Monday, December 15, 2008

The Black List & Bill On TV Part 3

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

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

67 Mentions (First Place)
THE BEAVER by Kyle Killen

61 Mentions
THE ORANGES by Jay Reiss & Ian Helfer

44 Mentions
BUTTER by Jason Micallef

42 Mentions
BIG HOLE by Michael Gilio

40 Mentions
THE LOW DWELLER by Brad Ingelsby

39 Mentions
FUCKBUDDIES by Liz Meriwether

34 Mentions

29 Mentions
BROKEN CITY by Brian Tucker

24 Mentions
I’M WITH CANCER by Will Reiser

22 Mentions
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS by Peter Straughan

21 Mentions
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS by Quentin Tarantino

20 Mentions

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

15 Mentions
MANUSCRIPT by Paul Grellong
THE TUTOR by Matthew Fogel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

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


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

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

You have been warned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quick Updates

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

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

And you can watch an interview with me here:


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

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

- Bill

Monday, December 08, 2008

Desert Island DVDs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

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

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

You have been warned.

Friday, December 05, 2008

THEM vs. Us

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

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

- Bill

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oscar Winner Can't Sell Scripts

News Story from a month ago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill
Classes On CD On Sale!

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2008

Why I Always Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

Friday, November 28, 2008

Classes On CD - $5 Off Sale!

Holiday Sale - Classes on Audio CD
I'm putting the audio CD version of my classes on sale - $5 off. This is the lowest price these CDs have ever been: $10 each.

High Concept Ideas, Writing Horror, Guerrilla Marketing Your Script - No Agent? No Problem, Writing Indies (about budget), Writing Thrillers (2 CDs, $20 on sale).

Sale runs from Black Friday to the end of the Holiday Season.

Here's a link to the page: Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: High Concept Ideas updadted with a list of high concept elements.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Turkey.

MOVIES: TRANSPORTER 3 - The TRANSPORTER movies are a guilty pleasure - produced by Luc Besson and co-written by Besson and KARATE KID's Robert Mark Kamen - so when it came time to vote for what movies my friends and I would see this weekend, TRANSPORTER 3 won over AUSTRALIA.

The first film was great junky action fun, ex Special Forces badass Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is the best driver in the entire world. He makes a living transporting contraband from one place to the other, no questions asked. In fact, Frank is a man who lives by rigid rules and never breaks them. He is so meticulous that he needs to know the exact weight of the packages he carries so that he can calibrate his Audi for perfect handling. Can’t be even an ounce off. In TRANSPORTER he breaks one of his rules, for good reason (the duffle bag they threw in the trunk of his car *speaks*), and that leads to all kinds of problems. The kind of problems where things blow up real good.

Though the script for that first TRANSPORTER wasn’t going to win any Oscars, the film has three things in the plus column that made up for it: One - freakin’ amazing car chases and car stunts, I believe by the same precision driving team that did RONIN and the first BOURNE movie. A movie about the world’s best driver needs the world’s greatest car chases and car stunts, and the film completely delivered. Two - absolutely fantastic fight scenes, stuff that rivals Jackie Chan movies in skill, wild-ass imagination and grace. When motor oil is used in an unusual way as a weapon in a fight scene about a car driver, you know the fight choreographer was thinking. Completely cool stuff. Three - Jason Statham. Who knew from his roles as a clever schemer in LOCK STOCK and SNATCH that he could play a badass so well. And it’s not just that he’s a true tough guy in a Hollywood filled with girly-men, he has attitude to spare. Part of Frank’s meticulous character are his perfectly pressed shirts and tailored suits that he seems to care about more that himself. He carefully hangs his coat up before kicking ass. Statham makes these films.


TRANSPORTER 2 had a more complex script and some real names in the cast. Martin has moved to Miami where he’s the driver-bodyguard for Matthew Modine’s son... in a story that seems inspired by MAN ON FIRE. Martin is accused of kidnaping and must get the kid back unharmed. Though they don’t focus much on his rules, the story is much better than the first film... except for some silly Gay subplot that has the French detective from the first film (François Berléand) living in Frank’s house and baking him cookies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that... but it’s kind of nipples on the Batsuit. With a better story and a better cast, you’d think TRANSPORTER 2 would be a better movie... but it’s not! It sucks! Why? Well, it’s a movie about a car driver who does kung fu fightin’, and that’s where it crashes and burns.

Instead of the great precision driving from the first film, we get impossible CGI car stuff that would seem cartoony and unrealistic in a Road Runner cartoon. There’s a scene where there’s a bomb attached to the bottom of the car, so Frank zooms the car into the sky, spins it upside down, managed to snag the bomb on the hook of a cargo crane and pull it off, spin back to wheels down by the time the car perfectly lands on the asphalt. Huh? And the car chase scenes and action scenes are all like that one! So TRANSPORTER 2 just sucked. Once you set the level of reality in your story, you can’t suddenly change it. The better script was *more real*, and that made the stunt stuff more fake. And, on movies like these, we aren’t paying for the great acting... we’re paying for the car stunts and fighting and great badass moments. Good acting and a good story make it a better movie, but we paid for the stunts... and they just sucked.


So, TRANSPORTER 3 could have gone either way. But someone must have been paying attention to the audience the last time around, because T3 is back to T1. In fact, maybe too far back. The great car stunts are back, the amazing and imaginative fight scenes are back... but the somewhat silly plot is also back. They mention Frank’s rules in passing, but don’t make a big deal about them and Frank never seems to care how much the package he’s delivering weighs. The story needs 2 more car chases, and gives us a love story instead. This brought out the 7 year old boy in me - no kissing! I don’t want to see kissing! I want to see fighting!

The great thing this time around is a bit of high concept swiped from some other movie - Frank and the girl each have an explosive bracelet around their wrists - if they get 25 feet away from the car, the bomb turns on, 50 feet away from the car and the bomb is set to go off... and 75 feet feet away from the car? Blam. Frank is blown to a zillion pieces in a massive fireball and explosion. So, it’s best not to leave the car. Though this leads to some great scenes - one where the car is stolen and Frank has to keep up with it and get it back, using a bicycle and anything else he can grab. But the director never shows us the danged bracelet in this chase - green you’re okay, yellow at 25 feet, orange at 50 feet, red at 75 feet before you blow up. I want to know how much trouble Frank is in from minute to minute! They come up with this great suspense “focus object” and then never focus on it! No shots of it!

And the plot is kind of silly - what is it with new action movies that the villain’s plans are just kind of dopey? At least in CASINO ROYALE the bad guy is manipulating the stock market to make more money by blowing up a prototype plane at the airport - a good action scene. In QUANTUM we have an evil villain building a dam to corner the water market... kind of. Exploding a prototype jumbo jumbo jet plane vs. building a dam? In TRANSPORTER 3 we have an evil villain who needs a government dude (Jeroen Krabbe) to sign a contract that will allow a US company to ship waste products to the Ukraine. Huh? This is right up there with that first STAR WARS prequel’s taxation plot. Just silly! You never think, “Frank can’t let them make him sign that agreement!” Though dealing with waste and other environmental issues are a big deal in real life, they don’t seem to have the kind of intense threat that makes for a good movie plot. In the case of TRANSPORTER 3, it ends up a movie about paperwork. But the car chases and fight scenes deliver - making it better than #2 but not as good as #1. And, um, I liked it more than QUANTUM. You know, T3 is still a junky action movie... with a stupid script and too much kissy stuff and almost no characterization... but some great drivin’ and great fightin’.

- Bill

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you are outside the USA, that's our big harvest festival, which has kind of evolved into a family feast where you share a meal with relatives you may hate the rest of the year. Everyone over eats.

So let's all set aside our differences and disagreements - at least for a day... maybe for longer. Forgive each other.

- Bill

Friday, November 21, 2008

EXPO 2008 - Post Mortem (part 2)

Screenwriting Expo is laying on the slab and I'm doing that butterfly cut...

Friday is movie night, and that movie is QUANTUM OF SOLACE - which I will rip to shreds at a later date - and afterwards, in the cinema parking lot, one of the guys smells smoke and wonders if it’s even possible for the smoke from the fires near Santa Barbara to blow all of the way down here? You know, Santa Barbara is a long ways away from Los Angeles. Think of all of those states on the east coast... the west coast is mostly California with a little bit of Oregon and a little bit of Washington. On the east coast, Santa Barbara would be a few states away! No way to smell that smoke.

When I get home I flick on the TV... and it’s live fire coverage on every channel. Sylmar is burning. I have a couple of friends I haven’t talked to in ages who live there. That’s also where the county hospital is, I once drove Lou Grantt who ran Hollywood Scriptwriter Newsletter there when she wasn’t feeling well. And there was that hospital on TV with fire burning all around it. I click around the dial - and all of the local stations have live coverage all night. This can be funny because there’s a point where the anchors and field reporters are sleep deprived and may say crazy things. I’m waiting for that to happen... but meanwhile I’m trying to figure out the geography of this fire - and there is not a single *map*. They keep using street names in Sylmar, but I’ve only been there that one time, so I have no idea where these streets are. My friend Kris (one of the guys I just saw QUANTUM with) lives near Porter Ranch, was evacuated in the last big fire and lived in a motel with his dog for a few days... and Sylmar is close enough to Porter Ranch that the fire might be getting close to his house... but I can’t tell because there are no maps at all. Just picture-in-picture double fire footage and voice over from the anchor. I wonder if they call them “Night Anchors”? Sounds like a naval porn term.

Anyway, I keep watching to find out whether Kris’ house that *didn’t* burn down last fire is about to burn down in this one... and for the reporters to do something silly live on camera at 4am. They never show a map They also never show the “Night Anchors” at all - I click around to see if any of the channels show them, Nope. We get the field reporters and Night Anchor voice over shots of fire, but not a single shot of the people behind the desk. Look, I don’t care how bad their hair looks at 4am, I want to see them! And here’s why - in time of crisis, showing me the crisis in picture-in-picture doesn’t calm me. In fact, it panics me. But showing me people in suits sitting calmly behind a desk with perfectly blow-dried hair, that calms me. I think that is why if I click around to Mexican TV or Persian TV or Korean TV or Japanese TV or any other news from any other country or culture - there’s a guy in a suit with perfectly blow-dried hair sitting behind a desk calmly telling me that the world is going to end... and this calms me. I can deal with the end of the world because Brokaw is calmly dealing with it. But at 4am, I just get fire and more fire, and not a single face to put me at ease. No map, no face, no blow-dried hair... but eventually field reporter Gigi on channel 11 has a spark burn a big hole in her blouse, and shows the hole (and some naked flesh beneath) to the world on live TV. Another field reporter is almost engulfed in flames when she gets too close to the fire line - sparks blow over her! She survives unharmed, but it’s pretty amazing footage. I watch the fire coverage much of the night... which pretty much ruins that plan to go to Expo on Saturday. I could probably have just gone down for whatever party they had Saturday night, but figured I’d skip it and just go Sunday.

By the way - the sky is downright black on Saturday night. And you can see flames on the hills. They never showed a map of the fire area, so I call Kris - the fire was getting closer, he had stuff packed and ready to go if they evacuated him again, but the fire didn’t get close enough for that. Even today, almost a week later, there is still smoke and particular matter in the air (gets in your eyes when you cycle... lungs, too). I don’t have current phone numbers for my friends who live in Sylmar, so I have no idea whether they lost their homes or not. Maybe they moved, and live somewhere else.

Sunday I take the subway to Expo, and go to the Dealer’s Room to see if I can find my friend Joan and her writing partner Mike who mentioned online they’d be hanging around. I miss them, but notice a literature table filled with contraband postcards and hand outs. Hey! They said they wouldn’t have those tables this year! I could have brought a pile of post cards! Too late now.

In the dealer’s room I also bump into Gary Shusett, who runs Sherwood Oaks Experimental College - which isn’t really a college, just seminar things. Gary is a character. I’ve done a bunch of classes and workshops for him - and he pays nothing. He just pesters you about teaching until he wears you down and you agree. If we sent Gary to the mideast, he would have worn everyone down by now and we’d have permanent peace. Gary knows everyone in town, and half of them took classes from him. His brother, Ron, co-wrote ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL and a bunch of other movies. His sister is a bigwig at Fox. These days, Gary isn’t looking so good - I think he’s seriously ill, but he’s not saying. He pesters me about doing a class on Monday morning at 9am. Um, 9am is way before my wake time. Of course I say yes - I have a problem saying no and Gary doesn’t accept no for an answer. Drop Gary into one of those Discovery Channel shows where lions are attacking, and he’d wear down the lions until they just left him alone.

9am tomorrow... and I’m going to the Scribeosphere post Expo drinking marathon tonight at the Figeroua Hotel.

I head over to the Closing Ceremonies - a big room... mostly empty. This has got to be the lowest turn out for the Expo, yet... maybe it’s following in the footsteps of Showbiz Expo and just fading out. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe everyone is still watching the fire on TV. The closing ceremonies seem to go one *forever* - and things are all mixed up. After they announce the winner of a contest, they have all on the finalists come up on stage for a picture. Why not do the picture first, then while the finalists are on stage, announce the winner? I’m sitting behind Emily, and I brought a stack of DVDs to loan her (stuff we talked about at the party on Thursday). Emily’s day job is teaching High School English, and the whole state is reading the same novel by a California writer - this year it’s THE MALTESE FALCON by Dash Hammett. She’s taking it even farther by teaching about Noir in fiction and film, and showing a couple of movies like CHINATOWN and talking about the genre. Since this is one of my favorite genres, I have a huge stack of DVDs. I’ve picked a half dozen of the best to loan top her....

But sometime after one of the winners was announced, but I think before Bill (who now owns Expo along with Creative Screenwriting) told a long story about his most recent Match.Com date, Emily leaves. I figure she’ll be back or I’ll bump into her at the drinking marathon... but she had another party and I took the DVDs home with me. Since the closing thing is still dragging on, and on and on, I split.

I haven’t eaten yet, figure I’ll find someplace cheap instead of eat at the Fig, which is a fancy hotel downtown. But there’s really not much downtown in the first place, and it’s Sunday night, so I end up at the Fig for the drinking without having eaten. Another cheap drunk night!

I don’t know the history of the Fig, but it just looks like a well kept old building from the outside, on the inside it’s beautiful. Frescos on the walls, it looks like you’ve walked into a luxurious hacienda from a few centuries ago. The marathon is at the poolside bar, and I am the first one there. But a minute after I do the loop around the pool looking for familiar faces (and seeing none) Fun Joel walks in. We start slamming tables together to make one big table - which kind of fits the whole western hacienda feeling of the place. If you’ve ever seen the Sam Fuller western 40 GUNS, they have this great scene with 40 gunslingers sitting around badass Barbara Stanwyck’s epic dinner table... and we’re building that table in the Fig.

Soon, others arrive and real drinking begins. Though this is supposed to be for screenwriters that blog - the people on that scrolling list on the right side of this page - when other writers show up, no one shoos them away. Last year at the hotels, we were in the sports bar... and eventually took over the whole back section. The best thing about the sports bar is that I could order food, here at the Fig I’d have to go to the restaurant to get food, so I just drink. Everyone has a great time, and I talk to a couple of writers that I know from this blog and my website. If there is an Expo next year, wander over on Sunday and drink with us. No one will kick you out.

I have to get onto the subway before midnight or I turn into a pumpkin, so I leave before they close the bar. I wander down the street downtown looking for the subway station - which does not have the red Metro symbol outside on a sign, it has a classy business-type sign. So I miss it the first few times. I keep passing signs on 7th Street that tell me the subway station where I just came from... and eventually I narrow it down, find the station, and hop on a train before they stop running.

When I get home, I set my alarm for 7:30 am - a few hours away - and sleep. Or try to sleep. I’ve been up all night for the past few days watching the fire, and can’t just fall asleep. By the time I doze off, the alarm is about to go off. I shower and dress and grab a coffee at Starbucks and get to Gary’s class at 8:50am... and the room doesn’t open until 9am... and Gary shows after 9:30. I get another coffee while I’m waiting.

Class begins sometime after 9:30 - and here’s what the class is: Gary does these things where you go to 5 studios in 5 days and talk to 5-8 producers from each studio. This class is tacked onto Expo, and it’s 3 studios in 3 days. Universal Monday afternoon - but Monday morning is a pitch workshop. Though most of the producers just want a one page synopsis of your script, every once in a while one will ask the students what they have - and the students have to pitch their scripts on the spot. Gary has learned from past classes that it’s better for the class to be prepared to pitch. And many of the pitches need work. I’ve done this for Gary for years, now... and I can tell you that the main problem with most pitches is the story itself. Usually after I talk about the basics of pitching and say you want to focus on that great idea at the center of your script, at least one person will ask me what if they don’t have a single idea at the center of their script or their idea isn’t great at all - it’s kind of bland. I really have no idea what to say to those people, but I try to find some way for them to pitch their script in the workshop section.

I am full of energy - the combination of residual alcohol and too much coffee. I know that I will crash and burn in a few hours, but for now I’m okay. I can get through the class... but I won’t be working on the script at all today.

So here’s my question - and I may have asked it before - with so much information on screenwriting out there, how come people write an entire screenplay with some major flaw? There are always some people in these workshops with scripts that have huge obvious story problems. How can that happen in this day and age? Look, we’re all learning - even me - but you figure the basic story stuff would be okay.

One of the interesting things about the Expo that I talked about at the Fig’s poolside bar is that they want you to decide whether your course is for beginners, intermediate or advanced students. I always have trouble deciding, because the problem with scripts often is the basics. I’ve found that the more people think they’re way past the basic three act structure, the more they probably need a class on the three act structure. Yesterday’s tip was all about the problems with the *idea* in the movie THE CORE. So basics are often problems, even though there’s all kinds of info out there for screenwriters. Wordplay, Done Deal, Mystery Man, UNK, and probably a hundred more places to get info. Oh, yeah, my site, too. Yet there are still people who haave trouble with the basics. Not that all of the pitches in Gary’s class were terrible, there were some pretty good ones (and one that was great) - but in this day and age, how come any of them have basic problems? No conflict, passive protagonist, protag not involved in the conflict, all subplots and no plot, etc. These things are so basic, you feel bad for the writers who spent the money to fly to Los Angeles and take the class. Why spend all of that money to pitch a script that has basic problems?

Here’s the thing - not every script turns out as planned. I have scripts that suck... but I’m not buying a plane ticket to LA and spending hundreds on a class where I can pitch my script that sucks to big studio execs, But, then, THE CORE sold, right?

Gary asks if I want to come with them to Universal, but I know I’m going to crash at any minute, so I decline. I drag myself to my local Starbucks, talk to some friends about how sparse AFM was this year, then drag myself home and watch some DVDs before I fall asleep. Tuesday I’m the living dead, Wednesday I’m at 75%, and by Thursday I’m 100% again.

I look at an event like Expo and wonder how it can be reinvigorated or find a new audience. Everything dies out if you don’t reinvent it - including screenwriting careers. You always need a blast of imagination to turn what is old into something new. The folks at Expo need to put on their thinking caps *now* for next year and find a way to make it fresh and new and exciting again. Until then, I have to get back to work on this script!

- Bill

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

EXPO 2008 - Post Mortem (part 1)

And Post Mortem is probably the right phrase. Screenwriting Expo returned to the Convention Center this year, which is where it began a few years ago. Before there was the Screenwriting Expo, there was Showbiz Expo, which was always at the Convention Center. Showbiz was a show for everything from film making equipment like camera dollys to screenwriting and editing software. I used to go every year to represent Script Magazine, in the big room devoted to screenwriting products. As time went on, Showbiz faded - even though there were new products, people could find out about them on the web and didn’t need to fly to LA to check out the new camera dolly. And companies realized it cost less to put up a website and mail out brochures than do the big display once a year at Showbiz. Eventually, Showbiz just ended... and a year or so later, Screenwriting Expo seemed to take its place. The first year they expected 1,000 people and ended up with about 4,000 - and the event was both a success and a madhouse. I did a handful of classes and ran the Script Magazine table in the dealer’s room. About 3 years ago they moved to a couple of Airport Hotels, where it was crowded and crazy - last year I did 8 classes... which included 3 from the very first year.

So I decided to retire those classes. I have six new classes, four I’ve only done in London, two I’ve never done. The old classes are on CD, everyone has taken then in person, time to do something new. Usually I have to get the classes to them right away, because they have that catalogue to put out - and it goes to the printer early. I finish teaching the classes at Expo and already have to plan next year... Except this year, nothing. A couple months later, nothing. A couple of months ago I get an e-mail telling me that I will be teaching my 3 most popular classes this year, and if I want to do additional classes, I can e-mail them a synopsis of each. I have to search for those class synopsis from almost a year ago, e-mail them in... and wait to hear. And wait, And wait. And when it’s almost time to teach those classes, I find out I will be teaching only those 3 original classes. Good news is - all on the same day. Better news is - all in the same room. Bad news is - all in Thursday. Thursday is the dead day, the weekend is when the most people come. The worse news - My first class begins at 2pm, my last class ends at 7:30pm. Great that I can sleep late, but how many people will be taking that last class? So I’ll be teaching old classes to empty rooms. How many people haven’t already taken the classes? How many of those people will show up on a Thursday?

For me, an additional problem is American Film Market ends Wednesday, and Expo starts Thursday... with me teaching 3 classes. Oh, and I’m writing a script... and I’m way behind due to all of the other things happening - Presidential elections and meetings and movie screenings. So many things going on - and I figured I’ve already done these classes so many times, I’ll flip through the materials on the subway train...

Oh, that can go in the good news column. When they held the Expo at the Airport Hotels, I always had at least one class at 8am, and there’s just no way to fight freeway traffic *to the airport* and teach a class at 8am. So I always ended up staying at one of the hotels so that I could drink all night at the Expo party, then roll out of bed, hit Starbucks, and teach my class - no sitting in bumper-to-bumper on the 405 stressing out that I was gong to miss my own class. Of course, the down side of that was that I had to pay for a hotel room, which would eat up a big chunk of the money I’d make from doing the classes (and that check comes sometime in February). At the Convention Center, I could either fight traffic on the 101 (which I did on some days the first couple of years) or walk 2 blocks to the Universal subway station and take the subway to... well, this is Los Angeles, so the subway doesn’t go anywhere you’s want to go. But from the 7th Metro subway station you can transfer to the Blue Line light rail train that goes the half dozen blocks to the a block away from the Convention Center. I think it takes around 10-15 minutes. It takes that long to merge on the freeway sometimes.

Oh, in addition to having all of my classes on Thursday, and all of them being old classes, new Expo rules say that all hand outs need to be submitted to the Expo and approved first, and there will be no product sales in the class rooms. Well, I always bring a stack of post cards to the event and scatter them around, and keep some on the table in my class. And, because I can’t be two places at once - and paying someone to sell my CDs while paying for a table in the dealer’s room would mean I’m probably losing money. I’d have to charge what John Truby charges for his CD classes to break even! I want to charge a fair price, and in this economy I want to keep prices down. The only way to do that is to sell them in the back of the room. So I smuggled the CDs into the class, smuggled in the post cards.

Last year, Emily from Bamboo Killers (was White Board Markers) was my assistant... and worked her butt off for no pay. As my assistant, they provided an all access pass for her - so when I wasn’t teaching, she could go to other classes and events at the Expo. In previous years, I had problems selling CDs because, well, I was teaching. What happens after class is that everyone rushes the podium to talk to me and the bag of CDs remains unopened. Emily could sell the CDs while I was talking to students. Which was great last year because it helped cover the cost of the hotel room. Though may have sucked for Emily because she had that all access pass and spent most of the time in my class.

This year, she’s going to be my co-conspirator and sell contraband CDs and scoop up post cards off the table if 5-0 showed up. For this, they give her a pass that *only* gets her into the dealer’s room and a couple of other places. The crap pass. And the classes she’s helping me with are classes she head last year. I feel bad. My basic theory on life is we should find some way for all of us to benefit - keep the CD prices down so that people can afford them, get Emily into the event in exchange for helping me for a few hours, etc. If everyone can win, that’s the best plan.

I bring a bottle of iced coffee to the Convention Center... drink half of it during the course of the day. There is *one* tiny bottle of water at the podium - and eventually drink that. But have no breaks at all - and am drying out.

Every year -since year 1 - I have done the visual storytelling class and requested a TV or digital projector... and didn’t get one. Every year I bring the DVD player or laptop... and nothing to hook it up to. So every year, I act out the clips. This year I didn’t even bring the DVD player or laptop... and get a digital projector! Pisser! Should have brought the laptop! So I act out the clips again this year.

Thursday, 1st class... full. Second class... SRO (people actually sitting on the floor). Third class, starts at 6pm... full! At the end of the first class, Emily tells me most of the CDs are gone. By the end of the last class - all of the post cards are gone. And because the Expo has a severe volunteer shortage, no 5-0 there to bust us for selling CDs and handing out contraband post cards.

Oh, on the subway ride to... well, almost to... the Convention Center, I forget to flip through the class materials because I’m jotting down notes on the script. So I wing all 3 classes. As someone who has done these classes every year of Expo, I can tell you there were more fumbles this time... but I think I was the only one who noticed. Like every year, I hear horror stories of other classes where teachers are doing 90 minute commercials for their services or have a serious information shortage or are just plain boring. And my classes were none of those things. One of the things people kept telling me was that I was entertaining and told fun stories. Hmmm... Isn’t that what a screenwriter *does*? Isn’t the absolute minimum thing to expect from someone teaching screenwriting is that they can tell a story? Who are these other teachers?

After the last class, I’m practically dehydrated... but there’s an opening night party in one of the rooms. $30 to get in, free if you are a speaker. I bump into Fun Joel and we decide to smuggle Emily into the party. I’m going to buy drinks with the CD money - and pay to get Emily in if the smuggling doesn’t work. Emily is sneaky, and gets in without problem. And there’s an open bar.... so I tip what I would have paid for the drinks... and there are sandwiches, which is good because I have had *nothing* to eat all day. No time between classes at all. But here’s the problem - one hand holds the plate, one hand holds the beer... how does the sandwich get to the mouth? Someone needs to create a plate holder upper you wear around your neck for situations like this.

A woman who was sitting on the floor in my SRO class tells me I’m funny. Others tell me how passionate I was about writing, and how they were inspired. That’s cool - but shouldn’t that be default mode for someone teaching screenwriting? Why is this anything anyone should comment on? And when I teach these classes I’m usually half asleep - in this case, I only had half a thing of coffee, and dead tired from previous events. How can you *not* be passionate about writing if you are a writer? This stuff confuses me, and makes me want to sit in on one of these other classes. I think about doing that - and plan to come back on Saturday and Sunday (I have the all access pass). Of course, plans ended up changing - and more on that in part 2 on Friday.

After an hour or two the open bar becomes a cash bar and I get the chance to buy a round. But a little sandwich does not absorb a bunch of beers, so I’m a really cheap drunk. I didn’t pay $12 for parking, I paid a couple of bucks for the subway... so I’m not driving home. Fun Joel took the bus, Emily parked on the street... so I walk her to her car - the neighborhood around the Convention Center is like a war zone. I parked my car on the street a couple of times and worried most of it would be gone when I got back. But her car was fine. I was so thirsty, I thought I was gonna die. I actually stopped at the Ralphs grocery between the subway and my building and chugged a bottle of water... to thirsty to make it all the way home. Hit the sack, intending on working on the script and seeing the new Bond film with my friends on Friday and heading back to the Expo for the weekend. More on that tomorrow...

- Bill


Yesterday’s Dinner: Ended up eating at home - chicken and rice, corn on the side.

MOVIES: I have seen a ton of movies, including the new Bond film... and will fill these in later.
Pages: Way behind on the script due to all of these events... but had one of those breakthroughs while taking a shower things today that should solve one of the big problems I keep running into.
Bicycle: I have been taking a ride at least once every week - even when there really isn't time. A couple of days ago I was completely exhausted, and rode anyway... and felt better. Wednesday I was going to bus/bike to Westwood, then go see JCVD at the Nuart, but by the time I got going the day was half over so I decided to just ride to a Starbucks I never go to and work - skipping the movie and bus ride part. People at Expo told me I looked like I lost weight... I see myself every day, haven't noticed. Still look fat.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Scan This!

My entry on Expo is coming soon, but here's something to tide you over...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Movie Plan

Every time I go to the American Film Market I get depressed. Not due to all of the cruddy movies among the Oscar hopefuls... but because none of the cruddy movies are mine - movies that I have made. You see, AFM is filled with people who were selling cell phones a couple of years ago... and now they are movie producers. I see these guys and realize they have no talent, no taste, and are making films. What do they have? Balls.

I am uncomfortable - that’s a code word for scared sh!tless - to put all of the pieces together and then ask someone for a bunch of money that isn’t mine to make a movie... which will be the first thing I’ve produced that wasn’t some silly “student film”. What if I screw up? I have no idea what the hell I’m doing - why would anyone give me money?

I think it's good to think of *all* of the ways you can either break in, or make a living in this biz. Isn't screenwriting part of making movies? If I didn't want to be involved in making movies, I'd be writing novels and short stories. Though I have written both (I'm a writer first) I am a SCREENwriter, and have monkeyed around making little short films (and an ill-advised Super 8 feature). I know a bunch of screenwriters who went to film school, and many trying to break in who work in crew jobs. One of the things I think can help you with your writing is to make some short films. And being on a set teaches you all kinds of things about what works on paper but doesn't work at all on film. Screenwriting is part of film making - and many people interested in writing movies are interested in movies and making movies.

I’ve joked before that the main reason why I’m a screenwriter is because paper costs a lot less than 16mm film. And I can write whatever budget I want... but when I was making movies, it was whatever was in my checking account that wasn’t earmarked for rent and food.

Now, I have learned one thing in my past life making short films and that Super 8mm feature - I am not cut out for directing. My idea of heaven is to sit alone in my room and write, not be bombarded with questions and problems from the crew and cast. I think you need to have a huge ego and be a major extrovert to enjoy directing. But I know a lot about directing, and I have done it... and I am planning to make my own little movie, hopefully next year. (The plan was to make it between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I'm working on this assignment and haven't written the script for my movie, yet.)

One of the things I've realized is that even though I probably know more than many of the people making low budget movies today, I am afraid to take the *responsibility* of making a movie on someone else's money, since I've never done that before. I had a friend back in my community college days who never spent a cent on any of his films - he always found someone else to put up the money (often me or one of his other friends) - he also had no trouble asking people to give him rent money. This guy made a pile of films, and had no problem asking people for money to make features. I never learned how to do that... and seems that I still haven't. So my plan is to do what I did back in the day, which is what I advise people to do on message boards - I'm funding a feature out of pocket. Some of the money from my current assignment is going to make a no-budget feature.

And the cool thing about this project...

When you work every day in the biz, it sometimes isn't fun anymore. I long for those old days when I was making movies with my buddies on 8mm and Super 8mm and 16mm (whenever I could afford it). We all used to crew on each other's films, and it was kind of a party with a movie as the outcome. In fact, at one point we would have regular house parties and make a film for each of them. Making the film was often more fun than the party! So I've decided to recapture those old days by making the film with my old friends back home (who all have day jobs now, but regularly make shorts for festivals and competitions). Each of us will rotate through as director, working as camera or gaffer or some other position when we aren't calling the shots. Shot digi. Edited on a laptop. Everything will be beg, borrowed, stolen... with catering by Little Caesar's $5 pizza. No permits - I just hope we can outrun the police as old farts the way we used to as 20 year olds. Part of my screenwriting process will be finding what we have access to and using that in the story, but I have found some cheap stock footage of building implosions that I'm going to use some cheap fire and explosion CGI plug ins on, and some car crash footage, too. In the old days, on that feature, I figured out how to blow up a car without any explosion, and that's even easier in this CGI age. The idea is to find everything we have access to that is production value and put it in the script. This is going to be the same as those shorts we were making decades ago - ind of a party with a film to show for it.

For me, personally, it's a way to make a film in my comfort zone... then use my connections with distribs to get it on the shelves at Blockbuster, and let the distrib offer me money for the next film (again, in my comfort zone). I think once I've made one, it'll be easier to accept the responsibility to make the next with someone else's cash. And it may even open some interesting screenwriting doors for me. Basically, I’m trying to find a way around all of my fears to reach my goal. Now, this is the coward’s way out - I’m not confronting my fear and resolving my problems like a good protagonist. But I am achieving my goal. This is kind of like training wheels on a bicycle - when you get your balance, you can take them off. I need the training wheels for the first film.

Here’s the project:

Building Contractor Dave Jackson checks into a hotel for his 20 year High School Reunion the following day. A knock at the door. When Jackson answers, no one there. Just a manila envelope. Inside the envelope: A man's photo, several bundles of twenty dollar bills, and a 357 Magnum. Jackson realizes the envelope has been delivered to the wrong room... And the hit man is after him! Caught between hitman and victim, regular guy Dave Jackson must fight to survive.

This project is being designed as a web-serial, 12 segments at 7 minutes each, with 11 cliff-hangers. That adds up to 84 minutes, which gives us a feature to sell on DVD once the serial has run online. The plan is to give away the first couple of episodes, then go subscription for the rest. This project will shoot in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have access to some interesting locations, and plan to guerrilla shoot at a bunch of landmark locations to increase production value. The cool thing is that my friends and I can easily alternate directing with this kind of format. And all of the cliff-hangers will give it a 24 feel, and keep it exciting.

Once I know what I have to work with, I’ll write a script that takes advantage of those elements (plus all of the locations I plan to steal - there *will* be some sort of chase on a BART train and look for all of the San Francisco landmarks as part of the story). Then we’ll put together a cast and shoot it, probably over 6 weekends - though it may be 5 weekends in the Bay Area and one weekend in Los Angeles that might include some names in confined cameos. Or maybe a single day in LA, depends on how things work out. Probably late summer of next year, so that it will be ready to sell at AFM next year. There are some actors, musicians and comics that live in the Bay Area, and maybe we can get a couple in the film - that’s a long shot, but you gotta try those things. On my pocket change budget, I don’t need names to break even...

And if the movie doesn’t sell? It will be a blast making it. I’ll keep you posted when things happen. Right now I'm still slugging it wout with this assignment.

I think we live in a time of amazing possibilities for people who want to be involved in making films (which includes screenwiting) - you can actually make a feature film for very little money and get it to the audience in a variety of ways. Internet, standard distribs, self distribution. As someone who is part of making films.... that usually start out okay and end up sucking... it would be nice to have one that isn’t rewritten by damned dirty apes or changed by clueless directors or otherwise damaged on the way to the screen. And if NEAR HIT sucks, I’ll have only myself to blame. And I’m okay with that.

- Bill

Monday, November 10, 2008

Falling Back

Instead of daylights savings, can we add a couple more hours to every day? I have too many things to do all at once. I thought gaining that one hour might help, but now it's gone... I need two extra hours every single day! There was the Final Draft Big Break Awards, then Halloween, then the elections, then American Film Market (started Wednesday, ends Wednesday) and on Thursday I teach my first classes at Expo, which ends on Sunday, and then I have something else on my calender before Thanksgiving, and then Christmas and New Years... and I have a screenplay I’m writing!

I’m behind a bit on the screenplay because of all of the last minute changes, which seemed simple at the time but have grown more complicated as the script goes on. I think I’ve over most of the big changes and down to one last main change that plays out through the rest of the script... so the hard part is over and now it’s just the regular hard work of writing a screenplay on a deadline that will go out to talent. You know - all of the regular headaches of writing a script.

My legs are aching because I spent yesterday climbing stairs at AFM - it was cool to see Script Magazine as an official AFM mag in the lobby right next to Hollywood Reporter and Screen International. Because I’ve got so many things to do (like this script) I’m not spending the whole week at AFM. Yesterday I had a couple of meetings, one of which cancelled at the last minute. Swell. It was another potential script sale. But I did bump into fellow blogger Bill from Pulp 2.0 and we discussed a company he has a contact with that are looking for a script like one of mine, so he’s taking it in to them. If that happens, I’ll give all of the details - right now it just like all of those companies who read my stuff.... usually hundreds of places read so that one sale can be made. Numbers game. I also bumped into a couple of companies at AFM that go on that list of things that might happen but probably won’t. But an interesting thing happened - I bumped into someone who was setting up seminars in foreign lands and wondered if I’d be interested in teaching screenwriting in various places I have never been to before. Hmm, something else to prevent me from writing scripts.

So now I’m gearing up for Expo... and will probably hit AFM again tomorrow. I wish there were more hours in the day.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Story Is Change.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Steak at Norm's.

MOVIES: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - (Mild Spoilers) - A great film you may have never heard of. From the writer of THE FULL MONTY and the director of TRAINSPOTTING, this film will have you laughing and crying and even squirming, but you will leave the cinema with a smile on your face and hope for the human race... And wanting to tell everyone you know to go see it. Which is a good thing, because this film has no stars in it and doesn’t fit into any genre. It’s basically the story of a slum kid in India, played - not by an actor - but by an actual slum kid. See how that’s a tough sell to an audience used to seeing talking dog movies and Seth Rogen comedies?

If there is any “star” in SLUMDOG, it is the TV show WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? That may seem odd, but there are versions of that TV show in almost every country, and they all use the same set design and music and format. Even though this film takes place in India, in a completely alien culture, you are familiar with the show... which is at the center of this story. So the show is the star - and a great way to publicize the movie is to ride on the coattails of the TB show... which this movies does in several ways.

SLUMDOG is about a poor orphan kid from the streets and slums of India who ends up on the Indian WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE at 20... and answers every question correctly... so he is arrested by the police for fraud, since they are sure that he cheated. How could a guy with this background know all of the answers? The police interrogate him - and they are not afraid to hit him and worse to get a confession - and ask him how he knew the answer to each question... which leads to a flashback... and the flashbacks tell the story of the boy, from childhood until now. This is a great CITIZEN KANE like device to give us the kid’s story, using the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE show to drive the story.

The film ends up in 3 time periods - the Game Show, the Police Station, and the Boy’s Life. Because we have these three time storylines, each of them is chronological to avoid confusion - there’s enough going on in the structure already. So we begin with the boy (Jamal) and his brother at six or seven, then watch them grow up in flashbacks to thirteen or so, then as eighteen or nineteen year olds. The game show drives the story, and this is a great device - just telling the story of a kid growing up in the slums might be interesting, but the game show gives it a concept that is interesting and unusual. Not quite a high concept, but certainly something higher than just the kid story. This isn’t just any slum kid, this one just won WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. His story is unique and special. The game show gives his story a reason to be told.

The story behind the film is also interesting. It’s based on a novel titles Q&A that uses the game show to drive the story (which is different than the movie). After buying the rights to the novel and hiring Simon Beaufoy to write the script, the major problem was still the game show. To mention the game show in the novel may not have required purchasing any rights, but *showing* the game show would - the sets and music and format are copyrighted. So without the rights, there could be no movie (or they would have to make up a game show and change all of the elements - which removes the one thing that audiences are familiar with from the story. You lose the “hook” *and* the “star” in one script change!) - so everything depended on securing the rights to use the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE show. Without it, the script is garbage. As luck would have it, the producers of MILLIONAIRE had just opened a film division and were looking for a project to produce - and this script actually promoted their show! So they not only granted the rights, they *funded the film*. They became the producers of the movie. Potentially deadly rights issue solved! Because this story has a couple of places where the show may not be seen in the most flattering light, it was possible that they might refuse to sell the rights to use MILLIONAIRE no matter what the price - and this whole project would have crashed and burned. So the lesson there is probably not to gamble on rights owned by somebody else, even though this film had a great outcome.


The format is: Game Show - kid is asked question and gives correct answer, Police Station - cops interrogate kid and ask him how he knew, Flashback - we see a portion of the kid’s life which includes how he knew the answer.

One of the things movies do is *transport us* - they take us into different worlds and allow us to live different lives for 2 hours. Though most often that fantasy life is something exciting and fun, it doesn’t have to be. In this case, we are taken into the world of slum dwellers in India - and see the world through their eyes. What amazed me was the beauty and squalor combined. The shanty town on the edge of the garbage dump... with all of the colorful laundry fluttering in the breeze on clothes lines. I wondered whether that was production design or just reality - and believe it’s probably just reality. This film was shot with compact digital cameras in the actual slums. You are taken into this world, and see it through the eyes of a child. That gives it a sense of wonder and mischief.

Jamal and his slightly older brother Salim live in the slums, and pick through garbage for hidden treasures and find unusual ways to make enough money to eat and survive. An early scene *shows* us the older brother’s character - which will come into play in almost every scene afterwards. The slums have outhouses on the end of piers, and the boys are taking tolls from anyone who needs to use them. Between customers, Jamal is using the facility when a movie star visits the slum to sign autographs (a photo op). This is Jamal’s favorite star, but his brother wedges a chair against the outhouse door so that he can’t get out. Just being a mean older brother - establishes a cruel streak. Jamal really wants to meet his favorite star and get the photo he always carries autographed. But how to escape the outhouse? Well, there is one way out... And this shows Jamal’s determination, his ingenuity, and the level of his love for this star. He goes down through the toilet - then manages to pass through the crowd surrounding the star (people do tend to step aside when you are covered with poop) and get his autograph. This is a big funny scene, that shows us the characters of both boys. But the next scene gives us more information about the brother, Salim... he steals the autographed picture and sells it, keeping the money for himself. Where Jamal is driven by his love for this star, Salim is driven by money. And we get another great scene between the two brothers where Jamal deals with being betrayed. By finding a pair of scenes that *demonstrate* the characters early on, we now know who they are and how they will each deal with every situation they encounter.

A few scenes later, it is *pouring* rain, and Jamal and Salim have taken shelter in a small shed. A slum girl they know, Latika, is stuck outside. Jamal wants to invite her into the shed with them, but Salim doesn’t want to give up any of his room for somebody else. Another great scene that *shows* us the characters... when Salim falls asleep, Jamal invites the girl in out of the rain. (There’s an additional element to this scene that I will not spoil for you.) After this, the three of them are a team (sort of) and the adventures of their young lives are what the flashback stories are all about. Do I even need to say that Jamal is in love with her?


Movies need goals that we can see. That way we know when a character has achieved their goal. If a character is looking for inner peace - we can’t see that so we have no idea if they ever find it or not. If they are looking for self respect, we can’t see that either. We need a *physical goal* and that visual goal needs to be what drives the story (so that we can see the character getting closer or farther from the goal with each scene). Many movies that don’t work use an internal goal to drive the story and come off as being a collection of scenes without that driving force that moves the story forward. Here we have three elements to the story, and sort of three goals.

Easy to figure out what the goal is in the Game Show, to win the money. We have a poor slum kid, now 20 working as a servant in an office getting tea for the employees and doing anything else they need him to do - and if he wins this game, he will be rich. Part of the game show format is they give the contestant a big fake check before the next question and ask if they want to quit now or risk that money to keep playing. That big fake check is the visual symbol of the money for both the show and the movie. So when he hands the check back to the host to continue playing, we *see* him risking the money. The money has been made tangible and physical with that big fake check. We always need to find a way to make something unseen and/or abstract into something concrete for the film.

And it’s easy to figure out what the goal is in the Police Station, to be released. Though the police station itself is a visual way to show confinement, our kid is handcuffed. The handcuffs create a physical goal - having them unlocked and removed is something that we can see. You always need a visual goal, and the more concrete the goal is, the better the goal. We need to be able to see the goal and know precisely when it has been achieved. Often this means creating a symbol - something physical like the handcuffs that represent the goal.

But for the kid’s story, what is the goal going to be? What is that drives that story? What can the goal be when we go from 6-7 years old all of the way up until he gets on the game show? And what does the game show have to do with that goal? Obviously, going on the game show needs to be motivated... by the goal. When the kid is 7 years old, he can’t be thinking, “If I could only get on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE., I can change my whole life!” Kids don’t think like that, and I’m not even sure the show was on when he was a kid, and... well, where would a kid in the slums where there is not electricity watch TV? So we need something that is part of his slum life, that can also be a constant motivation throughout the rest of his life... which brings us to that third Musketeer - the girl from the slums that Jamal invites in out of the rain... and falls in love with, Latika. Throughout the flashbacks which make up most of the film, the three children have a variety of adventures... and often are split up by circumstances. So Jamal is often looking for the girl he loves - he will find her and then lose her several times in the course of the story. The girl herself is the goal, here - she is the physical symbol of his love. Had they been together throughout the movie, Latika could not be the symbol of lost love - because she wouldn’t be lost. If you have the goal, the film is over. So Jamal must lose the girl for her to be the goal. This girl is the through-line for the movie. The over-all goal. Which is great, because it makes the movie *not* about becoming a millionaire, but about finding love.


Because we have a complicated story with three basic time periods - and the flashbacks take place over a period of time - we need to keep the story as easy to follow as possible. Part of that is keeping all of the flashbacks in chronological order, but another part is limiting the characters. When we jump back to the flashbacks for a scene or two, we don’t have time to introduce a bunch of new characters. There is character conservation in this story - when a gangster is introduced in the slums when then kids are 6 or 7, the same gangster remains part of the story when they are 13, and when Jamal is a young adult. It’s not a bunch of different gangsters who run the crime in the slums, it’s one guy. That way, when we flash back for one scene and it has to do with the criminal elements in the slums, we already know who this gangster is - we recognize him from earlier scenes.

The other villainous character who runs throughout the flash back stories is the Beggar King, an evil Fagin type who rounds up orphan kids and turns them into professional beggars. Of course, he keeps all of the money, and believes that the kids are his property. They must do whatever he wants, and much of this is not fun at all. Again, this character (and even one of the orphan beggars) become constants in the flashback stories - once they have been introduced, the can return to other flashbacks without having to be introduced again. Though there are other characters introduced in the flashbacks, the main characters in the flashbacks are Jamal and Salim and Latika and the Gangster and the Beggar King. This also helps the audience, because we have a film filled with actors we have never seen before. If Paul Giamatti plays a bit part in a film, you know who he is - you recognize him. No real introduction needed. But if a movie keeps introducing characters played by actors we have never seen before, we tend to confuse one with another and get lost easily. Controlling the number of characters in your story also keeps the audience from being confused.

Something else that might be confusing to the audience is the change of actors when Jamal and his brother go from 7 to 13 years old. With out three main time periods - the Game Show, the Police Station, and the flashbacks - having the characters in the flashbacks each played by three different actors might be confusing. So they needed a bridge to connect the 7 year old version of Jamal and his older brother and the 13 year old version of Jamal and his older brother. We need a visual link from one age to the next, so that we *know* (without explanation) that the 7 year old Jamal is now this 13 year old version. The film actually gives us a “two-fer”, by bridging the two versions of Jamal and his brother *and* creating a kind of “montage” that explains what they’ve been doing for the years in between. Just not the kind of montage you’re thinking - something simple and elegant. When the brothers are hobos, riding from town to town by train, they get thrown off a train at 7, roll down a hill, and when they get to the bottom of the hill Jamal is 13 and his brother a year older. Rolling down the hill acts as the bridge *and* tells us that they’ve been going from town to town living by their wits for the past 6 years. Look for simple bridges like this that can do two things at once instead of complicated montages that give the audience the same amount of information but take more screen time and cost a bunch more to film. Always look for the clear, simple way.

Another element of the flashbacks is that they need to be the strongest moments from the character’s life - and we get some amazing and powerful moments. The high points of Jamal’s life and the low points.

The great thing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is that it *shows* us not only the power of love, but shows us that experience can teach us as much as a formal education. Jamal know all of the answers because he has lived his life... and learned from life. The film may not star anyone you have ever heard of, nor does it take place in a familiar world, but seek it out if it comes to a cinema near you. Opens on Friday in limited release, and will probably get some Oscar buzz and open in more theaters.

- Bill
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