Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not My Baby!

There comes a time when all writers have a baby. Most will have upwards of a dozen, probably more. I’m not talking the kind you raise, send off to college, and get betrayed by with an impractical career choice in screenwriting. I’m talking about the kind of baby you polish, develop, and shop. It’s the flagship script of your writing fleet, the current piece that you feel best represents you as a writer, the script that can get you on the map if you haven’t been discovered. Like people are with their firstborn, writers are usually pretty protective of this script...or novel. (just for you King Suckerman) A few times in conversations with my peers I’ve been very surprised by just how protective we can be of these works and how firmly we may stand by what we believe to be the value of the script. We insist that we won’t give in to any high powered exec’s offer unless it’s the offer we believe in. I think about these conversations and wonder what we sound like to those established in the industry, or what we might sound like to anybody. Are we cocky or confident? Are we smart or just young?

When it comes to protecting a script, I remember a time within the last few years when some of my peers, myself included, were uber distrustful of contests, queries, any type of release form, and most outsider’s eyes. It became second nature to expect that the industry was just a field of predators waiting to feast on our darling projects. It was kind of suffocating now that I think back to it, feeling like I would never have another “baby” and that I wouldn’t find success until some yellow brick road within the industry presented itself and steered me away from the predators. I’m not really in a position to give many writers advice, but if you’re young or just starting out down this path, I hope I can save you some time with a few crunchy nuggets of insight. One of my favorite screenwriting sayings is that “a great script will get made.” There are variations, maybe it’s come to you as “if you have a great script, somebody will find it.” I always found this very comforting, but in reality it’s kind of bullshit, because your great script won’t go anywhere on its own unless it grows legs and a silver tongue. It’s up to you to put your baby out there, so if the script is ready and it’s protected, no sense in aging it on a shelf like it’s an Australian shiraz.

I’m sure there are still many dangers in the industry, but to my friends and I it’s no longer the sinister villain that only exists to steal young writers’ material. Scripts need to be pushed into the field of play. The League has a lot of fun sharing our work with each other in writing meetings, but it’s more fun to place in competitions and be contacted by management and production companies. Good luck Cake Man!

In terms of script protection I feel like The League has matured a great deal. We understand that scripts need to be protected, but that no script can be protected entirely. We also understand that we have to let those birds fly. But I personally feel the urge to question (or explore rather) our sense of what’s realistic when we say that we wouldn’t sell our baby for less than six figures or that we wouldn’t sell a script unless we could own the rights to the characters. I wonder if these sort of things can’t be perceived in a positive light until you manage to pull it off. Nobody is laughing now at what Sylvester Stallone did with Rocky when he refused to sell the script unless he got to play the lead, but is it possible that there was anybody out there praising Sly for his intelligence, his determination, or his confidence before he landed the role? I guess you can play it safe or play it bold. The League is fortunate enough to have a diverse group of writers who have different approaches. We’ll all have the benefit of observing first hand the successes and drawbacks in each others tactics when we eventually find ourselves negotiating the fate of our firstborn. I have a feeling that day will come sooner than later.


Warner Bros wants to buy your baby for $25,000. Rumor has it that a big star is interested in the lead role, but nothing is confirmed. The only guarantee is that you’ll have 25 grand before tax, a screenplay sale under your belt, and some new Hollywood contacts. Would you sell your baby?

STRANDED screening at Film Forum - Writer/Director Arijon and Crash Survivor in Attendance

STRANDED, written and directed by Gonzalo Arijon

In 1972, a plane filled with cheerful, well-to-do young men, leaving Uruguay for a rugby game in Chile, crashed in a remote part of the Andes. STRANDED recreates the extraordinary experience of the 29 who initially survived the crash, followed by two months of cold, hunger and despair. Now, decades later, the men who found their way out of this frozen hell tell their story to documentarian (and childhood friend) Gonzalo Arijon in a film that eschews both sensationalism and sentimentality. These events were the subject of the 1973 worldwide best-seller, Alive, as well as a feature film, but STRANDED is the definitive, haunting version of this profoundly moving drama. Winner of the Grand Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

There will be a Q&A with filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon and plane crash survivor Fito Strauch on October 22nd, 23rd, and 24th at the Film Forum, following the 6:40 PM shows.

SuckerFlix #2: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Well, that was an excellent movie.

Last time, I decided to plop in front of my television and watch my latest NetFlix delivery: Street Kings, starring our pal, Keanu Reeves. The movie was middling at best.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, on the other hand, is a great movie. The kind of movie I know I'll watch again just because I enjoyed it so much and to catch the nuances that pervade almost every aspect of the film: the dialogue, the camera angles, the acting (!) -- pretty much every aspect.

The movie tells the tale of two brothers, Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman). Andy's in deep shit at work for doctoring the numbers to feed a growing heroin addiction. Hank is painfully behind on his child-support payments to his daughter Danielle and his crabby ex (played with aplomb by The Wire and Gone, Baby Gone vet Amy Ryan). Then Andy hatches a plan to knock off their parents' suburban jewelry store. Sounds simple enough, right? The brothers fence the goods, the parents are protected by their insurance. But in the first few scenes, things go horribly wrong.

But Devil is more than a mere heist flick. It's less about the actual robbery and more about the players and those surrounding them. Two desperate men, hoping that a quick infusion of cash will fix not only their monetary problems, but absolve their faults -- addiction, infidelity and a fractured family.

Hoffman is his usual amazing self. Much like his character in The Savages, Hoffman brings a controlled and quiet desperation to Andy, who seems to have everything together on the surface, but is clearly about to burst from the stress. Hawke is admirable as Hank, the younger, bumbling brother who can't seem to stop his life from spiraling into disarray. The two play off each other well, and it's in those scenes where Hawke elevates his work, perhaps to meet the challenge of Hoffman.

I have to give some credit to Marisa Tomei here. She plays Andy's wife with an air of shaky desperation and sex appeal that the role demands. And while she doesn't have much screen time (or clothed time, come to think of it), she manages to make the best of her moments, especially toward the end of the film, as the plot careens toward its tragic climax. Thumbs up go to Albert Finney as well, who plays father to the troubled siblings. All in all, every actor is cast sharply, with very little of the celebrity disconnect that seems to litter a lot of movies these days. "Oh, Tom Cruise is in this!"

The script is tight and moves crisply, benefiting from it's non-linear structure. Had the story been presented chronologically, it may have ended up as a serviceable drama. Toward the end, it does settle into a more traditional format. But the finished version really generates more momentum with the choppy, out-of-order scene rollout. Even the slight overlapping bits of character interaction add to the overall feel of the film, one of lost control and frantic reactions.

Lumet's work is stellar. Beyond the structure, the camera angles, movement and lighting add a gritty, realistic feel to the work, but not in a ham-fisted, "this is important, so you must watch!" way. Everything seems real enough, and that's the point. The characters react in realistic ways to realistic problems. Once their reactions lead them down a dark path, they deal with those consequences in an equally real way. It's a heart-wrenching and frightening movie, but not in the ways you'd first think. This is a tale of two people at the end of their rope and the family and loved ones they drag down with them.

SuckerFlix Grade: A
Next Week: After Dark, My Sweet