Thursday, March 31, 2011

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Five: The Second Draft

The Grand Finale…

24. Get Over the Disappointment

If you’ve got good friends, they’ll be honest and break your heart. They hate the characters you love. They don’t understand the ending. They just don’t get it. Your story seems pointless. This is okay. This is the proper response to a first draft. The problem is probably not in what your story is but in how you told it. Because you didn’t know how people would react until you wrote it. Now you know. So fix it.

25. Identify the New Holes

This is a repeat of step 14... Sort the notes you got into three types: plot holes, sympathy holes, and motivation holes. Yes, you thought you had identified these before, but you always miss a lot. One thing I like to do is call that friend who never wrote me back with any notes. I tell him that it’s okay, but I just need to know one thing: on what page did he stop reading the screenplay. This is the most valuable information of all. That page number is where you’ll find the biggest motivation hole.

26. Brainstorm New Solutions

Once again, makes a list of every problem and five possible solutions to each. Find a new solution that satisfies every problem without creating new ones.

27. Write the Second Draft

Take those scenes that aren’t working and cut them out entirely. Re-write those scenes from scratch. Force yourself to change as much as possible. Arbitrarily change the setting of the scene just to give yourself a new perspective. Keep it fresh. The second draft should be shorter, with a more linear plot, stronger motivation and a bigger emotional punch. This is the draft that should make you cry as you’re typing.

28. Another Visit from Mister Hawking

Have the computer read the script back to you again. By now, it’s starting to sound totally meaningless to your ear. This is inevitable. Power through it. Fix typos. Cut out fat. Pick better words. Perfect it.

29. Resist the Urge for More Outside Input

By now you should be out of friends anyway. Never ask the same person to read two subsequent drafts of the same script. Not enough of the script will have changed yet, and they’ll be pissed about whatever notes they gave you that you didn’t take. Besides, you’re totally blotto by this point. Additional notes will do you no good.

30. Send It Out

If you have reps, send it to them. If you don’t, send it to a contest. Get it read. Get it sold. Once it sells, you’ll get the real notes and you’ll have to tear it apart all over again, but always save a copy of that perfect second draft that was just the way you wanted it to be.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Four: The Rough Draft

I confess all...

19. Cut and Paste Your Treatment Into Screenwriting Software

You must buy screenwriting software. You want to sell this for thousands of dollars, but you won’t spend $200 in order to do the job right? Forget it. You gotta buy it.

20. Write All the Slug Lines

I immediately break up the treatment text by inserting “slug lines” at the head of every scene. These are the lines that say INT. LISA MINELLI’S BASEMENT – DAY. For me, this gives the screenplay some shape right away and makes it much less intimidating. This also means that if I get stuck on any scene, I can jump to any other scene and start writing. But that’s dangerous, because when you…

21. ...Turn It Into a First Draft...

…you have to listen to the characters who won’t do what you want them to do. Then you have to re-brainstorm until the problem is solved. So whenever possible I try to write in order, and allow myself the freedom to re-write the story as I go, often making massive changes that totally depart from that oh-so-carefully-crafted final treatment. In order to keep the right voices in my head, I’ll often listen to one of those memoirs on audiobook whenever I take walking breaks to refresh myself. Whatever it takes to push through 110 pages of dialogue.

22. Polish While You Proofread

Once again, I turn on Final Draft’s trusty “Speech Control” and have the entire script read to me by Steven Hawking. (The program lets you assign “different” voices to the male, female, and child characters, but they all sound the same to me: like Steven Hawking. That’s fine, I find it cute.) I fix the thousands of typos, but more importantly, I get to hear what my dialogue sounds like out loud. Inevitably, it sounds overly verbose, formal and repetitive. I chop it way down as I proofread. But if I rewrite too much of a scene, I always make sure to listen to the scene again from the beginning in order to find the new typos I’ve created.

23. Yet More Outside Input from Trusted Friends

For the third and final time, go back to those beleaguered friends, (Or even better, find new friends who haven’t heard of it yet. Of course, this assumes that you have six good friends, which is doubtful) and ask them how they think it turned out. Wait and bite your nails some more…Tomorrow is the big finale!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Three: Troubleshooting

Getting over the hump...

14. Decode the notes you’ve gotten

Don’t pay much attention to the fixes they suggested. Instead, figure out what underlying problem caused them to desire that change. You’ll want to identify three things: the plot holes (wherever the story doesn’t make sense), the motivation holes (wherever the characters act in unbelievable ways), and the sympathy holes (wherever the readers are getting fed up with or disinterested in your characters). Your friends usually won’t mention the sympathy holes, so you have to push them to identify places where they felt alienated from the hero.

15. Turn the Treatment Back into a Beatsheet

Select your text and click the “numbering” button in Microsoft Word to re-create your beatsheet so that you can start re-arranging, deleting and adding scenes in order to fill all three types of holes. Each problem may seem like it has an easy fix, but you’ll find that you can’t fill one hole without opening up another. For instance, if you add an arbitrary ticking clock, that may fill a motivation hole, but open up a plot hole. If you try to justify that ticking clock by giving your hero an additional neurosis, that might fill the plot hole but open up a new sympathy hole… It’s tricky.

16. Brainstorm Answers to the Problems

List all the problems. Brainstorm five possible solutions to each problem. Try to find a path that snakes through every possible solution and gets you all the way to the end without opening any more holes. This is really hard, but extremely rewarding when it all finally snaps into place.

17. Write the Final Treatment

Open up a new document and retype your story from scratch. Once again, these are about seven single-spaced pages long for me. As you do this, you should finally be able to…

18. Identify the Theme

Only at this point, once everything makes sense, is it safe to identify what the theme of your story is. This is important to know as you write. Go ahead and have someone state the theme on page three (Maybe as an unanswered question). Write the theme on a post-it and stick it to your computer. It will guide you through the next step…

Monday, March 28, 2011

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Two: The Homework

Where were we? Ah, yes...

8. The Research

For a period piece or bio-pic, this will take months. Otherwise it can be quicker, but unless the hero has a job and a world that you know intimately, you’ll need to read memoirs of people who have had that job or lived in that world, you’ll interview anyone you can get in the same room with who knows that world, read articles and books, watch documentaries… Even if you’re writing something light and silly about a world you know well, you should still watch movies that are similar to yours... Watch good movies to see how they captured the appeal of this kind of story, and watch bad movies to see how a movie like yours can go horribly wrong.

9. Fill Out Some Character Checklists

Fill this out. (I actually have a newer checklist that I now use and I’ll share it with you soon) Get to know each character backwards and forwards. While you’re doing that, you’ll simultaneously…

10. ...Expand the Beatsheet to 30 Beats

When I do these, they usually end up being about 7 pages single-spaced. List everything that happens. Not every little scene but all the major events-- every reversal. I start with a list of everything that could happen, then figure out a rough order for those things to happen that would be the most exciting. This is still an “and then, and then, and then” outline. I move things around a lot. It’s still messy. But when I get it far enough along, I…

11. Turn the Beatsheet into a Treatment

This is a prose version of the story written in paragraph form in present tense. Remember when you were a kid, and you would see a movie, then tell the kids on the bus the next day exactly what happened in it? That should be the tone. As you write this, you’ll rearrange events some more until the “and then, and then, and then…” flow of the beatsheet turns into “and so, and so, and so…” Each scene should cause or at least be answered by the next scene in a continuous dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, building and building until the climax. Everything should flow. The motivations should begin to make sense. It’s a real story now.

12. Proofread the Treatment

Most writers, despite all of our training, are terrible proofreaders of our own work. This is no accident. We became writers because we were good readers. We’re good readers because we read quickly. We read quickly because we scan the whole sentence and read every word by its shape. Typos are invisible to us. It’s even worse if we wrote those words ourselves, because we recognize the words immediately, so we never even look at the letters. It took me years to figure out the only way to proofread my own work: I have to have the computer read it to me out loud. If you’re using Final Draft, you can use the “Speech Control” tool, but any computer can be configured to read a document to you in this disability-friendly age. Use it! As you proofread your treatment in this way, it’ll get better in all sorts of ways.

13. Get More Outside Input from Trusted Friends

Go back to those three friends and have them read your treatment. Ask them first: “Is this any good?” Then, no matter what they say, ask them, “But how can it be better?” Make it clear that you want them to be as skeptical as possible. (Never send anybody a beatsheet, because they’re ugly to look at, and never send out anything that you haven’t proofread thoroughly, because readers find that very insulting, as well they should) Now, while you’re waiting on pins and needles, we’ll take a little break…

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part One: Ideas

So I’m on vacation, but I’m so damn responsible that I left behind a new series that will unspool all week. Enjoy:

1. Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm…

Brainstorm hundreds of ideas. Make lists of every embarrassing date you’ve ever been on that was unlike the bad dates we see in the movies, list every superpower you’ve never seen done before, list all of the professions that they’ve never shown us the asshole version of… (Bad Santa! Bad Teacher!), list every life or death profession that they’ve never made a movie about (offshore oil driller? International Criminal Court prosecutor?), list every larger-than-life personality you met at school or your first job that was unlike any character you’ve seen in fiction. Brainstorm for days.

2. Pick Three Ideas

Now start developing three of these ideas. (If you don’t pick three, you’ll try to cram all of your favorite concepts into one script. If you force yourself to write three stories at the same time, you will see that none of them can be all things to all people. You’ll realize that each story has its own needs, and its own audience. And you’ll stop yourself from trying to plug one type of love interest into every story. They can’t all be manic pixie dream girls!) The key here is to start with a character or a situation or a setting and transform it into a problem. A story is always and only about a problem!

3. Dream Up a Story for Each Idea

For each story, write a one-paragraph story with a beginning, middle and end. And some irony. All stories are driven by irony (an unlikely hero, or a tragic coincidence, or a humorous juxtaposition…). It’s never too soon to start finding that irony. As you write these paragraphs, you’ll have to…

4. Create a Cast of Characters for Each

Maybe you start by asking: Who would the antagonist be? Then ask: What hero would be the one person that could (ironically) challenge that antagonist? Maybe you start with the problem and then ask: Who would be the most ironic person to tackle that problem? Then find the rest of the characters by asking: Who would naturally help and who would hinder the hero in dealing with this problem? Describe each character with one line for now.

5. Expand Each Story into a One-Pager by Creating the Structure

For all three ideas, figure out the seven beats of the story. Once again, the seven beats underlying almost every story are these: 1—Hero knows what he/she wants but not what he/she needs, 2—Embarrassing incident that brings a dangerous opportunity, 3— Hero commits and makes progress by doing it the easy way, 4—The easy way leads to a big disaster and loss of safety, 5—The hero tries the hard way, dealing with real consequences, 6—The hero faces a spiritual crisis as a result of those consequences, and 7—The strengthened hero deals with the problem once and for all.

6. Get Some Outside Input

Find three friends who you trust. Maybe one of them will know something about the screenplay market right now, which is always a nice perspective to get. Don’t show them what you’ve written. Just pitch all three stories to them out loud. Ask them: Are any of these any good? If so, which one of these should I write right now? Take that input into account and…

7. ...Choose One of the Three and Commit to Writing it.

Okay, that was the fun part. Tomorrow the hard work begins!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Finale: The Hero is Callous

Okay, this last one may just be me. Every year movie heroes get more and more callous and nobody makes much fuss over it. But for me it’s an total deal breaker. My brain snaps and heads out to the lobby, even if my eyeballs stay and watch until the end. The first time I noticed this was in Batman Returns when Batman stuck a bomb to a henchman’s chest and pushed him down a open manhole, then walked away while a fireball shot up out of the hole. Huh? Batman? Really?

Since then it’s become an epidemic. Rock bottom was in The Incredibles, when the little boy happily tricked some henchmen into crashing their ships into each other and dying a fiery death. I think I was supposed to pump my first in the air and say “Hell yeah!” after that one.

Now I’m not one of those guys who complains about all the construction workers that were killed on the Death Star. That was clearly portrayed as a grim, do-or-die situation. Nobody was there to have fun. It was war, and I accept that lots of people die in war. But superhero movies are a little different. Superheroes are out there voluntarily, breaking all the rules and having fun. When I see them killing off minimum-wage goons with a cocky smirk, I kind of start to hate them.

Even when it is a do-or-die situation, please allow the hero to take killings seriously. If it’s not upsetting, we don’t buy it. They just announced that Jennifer Lawrence will take on the most coveted new franchise role out there: the lead in the adaptation of the super-popular teen novel “The Hunger Games”. The novel is very exciting, and it might make a good movie, but I hope the screenwriter fills the gaping hole in its center.

In a dystopian future, a young girl is forced to participate in a gladiator tournament where she must kill or die. That’s fine, and I get that she really does have to kill these other kids and the whole point is how horrific it all is. But the first time she kills somebody in the tournament, she doesn’t bat an eyelash. They tell us she’s never killed before, but when the time comes she drops a bee’s nest on somebody who gets stung to death and then she immediately moves on to the next task.

This is just not the way the world works, people! Read any oral history of any war. Every soldier confesses that they would rather die than kill. Killing is what they’re really afraid of when they get shipped out. Killing is what gives them PTSD. It’s horrible. Nobody gets over it, not even the toughest guys. It’s easy for writers to sit on their beanbags and type up scenes where the hero walks away from an explosion without flinching, but please take a second to think about how killing would actually make them feel. (Even if do they have cool-guy errands that they have to walk to.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 7: The Hero is Earnestly Sappy

This is one I learned the hard way. Yesterday, we talked about what it takes to convince the audience that the hero and heroine should fall in love. But once you’ve got the audience rooting for them to get together, what do they want to see next? Should the characters now start gushing about their true feelings? Don’t try it.

Despite Hollywood’s love of movies that condemn immature goofballs for being afraid of true love, nobody has more commitment issues than the audience themselves. In the dark, we all crave an emotionally withholding lover. Sure, we want to see two people get together, but first we want them to want to get together for a good long while. After all, wanting love is a far more universal emotion than having love.

Ideally, the hero and heroine will never say, “I love you,” because it’s so much more appealing to watch them dance around the issue. But if they have to, the key thing is to make sure that there’s a healthy delay. Getting hit with the L-bomb too soon onscreen feels just as alienating and manipulative as it does in real life.

Of course, the exception is when the hero or heroine suddenly blurts out “I love you” as soon as they meet somebody special—and then starts kicking themselves, which is endearing because the whole point is what a big mistake it is. But I once wrote a screenplay in which the hero earnestly entreated his crush with pleas of love before they ever kissed, which was supposed to seem winningly romantic, boy oh boy did it freeze my audience out.

Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost almost lost Demi Moore because he didn’t realize that she found “ditto” more convincing than an actual “I love you”. Harrison Ford, while shooting Empire Strikes Back, was smart enough to realize that the way to make both Leia and the audience melt was to answer her “I love you” with “I know,” rather than the scripted line. Likewise, we love it when Ms. Kubelik simply says “Shut up and deal.” Call us masochists, but we demand that our onscreen lovers leave us wanting more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 6: We Hate The Love Interest

This is another big one. This can stop any story dead. If the hero falls in love and doesn’t take us along for the ride, we turn very cold very quickly. Let’s return again to the Onion AV Club’s Inventory column, where they recently considered 24 Romantic Comedy Characters Who Don’t Deserve Love. The lesson is that you don’t get to just tell the audience that the hero loves this person, you’ve got to show them why. Naturally, it kills a romantic comedy if the audience isn’t feeling it, but it can also do a surprising amount of harm to action movies, horror movies, thrillers, dramas… just about everything.

The problem here, ironically, is that writers are writing what they know—or what they think they know. They remember when they met their soul mate, and how he or she seemed so astounding to them. So they write, “the hero sees, across a crowded room, the most beautiful person in the world,” and assumes that the casting director, lighting and make-up people will make it so, and then the audience will fall in love.

But the problem is that the writer has forgotten what happened after that golden memory: when they went back to their friends and said “Gee, is that the most beautiful person ever or what??”, and their friends rolled their eyes and said “Well... If you say so.” Love at first sight looks very dubious when viewed with a little perspective, and for good reason.

Usually, you want to create powerful scenes by tapping into your own emotional memory and recreating that feeling on screen. But in love scenes, the most emotional scenes of all, you actually have to dial that back and be a little more circumspect. What is love, really? Well here’s a C.S. Lewis quote I got from a subway ad: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’” Thats even more true of love.

Every love scene is about one thing: “I understand you.” If they don’t understand each other, it’s not real love. Love scenes that are about physical attraction, or, even worse, meeting the only potential match for them in the whole story (again The Matrix comes to mind), are death.

Even if you did fall for your mate at first sight (and I certainly did, so it happens) that puppy love only becomes true love as it passes a series of tests, and the final test is always this: “Do I understand this person and do they understand me?” This is the question that Molly Ringwald fails to ask herself at the end of Pretty in Pink, which is why it has one of the most alienating endings in movie history. If, on the other hand, we see that the hero and heroine understand each other, you can make the audience want, nay, demand to see them get together. But... you can still screw it up, as we’ll see tomorrow…

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 5: The Hero Is Too Powerful

I wrote before about the need to balance cheering for a hero with fearing for a hero. I also wrote about the badass/vulnerability ratio. The difference between a swaggering hero and a loser hero is about five degrees. Even losers, if we’re going to care about them, have to have a lot of stuff they’re secretly good at, and the most super-powered role-models have to be defined by their limitations, not their powers.

I was once in a pitch meeting where they wanted me to re-write a high profile project that began with a series of scenes in which a sniper eliminated various guys, seemingly at random, before we found out their secret connection (a childhood experiment they had all taken part in long ago). The producer said, “So we start by meeting the first guy and we’re sure he’s the hero of the movie because he drives a great car and goes home to his great apartment where he has sex with his hot girlfriend. But then he gets shot in the head! The audience will be so shocked that we’ve killed off our hero!”

I nodded politely but I wanted to scream about how wrong they were. No, the audience would not identify with this guy as the hero. The villain, maybe, but not the hero. Heroes are defined by their vulnerabilities, not their invulnerabilities.

In the treatment I wrote for them, I invented a very differnt fake-out-hero: My guy works in a stereo store in the mall. When we meet him, he’s down on one knee proposing to a dubious goth-girl co-worker, who laughs out loud and tells him to try again. He appreciates her honesty and asks for tips on how to do it better—he was just practicing for his real girlfriend, who works in another store in the mall. After his shift ends, he finds that she’s already left work. He catches up to her in the atrium, but she says she’s fed up with his unwillingness to commit and starts to leave, so he decides to propose right there and then. He gets down on one knee and offers her a ring while a crowd gathers… Finally, she hesitantly says yes. The crowd cheers! Then… BLAM! His head explodes from a sniper’s bullet.

Now that’s a shock, because this guy was really acting like a hero. Making yourself vulnerable is heroic. Exceeding your own capabilities is heroic. Taking a risk is heroic. Schtupping your hot girlfriend is not heroic. Audiences hate it when they’re asked to identify with invulnerability. This is why nobody cared for the second and third Matrix movies. By the end of the first one, the hero could already control the fabric of his reality. Who’s going to identify with that?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 4: The Hero Agrees with Everybody

This is a funny thing: what we consider “sympathetic” in a movie hero is very different from what we find sympathetic in real life. We want our friends to be sensible, but we have very little patience for sensibility onscreen. We want movie heroes to be willful. Ridiculously willful.

Many uncompelling heroes are just too pliable. They sensibly take good advice. They foolishly take bad advice. When in trouble, they find people with experience and ask them what they should do. They never take the initiative. Nothing is ever their idea, good or bad. The audience might “admire” such sensible heroes on the surface, but deep down they hate them.

On one of the DVD commentaries for the show “24”, the producers joke that whenever a script came in short, they had one stock scene that they could use over and over knowing that the audience would love it every time. Before President Palmer took whatever action he had decided to take, they’d have one of his aides run up to him say, “Mr. President, wait! We just got some new poll numbers about this issue and everybody disagrees with what you’re about to do!” Palmer would consider this gravely for about five seconds, then declare in his stentorian voice, “I don’t care if they impeach me—it’s the right thing to do.” With that, he would boldly stride off into the situation room while his aide’s mouth was still gaping.

Is this how we want a president to act in real life? Absolutely not. In real life, when presidents double-down on their current agenda, even after the polls are screaming for them to reverse course, the American people become dispirited and depressed, and we blame their intransigence on corruption. But onscreen it’s a different story.

Compare this to later seasons of “24” where President Palmer’s more pliable, poll-following brother inherited the oval office. He was perfectly nice, but the audience hated that guy. We all dream of saying no to our boss, and we want every onscreen hero to live that dream, even if the hero’s boss happens to be the American people.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 3: The Hero Isn’t Misunderstood

Some say that the quickest way to build identification with a hero is to see them save a cat. But when was the last time you saved a cat? That’s not really a universal emotion. As far as I can tell, there’s only one emotion that everybody feels every day, privately and silently, that they will always identify with onscreen: everybody feels misunderstood.

The first time we see someone onscreen, we form certain assumptions about them. But we don’t want all of those expectations to be confirmed. The moment we bond with them is the moment we realize that they’re more (or less) than they appear to be. But too many heroes are easy to figure out from the moment we see them. Everything anyone would assume about them, good or bad, turns out to be true.

What happens when Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Vic Mackey have a moment of private time? They melt down. They’re totally confident and super-competent in public, but when they’re not on display they each become a tortured mess. Compare them to David Caruso’s ultra-thin character “Horatio” on “CSI Miami”… He’s basically who he appears to be. His public and private personas are the same. He’s not complex.

There’s a great line in the Tick cartoon, when two parents discover that their young child is a supervillain, and always has been. At first, they’re in total denial, but after the facts have had a while to sink in, the mom finally comes to a realization: “You’re… you’re not misunderstood at all, are you?” Up until then, of course, they were able to accept and sympathize with all of their child’s evil actions as long as they could believe that he was misunderstood. The sympathy only breaks when they realize he’s merely what he appears to be. Audiences feel the same way about their heroes.

Tony, Don, and Vic do despicable stuff all day long, but we still love them because we see that that’s not all they are. Horatio, on the other hand, is a much more upstanding guy, the kind that might save a few cats, but even fans of the show despise him, because he’s just not misunderstood. (Which is not to say that you have to avoid ethically clean characters. Vic’s by-the-book colleague Dutch on “The Shield” was an equally complex example of a troubled, misunderstood hero.)

(Note: in the comments, you’ll learn that I originally singled out NCIS as the bad example here, but the commenters convinced me that that wasn’t fair. A leader cannot survive without the consent of the governed.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 2: The Hero Just Says No


We’re talking about alienated audiences this week, and no audience is more alienated than the fine folks at the Onion AV Club’s Inventory column. They recently did a good list of stick-in-the-mud characters who almost ruin otherwise good TV shows. Probably the most damning one on the list was Ted, the titular “I” of “How I Met Your Mother”. Indeed, I’m a fan of the show, but it is a rare case where the supposed star has become the least likable character by far. Ted is a scold, and audiences everywhere get very irritated with scolds. 

In lots of stories, and especially in comedies, you have heroes who are plunged into over-the-top situations where everybody wants them to do something wild and stupid. Stupid isn’t sympathetic, right? So you show how smart your hero is by having them say “no” repeatedly and tell everybody else that they should be sensible, right? Nope, if all they do is say “no”, then we’ll have no patience for them.
 
All you need to do to solve the problem is to give them something else they really want to do instead. Maybe they’ve got an important business appointment they should be attending, or they’re supposed to be marrying the wrong person that weekend, or whatever. If they’re got a false goal that they could be pursuing instead, then the offer they’ve been given will present an actual dilemma, instead of a no-brainer. No matter how crazy or stupid the offer of fun is, we’re never going to sympathize with someone who simply chooses nothing over something.
In Risky Business, a nice boy named Mitch ends up, despite his qualms, becoming a pimp. You would think that such a morally repugnant proposition would be objectionable strictly on its own merits, but no. The audience is never going to root for Mitch to sit around moping while his parents are out of town. Compared to that, even becoming king of the prostitutes would seem like a no-brainer. The audience’s bias is always in favor of something —anything— happening. Instead, the movie gives Mitch another positive he could choose: this is the weekend he’s supposed to interview for Princeton. That’s a dilemma we can take more seriously. 

What if Cary Grant hadn’t had a fiancé in Bringing Up Baby? Or Rosalind Russell hadn’t had one in His Girl Friday? They were both being courted by crazy people, but crazy is better than nothing, so it still would have been totally unsympathetic to just say no. But choosing between boring security and crazy fun is a classic dilemma, so it’s compelling to watch.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 1: The Hero Isn’t Curious

This is the big one. Pure death. Your hero has to want to unravel the story. That’s all a hero is: the character who has to solve this problem. Your audience wants the whole story to come out, but they can’t do it themselves-- Instead, they have to trust your hero to get to the bottom of it for them. If the hero doesn’t care, what are they supposed to do?

But let’s say that you feel you need to drop some information to the audience that they’ll need later, so you have somebody casually mention something important in conversation with the hero, but the hero doesn’t notice or care, even though it should be a big clue... This is a huge sympathy killer. If you’re hero passively receives an incomplete piece of important information and doesn’t follow up, then the audience feels betrayed. They say to your hero, “Hey, loser, I’m counting on you to dig up all the information I need to enjoy this story, but you’re not asking the follow-up question I need you to ask! What good are you?”

Now of course, you can occasionally have your hero “miss” a piece of key info that the audience picks up on, but only if the audience feels that the hero has a good reason for missing it, like a big distraction. Even better, drop the information, then have the hero and audience both get distracted by something else at the same time, so that they both forget about it. Then, later, when it turns out to be important, they’ll both be kicking themselves at the same time, and they’ll bond even more.

An example of the right way to do it would be the glasses in the pond in Chinatown, the audience and Jake get distracted at the same time and forget all about them. But later, when they turn out to be the key piece of evidence, we don’t get mad at Jake for forgetting about them, we get mad at ourselves.

It’s an equally big sympathy killer if heroes don’t act on the concrete information that they do receive. This can be a problem when you try to build tension by ending every scene on an ominous warning of some kind. Oooh- spooky! But then, in the next scene, the hero has moved on to another part of their day, and they forget all about the warning until it’s too late, three scenes later. You can make a case that not every hero has to be proactive, but at the very least, they have to be reactive.

The audience is constantly trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next. If they can tell that the hero is not able, or not even trying, to anticipate a consequence that we can anticipate, just by looking over their shoulder, we feel powerless. Why are we putting our trust in these schmucks?? Remember on “The X-Files”, when they would get a big piece of the alien invasion puzzle at the end of an episode, and we’d all be on the edge of our seats, and then next week they were back in some podunk solving some dinky little monster mystery, as if they’d never gotten that big clue? Remember how infuriating that was? Don’t do that.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Underrated Movie #113: The Secret Lives of Dentists

Title: Secret Lives of Dentists
Year: 2002
Director: Alan Rudolf
Writer: Craig Lucas, based on the novella “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley
Stars: Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney

The Story: Two married dentists share a practice, but he suspects that she’s having an affair... He’s tries to ignore it, but soon he starts imagining that a belligerent patient (Leary, of course) is with him at all times, hectoring him to be more aggressive.

How it Came to be Underrated: This should have gotten some Oscar nominations, but instead it was merely a minor arthouse hit and it hasn’t lingered in the public consciousness. It somehow got lost in the shuffle.

Why It’s Great:

  1. How do you make a movie about conflict avoidance? How can you show something not happening? How do you adapt a novel about someone’s internal debate? This is a textbook example of all the ways to make this work well onscreen, from personifying his anger as a hallucination he can converse with, to showing his fantasies of what could be happening, to flashbacks to better times, to externalizing the family’s internal tensions as projectile vomiting… even a small, just-right amount of judicious voice-over.

  2. It’s hard to make a movie about a mother’s affair that doesn’t demonize her, or women in general for that matter, but Lucas and Smiley, between the two of them, do it admirably. Our sympathies are, of course, with our POV character, but we also see that this is probably more his fault than hers. He mostly just wants a sexual relationship, but she wants a best friend. She gives him sex in return for friendship, but he has slowly withdrawn that friendship, so she starts to fall in love with someone else. He blames her straying on lust but it’s just the opposite. The amazing thing about the movie is that we can see this so clearly even though our POV character can’t.
  3. I’ve given Scott a lot of crap on this blog about one underwritten role, but he’s actually a fantastic actor and this is his ideal showcase that sums him up in three words: aggressively laid back. And how great is Hope Davis always? This is also probably her ideal role: the sweet, normal woman with smouldering sexuality.
  4. Eventually, under the influence of his fever, Scott starts fantasizing about having an affair of his own with his assistant, which is good news for us Robin Tunney fans.
  5. No matter how many movies you see, there are always some directors who just fall through the cracks. Alan Rudolf has had a long and frequently-acclaimed career on the edges of the Hollywood system, and yet he has somehow remained steadfastly off my radar. For some reason, even though I love it, this is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, so I can’t provide the amount of background I normally would, sorry...

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Davis was great on the other side of the fence in Daytrippers, Scott co-wrote and had a fun little role in Big Night.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a lively and informative commentary from Scott and Rudolf and an IFC documentary.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Going Steady Can Do Far More Harm Than Good!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Time to Get to Work!

Hey everybody, I just got some great news: I’ve been hired to write a fairly big open screenwriting assignment. There’s very little paid work around these days, so this is a big relief. Meanwhile, I have a previous “on spec” assignment that I owe to another studio. One of the problems with work that’s not paid upfront is that they “make it up to you” by not imposing a deadline, which is death for some of us. So I have a lot of writing to do in the coming months! To hold myself accountable, I’ll start posting the number of hours I spend writing pages everyday in the calendar to the right---->.  If I don’t do at least three (preferably six) a day, take pity on me and my unborn child!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Underrated Movie #112: Jackie Chan's First Strike

Ending on a cliffhanger!
Title: Police Story 4 a.k.a. Jackie Chan’s First Strike
Year: 1997
Director: Stanley Tong
Writers: Stanley Tong, Nick Tramontane, Greg Mellott, Elliot Tong
Stars: Jackie Chan, Jackson Liu, Annie Wu, Bill Tung, Yuri Petrov

The Story: A Hong Kong supercop accidentally gets mixed-up in international espionage that takes him to Siberia, Moscow, and Australia while chasing after a stolen dirty bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: After a few failed attempts to cross over to an American audience by starring in bad American movies, Chan ironically finally achieved American success by staying in Hong Kong and working his way up to bigger and bigger budgets. Finally, his movies looked so nice that American distributers were willing to dub them and release them over here. The two biggest hits, Rumble in the Bronx (due to its American setting), and Supercop (aka Police Story 3, due to breakout co-star Michelle Yeoh), led to him finally getting the Hollywood movie offers he wanted. Caught in between was this, his biggest-budget Hong Kong movie, which for some reason got less notice here, even though I think it’s his best.

Why It’s Great:

  1. After Bruce Lee died, hundreds of martial artists tried to mimic his superheroic stoicism onscreen. Chan’s genius was to do the opposite. His kung-fu was just as masterful (well, almost), but he winced in pain after every punch. His idol is clearly Buster Keaton, not just in his love of comedy (they both frequently fight guys two heads taller than they are) but in his insistence on doing his own stunts and his intensely likable persona that carries over from movie to movie. (Buster’s heroes were always named Buster, and Jackie’s, at least in the Americanized versions, are always named Jackie.)
  2. And indeed the heart of Chan’s appeal at that time was the amazing stunts, whether or not they involved kung fu. In that sense, this was one of the last real Jackie Chan movies, because the higher budgets of his subsequent American movies came with a terrible price: the insurance companies wouldn’t let him do his own stunts anymore, which squandered half of his value. But he went out with a bang, since this movie has a half-dozen beautifully choreographed fights, culminating in a spectacular melee in a shark tank.
  3. It feels silly to recommend a dubbed and edited-down movie, (a list of edits can be found here) but it’s not really that much of a problem—Since Chan was emulating silent movies, the soundtrack is sort of beside the point. The dubbing, for what it’s worth, is done rather well, with Chan doing his own voice and bringing a lot of personality.
  4. Lots of people have tried to simulate the Bond formula (even many Bond movies are poor Bond-imitations) with limited success, but Chan and his longtime director Tong manage to find just the right combination of action set-pieces and twisty espionage. It helped that this was the first Police Story movie without Maggie Cheung’s too-nice girlfriend character, so Chan was able to spend more time on the mission.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Given that this is nominally the fourth in a series, it’s only logical to watch the first three as well, which are all great, albeit very different. You can watch Jackie work his way up from a normal beat cop to become a, shall we say, supercop.

How Available Is It?: It has a bare-bones DVD with only the dubbed track. Supercop has gotten a much better DVD release, with both soundtracks and an excellent English-language commentary by a film historian that gives a lot of background on the whole series, so you should seek that out if you crave a special feature.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Your Hands and Feet Will Have Super Fantastic Power!

Underrated Movie #111: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story


Cheesy Week mini-unit #2: Kung Fu Fighting!

Title: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Year: 1993
Director: Rob Cohen
Writers: Edward Khmara and John Raffo and Rob Cohen, from books by Linda Lee Caldwell and Robert Clouse
Stars: Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce), Lauren Holly, Nancy Kwan

The Story: Young Bruce Lee is sent to America to escape the reach of the demon that has cursed his family. He marries a wonderful woman, teaches his own brand of kung fu, and shows the world what he can do, but the demon finally catches up to him at the height of his career.
How it Came to be Underrated: No bio-pic ever served the fans of its subject better (they actually capture his appeal), and it did fine box office at home and abroad, but its unabashed cheesiness kept it from getting taken very seriously, and it was quickly forgotten in this country.
Why It’s Cheesy Fun:
  1. The central conceit of this movie is wonderfully ballsy: if you’re going to make a Bruce Lee bio-pic, why not make it into a real Bruce Lee movie, filled with several impromptu over-the-top fist fights? After all, Bruce’s life really was filled with fighting, although those fights may not have been as gamely entertaining as these.
  2. The casting of Jason Scott Lee was initially criticized because he was only half-Chinese (and half-Polynesian) and not a martial artist (he was trained as a dancer). But he couldn’t have been more perfect. He did get trained to fight (well enough for closely-edited action) but that’s only eight scenes. Far more importantly, he was able to move like Lee in every scene—elegantly fluid and joyously springy. He also captured something no one can teach: charm. It’s a crime that he didn’t go on to become a bigger star after this.
  3. Several elements have been cavalierly fictionalized to make them more dramatic. Whenever Cohen has to choose between showing how Lee’s life was or showing how it felt, he wisely show chooses the latter. The only way to turn a whole life into one seamless story is to re-arrange and combine many elements. That method gets highly criticized in more controversial bio-pics, but it serves this sort of movie just fine. Cohen modestly and carefully details all of the fictionalizations in his commentary.
  4. Bruce broke a lot of barriers, but nothing was more brazen about him then or now than his ridiculous amount of sex appeal, which was strictly forbidden for Asian men in America. This movie does a beautiful job capturing that. Remember way back when movies were still allowed to have sex scenes? Whatever happened to those?
  5. This was supposed to feel like an exploitation movie, but a real life tragedy intervened at the last minute which made it seem far more exploitative than they had ever intended. In the metaphorical demon scenes that run through the movie, they establish that Bruce has to defeat the family demon or else it will come after his son. This was supposed to be a triumphant note (he died to save his son!) but after this movie was finished, one month before it opened, the actual Brandon Lee died in a bizarre on-set tragedy that eerily echoed his father’s mysterious death. It was too late to do anything but send a ghoulish message about the inevitability of fate.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: What else? The best Bruce Lee movies are Enter the Dragon and an earlier movie that was released here later as Return of the Dragon, but they’re all great, even Game of Death, where he was just in the last twenty minutes—but what a twenty minutes!
How Available Is It?: The DVD has an excellent in-depth commentary from Cohen, who seems like a real pro and a great guy, but the DVD is not anamorphic, so it could really use a new edition.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Disarm Gun-Toting Goons!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #72: Beware the Dark Side (Of Bio-Pics)

Okay, I’ve teased this for a while, talking about bio-pics here, here, and here, but now I’ll get to my real problem with most bio-pics...

When I started this blog, I assumed that the easiest part of the job would be writing the two-sentence plot summaries, but I quickly realized how wrong I was. My problem was that I felt bad if my summary of a comedy didn’t make it sound funny. Or if my summary of a tragedy didn’t feel a little sad. Or if a thriller-summary wasn’t thrilling to read. I realized that it was one thing to simply dissect a movie and then show people the guts, but another thing entirely to produce a miniaturization of a movie’s plot that somehow kept its essence intact.

And this is the same problem that confronts the bio-pic writer: how to capture the essence instead of the innards. Most of the time, biopics are about greatly admired figures. In such cases, the writers need to have their own version of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. The lives of great people rarely match up to the rhetoric that made them famous. You have to ask: do I want to present the most dramatic possible version of this person’s life, even if it makes them look like crap, or do I actually want to capture their appeal?

This is especially difficult if you’re writing a bio-pic of an artist. Artists tend to be total jerks towards everyone in their private life. And maybe all you want to do is make them look bad, in which case you’ll have an easy time of it. But if you want to capture their appeal, you have a much harder job: you have to show why their particular artistic innovation was needed so badly in their cultural moment. You have to show how and why they broke through an artistic ceiling that held back their peers. Crucially, you have to show how awe-inspiring and empowering great art is to its fans—which means that you have to inspire that same awe in your own audience.

Chaplin made Charlie Chaplin seem totally unappealing—How many people left the theater dying to see one of his movies? How many people left Walk the Line in love with Johnny Cash? What ammunition did The Doors give to people who might want to defend Jim Morrison against his many detractors? You may say, well, that’s just honesty for you, you have to show these guys warts and all. But I would argue that it’s not really that honest. Chaplin, Morrison and Cash made art that still inspires and gladdens their fans every day, years after their deaths. If you can’t re-create that achievement onscreen, why make the movie? Show their flaws, certainly, but show them as the ironic context for their memorable achievements.

Compare those to my two favorite bio-pics of recent years: American Splendor and Milk. These biopics don’t just assume that everybody already knows all the good stuff and so now it’s time to revel in the dirty laundry. Instead, they honored the legacies of two great minds, Harvey Pekar and Harvey Milk, with the goal of inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. In both cases, I left the theater thinking about how much more I could do with my own life. This is why people go to bio-pics!

Which all brings me to one of my all-time favorite bio-pics, which is tomorrow’s Underrated Cheesy Movie…