Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Interview

No, not that silly Seth Rogen movie that brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, but an interview with me on Dave Bullis' Film podcast.

Here's the link:

Podcast #35: William C. Martell.

Plus, here is a full hour of my interview with Film Courage, after doing a day of teaching and needing to take a nap!

A full hour, so make sure you pack a lunch first!

I am available for podcast interviews, email interviews, and birthday parties (though all of my balloon animals look like snakes).


For Your Consideration Screenplays

As we close in on the Oscars, I thought I'd post all of the For Your Consideration Scripts to date. These are *free* and *legal* screenplays for the movies the studios and producers thought had a shot at an Award. These are the production drafts, so they will be what ends up on screen rather than what sold as a spec script (in the case of original screenplays). Sometimes the difference between sales draft and production drafts are just insane! Almost everything has been changed except for the core idea! Though no award winner, the comedy HANCOCK began as a dark, gritty, morose screenplay about a heartbroken drunk superhero titled TONIGHT HE COMES. What's interesting with that film is that both versions have the same core story, just one is taken as a comedy and the other as a tragic drama...

Fox Screenplays.

Universal Screenplay.

The Weinstein Company Screenplay.

A bunch of links at Go Into The Screenplay.

And some of the links broken out...

"Belle" by Misan Sagay

"Birdman" by Alejandro Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo

"Boyhood" by Richard Linklater

"Box Trolls" by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (Based on the book "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow)

"Calvary" by John Michael McDonagh

"The Fault in Our Stars" by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Based on the novel by John Green)

"Get On Up" by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, story by Steven Baigelman and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn (Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn)

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness

"Kill the Messenger" by Peter Landesman (Based on the books "Dark Alliance" by Gary Webb and "Kill the Messenger" by Nick Schou

"Locke" by Steven Knight

"St. Vincent" by Theodore Melfi

"The Theory of Everything" by Anthony McCarten

"Wild" by Nick Hornby (Based on the memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed)


Monday, January 26, 2015

Lancelot Link: More Danged Awards!

Lancelot Link Monday! The weekend was all about Awards! We had the Producer's Guild and the Screen Actor's Guild and Miss Universe. So here's my question: Does the Miss Universe Award seem rigged? All of the entrants are from Earth! Is that giant asteroid coming towards us fiulled with angry alien contestants? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 American Sniper................. $64,365,000
2 Boy Next Door................... $15,001,000
3 Paddington...................... $12,391,000
4 Wedding Ringer.................. $11,600,000
5 Taken AGAIN!..................... $7,600,000
6 Imitation ....................... $7,136,000
7 Strange Magic.................... $5,534,000
8 Selma............................ $5,500,000
9 Mordecai......................... $4,125,000
10 Into James Woods................. $3,886,000

Note: AMERICAN SNIPER has made over $200,000,000 domestic so far! Just over a week.

2) Producer's Guild Awards Winners... LEGO MOVIE?

3) Screen Actor's Guild Award Winners.

4) Miss Universe Awards Winners.

5) Yes, there will be another PIRATES movie... Why? I do not know.

6) Screenwriter David Koepp on megabomb MORDECAI.

7) Duplass Brothers make deal with Netflix.

8) Screenwriter William Monahan on the bomb OBLIVION.

9) Jarvis from the IRON MAN movies talks about the new AVENGERS movie.

10) Harvey Weinstein on Sony Hack and QT.

11) Reggie Hudlin On Oscar's White Out This Year.

12) Most Hollywood Screenwriters Were Women! WTF Happened?

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

From the French film DOBERMAN.





Thursday, January 22, 2015

HOOK 'EM IN TEN Birthday Party!

A month ago, the 9th in my Blue Book expansion project was born! I know, it’s still in the crying and drooling stage... as am I. But why not celebrate anyway?

In lieu of gifts or money or a spanking, could you do me a favor and either write a review on Amazon on the new book or any of the other books you have not yet reviewed or post about one of the books on Twitter or Facebook or some other social media?

I’d love to have the book be #1 on Amazon in Screenwriting for Thursday through Monday. The whole weekend.

When I post a picture of one of my books next to some other book on FB, the other books all have hundreds of reviews... and mine have fewer than fifty! As Popeye would say: It’s embarrrasking! And someone said the other day that books with more than fifty (and then more than 100 reviews) get bumped onto the You May Like section, which helps keep the book in front of people.

Telling people about the books on social media helps inform people that the books exist without me doing my daily sledge hammer posts about where the books are in the rankings. Though, um, if the new book is #1 for the weekend, I may post about that. But this is about *all* of the books, so if the STORY Blue Book is your favorite... tell people!

Wait, you are thinking, what do we get? At a real birthday party, there would be cake!

I have no cake. But for anyone who buys a book over the weekend (Friday through Sunday) my short story and novella will be free...

And for those of you who already have those, the first of the Vintage Screenwriting Book series is coming out soon, and will be free for five days after it comes out. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you about it. So you will get a free full length book.

Thank you to all who help me celebrate this birthday!

Amazon says HOOK 'EM IN TEN is 312 pages. I watched a ton of movies so that I could use them as examples, and I think part of the fun with this book is seeing how many different ways there are to start a story. But I also looked at both GODFATHER movies to see how their first pages tick: GODFATHER is used to show how almost every character and plot thread get introduced at that first scene at the wedding. GODFATHER 2 is used to show how theme and motifs are established in the first 10 pages (which is really fast paced!). I also look at World Building, and use both CASABLANCA and INCEPTION as main examples (plus a bunch of sci fi movies). And there are a bunch of James Bond movies in the chapter on Teasers, along with some horror flicks. Mostly for fun I have a chapter on first lines of dialogue in movies, with hundreds of examples. Plus a dozen different basic ways to start your story... and page 1 kickers and page 10 kickers. Oh, and why an emotional opening is better than explosions.

When I first looked at expanding the old booklet version I was going to get rid of the last chapter, which was the first 8 pages of one of my screenplays that got me a ton of meetings... but the odd thing about an ebook is that it costs the same whether that chapter is there or not (no paper costs), so I left it in and let you decide to skip it or not.

<<< USA People, Click The Book Cover!

There's a dude with a series of screenwriting books around 20 pages for $2.99, and another dude with a screenwriting books in the 20 page range for $5... I can't imagine who buys those. I'm aiming for 200 pages (and overshoot to 312 pages) and am still selling the book for under $4.

UK People, Click Here!

Germany People, Click Here!

Canadian People, Click Here!

French People, Click Here!

Spanish People, Click Here!

Other people check the Amazon store in your country.


More Info.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Public Enemies & John Dillinger & Mann

From back in 2009, my look at a Michael Mann flop that wasn't BLACK HAT...

Hated it.

I'm a huge fan of Michael Mann, but thought MIAMI VICE was boring. I love THIEF, and MANHUNTER and HEAT and LAST OF THE MOHICANS... But I have no idea what is going on with Mann these days. It's as if shooting digital has destroyed his soul. His films have become bland and lifeless. Not about humans. PUBLIC ENEMIES was just as boring as MIAMI VICE. Here's why I didn't like it...

There's a title card that tells us it's the 4th year of the Great Depression... but not a single thing *on screen* that shows us this... and a city like Chicago is going to be crowded with homeless people and filled with closed businesses. The reason why Dillinger (and the other bank robbers) was a folk hero is because the banks foreclosed on people's homes, and bankers were getting rich, while a quarter of the country was jobless and starving. Dillinger was screwing The Man. And he was famous for never taking money from a *person* (gets a second in the film). You can't do any film about these bank robbers without the context of the Depression - that's what created them and made them folk heroes. You would think that *now*, with people losing their homes and jobs, would be a great time to focus on the Depression angle of the story. But instead it is completely ignored (except for that title card).

Next - what the hell is the story? Is it a love story? Is it a cop vs. criminal story? It just meanders all over the place without ever focusing on what the hell it is. Look, you have Dillinger - there have been at least a half dozen movies made about him, and some memorable ones. What is *this* story about Dillinger? Why are we telling his story again, and what will this movie cover that Johns Sayles and Millius didn't cover? What angle will this film take that wasn't used in the great Phil Yordan version or Dan Curtis' TV versions of the Purvis story (oddly, written by Millius)? What's the "take" in this version? Nothing! It ends up being about nothing, and bland.

You always have to decide what your story is, even if it is based on facts. Mann did a great cop vs. crook story with HEAT, and he could have done that here as well. He also did a great love story in MOHICANS, and he could have focused on the romantic relationship. Plus, there are dozens of other "takes" he could have done with the Dillinger story. Each of the past versions have taken the story from a different angle, and focused on some specific aspect of Dillinger's life. Or they've taken the Purvis side of the story - after Elliot Ness, Purvis is the most famous FBI Agent ever. Just as Ness took on organized crime and Capone, Purvis took on the bank robbers during the Depression. There were a bunch of them! And, the more the robbers trashed the banks and bankers and barons and millionaires who the public thought had caused the Depression - and probably even profited from it - the more famous they became. They were getting the revenge the public craved. They were rock stars. This was a big problem if you were the government. All of this great stuff... not in the movie.

Why I hate HD - I don't want to see Johnny Depp's old acne scars from when he was on 21 JUMP STREET and I want to maintain my fantasy that Lili Taylor isn't aging as fast as I am. I don't want to see the hot female lead's facial pores. The problem with HD is that it shows every single flaw! A movie is a dream, and the *overly* crisp, clear, shots turned this dream into too much reality. If I can see the make up, it takes me out of the story.

Oh, and what's with these odd shots where the guy doing that talking is completely out of focus and the guy in the background coming through a door is in focus - even though he's an unimportant character? Hey - that's a Zenith radio! And - no more shaky cam ever. That's *so* worn out its welcome. This movie made me vow to shoot my crappy little feature 100% on a dolly. No hand held shots at all. I want to see the movie I'm watching, not some shaky blur. There were shots in PUBLIC ENEMIES that were all blur - what the hell was that?

Okay - What's with Johnny Depp's mustache? Is he unable to grow one? Dillinger had a mustache. Depp spends most of the movie without one, and when he has one it looks like the one I tried to grow at 13. And it comes and goes - one scene he'll have the mustache, the next he won't... then it's back again! Least they could have done is given Johnny some hormone shots or something so that he could have a mustache throughout the film.

And Depp seems subdued. Look, Dillinger was a larger than life guy. He was a rock star in his time. He was famous. He was also an armed robber - not some quiet guy. Depp gives the guy almost no swagger. Look, if you are the one leading a bunch of other armed robbers, you are the Alpha Male in a group of Alpha Males.

Who are all of these guys? This film had the shallowest characters of any film I've seen this year (haven't seen Transformers 2 yet). I had no idea who any of the characters were... and didn't learn anything about who Dillinger was (or Purvis - and Purvis wrote his freakin' life story before he died and was interviewed by dozens of magazines and sold stories to Hollywood). But I went through the whole film not knowing which guy was Homer Van Meter. None of these characters had any character. It's like they ordered 2 dozen warm bodies in costume to wander around the scenes and occasionally fire guns.

This goes with the "take" problems - if you have a story with a famous FBI Agent and a famous Bank Robber, I need to know who is the lead character. Is this the story of the FBI Agent tracking the notorious bank robber? Or the notorious bank robber trying to evade the FBI Agent? Either way works, but both just confuses me.

And some stuff was just stupid - At the end of the movie, Purvis says when he lights his cigar, that's the signal to capture Dillinger... um, have we ever seen Purvis smoke a cigar up to this point? No! It's like, because that was the actual signal in real life, it's in the movie... but someone forgot to show Purvis smoking cigars before that (and it was a Purvis trademark - he had a box of Monte Cristos, and smoked one after capturing anyone on the Bureau's wanted list). (By the way, using the cigar as the signal was kind of ballsy - since Dillinger hadn't been captured, yet - so it showed overconfidence in Purvis. That might have been explored in the story, but instead it was ignore.) Who was Purvis in this film? Was he the do-gooder who learned that he had to do bad to catch Dillinger? The one good scene he has is completely undercut by the scene that immediately follows. By the way - if we are sticking with the facts - Purvis had a beautiful voice, and would sing if anyone asked. Strange detail that shades the character. But Purvis has no character and seems like a cardboard cut out, except for that one scene. None of the characters in this film have any character! They are chess pieces, moved around the story for no purpose.

I'm a big fan of Stephen Lang, a Mann stock company player, who played Winstead - the guy who actually shot Dillinger (I think along with Jelly Bryce), who was a no-nonsense shooter. A throwback to cowboy lawmen. Winstead and Bryce were kind of back sheep Bureau agents, brought into the organization to do wet work. Though there's a moment in the film where Lang gets in a great line about Dillinger not watching Shirley Temple movies, the whole concept of this character was lost in the film. The new suit & tie FBI were a bunch of college boys who had little ability to capture criminals. They had to recruit guys like Winstead and Bryce to do the dirty work. Mann could have used that as an angle - bad guys were *not* a bunch of suit & tie guys, so you needed gunslingers to go after them. Kind of a WILD BUNCH in reverse - where the world may have become more civilized, but the government still needed crazy violent gunslingers to go after these robbers. Cowboys in a modern world. And that's where these guys came from - the Texas office of the FBI. (Was Bryce even in this film? He was the other guy to shoot Dillinger - a gunslinger - and after Dillinger, was put in charge of teaching FBI college boys how to shoot guns.)

While watching the film I kept thinking about Mamet & DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES - a film filled with great scenes and great characters and great lines. Also about Chicago and FBI. How many great scenes can you remember from UNTOUCHABLES? How many lines of dialogue? How many characters? Let's just look at Charlie Martin Smith's character - don't you love it when he finally gets a gun and participates in the raid? Remember Andy Garcia? That was one of his first movies - and he stole the show. I mean, there are scenes with him and Costner and Connery where Garcia's Stone character is so fascinating you focus on him! Okay... remember how creepy Billy Drago was as Frank Nitti? In that white suit, snearing and making those quiet threats? Now, compare the Frank Nitti character in UNTOUCHABLES with Nitti in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Yeah, that guy with the moustache Johnny Depp should have had who is in a handful of scenes you don't remember... because the character had no character! No attitude, no distictive way of speaking, no dintictive way of dressing, no goals or motivations or anything. He's just a guy in some scenes. Again, Nitti was the head of the Chicago mob at the time - one of the most powerful men in the world. Capone's #2 guy who was running things while Capone was in the big house. So this is not some bland Italian guy, this is another Alpha Male. An interesting guy, because Frank Nitti was a trigger man - a violent brute - who now had to be the leader. Imagine if Sonny from THE GODFATHER ended up running the family instead of Micheal? That's who that character *should have been*. Instead, we get some Italian guy.

Mostly while watching PUBLIC ENEMIES I thought of DILLINGER (1973), the John Millius low budget film which was probably made to cash in on the success of BONNIE AND CLYDE, but ended up being one of those great films you might have seen at the drive in or on VHS. DILLINGER starred the amazing Warren Oates, who was a solid character actor and scene stealer you may remember from Peckinpah flicks. Oates had charisma to burn, but wasn't pretty enough to be the leading man, so he ended up the sidekick or the cowboy or the crazy Colonel in Speilberg's 1941 (written by Millius!). He was a character actor who was a character. DILLINGER had so many quotable lines and rich characters that my friends and I would often say, "Things just ain't workin' out for me today" or some other line from the film. The movie is filled with "bumper sticker dialogue". Now, I have to say after seeing maybe thousands of movies, I can not remember a single line of realistic dialogue... but I remember "Go ahead, make my day" and hundreds of other lines of *great* dialogue. And I remember the films those lines came from better than I remember some realistic drama. DILLINGER is filled with great lines, and lines that expose character, like Purvis telling another agent, "Shoot Dillinger and we'll figure out a way to make it legal."

By the way, that leads to a great little fact that didn't make it into PUBLIC ENEMIES but was part of the Millius film: When Dillinger was shot down by the FBI, the only crime they had him on was transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines. Would have been nice if that had been in the Mann version, since it's unusual to gun down an unarmed car thief (even if you suspect him of robbing a whole bunch of banks). And, though I'm fuzzy on which character was which, I think Stephen Dorf played Homer Van Meter, and was shot in the woods in PUBLIC ENEMIES... when in real life (and the Millius version) Van Meter was shot by a group of policemen and vigilantes (after the reward) who just blasted him to pieces. They blew his fingers off while he was still alive, then kept shooting at him until he was hamburger. This was a big scene in the Millius version - as a group of vigilantes surround Van Meter and just keep firing until the smoke from their guns fills the screen.

Millius loves to pair two strong characters on opposite sides of the story and have them battle each other... learning to respect each other along the way. As cheesy as RED DAWN is, there are great scenes with Ron O'Neal as the Cuban General as he grows to respect the Wolverines... and eventually allows Patrick Swayze to carry out his wounded brother. THE WIND AND THE LION is one of my favorite films - Teddy Roosevelt played by Brain Keith vs. Sean Connery's Raisuli. CONAN THE BARBARIAN - Conan vs. Thulsa Doom. The relationship between Purvis and Dillinger is the center of the Millius version, with each man coming to understand the other as the story goes on. In a way, Purvis has the character arc. He begins just wanting to gun down Dillinger, and eventually finds him a worthy opponent - not like some of the other bank robbers he's chased. Millius created a device to have these guys face off throughout the story (much like that great steps scene between Capone and Ness in UNTOUCHABLES or the coffee scene between DeNiro and Pacino in HEAT) where Dillinger would call Purvis from some pay phone to taunt him... and eventually just to talk to him. They were the only two people who understood this situation they were both in. Great scenes.

The best part of Millius' version is Warren Oates, who plays Dillinger as a charming good old boy with a crazy streak. Look, the guy was probably a sociopath, but aren't they charming? You understood how Dillinger could find regular people, poor people who had been screwed over by The Man, to hide him or help him. And, as a movie protagonist, you want to hang out for an hour and a half with a funny guy who always has a clever thing to say. Instead of the antiseptic banks from PUBLIC ENEMIES, we get lots of small town banks filled with poor people who are trying to keep their homes or farms, and Dillinger strolls in like a movie star and tells them all if they stay calm they'll be able to tell their grandchildren they once met John Dillinger. In the Millius version, the robberies are almost a party, where a bunch of poor folks get to watch rich bankers get humiliated. And that was part of the true story of John Dillinger - the public saw him as a Robin Hood character, who robbed from the evil bankers (and kept it). None of that in the Mann version... just a line about his press.

Oh, and Millius version does more than just have a passing line about the press, both characters court the press... With Purvis posing for photos while smoking a cigar over one of his "kills" from the Most wanted list.

And it's not just the brilliance of Oates that make the film, the rest of the cast is great. A bunch of fine character actors doing some amazing characters. Homer Van Meter is the guy with the worst luck in the world, played by... Harry Dean Stanton! Ben Johnson is one tough cookie as Purvis - he's smoking that cigar over one of the corpses of the bank robbers he's shot dead. Richard Dreyfus is Baby Face Nelson in a crazed performance. Youngblood, the big Black guy Dillinger escapes with is played by some big Black guy in PUBLIC ENEMIES - he looks out the back window of the car, and that's his character. In DILLINGER that role is played by Frank McRae (the chief of detectives in 48 HOURS and every other movie you've ever seen, who always rants to the point of explosion) and he's got a character and attitude and makes his scenes into *scenes* - and he becomes part of the mega-gang. Geoffrey Lewis plays Harry Pierpont as a dedicated husband who kisses his wife before blasting away at G-Men. Steve Kanaly is Pretty Boy Floyd (called "Chock" in this film - because in real life, that was his nickname, he hated being called "Pretty Boy") who has a great bit where the farmer who gives him sanctuary wants to give him a Bible, and Floyd says it's too late for that... too late for him. And Cloris Leachman is madame Anna Sage, who betrays Dillinger to avoid being deported (in the Millius version, she and Purvis eat popsicles while planning the ambush). Each of them had clearly defined characters and memorable dialogue and little bits of character based action.

It's like Millius - who is not in the same political party as I am - was trying to show *people* suffering during the Depression, and some of those people had turned to crime. But they were all humans. And even the FBI guy chasing them came to see them as humans. There's a great early scene (showing Van Meter's bad luck) where they go to rob a bank... and it's closed! Boarded up! Van Meter asks an old guy at a gas station why they closed the bank, "They ran out of money." When he pulls out a gun and orders the old guy to fill up their gas tank, the old guy tells him to fill it himself. The whole town has died from the Great Depression, and everyone left has lost hope. The old guy would just as soon get shot... and this gives us a look at the world this story takes place in. When entire towns can die.

The Sayles version is even more commie - it focuses on The Lady In Red and charts her struggles trying to find work during the Great Depression in a series of sweat shops, until she has no choice but to become a prostitute... and hooks up with Dillinger. Again - you can't escape the Great Depression when you do a movie about Dillinger - that's what created him. The Sayles movie is a strange female empowerment flick, with Pamela Sue Martin learning how to become a bank robber and carrying on after Dillinger is killed. Sayles does his usual ensemble thing in the background, and there are all kinds of great roles in the film (I think Christopher Lloyd is in there, but I haven't seen it in years). Telling the story from the female lead perspective was an interesting "take"...

The problem is - there are so many *better* versions of the Dillinger story out there, Mann needed to figure out what made this one different and then make sure all of the elements of the film were at least as good as the other films. And taken more time on the script - giving each of the characters some character. One of the problems with Michael Mann's scripts is that he has all of this stuff that does not show up on screen - he writes what characters are feeling, and that doesn't stick to the screen. You might read one of his scripts and think the characters are there, but it's all in cheat lines that are not actions or dialogue... and never make it to the screen. Time for him to quit cheating.

Michael Mann used to be one of my favorite directors - a thinking person's action guy. But he's been going downhill since COLLATERAL. He needs to dig deeper into the characters and show us the people... not just see the movie as some sort of chilly technical exercise... then bring in the composer to score the hell out of it trying to create some feelings where there aren't any. Movies are about people.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Unlikable Leads Who says your protagonist has to save a cat?.
Yesterday’s Dinner: More of a late lunch... then drinks with friends in Hollywood.
Bicycle: Short bike rides to and from subway station.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lancelot Link: Postponed Edition

Lancelot Link Monday... er, Tuesday! Sorry, yesterday was a holiday her in the USA, which has come to mean: everybody works and nobody gets the day off... except people who work at a bank or the post office. Everyone else still has to work. And that's what we now call a holiday. Swell! While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 American Sniper................. $89,505,000
2 Wedding Ringer.................. $20,600,000
3 Paddington...................... $18,966,000
4 Taken 3......................... $14,625,000
5 Selma............................ $8,785,000
6 Imitation........................ $6,792,000
7 Into James Woods................. $6,782,000
8 Hobbit #???...................... $4,895,000
9 Unbroken.......................... $4,163,000
10 Black Hat (no fear).............. $3,838,000

Um, BLACK HAT bombed big time.

2) WGA Nominees... did they get it right?

3) AMERICAN SNIPER screenwriter Jason Hall interview.

4) Amazon is making theatrical movies... just not any of the ones they've been developing for years.

5) Edgar Wright's new film (not UNCLEMAN).

6) Will THE INTERVIEW & Charlie Hebdo change what we can write about?

7) Would You Like To See Oscar's Shorts?

8) Jennifer Lawrence in James Cameron's THE DIVE.

9) Six Awful Movies That Were Once Good Scripts.

10) Christopher Nolan on DIY Film Making.

11) Hitchcock's Lost Holocaust Documentary.

12) Movies Filmed In London... an interactive map!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

Shut your mouth!





Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Random Thoughts On Art

From five years ago...

There’s this sculpture on the corner of Buena Vista and Victory in Burbank of an all American ten year old farm boy in over-alls dancing with joy hand outstretched to the sun. Kind of Norman Rockwell kitsch. Inoffensive, and 99% of the time I drive by it and don’t even notice it. The last time I went past I was on my bike and hit the stop light and had a minute to look at it and think about it. Someone had taped an American flag in the boy’s out-stretched hand. It looks like he’s celebrating America, wholesomeness, and that 1950s version of pure patriotism.

But when I thought about this Norman Rockwell piece of art I wondered if it even was art. Adding the American flag made it even more on-the-nose and obvious - even more bland and invisible. It’s expected - like a plastic pink flamingo on a suburban lawn. It doesn’t catch your eye. It’s not really interesting - you don’t really think about it. Something else you drive by at that intersection, like the sign for the Radio Shack in the strip mall or the marque for Ralph’s Groceries with this week’s deals... Actually, I often look at the Ralph’s marque, because it changes constantly. It’s *different* and often unpredictable - How can they sell ten ears of corn for 99 cents? That’s downright *provocative*! I might have to pull in and see that for myself! But the fake Normal Rockwell kid? Booooring! It’s *expected*. I don’t think art can be expected... so maybe it is not art, just decoration. Manufactured, like millions of identical Halloween skeleton decorations which are not a bit scary.

I wondered what kind of reaction this same decoration would get if someone had taped a Soviet flag in the dancing boy’s hand. Red. Hammer & Sickle.

Now, we have something interesting. Something that is probably art. It’s no longer bland. Because it forces you to think. It’s shocking. It may even offend some people. It’s different. Unexpected. No way we could drive past that without thinking about it, wondering what it means - is this a ten year old *Soviet* kid? Or some sort of innocent and idyllic traitor? I’ll bet there are hundreds of different ways this could be interpreted! Even if you are deeply offended by it, you would be *thinking* about it and *feeling something*. It would not be some passive experience - just a decoration. And I think that makes it art.

There is a conflict between our image of that dancing ten year old kid and the hammer & sickle flag. An incongruity. You can’t just absorb it - you need to process it first. To think about it. To figure out what it means, and what it means to you. We take art personally - we love it or hate it. It provokes us.


Now, my normal opinion is that what makes art is the test of time. If we still think the movie is great 50 years from now, it is art. There are many movies that people claim are art... that just vanish in a couple of years. Films that were called a work of genius, and a decade later we aren’t even thinking about. I think those films are often “surface art” - they seem provocative on the surface, but they don’t touch us deeply... and don’t stick with us. There are movies that I will never forget... and others that I see in the cinema and don’t remember seeing the next day! And many of those are artsie indie films where the film maker was trying to provoke me with things on the surface of the story, instead of digging deeper and *really* screwing with me. And there are mainstream studio films that seem inoffensive on the surface, but go straight for your heart and that unevolved insect part of your brain... and stick with you. One of the reason why I love those BOURNE movies is that they dig deep into the protagonist’s motivations and get into the icky things we don’t like to think of: am *I* the monster?

One of the things that makes horror films work is the connections to our subconscious. Great horror films are often completely politically/socially incorrect. They deal with the things we don’t ever want to think about - the things we fear are true, but have created this concept of society to contain and control those thoughts. I watched THE MIST on 9/11 - it seemed fitting. I think that film might have reached a much larger audience with a different ending... but would not have been nearly as powerful. The nightmares in that film aren’t what the monsters do to people, it is what people do to people. And how people think they are doing the right thing... and they are wrong, and must live with that for the rest of their lives. Good horror movies give characters impossible choices - things that haunt the characters for the rest of their lives, and haunt the audience as they leave the cinema. “What would I have done? Only 4 bullets...”

As a million people have said before me, a beloved Christmas film like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE sticks with us because it’s a bleak, ugly, nightmare! It’s not some bland story about nice characters who never engage in conflict with each other - it shows us both the good side of humans and the bad side... and I think the bad side gets a lot more running time! It provokes us. It challenges us. That film even *scares us* more than many pre-fab horror movies that get turned out by Hollywood. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has passed that test of time - we are still watching it today.

I think there are two things required for a film to pass the test of time:

1) Enough people must have seen it so that it *can* be remembered decades later. Even though IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was not a box office hit, it was a big wide release movie that many people saw, and later in its life became a staple on TV at holiday season for a couple of reasons... at least one of which was that it had fallen out of copyright for a while and any TV station could show it for pocket change. The other reason being that it had a big name star and a big name director and a story that - despite its darkness - was accessible. Many arty indie films often have stories that are *not* accessible to a wide audience, and those films may become nothing but memories when one black-beret wearing audience gives way to the next. They are *temporary art* instead of something that we will be watching and talking about for decades to come - over 70 years in the case of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. A movie must be seen by large numbers of people to be remembered.

2) The film must be memorable. No matter how many people see a film, if it is bland and doesn’t touch them; they will not remember it. I did not see PRINCE OF PERSIA or SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, but many people didn’t see them. The reason why *I* decided not to see either is that they seemed generic - nothing provocative or dangerous about either. Now, that may be because they failed to include those elements in the trailers, but I suspect traces of dangerous material would still show up in whatever scenes they picked for the trailer. Those things are in a story’s DNA (hey - read my article in this current issue of Script Magazine for more on this!). If cut a trailer to BOURNE IDENTITY you can’t help but put in something about how the lead is searching for his identity and is afraid he is a very bad person. You can’t cut a trailer to THE MIST without including the conflicts between the people trapped in the market - even if you were trying to make it look like a monster movie. I will eventually get around to finishing the Fridays With Hitchcock on REBECCA, and there is no way to make a trailer to that movie without Max deWinter having some dark secret... and maybe even giving away that he may have killed his first wife. These provocative elements are *part* of the story and can not be removed or hidden. The Micky Mouse cartoon of SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is more dangerous and provocative than any of the 3 minute trailers to the Nic Cage film. Cute little Micky does the forbidden - he uses magic, and it gets out of control. He’s like that Norman Rockwell 10 year old dancing with glee with a Soviet flag in his hand.


No one wants to ride a roller coaster where the tracks just end - and the cars shoot off into the amusement park to crash into the merry-go-round.... nor do they want to ride a roller coaster that is mostly straight-aways and gentle hills. We want the thrill of danger without the actual danger. That means a good movie is going to be a little dangerous - sure, we leave the cinema with all of the limbs we came with, but we may have a little scar tissue we didn’t have before. We don’t go to the cinema for a safe and bland experience - we want to *almost die*. We want to see a movie that leaves a mark. When the roller coaster ride is over, we want our hearts to still be racing in the memory of how close to death we came... and survived.

The problem with the business side of entertainment is that it's stupid. They are afraid of doing anything that might offend some segment of the audience - they are afraid of doing anything that is too different than the norm - they are afraid of doing anything that will anger advertisers. Now, as businesspeople they want to protect their investments, and that means they need to be cautious. They need to make sure they aren't going to produce some TV show or movie that people will not watch. That makes sense...

But at the same time, they need to be intelligent about their caution. They can't just say NO to everything that is different and always play it safe - because that leads to boredom. Part of entertainment is the novelty of the show or movie. That often leads to I SURVIVED A JAPANESE GAMESHOW and crap like that... but it doesn't have to. By the way, how many of you even remember HOW I SURVIVED A JAPANESE GAME SHOW? It was a TV series on summer of 2008 - only 2 years ago. Hey, it was strange, weird, wacky... and all surface. Nothing that left a scar. Novelty without art.

But novelty can also lead to interesting and innovative shows that stretch the medium - look at how 24's concept of one hour of TV = one real hour of the story was an interesting innovation or how LOST’s concept of starting in the middle of the story - the plane crashes on an island - then zipping back in time to tell us who these survivors really are and what their secrets are... as the continue forward and things just get stranger and stranger on the island. If we rewind time and look at what network execs were thinking before the first seasons of those shows aired, I'm sure they secretly thought they would be huge failures. And screw them up big time - because if it failed after 5 episodes, they would have this dangling unfinished story. This is a business run by fear - no one wants to greenlight the unusual TV show that could flop big time, or greenlight the movie that challenges the audience or makes them feel things that might be unpleasant.

But as those suits become more conservative - more interested in *not* taking a risk... they take a greater risk by giving us either crap or shows and movies that are so tame they are not novel. They are not original. They are not interesting. They offer us nothing we haven't experienced before... and that's when networks and studios make nothing but flops. They play it safe - not realizing that safety is really dangerous. No one wants to ride on a roller coaster with only moderate hills and no big scary turns. A safe roller coaster where you never worry that you might die.

To a certain extent TV and movies needs to "color within the lines" - TV has to make shows that run a half hour or an hour and follow the basic things we expect... stories that make sense and have some sort of conclusion at the end of the episode (though in the case of shows like 24, maybe not *the* conclusion). Movies need to be something that tells a coherent story about characters that we can understand and maybe identify with, and probably stay within the basics of drama those Greek dudes identified 2,400 years ago and hopefully run under 2 hours so that we can get a 7pm and 9pm showing on weekdays and 1pm, 3pm, 5pm. 7pm, and 9pm on weekends (or 12, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10).

But just because we have a certain framework doesn't mean we can only use 8 pack of Crayolas to color our pictures... in fact, because we have that framework, we need the full 120 pack of Crayolas... and we need to find ways to combine and shade and use those crayons in ways they have never been used before to color those pictures. The more we color within the lines, the more we need to be creative about colors and do wild bold things that no one has done with Crayolas before. We have to give the audience that near-death experience of the roller coaster... even though they know they will survive intact at the end. We can’t make our Crayola drawing bland and predictable - we need to make it exciting and inventive and maybe even frightening.

And here's where things go wrong - those Studio Execs and TV Execs think they need to play it safe in all ways, when they only need to play it safe in *some* ways - and be dangerous as hell in others. But knowing where to be cautious and where to be innovative takes intelligence - not computer print outs and business plans. I think that's the thing that may be missing in Hollywood these days - the old Moguls, for whatever reason, had that strange ability to know what elements required caution and what elements required anarchy. Or maybe they didn't - maybe they just knew what required caution and didn't care about the other elements at all - and the writers and directors were allowed to go wild (as long as they colored within the lines). Whatever the case - there was that blend of popular story and innovation. And I think Robert Evans at Paramount may have been the last of that line. GODFATHER PART 2 is one of my favorite films, and it is both art and potboiler. It's a gangster soap opera and an examination of morals and family. There was a time when - for whatever reason - we could have a TV show or a movie that was both innovative and interesting *and* popular. But that required the person in charge to know what elements needed to be treated with caution and what elements needed to be innovative.

I think the big problem with the suits in current Hollywood is that they are trying to make safe choices in all things - when a movie really needs to be dangerous and frightening like that roller coaster. A movie needs to be more than “decoration”, it needs to be provocative. It needs to scare us. Challenge us. Make us think. These people use intelligent caution but have no idea what intelligent innovation is. They want to bland down anything that might offend any audience member. Instead of making “sharp” movies, they want to make dull ones... and I think the reason why movies like PRINCE OF PERSIA fail is because they are dull or seem to be dull from the trailer.

Saw what you want about INCEPTION - you may hate it - but that end sure starts a conversation doesn’t it? And when it is revealed who killed his wife... not a safe bit of plot at all! Hey, that film sold some tickets!

And so did TOY STORY 3 - the darkest of the series. A movie that left a scar on me. The amazing thing about Pixar movies is that they aren’t afraid to make the roller coaster frightening, and at times really uncomfortable. They make films where the protagonist may be completely wrong, where the protagonist may have caused the problem, where the protagonist’s problems may self-inflicted. Pixar makes dangerous movies. Movies that stick with you. Movies that leave a mark. Hey, and what film sold the most tickets this year?

One of the things that pisses me off about writing scripts is that they always want me to sand down the rough edges. That's the first rewrite - the "caution" rewrite. Anything that might snag something needs to be removed. And that's where things go wrong - because if there is nothing rough to snag on the imagination, nothing to rip into the viewer, the story becomes "harmless" and smooth and boring. The roller coaster with gentle hills and no sharp turns. Boring. And they think this makes it better!

Think of the moments in films that you remember - the scenes that snagged you - and chances are, those are the scenes with the rough edges. Think of the films that left their mark on you - chances are those are films that may have looked like entertainment on the surface, but cut deep into you... causing you pain or discomfort at times. The films you remember are the ones that made you feel something you did not expect to feel. People love CASABLANCA because he *doesn’t* get the girl (sorry - spoiler). All of the test audiences and focus groups and marketing idiots who might look at that ending and think that the film might have been more successful if Bogart and Bergman ended up together at the end are just plain wrong. The audience might have “liked” the film more when they initially viewed it... but it would never have stuck with them and it would not have survived to become art had Bogart actually *not* been good at being noble.

For something to become art, it must stand the test of time. To stand the test of time, it must be seen by enough people to be remembered, and have enough rough edges to snag their memory. A movie has to be more than a decoration that we see and forget, it must be dangerous and provocative.

I think I’m going to buy a Halloween plastic severed head, and the next time I’m stopped at that intersection near that Norman Rockwell-like sculpture, tape it in the hand of that all American ten year old farm boy in over-alls dancing with joy.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: That's Your Hero? - how to create the bad guy lead.
Dinner: One of those sandwiches at Starbucks.
Pages: Did not get anything done!.
Bicycle: To Starbucks and back, easy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Lancelot Link: Golden Globes

Lancelot Link Monday! The Golden Globes were yesterday, so you may find drunken celebrities on your front lawn this morning. It happens. But this means Awards Season has really begun (is that like Deer Season?) and we have all of your Globes news, plus the Independent Spirit Awards nominations, the BAFTA Nominations, plus all kinds of cool stuff in this week's links! Oh, and the answer to the question: What if Warner Bros ditched DC? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Taken 3......................... $40,400,000
2 Selma........................... $11,200,000
3 Into Woods..................... $9,750,000
4 Hobbit 3......................... $9,435,000
5 Unbroken........................ $8,368,000
6 Imitation......................... $7,624,000
7 Night Museum #???.......... $6,700,000
8 Annie.............................. $4,919,000
9 WIB 2, Humans: 0............. $4,825,000
10 Hunger Games 3 Part 1..... $3,750,000

TAKEN 3 is the second highest BO opener in January.

2) Golden Globe Winners List.

3) Golden Globes Red Carpet.

4) Golden Globes Article Focusing On Loni Anderson.

5) Independent Spirit Awards Nominees.

6) Interview with screenwriter Brian Clemens (THE AVENGERS).

7) BAFTA Nominations.

8) An Awesome Idea For Warner Bros... Ditch Batman, Ditch Superman... Do This Series To Compete With Marvel!

9) Shooting THE FRENCH CONNECTION Car Chase.

10) Cool Proof Of Concept Shorts For Sci Fi Movies.

11) AGENT CARTER Showrunners Gets 3RD Degree From ARROW Producer.

12) Lee Marvin's LIBERTY VALANCE Smile (interview).

And the Car Chase Of The Week:




TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Funny For A Minute - A comedy needs more than a funny premise.
Dinner: Arroz Con Pollo.
Pages: 3... and that was a miracle.
Bicycle: Short ride.

Movie: Nope.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Lancelot Link: Happy New Year!

Lancelot Link Monday! It's the year of BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, and I've just parked my flying car and hoverboarded to see JAWS 19! How much did that movie get *right*? We'll look at that in our links today, as well as an unmade ALIEN sequel and why SPIDER MAN 3 sucked... it's not why you think! While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Hobbit 3........................ $21,910,000
2 Into Woods...................... $19,066,000
3 Unbroken........................ $18,358,000
4 WIB 2: Angel.................... $15,145,000
5 Night Museum #???............... $14,450,000
6 Annie........................... $11,400,000
7 Imitation........................ $8,111,000
8 Hunger 3 Part 1 Section A........ $7,700,000
9 Gambler.......................... $6,300,000
10 Big Hero Six.................... $4,816,000

2) Disney / ABC Writers Program Winners!

3) BACK TO THE FUTURE's 2015 Predictions All Come True!

4) Crowdfunding? What works, what doesn't?

5) FINAL DESTINATION 5 screenwriter interviewed.

6) Neill Blomkamp's ALIENS project... on Instagram.

7) Sam Raimi On Why SPIDER MAN 3 Sucked So Bad (podcast).

8) Advice from the producer of AMERICAN BEAUTY.

9) Are Stars A Thing Of The Past?

10) Nolan Dissects INTERSTELLAR Scene.

11) How Sitcoms Work.

12) Marilyn Monroe's New Year's Resolutions From SIXTY Years Ago!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

From one of this year's best pictures...



TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Script Spackle - for patching plot holes.
Dinner: China Wall with homies.
Pages: No pages, but some video stuff.
Bicycle: No. I'm in the Bay Area.

Movie: BIG EYES.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Full Film Courage Interview (One Hour Of Me)

Happy New Year!

Here it is: a full hour of my interview with Film Courage, after doing a day of teaching and needing to take a nap!

A full hour, so make sure you pack a lunch first!



TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Contrast & Hitchcock.
Dinner: Someplace in Oakland's Chinatown, before NYE drinking.
Pages: No, Drinking instead.
Bicycle: No. I'm in the Bay Area.

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