was really kicking in by then, and I gave one of the most passionate pitches of my career. I explained the lead character's emotional conflict, and how he was forced to deal with it when this amazing event happens that thrust the entire world into danger. I told him about the fantastic action scenes that would take place in the night club set, and this chase I'd come up with for this long hallway, and a big romantic scene with the leading lady where the hero professes his undying love for him, then she breaks his heart by betraying him in a major plot twist. I could see him imagining every scene and knew I had him.

After I was finished he sat there for a while, thinking about the pitch. Thinking about the characters. Imagining the scenes. Imagining himself directing the scenes. He nodded a few times, thinking it over. Then he turned to the lurking construction guy, smiled, and said: Strike it!

The crew began tearing down the set.

By the time I left, it was half torn down!

A couple of days later I got a call from another producer I'd met - he wanted to buy my TREACHEROUS script. I wouldn't have to work at McDonald's after all!

- Bill


TUESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Chasing Movie Trends... a *brand new^ 2k+ script tip using BEOWULF and 300 as examples.
WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Edge Defines Substance... a 2k+ rewrite of a tip that hasn't run since 2000... using DELIVERANCE as prime example.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chinese food at Three Brothers in Pleasant Hill, CA.

Movies: AMERICAN GANGSTER. I thought it was dull. I know, it's Steve Zaillian, so I should love it... but I didn't. People have asked me about the structure - the idea of cop and crook stories that come together at the end. That's been done a million times, the best of them is HEAT. In HEAT the cop (Al Pacino) and the crook (Robert DeNiro) really only have one scene together... and it's one hell of a scene. Compare that scene to the Denzel/Crowe scene in GANGSTER.

If you look at HEAT, there are three stories:

1) The cop chasing the crook. From early on Pacino is chasing the wrecking crew guys, trying to get a bead on them, following them, spying on them... interacting with them in some way. In GANGSTER Crowe is after drug dealers, and targeting Blue Magic... but we mostly see the big board and not much actual invesigation on his part. Eventually we have the undercover buy... that takes us to the dirty cops rather than Denzel. So it's really a dead end. Not much actual pusuit or police work in GANGSTER.

2) The crook's life. Here's where HEAT totally kicks ass over GANGSTER. Early on, DeNiro gives his big rule for surviving as an armed robber - "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." This rule makes him a man alone (who claims he's not lonely, but who does he think he's fooling?). Right after he reveals this rule he meets a woman in a book store and begins a relationship. This creates a great conflict - we want DeNiro to find love and have a relationship... but we know this violates his big rule (and that rule is there for a reason). So we are torn. Should he keep her? Dump her? And as the police close in - the *relationship* is in jeopardy. The crook's life story is directly tied tothe cop & crook story!

In GANGSTER they attempt to contrast Denzel as the family man with Crowe as the guy losing his family in a divorce... but there is no *conflict* in either story. Denzel just rises to power and brings his family along. Sure, there's a quick scene with a brother who screws up, but there is no drama *built in* to his story. He just rises to power.

If you just compare the Denzel part of the story to a movie like SCARFACE (either version) it's also the lesser film. In SCARFACE with have Tony coming to America with nothing and struggling to work his way to the top. Denzel *starts out* as Bumpy's right hand man - the #2 guy - and after Bumpy is killed becomes the #1 guy. Now, he's more intelligent than Bumpy and manages to build his empire... but it's a pre-existing empire. Not as dramatic as starting with nothing. Hey, I'm not even going to mention the wife/sister emotional conflicts in SCARFACE. So, even if we just look at the gangster side of the story, GANGSTER is lacking the drama and emotional conflicts that other gangster movies have.

Okay, and now let's compare the *crimes* these crooks are involved in. Denzel is basically on the phone making deals, or in Thailand making deals. Neither is exciting. The most excitment we get in Denzel's story is when he blows away a rival during lunch. DeNiro is involved in *armed robbery* and we not only get that great set piece robbery and shoot out, we get all kinds of action along the way. Shoot outs. Suspense. Chases. Now, Denzel's story could have focused on the action side of his business (a previous version of this story, Larry Cohen's BLACK CEASAR*, focused on the war between the black crime lord and the Mafia), but it focused on the businessman side. You may say, "Hey - that's the story!" but watching a guy make phone calls is boring. Not the best choice for a story.

3) The cop's life. In HEAT Pacino is having the same kind of relationship issues as Crowe in GANGSTER... but those problems are tied to the cop chases crook story. Every time Pacino needs to spend time with his wife or daughter, the case comes up and he has to dump them (creating big dramatic conflicts). Compare this to Crowe, who gets a bunch of fairly dull scenes in court getting a divorce and then *not* fighting for joint custody of his daughter. Crowe doesn't even try to keep his relationship going - which makes his life non-dramatic.

Now, you may say: "Hey - based on a true story. What choice did they have?" Well, no story on film is really true - everything gets dramatized... and the other folks who were involved seem to think Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts exaggerated everything and made them the stars... when there were two other major black crime lords in New York at the time (one doesn't even get mentioned in the film - and that is the guy who, up until this film, was seen as the #1 black crime lord of all time). If they fudged some major things in the story, why not fudge some minor ones and make it more dramatic? Instead of starting out with Richie's marriage on the rocks, why not show it disintegrating (more dramatic) throughout the film?

AMERICAN GANGSTER is an epic style film with two great actors and it looks good and tells a story... but comes off like a dull documentary. Not a bad movie, just kind of a ho-hum one.

Movies: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. A great idea... blandly executed. Lots of action, but it comes off kind of ho-hum. Two reasons for this:

1) No theme. There's a point in this film where Josh Hartnett says they can defeat the vampires because they know the town and they know the cold. Except that never plays out in the movie at all. There's another point where they talk about how the town is filled with non-conformists like Mark Boone Junior's character... but that really doesn't mean anything either. Maybe it's because there were 3 screenwriters - and they all may have been working against each other as far as theme was concerned. But the film comes off as being a nice collection of human vs. vampire action scenes that don't really add up to anything. By the end of the film, you feel vaguely unsatisfied, and may not be able to put your finger on what was wrong. Well, the film wasn't about anything. It didn't contrast one set of values with another.

2) No plan. There's a Terry Rossio article that I haven't read in probably a decade about "magnificent failure". CE who used to be on the Done Deal boards used to call this the "hopes & fears" in a story. Here's my version - your characters need to have a plan, and we need to know what that plan is and really hope that they succeed (and survive the vampires)... and then, as they struggle to make that plan work, things go wrong... and we fear that they will be killed by the vampires. That's what makes a film exciting - the plan that can save them, and how it goes wrong bit-by-bit. Remove the plan, and you have people just doing stuff. Nothing to hope for. And we can't fear the plan will go wrong, if there isn't one.

30 DAYS has characters who kind of make up their plan as they go along. In the beginning, they come up with this idea to go to the power plant place with the grinder that seems to exist only so that they can eventually throw a vampire into it... but they decide that's too far. So they go to a local house attic to hide out. And no one discovers them. They say at one point that vampires are searching the houses, but they don't search the house they're in until after other events have happend to bring them there.

Now, eventually they do decide to go to that power plant place - but that's the end of the movie. The small plans they come up with along the way are so vague we can't tell if the plans worked or not. They need to go to the storee to get some "supplies" - but what those suppies are and the gathering of the supplies is just a bland scene. We don't know exactly what they need, nor how things will go really really wrong if they fail - no stakes for that scene. It ends up more of a change of scenery than a scene. Getting there doesn't even have a failure factor or much of a plan. The way scenes like this work - it is important for one character to survive, and important to retrieve one specific item that will save their lives. The guy who can make that specific item work is the guy who must survive. Now, we have two chances for the plan to fail... and two things for us to worry about in the scene. We get one thing, but not the other. That allows the plan to succeed and fail at the same time. That creates a new conflict which requires a new plan and has a new chance for us to hope and fear that they will fail.

And by the time we get to the end of 30 DAYS, I think all logic goes out the window.

DVDs: *Resaw Larry Cohen's $300k version of AMERICAN GANGSTER called BLACK CEASAR. Crude, shot without permits on the streets of New York - often with hidden cameras and real people as extras, but juicy as hell. The rise of a poor shoe-shine boy who earns spare change working for gangsters to the most powerful gangster in New York - a Black man who is more powerful than the Mafia... yet, seems powerless when faced with his mother and trophy wife. He buys his mother the home she works in as a maid - then kicks out the rich white folks who live there and throws their clothes out onto the street. He is dogged by a corrupt cop - the cop who crippled him as a kid - and eventually gets tired of paying endless bribes and blows up the cop's prized possession... and when that doesn't work, forces the corrupt cop to cover his face with the shoe polish from the gangster's childhood shoe shine kit then treats the corrupt cop to his own racism before killing him. And no shortage of Black gang vs. Mafia action. (BLACK CEASAR is actually the story of Frank Matthews - the guy who *really* ran the Black crime family in New York.) Kind of a down & dirty, cheap movie... that's more exciting than the big budget version. No one making this film thought they were going to win an Oscar - they just wanted people in the cinema to have a good time.

Pages: Wednesday's new Script Tip, some outline work on a spec project about a Blackwater-like group (that will use lots of the research I did on THE BASE - none of which ended up in the crappy movie with that title).


Richard McNally said...

Maybe the janitor-director had something against adopted people and that's why he didn't want to work with you?

Appreciate your analysis of American Gangster--you've saved me ten bucks.

- R.McN.

Martin B said...

Great analysis of the conflicts -- or lack of them -- in the movies.

I love the industry stories too.

Christian M. Howell said...

Nice analysis of those films. At least my "quest for Oscar" isn't supposed to have shootouts - depending on which "psycho" story editor you talk to.
But several people do get the crap beat out of them. One is even hospitalized.

Unk said...


Great stuff as always! Another reason Corman has to strike the set is because there are a lot of people in his employ who have access to the sets and fancy themselves as Indie filmmakers in their own right...

And uh... Well, they get their "crew" together after hours and use the set for their film.

Only problem is that they don't have permission which is another reason for the high turnover there... LOL.

Because they get fired in a heartbeat.

I thought 30 DAYS OF NIGHT was kind of like a zombie flick except with vampires.

Happy Thanksgiving -- Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!


Richard McNally said...

Gripping analysis of Deliverance . . . rare case of someone who writes only one screenplay in his lifetime and it becomes a classic . . . but then Baudelaire only published one book of poems--and changed the course of French literary history forever.

- R.McN.

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