Friday, July 30, 2010

Logline Central - Reply All

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.

Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether something's original or not (i.e. not a prequel, sequel, adaptation, or re-make). The word "pitch" can be a good indicator at times. The word "spec" is a dead give-away. But if neither of those are there? If "remake," "adaptation," "prequel," or "sequel" aren't there either? Look at the idea, the context, the additional information, and make an educated guess. This, to me, looks like an original comedy being set up, and at a time when original material is rare, that's always a good thing.

Title: Reply All
Logline: A guy hits the "reply all" button to an indiscreet e-mail, and then has to deal with the repercussions.
Writer: Phil Johnston
Genre: Comedy
More: Zach Galifianakis will produce. Phil Johnston will executive produce. Galifianakis will also star. 
I guess it's about time that the "reply all" - that often dreaded button - was the source of cinematic comedy. We've all accidentally hit it, or at least worried about hitting it. And comedy seems like an appropriate genre for dealing with this office mishap. I wonder a bit what the script is like; in a way, it has a HANGOVER vibe to me (and not just because Zach Galifianakis is involved). Guy does something he doesn't mean to do, has to spend the next day trying to make up for it and apologizing to everyone involved. Kind of makes you wonder what the content of that email is - Phil Johnston's going to have to be pretty sharp to set that up. The one thing about the logline I'm not sure about is the word "indiscreet" - maybe that's just me, but it seems like one of those instances where word choice can lead the reader in an odd direction. "Indiscreet" could somehow imply that he doesn't know the characters involved, or that the information in the email was cryptic enough to not allow for much trouble. If I were a production exec, I'd definitely be interested enough in the idea, but the word "indiscreet" gets me thinking in a way that the writer might have wanted to avoid.

Still, Phil Johnston has some notches in his comedy headboard. While I haven't seen anything he's credited on on Imdb, his upcoming CEDAR RAPIDS has comedy strongmen John C. Reilly, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry, among other notables. That could be one to watch out for, too. Obviously, with those guys involved and production (apparently) completed, and now this sale, Johnston is doing something right. It might be hard to get original dramas off the ground these days, but it seems that comedies still offer opportunities.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 134 - Avoid the Band-Aid Solution

Last week at this time, I was hoping to hear back from the executive at the production company we're working with regarding a read-through of my post-Apocalyptic spec that two of her colleagues were doing. For the most part, they were looking to make sure that all the logic held up and that there weren't any major oversights on our part. By Thursday morning, I still hadn't heard anything (though, reading and compiling notes can always take longer than expected), so I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. That afternoon, though, I spoke to my producer and manager and got the scoop.

The good news was that there was nothing glaring structurally - no serious plot hole or omission that made part of the script problematic. In fact, there were not many notes at all - all things considered - and those that came back were for the most part readily doable. All in all, the production company came back with five notes. For one, they wanted the protagonist's motivation to carry out his journey to be bigger, stronger. The same went for why he is the only person who can do what he's doing. These are both things that we thought we had answered, but both readers who did cold reads came back with questions/thoughts, so it seemed the job was not yet done. I have to keep in mind that major studio pictures require sometimes obvious answers to be more so, or subtle answers to become blatant. The trick is to interweave them so they don't come off as too on-the-nose or expositional.

Another note had to do with the feel of the picture - indie versus studio, and not walking the line too finely. I've found that when writing for a budget, the writer has to be careful. Too big a set piece, on too many an action scene, and you can enter territory beyond the scope of your picture. However, too few moments like that, and you can enter into questionable size. I hadn't ever considered the latter alternative, but it's good to know about. There were a couple other notes, but to avoid getting into specifics about my script and alienating the general guide these posts are hopefully offering, I'll spare you them. Suffice it to say that, after a call with the exec today, I'm sure I can do them. We have another call tentatively set up for the end of the week to discuss specifics. I have until then to determine the best ways and places to implement them all without, as my producer says, just applying a band-aid solution. I want these notes to feel organic and fully ingrained, as opposed to just tacked on with the hopes of answering the final few questions and rushing the script sloppily out the door. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 133 - Inspired by INCEPTION

Like millions of other people, I went and saw INCEPTION this weekend. (Don't worry, no spoilers to come for any of you who haven't yet seen it.) And, like some people, I also went to the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this weekend. While Pitchfork didn't inspire the writer within me nearly as much as INCEPTION did, but escapes helped draw my mind from my post-Apocalyptic spec, which was going though one of its more important reads this weekend. 

As the week drew to a close, my manager called me to let me know that the current draft of the script (which I turned in Monday at just about the close of the LA workday) had gone off to the second executive at the production company we've been working with, along with a top reader there, to do a final logic/consistency check. That weekend reading (hopefully now completed) has the potential to generate more rewrites this week if anyone finds a flaw in any of the logic or story elements. Ideally, though, those issues won't arise. Barring any problems - which we would have missed by being too close to the material at this point to see it very objectively - the script goes on to the producer who heads the company. From there, in theory, he starts making his decision on his involvement, and I pack a bag for a trip to LA. Of course, this is all (knock on wood) on the optimistic side of the scale. 

Perhaps by pure coincidence - well, that's not entirely true; I was pushing myself to get the draft out before I left - I was out of town and out of reach for most of the weekend. Why is that good? It means I wasn't staring at my phone or email waiting for news on the script. Granted, at this point, I've become accustomed to waiting for feedback and updates. Still, when email is right there, it can be hard not to check compulsively. Out to Chicago I went to see the show, visit a good friend, and take my mind of my script. But that didn't mean I had to ignore writing completely. 

On and off throughout the weekend, I toyed with certain elements of various other projects I'm working on, trying to nail down which one I really want to dig into next. Then, on Saturday, I took some time off from thinking about my scripts to watch Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION. To say that I was humbled would be an understatement. Much in the way fans felt like the bar had been raised almost unreachably high by Watchmen when the comic book first hit shelves in the 80s, I too felt that INCEPTION attained complexities well beyond my scope. Granted, Nolan's been working on it for over a decade, but the sense of urgency, along with the depth of the story just blew me away. I know, I know; you're all looking for the plot holes and inconsistencies, for the questions that his logic seemed to overlook. I am, too, to a degree. But still, sitting in that theater, watching the film unfold, I just got to wondering, could I ever do something like that? Can I ever hope to craft a story that intricate and brilliant?

I don't necessarily think I can now, but if I said no entirely, I'd have to suspect that I'm pursuing the wrong dream.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 132 - One Last Round and Working with Another Artist

This has the potential to be a big week. With the final round of edits mostly over - just waiting on notes on one new scene - we're about ready to send the script back to the production company we're working with. My manager has informed me that this will be the final draft for this phase of development; from here, the script goes to the whole creative team at the production company for their decision as to whether or not to pursue.

Before I finally click send tonight, I'm going to do one final thing, which all writers are encouraged to do. I'm going to proof it again. While rewrites can greatly improve the script, they also run the risk of knocking something out of place or causing an incomplete tweak. If you've changed a character's name or eliminated him/her completely, you want to make sure you've done so everywhere in the script. The last thing you want is a sloppy mistake at that point in the game. So do yourself a favor and give it a final read-through. Just make sure that everything you meant to put in is there, and everything you wanted out is gone. If anything jumps out as not quite working now, this is the time to find it. 

This current draft has the great fortune of coming in at my favorite page length - 105. To me, 105 pages is the perfect length for a (action or horror) script. It's concise but with plenty of room for a good story. It's not a daunting read. And, most importantly, it can convey not only a writer's ability and skill with the craft, but also his or her knack for saying a lot with a little. At 105, chances are the descriptions are pretty tight, the dialogue snappy, and the script a solid, trim work with little fat. I usually aim for 105 (and for some perspective, various drafts of this spec have come in at 106, 122, 117, 112, and 108, to name a few). 

Finally, this week marked a bit of a first for me, a branching out of sorts. I had seen a play a year ago at the NYC Fringe Festival, which I thought was just one of the most creative things I'd ever seen. A few months ago, I was taking a general meeting, and while chit-chatting, I mentioned the play to the exec I was talking to. Yesterday, after seeing the play twice again this weekend, I met with the performer/writer, and he's working on developing the piece for film, having met with the exec that I talked to about the play. It's very cool to know that I put them in touch and - if anything happens down the line - could have helped bring a new film about. 

Part of the reason that the League was created was to help other artists benefit from our experiences (and just help other artists). To that effect, we've done some coverage, recommended books and other writing tools, offered advice, and extended our hands when possible. This marks the first time I've actively tried to get the wheels turning on a potential film. Gotta say, it's a pretty damn good feeling.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Stumbling and Bumbling Your Way To Success - by Richard Walter

Today we have a special treat for readers of the Screenwriters League - a guest post by Richard Walter, the chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting. Richard has a new book hitting shelves - Essentials of Screenwriting - and he has generously offered to provide a little bonus insight to League readers. 

Stumbling and Bumbling Your Way To Success 
by Richard Walter

Neil Simon guest-lectured in my UCLA screenwriting class. One of the students asked him, “Do you laugh at your own jokes?”

His reply: “Yes, I do, the first time I hear them.”

I love this notion that Mr. Simon ‘hears’ his jokes, as if the characters create them on their own. I’ve never known a writer who wasn’t surprised by lines his characters seemed to create by themselves, by twists and turns in the plots that seem to evolve without serious planning by the writer.

I argue in my book Essentials of Screenwriting and elsewhere that creating a dramatic narrative is not so much an act of construction as it is of discovery. The tale and its inhabitants are dis-covered, that is, the cover is withdrawn and they are thereby revealed, as if they were always there just waiting to be found.

Stories and characters and dialogue arise often without calculation. I am, myself, a strong advocate for outlining, but this does not mean that writers shouldn’t stay open to the surprises. Indeed, to do otherwise, to over-plan, is to rob a script of its spark and sparkle and sense of spontaneity.

This is true also for life narratives.

Who has a better job than I? I write and I teach writing. In the former instance, I get paid for what others are scolded for: letting my mind wander. Like all writers, I traffic in my own imagination; I swap my dreams for dollars.

In the latter instance, I work with the best and brightest new writers, who butt heads with me and my colleagues, compete with us and keep us fresh. Our students help us to avoid the ruts and routines into which freelance writers too easily fall. I never planned for an academic career. My position fell into my lap at a Hollywood party (actually it was in Malibu). I arrived at the party and was introduced to the then-head of the UCLA screenwriting program who promptly invited me to join the faculty.

The lesson: You can’t find a job like mine; the job has to find you.

Likewise, often you cannot find your story but have to let it find you.

Planning, calculating, designing are activities that are in their nature left-brain oriented, that is, they are intellectual and analytical. They are about the brain, the mind. Art, however, is not about thinking but feeling. It’s not about the brain so much as the heart, the belly, the groin.

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to try and haul back to some preordained notion a script that has run off the rails. Rails are, after all, constricting, limiting. Sometimes it’s a good thing to let a story run off the rails.

Years ago I was deep into an assignment writing a feature length script for Warner Brothers. I had gotten fairly well stuck about two thirds of the way through the story and became thoroughly distressed. The last thing I wanted was to go on vacation, but I had promised my wife we would head up to the High Sierra come August. All I wanted to do was stay at my desk and struggle with the story issues that vexed and befuddled me. How under such circumstances could I enjoy any kind of vacation?

Grumpily, I got in the car and we hit the road. Within about a half hour, once we were beyond the urban scene, I suddenly relaxed. I told myself that once we were settled in our mountain cabin, I would set my mind to working on the script. As the week unfolded, however, I gave not a thought to the script. I enjoyed the pine-scented outdoors, the glorious mountains and lakes and sky.

On our last day before heading home I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten about the script. I set my mind to calculating how I could finish the tale, and promptly became depressed. I couldn’t come up with even merely a fragment of a thought that would help me with the script. Instead of hurling myself from a cliff, I resolved to stop thinking about the screenplay and simply enjoy the little bit of vacation that remained. I told myself that the following day I would give myself over to the enjoyment of the drive through the Central Valley, and the day after that I would plunk myself down at my station before my desk and struggle once again with my creative issues.

At that very moment, precisely the moment I totally stopped thinking about the script, the end of the story revealed itself to me as if a tunnel had opened, leading me precisely to that place where I needed to go.

When I settled into the chair before my desk two days later, I knew just exactly what I had to do to finish the script.

Because writers work with language, and because language is first of all a left-brain enterprise, it is all too easy to try to think our way though our stories. In truth, based upon my own experience and also upon that of hundreds of writers with whom I have worked closely in Westwood and elsewhere, writers’ best bet may very well be to stop over-thinking their tales, suppress their planning, and stumble and bumble around blindly. They might just find that among the things they bump into will be precisely the character, the line of dialogue, the narrative they’re seeking.

About the Author: Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores July 2010. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation.  For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit

Is your screenplay ready to sell? Enter the Richard Walter Online Review Program to win a chance to find out!

Richard Walter asserts that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to market their scripts before they’re truly ready. If you read Richard’s new book, Essentials of Screenwriting, and post an online review of it on, your own blog, Facebook page or favorite user review site (and send the full review and the link to where it appears online to ), you will be entered into a weekly drawing to win a free read of your script by Richard. If he deems it ready, he’ll refer it to a potential representative or directly to a production company. If he feels it is not ready, he’ll send you a letter in which he cites its essential strengths and identifies those issues that in his view require further consideration.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 131 - A Writing-Heavy Week

We're nearing the end of the tunnel - the light's getting brighter, and we're getting closer to being done. A week ago today, I launched myself into what should, for all intents and purposes, be the last real round of re-writes for the post-Apocalyptic spec (at least for this phase of the project's development, that is). Two minutes before midnight on Friday, I sent the script off to my producer to get her take on the revisions. In the five days last week, I devoted almost all of my free time to working on the script.

Since this weekend was the 4th of July - Happy Birthday, USA - I knew that it would offer a perfect opportunity for my producer and I to go over the script one more time without the pressure of work days ticking away. So I set an informal but concrete deadline for myself that I would have the script to my producer by Saturday morning. I averaged probably about 2.5 hours a night (or more) that week working on the script, often staying up until about 2am to make sure certain things were ironed out. Then, of course, after I pulled myself away and climbed into bed, I would spend another half hour or so just thinking about the script and jotting notes down while trying to fall asleep.

All in all, I'm still very pleased with the product. It is undeniably and intensely different from the first draft I churned out. Improvements in my writing aside, the story is completely different than what I first set out to do. However, the fundamentals - characters, setting, and underlying goals - have remained constant throughout, which means the project is still mine and, more importantly, still feels like mine. And, as often happens, the larger, more immediately daunting notes didn't seem so bad once I actually implemented them this week. They work in the context of the script, and I think they continue to elevate the work. 

The next step - after I get a few notes back from my producer - involves a tiny bit more waiting. But it's something quite possibly worth waiting for. Once my producer and manager OK the script, it goes back to the production company for (hopefully) the final time, and from there, it goes to the whole team for a read. Then, it's just a matter of finding out if they want it or not. Hopefully I'll have some answers in a few weeks.