Monday, November 30, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 100 – Analyzing Films as Guidance

One of the first things that we were taught to do in our Dramatic Writing department at school was to analyze scripts and films as a way to help us in our own development. With classic examples such as Casablanca, our professors tried to lay down a solid foundation of story structure and character development for us. This was a tool more frequently used in the early years of our college careers. Later – though professors did occasionally still screen movies for us to study – these skills were ones we were supposed to use increasingly outside the classroom.

Whenever I see a movie, at least for the first act of it, I try to split my viewing into two modes: entertainment and study. It’s hard to do both simultaneously, as a particularly entertaining movie can cause me to forget to study it (the same can be said for an excruciatingly u-entertaining movie). Throw in a few screenplays that I’ll read here or there, and I like to think that I do a fair share of studying. However, it’s not an exercise that a screenwriter can ever do too much of, and I’ve done a lot of it for my post-Apocalyptic spec recently.

I’ve been concentrating heavily on re-working my second act, as that’s where most of the notes I’ve gotten have been. Act Two is almost any writer’s big nightmare, and I’m certainly no exception. Pages 60-70 have got to be the worst ten pages I ever have to write. Luckily, the script I’m working on is main-stream enough that there are a number of great examples out there for me to study. Most recently, I’ve re-watched MINORITY REPORT and CHINATOWN (taking notes the whole time), and have archived notes from a viewing of CHILDREN OF MEN not too many months ago. When watching these, focusing primarily on Act Two, I try to break down the structure. Where does the protagonist go at the end of Act One? What info does he get there, and how does that lead him to his next location?

CHILDREN OF MEN and MINORITY REPORT were both pretty easy. They each featured six of seven main beats throughout Act Two in which their protagonists went from point A to B to C (etc.) gathering bits of pieces along the way. Virtually every big beat came with action and some sort of reveal. CHINATOWN had a lot more shorter beats, with info coming in fast and furious. (I don’t know if this is because CHINATOWN is much older than the others, or if the other two just fit more stylistically, but it was interesting to compare them.) Having already seen all three movies, focusing while in study mode was much easier.

Whatever the reason for the differences and similarities, I already found myself coming up with more streamlined solutions to some of the problems I have to address. Reconceived scenes in which the protagonist had to witness someone’s treachery were quickly tweaked to place him in immediate peril as a result of those betrayals. The other characters’ actions continually turn our hero’s world upside down, leading him on a number of quests to find out what is really going on. Of course, in studying these other films, I have to be sure not to adhere too closely to their structure, or my script will be little more than a combination of them. Still, studying other movies is a great practice, and one all writers should do as often as possible.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

From all of us here at The League, happy Thanksgiving and happy writing!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 99 - Attacking Act Two (Again)

Five more weeks left to go in the year. Can that really be right? My calendar seems to indicate it is. Of course, these five weeks are almost a cheat. I think I'll be at work for maybe 3 and a half of them. That means, with vacations and in irregular schedule, I will have to work extra hard to maintain a regular writing routine. Unlike many years, though, this one demands a routine.

In accepting a recent offer to do development work for a large Production Company on my post-Apocalyptic spec, I have been given notes and a new direction to take the material in, but have no official timeline in which to do all that. Granted, the market will determine a bit about when we take the script out to studios (the other factor is the head producer's enthusiasm about the material). The holidays are a tricky time. Development (where not intentionally frozen) tends to stop a couple weeks into December. A lot of people are gone for Thanksgiving around now, and when they come back, they're close to dry on funds. So December is a relatively slow development month. Not a lot of sales being made then, which means not a lot of pressure on me to have the script all polished and ready to go then, either.

That said, I think the unspoken hope is that I'll have this draft done and ready to go early into January, so that we can be at the head of the sale season again. Also, the sooner I get it ready, the sooner the next step of my career can begin. So there's a clear incentive on my end, as well. What's there to hold me back, you ask? Act Two. The Dreaded Act Two, as we refer to it here at the League.

The majority of notes I got required a huge overhaul of Act Two. Despite three years out of school and three and a half in school, Act Two is still pretty problematic for me. I think I stared at a blinking cursor on a blank page more in the past two weeks while trying to figure out Act Two than I have in the past two years. Sure, I've made some breakthroughs, but it's tough. I know what my character's goals and obstacles are, where he is and where he has to go, but it's just difficult letting the pieces come together. Or is it more that I'm forcing them to come together? I've even determined roughly how many pages I'm completely writing from the ground up again, then evaluating what they used to do - all the while reminding myself that the new ones will be completely different - in an attempt to work Act Two. The key to Act Two, of course, is Act One. But that's not changing too wildly.

Anyway, I know what I have to do (stop procrastinating for one) and hope to come out of Thanksgiving weekend with that outline in hand. Act Two... One day I hope we can be friends.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Technical Difficulties

We just wanted to apologize for the blog's appearance right now. We're not quite sure why the formatting has switched around, but we're trying to fix it. Please bear with us.

Or, as Zombie says, "Sorry our blog is fugly."

Friday, November 20, 2009

The League Interviews - Filmmaker Christopher Golon

The League recently had the opportunity to watch independent filmmaker Christopher Golon's feature film, KNOCK 'EM DEAD, KID. Knock 'Em Dead, Kid follows Bret, a young man hoping to make it as a filmmaker through the summer leading up to his departure for college. With his friends in tow, Bret faces hurdles from all directions - a new girl who disrupts his long-term relationship with his girlfriend, a friend's arrest for drug dealing, and assault charges - as he struggles to shed the skin of his small home town and make something of himself.

Shot on a shoestring budget, KNOCK 'EM DEAD, KID is a lesson in independent filmmaking. The League had a chance to ask writer/director Christopher Golon a bit about his film and his background.  

First, Chris, we wanted to thank you for taking some time to talk with The Screenwriters League about your feature film, Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid. To kick things off, why don't you tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker - where you went to school, what got you interested in making movies, and where it all began for you.

It all began when I was a kid, I was 7 and my family and I had basic cable - one weekend we got a free weekend of ‘The Movie Channel.’ After that weekend, we got ‘The Movie Channel’ and my brother and I would spend hours watching whatever was on. We were both hooked, hooked on that channel. We watched everything we were allowed to (R rated movies were off limits) and sometimes we would sneak the R rated stuff. This really helped to get me into loving movies. But I thought that was that - I wanted to be a pro baseball player, who doesn’t, right?

I never really looked into making movies, not until about 8 months after graduating from high school. I had read about film schools so I looked into what schools were the best, but first I decided to enroll in a university closer to me, to knock out the general education credits, and then transfer. Thus began the long, strange road, which continues to this day.

So, my plan was to end up at USC. Being young and naive, my plan was good in theory but then I learned that I really couldn't afford, even with loans, to attend USC. The killer for me was that I was accepted to USC, not the film program, but the university itself and I just couldn't afford it.

After that, I needed a new plan of attack. I had done a lot of reading about filmmaking and trying to break in to Hollywood so I decided to try and write my way in, as everything I read mentioned that it was an easier route. So, I got my pen and my notebook and the writing began. Looking back now, my first few scripts are awful, just awful. But at the time, I though they were great, oscar worthy, like Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story.’ But in retrospect, I didn’t understand how to write dialogue.

So, with more time came a better understanding, and in 2001, I finally had a screenplay good enough that it was optioned by a Producer in LA. This experience was a huge, huge learning experience. I learned how the whole Hollywood system really worked. And how scripts can be taken away from the writer, mismanaged, and how writing isn’t very fun. Over time, the deal fell through, and after that, I realized that I needed to try and make my own films. This was I was in control - but if only I could find a I continued on with my writing and between the years 2002-2004, I had the privilege of dealing with managers and entertainment attorneys and I generated some minor interest in one of my scripts but nothing ever came of it. Besides the scripts I had for sale, I had my pet project ‘Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid’ that I wanted to make but I never showed this to anyone, not even as a spec, I was too protective of it.

So where did the idea for Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid come from? Was this a long time in the making? Talk a bit about your writing process and how long it took you to achieve the final draft of the script. How do you get in-the-zone when you write?

The original idea for ‘Knock’ came from a mix of real life and reel life. I took elements of my life, my friends lives, and mixed it with cinema - the only problem was - I added scenes with guns and knives, scenes that couldn’t have been more false. I mean, I dealt with violence growing up, I went to a tough middle school, very tough, but I somehow avoided most of the trouble directly. So, I had this script which was about 110 pages and it felt more reel than real.

I read an article in which a filmmaker, I don’t remember his name, stated that younger filmmakers/writers should write what they know - not ‘hip-hop gangster scripts’ dealing with guns and situations they know nothing about. That started the wheels turning and I decided to overhaul the script.

The script was tweaked, rewritten, and changed A LOT over 12+ years. It had numerous titles, pretentious ones like ‘Once Upon a Summer in Connecticut,’ I guess that was my attempt at a Sergio Leone homage, and finally the story started to become more concrete.

Originally I sketched out the story, sat down, and wrote free hand on a notebook. But as time went on, it was time for the changes, so I used my PC and made the story more grounded in reality - no guns - and it took shape. The script that is closer to the finished film came from 2001 - and it dealt with me trying to prove a point to myself. My mystery script had been optioned and the producer was telling me things that didn’t make sense - and then getting mad at me after his suggestions were being rebuffed by someone else - and I sat down one Friday night and by Sunday night - less than 48 hours later - ‘KNOCK ‘EM DEAD, KID’ was born. Like I said, it was a mix of previous ideas and stories from the previous drafts, but this was me writing what I liked and how I liked.

From 2001-2007 I tweaked the script, slaved over some lines, I mean, there were some lines I couldn’t let go and had to have, no matter what, but I would say the movie itself was born in 2001.

Ok, now you have your script, you’ve been working on Knock ‘Em Dead for a while… where do you go from there? What were the next steps you took in getting to the production stage? I guess the first thing to answer here is, was this your first feature? If not, what did you learn from doing that, which helped you go forward with this one?

Good question, where do you go? I had attended the New York Film Academy in LA during the fall of 2007. This helped show me that I didn’t need a huge budget to pull off my idea - just ingenuity. I had made an experimental feature (that was a project that had been off and on for years and then put together and to say more would give away more of the ‘secret’ of that film, entitled ‘Visions of Violence’ and there’s more info for that on prior to film school and then made numerous shorts and a good thesis film at NYFA. All of this combined set me up to make ‘Knock.’

So, I sat down and had a look at the script, which was 212 pages, that’s way over 3 and 1/2 hours, and scale it down. I got it down to 165 and then 140 and then 80. The main location that I knew I could never secure, especially with NO budget, was an ice cream parlor where the leads worked. So, that was gone right away. I removed any expensive sets, consolidated some characters since the original script had 35+ speaking parts down to 20, and made the locations more ‘on the cheap.’ Next was where to shoot - in Connecticut? - where I’m from, or back in LA? I figured LA, since I like it, the talent pool is huge, and I had good luck at NYFA there.

Knowing the script was ready and tailored to a much lower budget, pretty much a zero-budget, and having the ‘where’ of where filming would take place - all I needed was a DP and my actors. And back to LA I went...

I had placed ads on craigslist and LA Casting seeking talent and a DP (Director of Photography aka cinematographer) and when I got there - the next day I had meetings/interviews/auditions all set up. I auditioned actors for 2 weeks and the DP I found the first day. All of the budget went to the DP and the tape needed as I shot on Digital Video with a Panasonic DVX.

Did you know your cast and crew? If not, where did you find them? How instrumental were they in developing the material, if at all? How collaborative was the process – and how long did you shoot for?

I cast one minor character with an actor I went to NYFA with (Nathan Yoder) - he would’ve had a bigger role but this was only due to age not ability. Everyone else came from craigslist and LA Casting as I needed people who looked 18-20.

Pretty much, the script was the blueprint and everyone stuck to it. There was improv, usually at the end of scenes or in scenes that were originally short but expanded. This helped enhance the scenes and the improv plus the script worked.

The shoot was to last 2 weeks but instead it lasted 3. Things come up, unforeseen circumstances occur, and nothing goes as planned - such is the life of an independent filmmaker - I’m sure anyone who’s made a film can relate to that statement.

Like many young filmmakers, you and certain Leaguers have or are working on producing their own material. I think that one of the biggest obstacles people in this boat face is funding. How did you go about raising funds for the film? What budget were you working with and did you have a lot of in-kind donations?

I didn’t raise funds - it was limited money that I had or was ‘donated’ by family. The total budget was $3000 and that included the DP, the tape, and where I was staying in LA.

You play a lot with flashbacks and jump cuts and other techniques that continually tie the past into the present in the film, while including concrete chapter headings detailing what day it is. Can you talk a bit about your decision to cut the film this way, weaving everything together while definitively illuminating the timeline?

Stating what day it is within the story was always a part of the script. That goes back to 2001, not sooner than that, but to that point. As for the jump cuts, I usually try to employ them into my editing to help the story move along. It makes it more cinematic.

The flashbacks - that’s a different story - that was a happy accident. What happened was this: I edited a rough cut of the film and realized that some scenes were to pedestrian and close to being boring. So, I started inserting other scenes, bits of scenes, and unused footage into those scenes which needed that something extra and that’s how the flashbacks became used. The flashbacks greatly enhanced the scene in which Bret comes clean to Veronica about cheating on her - without those scenes interspersed, the scene wouldn’t feel right.

I feel that by using those scenes in other scenes, it helps to show a character’s memory or the film’s memory, know what I mean? It keeps things fresh instead of stagnant. 

What was the worst thing about shooting? The best? Is there anything you learned from this production that you’d like to do differently in the future? Anything you wish you had done that you didn’t?

The worst thing about shooting without a budget is twofold - time and money. If you had money then you’d have more time. If you had more time then people would be able to get deeper into their characters. That’s tough to do when you have to shoot around work schedules, etc. everyone did the best they could but more time would have made it a much easier shoot and a much more polished shoot.

The best part of shooting is...that’s a tricky question. I would have to say that working in a collaborative medium, like filmmaking, is the best part - you get to try different things (when time permits) and everyone brings energy to the set.

Every film is a learning experience just like every life experience is something to learn from. Every personality is different and making a film is like trying to run a circus - different tents, lots of hats, the clown car, etc. in other words - a lot to manage.

I do wish I took the time to manage some scenes better. But time restrictions really put a damper on that.

Can you talk a bit about you the writer versus you the director? Did anything change from page to screen for you? Were there other people whose feedback you relied heavily upon?

The writer creates a vision and the director has to execute that vision. Obviously what you’ve dreamed up is from the mind of the writer and what you’re left with on film (or digital video) is the life of the director. Some things can translate from your mind to reality - others, not so much. But this could be due to time or money.

“The script is what you’ve dreamed up. The film is what you are left with.” George Lucas was quoted as saying this and I agree with this 100% percent.

A lot changed from the page to the screen. Sometimes it was a simple nuance, other times it was a line of dialogue that said by one’s self while writing sounds good, but when the camera’s rolling, didn’t sound quite right. The scenes and the story itself didn’t change or deviate all that much from the original shooting script. No one really gave that much input as far as changing the script, the script was really what I used for making my film be my film.

Is there anything you would like to say to all of our readers who are thinking of shooting their own feature films? Any advice or cautionary tales? What about choosing and using or licensing music?

Making a film is a huge commitment. If you aren’t passionate about it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s time consuming and it really needs all of your mind in order to succeed. Try and make a film with something to say - don’t just make a stupid horror film or flavor of the month just because. Let’s say you want to make a horror film, make one, but make it unique, make it yours. Be different. People can say what they want about my films but in most cases they cannot be compared to whats come before.

Casting is the most important thing - build relationships and trust with your cast. This is most important. Listen to everyone and always be open to trying a scene a new way.

And if you make the film - finish it. See it through to the end. Even if it looks bad, finish it. You can always save a project in the editing room and even if you can’t - at least you’ll have a finished film. If I can finish my films then you can make yours.

As for music, I put an ad on craigslist stating that I was looking for music from anyone that wasn’t on a label. I ended up using music from people that I met online. They gave me their consent after I sent them the trailer and I gave them full credit for their contributions to the film. In the end, the soundtrack works and helps the film move along.

So what's next, both for Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid and for you?

‘Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid’ isn’t dead yet. The film is for sale on amazon VOD for rent or purchase and I am still actively seeking distribution for it. The fact that it ended up winning Honorable Mention and an official selection at this year’s Twin Rivers Media Fest was a testament to the film itself. I am still trying to find an audience for it and I am hopeful it will find a home somewhere. Without gratuitous nudity and violence, it has had some difficulty finding a home.

As for me, I shot a new feature this past September on HD. Once again, I went to LA, shot a film, this time in 2 weeks, and this time I made something distributors want. The two leads are female, they wear very little, and the story is more based on sex. There is a unique story, one that is very different, but this time I have a story about two LA girls instead of three Connecticut guys. Fingers crossed, this one too, will find an audience. I am just starting to edit this new film so watch for it in 2010!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top Ten of the Aughts (Part II)

If I learned anything from making my list, it’s that it's hard to write a short blurb about a favorite movie. These films are my favorites precisely because their appeal can’t be reduced to four sentences. And while I can fill page after page with a film’s qualities, whatever I came up still feels insufficient. Like anything else, a favorite movie will grab me for reasons I’ll never truly understand.

Observing the list, I realize that as much as I can appreciate a good performance or the texture of a shot, I am drawn to good stories. There’s no getting away from it: without a good screenplay, you can’t make a good film. And, man, this decade had some bad movies. But as Hollywood continues to churn out remakes, sequels, and derivative garbage, it becomes clear that now more than ever there is a need for good stories well told.

Part I, #’s 10-6)

5. Sideways

Miles is a forty-something failed writer who teaches 8th grade English. He does the New York Times crossword on his steering wheel and casually inserts French into everyday conversation. He’s a wine snob who attends a few too many tastings. Recently divorced, he hesitates in making a move on Maya (Virginia Madsen) because, though interesting and attractive, “she works for tips.” Or is that just an excuse for his lack of confidence?

Though the complex Miles is perfectly observed by the writers and Paul Giamatti, his is a character incapable of advancing a plot; that distinction goes to the childish Jack, in a career performance by Thomas Hayden Church. Miles takes his soon-to-be-married buddy on a tour of California’s wine country, but Jack envisions a less sophisticated sendoff: getting both of them laid.

In doing so, Jack boosts Miles’ credentials, telling Maya that his novel is being published; and, obviously, Jack plays down his upcoming wedding while eying Maya’s friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack succeeds in his goal…and embarks on a fling that becomes more serious than it should. Miles and Maya tag along to complete the quartet, and as their relationship becomes more intimate, the lies become more and more difficult for Miles to live down.

Wow, the broad strokes of this film would hardly make it seem like a comedy, even though it contains some of the funniest moments I have ever seen. Some are in plot payoffs, like when Jack, who suffered a broken nose through his exploits, crashes Miles’ car into a tree to substantiate another lie. Some are in the interactions between Jack and Miles, and how we suspect Miles has maintained this friendship for the sake of validating a sense of superiority. Some are sight gags, as when Miles breaks into a house to reclaim Jack’s wedding ring and is chased down by a naked beast of a man.

Some people call this film depressing. Understandable. Essentially, it’s a film about characters coming to terms with who they are not, leaving them with less to veil their insecurities. But as they are pathetic at the beginning, at least they aren’t hopeless at the end.

4. The Lives of Others

The film begins with a member of the Stasi, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), interrogating a suspected political prisoner. This scene is intercut with him teaching a class on interrogation methods. He uses a recoding of the interrogation, showing how the deprivation of sleep and repetitive questioning can effectively extract information from a prisoner. He stops the tape, adding commentary when necessary. The students write notes, judiciously. He might as well be teaching physiology.

It's rare for a film to have deep political resonance without skewing its argument with didactic heroes and villains. Wiesler is a nationalist with firm socialist ideals, believing in the GDP and the Stasi. As such, he bugs the apartment of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to protect the State. But in learning a committee member is having an affair with Dreyman’s actress girlfriend (she does so to avoid interference with her career), Wiesler realizes Dreyman’s imprisonment would rid the committee member of a rival.

A clear abuse of power, Wiesler’s same uncompromising sense of duty leads him to intervene in ending the affair. But as the intervention becomes more personal, he discovers the beauty in the couple’s relationship and realizes that is worth protecting.

This is a complete film with a meticulously plotted screenplay. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck provides authentic settings and gives attention to most minute detail, evoking a neorealist feel not unlike The Battle of the Algiers. All of this is strung together by an incredible performance from Ulrick Mühe, whose actions and mere facial expression rarely deviate from that of a calculating professional. So uncommon are his physical reactions that a simple frown commands the audience’s attention. Mühe allows the context of the story to dictate the emotions; consequently, it isn’t until the last frame when he says, “No, it’s for me,” that he is fully understood.

3. Adaptation.

This needs cleared up: just because a film can discuss screenwriting and Hollywood does NOT make it a good screenwriting resource. For an aspiring writer looking for a clear example, Charlie Kaufman’s non-linear screenplay about Charlie Kaufman writing a screenplay about Charlie Kaufman’s difficult adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief would hardly provide clarity
. If used as a teaching tool, it should be used to exemplify the apex of a craft.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) loves Susan Orlean’s book and embraces the idea of writing the world’s first film about flowers. Just flowers. No sex or drugs or car chases or underdogs overcoming huge obstacles. “The book isn’t like that and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”

Then what is life about? While unable to adapt the book, Charlie’s life entails complaining about things he should do, fantasizing about women he should hit on, and criticizing people he should not have to endure. Like his twin brother Donald, who one day declares, “I’m gonna be a screenwriter!” and conceptualizes a completely unfeasible thriller that eventually sells for a million dollars. The Orchid Thief, a beautiful composition without a story, is a validation of Charlie’s life…but it also serves as a mirror for his own shortcomings.

The film intercuts between Charlie’s struggles and Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). A writer for The New Yorker, Orlean ventures to Florida for a story about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a
conservationist known for poaching rare orchids. He’s a fascinating individual whose intelligence escapes Orlean, who can’t get past his toothless grin and Southern twang; when she returns to New York for a cocktail party, all she can talk about is the smell and appearance of his truck. Orlean visits again. As he describes how a moth developed an elongated nose to pollinate a special breed of orchids, she becomes entranced by his passion and fulfillment…but realizes her own superficiality and emptiness.

While engaging and entertaining, Kaufman and Orlean’s stories show how the orchid exists not to accommodate but to make the moth adapt. How a two-hour film can tell such a story with no missteps, with subtle commentary on perception and racism, high-brow and low-brow cultures, New York and Hollywood, with moments that are tender and others that are hilarious, and still include sex and guns and car chases is beyond comprehension. Nicolas Cage effectively differentiates Charlie and Donald, and Spike Jonze magnifies all the humor and irony in the screenplay. But this one goes to Charlie Kaufman.

2. In America

This is a film that grabs you from the start.

An Irish family – Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two young daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) – drives across the Canadian border, hoping to move into the States illegally. Before hitting the border police, Johnny reminds his daughters, “Remember, we’re on holiday.” As an officer approaches the car, the girls quickly exclaim, “We’re on holiday!” The officer nods as he scans their passports. The youngest daughter, Ariel, a spark plug, adds, “Yeah! And my dad’s not workin’!” Several officers surround the car, asking rapid-fire questions.

Concerned, the oldest daughter, Christy, begins her narration of the film - her little brother Frankie once said she has three wishes; right now she wishes they get across the border. The officer scans their documents, “How many children do you have?” Three, Johnny replies. Two, Sarah corrects him. This confuses the officer. “It says three here.” Johnny replies, “Yeah. We, uh, lost one.” The officer looks at the hopeful faces, hesitates, and then smiles. “Welcome to America.”

The first scene, no longer than three minutes, foreshadows everything about the film. It’s a story with humor, despair, realistic complications, and elements of mysticism, that also manages to see the good in people.

Director Jim Sheridan shares credit for the screenplay with his daughters, Naomi and Kristen, inspired by their own immigration to America following the death of their brother, Frankie. This is understandable, as the film takes its time and moves naturally; it’s almost like a filmed journal of moving to Manhattan, watching it go from abrasive and scary to warm and inviting. What’s impressive is that something so organic can be orchestrated by such meticulous craft.

The family is poor. Johnny has failed his lone Broadway audition and, gallantly as he tried, was unable to air condition their sweltering apartment. Ariel is also sad, missing Ireland and her dad’s old playful spirit. To relieve the stress, the family goes to a carnival. An ET doll catches Ariel’s eye, and Johnny decides he’ll win it for her. The scene is so carefully constructed that what begins with Johnny playfully trying to please his daughter becomes about proving he can take care of the family or losing everything. How many films can effectively pull that off?

Even fewer are the films that mix such grim complications like AIDS and poverty with something as intangible as magic without being sentimental. And then there’s the emotional climax that shows little more than the movement of a hand. The film is filled with great performances and wonderful moments that continuously build without feeling manufactured. And when it’s all said and done, it shows the difficulty in letting go of the past, and the necessity of moving forward.

1. Almost Famous

At some point, everyone feels like an outsider.

William’s mother (Francis McDormand) has the family celebrate Christmas in October when it’s less commercialized. While his middle school peers grow facial hair, William stands a foot shorter. When he asks why, his mother informs him that he’s eleven, not thirteen. His sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), fed up with the unorthodox lifestyle, leaves home to become a stewardess. She leaves William her record collection and looks into his eyes: “One day, you'll be cool.”

He wants to believe her.

Almost Famous is a story about how William (Patrick Fugit) at fifteen lands a dream job at Rolling Stone, then goes cross-county with the up-and-coming rock band Stillwater as he tries to score an interview with the elusive guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). It’s a story about first
experiences and desperately trying to be cool - cool enough to belong in the rock ‘n’ roll community, to hang out with a band like Stillwater, to spark the interest of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

A great coming of age story, it’s about how William comes to realize he’s not cool…but who is? Penny Lane commands a room with her looks and charisma, hops seamlessly from band to band, and does it all without opening up, not even revealing her real name…but even she isn’t above heartbreak. Millions of Americans love Russell, who’s handsome, meets the likes of Bob Dylan, and can even unlock Penny Lane…but not even he can bullshit William’s mother. And then there’s the band as a whole, whose growing popularity has earned them the cover of Rolling Stone magazine…but they deny the facts of William’s story, as even they have insecurities about status and perception. Lester Bangs – played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as the poor man’s Obi-Wan Kenobi – observes it perfectly: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with somebody when you’re uncool.” And Lester is admittedly not cool.

Like any great movie, you remember the film for its moments. Like when Stillwater brings William backstage or when he deepens his voice on the phone for his editor. Or when Stillwater’s plane is about to crash, and the drummer breaks his silence - “Fuck it! I’m gay!” - only for the
plane to steady. Russell on the roof of a high school party: “I am a golden god!” The reconciliation of Anita and her mother – “I forgive you.” “I…never said I was sorry”. And, of course, when the inner conflicts plaguing the group are resolved as they sing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”.

Loosely based on Cameron Crowe’s own experiences, it’s a film that’s written without feeling written, where every character has a distinct point of view and the actors disappear in their roles. It’s a film of bright colors, a portrait of an America united to a soundtrack of Bowie and Zeppelin and Cat Stevens. It’s a film with a heart, embracing people for who they are.

William ends up getting his interview, but he asks his big question not as a reporter but as a star struck fan: “What do you love most about being a rock star?” And Russell leans forward, glowing like a child, “To begin with…everything.”

Same for this movie.

* * * * *

Best of the rest… The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bowling for Columbine, City of God, Closer, The Dark Knight, Eastern Promises, Flags of Our Fathers, The Fog of War, Grizzly Man, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, High Fidelity, A History of Violence, In Bruges, Intermission, Kill Bill: vol 1, Let the Right One In, Minority Report, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Rachel Getting Married, Requiem for a Dream, Shallow Hal, Shrek, Sin City, Slumdog Millionaire, The Squid and the Whale, Traffic, Wall-E, You Can Count on Me

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 98 - Took the Offer

After about a week and a half of time to think it over and digest the notes, my manager, producer, and I have decided to take an offer we were given. A producer at a rather prominent Production Company (known simply as "Production Company" for the time being) read my post-Apocalyptic spec and really liked it. She thought it was exciting, moving, and (sometimes odd for its genre) smart - i.e. it was about something more than just a body count. However, she did have notes on it, and was not prepared to offer any money for it in its current state.

On Tuesday of last week, I had a conference call with her and Gretchen, the original producer. The call went really well, and I got two major notes from the Production Company. These were big notes, both focused on rebuilding Act Two. As the representative for this Production Company put it, Act One is really strong and sets up a lot, but Act Two derails. (I'll admit that it's not a perfect second act, but we were hoping that it was strong enough to not ward off potential buyers. Guess it wasn't.) The representative had two ideas for the script, one that would make it more active throughout Act Two, and the other that would lighten the tone a little bit. In its current state, the script is very dark. Part of the rewrites would involve taking the audience to a time before so much hope was lost, to a point where people were still trying to go about their daily lives and carry on as best they can. The goal is to not only make the film less depressing, but also to involve the audience more by allowing them to play along with the "what would I do in this scenario?" game while watching.

This offer I got came at a particularly interesting time. The morning of the call, I read two articles in the most recent draft of Creative Screenwriting Magazine, which seemed extremely relevant to my situation. The first was a short piece about an NYC based writer who recently sold his first spec and continues to work from NYC. It's more about how to go about getting recognized while being on the East Coast - query letters, competitions, etc. While it was interesting, it wasn't really anything new. (Read the archival Writing Weeks, and you'll see that I cover the exact same things as I live them.)

The second article was much more intriguing. It was all about the state of the spec sale market and the greater Hollywood industry in general. In short, what it said was that it's next to impossible for new writers to break in nowadays. Established writers are having trouble getting work, and when they do, they're frequently having to work for below their normal going rate. With studios freezing development, things aren't looking good. Agents and managers are having trouble, because no one is buying. And production companies are getting away with spending a lot less on material - or, in cases like mine, spending nothing up front in transactions that used to cost them money. Basically, this article (I read between the lines) said that if a writer has a large and respected producer or production company backing their work and has the ability to get to a studio, they should take the deal, as there aren't many other options these days. (Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule, so no need for added concern if you're trying to make a sale. Just be aware of the situation.)

With that info, and with this Production Company behind me if I nail the rewrites, I decided that there was no way I could pass up the opportunity. Sure, some of the rewrites will be a challenge, but even if the Production Company decides not to pursue the material, I'll have a stronger script (hopefully) and more contacts in the industry that could lead to further work. Plus, with no one else biting at the moment, I didn't have a ton of other options. So... back to writing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top 10 Films of the Aughts (Part I)

The period between 1990 and 1999 was great for movies. Pulp Fiction, Shawshank, Hoop Dreams – that's 1994 alone. There are times when I think the quality of films (especially domestic films) has degenerated as I’ve grown more familiar with writing and filmmaking. But then I thought about it, and, man, some really great movies came out this decade.

So here are #'s 10 - 6... (#'s 5 - 1 coming soon...)

10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman won a much-deserved Oscar for the most original concept in recent memory. Break-ups hurt because of loss – the loss of a comfort zone, the loss of someone else, the loss of someone else’s feelings. To prevent this feeling of loss, what if a medical procedure could erase that person from your memory?

The premise is ingenious, but the film stands out for depicting a universal relationship between Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), told from beginning to end. The break up scene is most relatable, as Joel and Clemantine each say hurtful things that can't be unsaid. Whereas most movies capture romance with sparkling jewelry and huge set pieces, the most romantic scenes involve throwing leaves at each other, falling on the ice, or lying on the couch. And of course, the film does a commendable job in showing that pleasure from the good times ultimately outweigh the eventual pain.

Joel wants to procedure to stop, but is powerless as his body is knocked out. In Joel’s final memory, he and Clementine sit on the beach, completely aware that the incident is going to be erased: “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.” “I know.” “What do we do?” “Enjoy it.”

9. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino might be gimmicky. He might be completely full of himself. He might be a narcissist, a sexist, a thief.

He can be all of those things, but he can still be an expert craftsman.

A farmer stands on his front yard filling buckets of water. In a car in the distance, two guards approach with a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz). The farmer looks to his house, to his three teenage daughters. He pours some water over his face.

In the house, the colonel takes off his hat and smiles. “Do you know who I am?” The farmer nods. The colonel motions for his guards – equipped with machine guns – to step outside, but they remain visible through the window. The colonel acknowledges the daughters and their beauty. He asks if they would mind stepping outside. They look to their father, who nods, nervously. They step outside.

In the hands of a lesser writer/director, the subsequent scene between the colonel and farmer would be rushed and expositional; with Tarantino, the talky scene plays secondary to the tension of the guards in the window and the mere fact that we don’t know anything.

To arouse the curiosity of an audience without making it question the logic - that is tough. And, man, he makes it look easy...

8. Brokeback Mountain

It took a while for this film to set in. I think that’s a testament to Heath Ledger, the screenwriters, and Ang Lee, who collectively take a subtle story/protagonist and make it fly.

The premise by nature leads to a reactive story, one that studies a cowboy Ennis (Ledger) who lacks the ability to love. Whether it’s his wife, daughters, or Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), the one person with whom he connects, he never allows more than five consecutive words to escape his tight-lipped demeanor. When someone notices a hint of transparency, he responds aggressively, like when he attacks Jack and ends up with a bloodied lip. He pushes himself into seclusion.

Jack is killed, and though the cause of death is ambiguous, the film sets up that he was possibly murdered for being homosexual. Through Jack’s ex-wife (Anne Hathaway), Ennis learns that Jack wanted him to scatter his ashes. When going to Jack’s parents for the ashes, he finds intertwined with one of Jack’s shirts is his blood-stained shirt from their fight years earlier. He holds them up to his face.

It’s subtle and fantastic.

7. Match Point

Though elements are borrowed from his Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters, this is the most unique of Woody Allen’s canon. For starters, there is no Woody Allen, meaning neither himself as an actor nor a neurotic character in the cast. Secondly, this was the first of his films to take place outside of New York.

For a writer, the film is an education on economy and precision. Allen equips the hero of the story, an Irishman from a poor family Chris Wilton (Jonathon Rhys Meyers), with two gifts: skill with a tennis racket and good looks. Though he never climbed the ranks in professional tennis, his skill enables him to become an instructor at a country club. There, he befriends club member Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode) and is able to use his other gift to catch the eye of his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). He charms his way into her heart and into the good graces of her wealthy parents, virtually guaranteeing him a fruitful life. But there is one problem: Tom is engaged to an American, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johannson), a failed actress pulling the same stunt as Chris.

Though the outsiders are experts in their roles, their obvious similarities and sexual attraction complicates their didactic plots. An affair is unfeasible, but proves unavoidable. And that’s the first act of a film that manages to explore themes of luck, hard work, and love without seeming implausible and still deliver a twist ending that hits just the right note.

6. Love Actually

How can you think of this film without smiling? Whether it’s the cheery score, that “Christmas is all around me!”, or that even a Hugh Grant or Colin Firth can act like a complete spazz when face-to-face with that flashy-eyed girl, this is one of those movies that will always put you in a good mood.

But how is it that Love Actually avoids being cheesy? It’s because the brilliant writer/director Richard Curtis explores the flip side of the coin. A workaholic (Laura Linney) finally has the chance to romance her crush, but a call from her hospitalized brother prevents it from happening. Daniel (Liam Neeson) is in constant grief after losing his wife to cancer. And, of course, the most heartfelt scene in which Karen (Emma Thompson) realizes her marriage is over after opening a Christmas gift.

The lows also accentuate some wonderful “movie moments”. There’s the porn star “rehearsing” with his female costar while having trouble asking her on a date. There’s Jamie (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese servant in the water saying the same things in different languages. There’s the controversial Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) on television: “Kids: don’t buy drugs. [a sigh of relief from the hosts] Become a pop star and they give ‘em to you for free!” And, my personal favorite, Mark spilling his heart out to Juliet (Keira Knightley) via poster cards though he has nothing to gain.

How did this film not get a screenplay nod?

* * *

(Hm. Noticing a theme, my revised #1 of the decade is now Terminator Salvation.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Logline Central - Source Code

Logline Central is an irregular segment that takes a deeper look at loglines of scripts or projects that have just been purchased, as listed on DoneDealPro.

Ok, this week's Logline Central was picked in part for its familiarity.

Title: Source Code

Logline: A soldier wakes up in the body of an unknown commuter and is forced to live and relive a harrowing train bombing until he can determine who is responsible for it.

Writer: Billy Ray

More: Rewrite of spec script by Ben Ripley. Mark Gordon and Vendome's Philippe Rousselet & Jordan Wynn will produce. Duncan Jones will direct. Jake Gyllenhaal will star. Firs set up in January 2007.

Back in 2007, I was being what can best be described as "passively courted" by a manager at a respectable LA based company. He'd read my comic book style spec, and was interested in what else I had or could do. Mildly interested, since none of the few phone calls we set up ever happened. It was a lesson in frustration at the time, but in hindsight, a pretty good (though disappointing) introduction to the industry and trying to get a foot in the door as a young writer.

Anyway, he was looking for tent-pole action writers at the time (people who could churn out Will Smith's big summer blockbusters as quickly as he could star in them), and was cultivating me to be one of those writers. So, he sent me a few scripts as samples of what was getting recognition around the industry in that genre.

I read the first writer's draft back in the summer of 2007, and I have to admit that I loved it. I had no idea how that script could ever become a major summer blockbuster. It was too intimate (very few character... maybe 4) and too convoluted for mainstream audiences. The entire script took place either in the military's tech room where this soldier is hooked into the computer or on the ill-fated train. It was much more akin to the wonderful PRIMER and SLEEP DEALER (both worth watching for examples of small-scale sci-fi) than to MINORITY REPORT or other big-budget, sci-fi mind-benders. Of the three scripts that manager sent me, this was hands down my favorite.

The plot revolved around a soldier who realizes that he's forced to relive a terrorist train bombing time and time again until he can figure out who was responsible. Of course, there's a woman on the train who piques his interest, as well as a man he becomes convinced is the bomber. I forget the specifics, but there might have been an element of the soldier having been on the train, with his brain kept alive just long enough to get the info from it, before the military lets him succumb to injuries he received in the explosion. Whatever the exact plot and setup, I really dug the script. I'll be keeping an eye on this one. I wonder if this is going through development again to extend its mass appeal.

(Quick ending note: newly appointed writer Billy Ray has the credits under his belt to make me think this could be doable. I caught his FLIGHTPLAN on TV the other night and got his SUSPECT ZERO through Netflix a while back. Both were OK. I really enjoyed SHATTERED GLASS, though, which he has a "written by" credit on. And, he's doing the new WESTWORLD, so we'll see.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 97 - Prepping for the Phone Meeting

Tomorrow's going to be an interesting day - and the next biggest step for me as I try to break into the film industry as a screenwriter. Mid-last week, Gretchen - the independent producer who optioned my script back in June - informed me that one of the top producers in Hollywood was interested in my script. His Production Company (to be referred to as that until we make a deal) has some big ideas for what they want to do with the script, but there's some development work they want done first. So, we set up a call with the Production Company, more specifically with the producer there who read the script and wants to work on it.

The point of tomorrow's call is two-fold. First, though Gretchen already told me a bit what to expect in terms of notes from the Production Company, tomorrow is about the specifics. We haven't made any concrete deals yet, and tomorrow's call is an opportunity for all parties to get on the same page about what exactly this company thinks the script needs. It's also an opportunity for me to ask any and all questions I have about their notes and to emphasize any points I think are crucial to consider when re-working the material.

The second part of tomorrow's dialogue is just as important. The call is also about introductions, and more specifically, me introducing myself to a major player in the industry as an up and coming writer. Yes, hopefully everyone will want to work together on this project. But, if all goes well, I'll have planted the seed in this producer's mind that I'm a writer that she can work with down the line, as well. That means, of course, being open to notes, listening to everything she says, and not being afraid to chime in with my impressions. I'll have to be on my toes - asking insightful questions, processing what she's saying at a mile a minute, taking notes - but that shouldn't be a problem. It's been going on almost two years that I've been working on this script now, and I know that this could be a major break both for me and for it.

I'm excited about tomorrow's call, for sure. The impersonality of the phone means I can focus exclusively on what's being said, rather than obsessing about every gesture and mannerism. It'll be a big day, one I'm eagerly waiting for (can't you tell?).

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Museum of the Moving Image - Variety screenings announced in NYC

The Museum of the Moving Image has a new batch of Variety screenings, featuring key crew or cast members in attendance. Here's the current lineup:
Variety New York Screening Series
Through December 31, 2009

For all Variety screenings, tickets are $20, $15 for Museum members. Members at the Sponsor-level and above receive free tickets. Call 718.784.4520 for more information or to order tickets.

Under Our Skin Under Our Skin with director Andy Abrahams Wilson in person
Wednesday, November 4, 7:30 p.m.
Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 East Houston Street

2009, 104 mins. Open Eye Pictures. Directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson. A gripping tale of microbes, medicine and money, Under Our Skin exposes the hidden story of Lyme disease, one of the most controversial and fastest growing epidemics of our time. Each year thousands go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, told that their symptoms are "all in their head." Following the stories of patients and physicians fighting for their lives and livelihoods, the film brings into focus a haunting picture of the healthcare system and a medical establishment all too willing to put profits ahead of patients.

The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker with director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal in person
Wednesday, November 11, 7:30 p.m.
Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 East Houston Street

2009, 131 mins. Summit Entertainment. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. With Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty. From visionary filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker is based on first-hand observation by journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal who was stationed on assignment with a special bomb unit. Starring Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James), Anthony Mackie (Half Nelson) and Brian Geraghty (Jarhead), the film couples grippingly realistic action with intimate human drama to portray soldier psychology in a high-risk profession where men volunteer to face deadly odds.

The Road The Road with Viggo Mortensen in person
Wednesday, November 18, 7:30 p.m.
Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 East Houston Street

2009. The Weinstein Company. Directed by John Hillcoat. With Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall. Based on Cormac McCarthy's beloved, best-selling and Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen leads an all-star cast in the big screen adaptation of The Road. This epic post-apocalyptic tale traces the journey taken by a father (Mortensen) and his young son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) across a barren landscape that was blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed civilization and most life on earth. This event is sold out.
Check out their website for details.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 96 – An Offer on the Table

Last Wednesday was one hell of an interesting day. It involved a bit of daily life in NYC – an unfortunate man was having a seizure on the sidewalk outside my office building right as I had to go to an appointment – and ended with some news on my script. At about 9:30pm, my producer called me with an update. One of the bigger Hollywood producers was interested in my script.

It’s annoying that I have to be vague about the specifics, but my manager, producer, and I have not yet made any agreements, so I can’t mention names. Anyway, this Producer and his Production Company are apparently very interested in my post-Apocalyptic spec. However, they think that the second half needs some work. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve gotten this note, so they might be onto something. Their proposition is an exclusive developmental deal, whereby they come on as co-producers with Gretchen (who initially optioned the material) and work with me on developing the second act further. Once that work is done, they take it out through their first look deal with one of the major studios, and try to make a quality action picture.

The obvious pros to doing this are many. For one, the Producer is a bit of a power player, Oscar Nominated hyphenate who has also written and directed. Not only would working with him help ensure a larger sale (though that’s never a certainty) with an impressive name attached, but doing so my first time out of the gate would be impressive for me as a new writer. My current producer was very excited about the prospects that such a partnership could provide for a rookie scribe, and I can’t deny it, either. He’s done some quality pictures – every one of them a recognizable success – and I’d love to get the opportunity to work with him. Beyond that, the woman who works for his Production Company who would head up the project is pretty confident in her ability to do something with it – provided I do a good job with the rewrites – and to make a quality film we could all be proud of. It all sounds good.

The downside of the deal? Right now, there’s no money involved in the offer. Of course, this isn’t an immediate deal-breaker. However, since the agreement would be exclusive in nature, we wouldn’t really be able to capitalize on any other offers. Taking the offer – we’d have a phone call first to make sure everyone’s on the same page – would mean potentially another few months of unpaid development work, but the payoff after could be quite worth it. If we go out too many more places with the script as is, we risk overexposing it. The offer takes it off the market for a while, but since there’s no money, I have as much or as little time as I need to make the necessary changes and get it ready to go out again. My hope would be to have it ready before the holidays, though the end of December can be a bad time to try to make a sale.

I have a call with my producer and manager tonight to discuss the offer. I don’t know how common these no money development offers are, and that’s one thing I intend to find out. I don’t doubt that the Production Company can do something with the script if it’s stronger, but I’m not inking anything yet.