Sunday, July 31, 2011

Underrated Movie #126: Downhill Racer

Title: Downhill Racer
Year: 1969
Director: Michael Ritchie (Smile)
Writer: James Salter
Stars: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv

The Story: A handsome but angry small-town ski-bum gets elevated to the US downhill team, and quickly proves to be the best, even though he’s not a team player. The coach soon realizes that he has little choice other than to let this superstar set the rules.

How it Came to be Underrated: Redford, Hackman and Ritchie were all about to have a great decade in the ‘70s, but this movie was a little ahead of its time. America was just learning to love movies that cast a jaundiced eye on national glory. The studio dumped it, which caused Redford to start thinking about creating a better way to find an audience for anti-Hollywood movies...

Why It’s Great:

  1. We’ve all seen movies in which impossibly handsome actors inexplicably play lovelorn everyman underdogs. Redford was never interested in all that. He knew that he looked like a golden god, and he preferred to play characters who knew it too. Since his looks were so appealing, he figured he could be more hard-edged than other actors without losing the audience. From this point on in his career, he stopped asking to be liked (but he didn’t look down on his characters either).
  2. Redford had the original idea for the movie, then hired Salter and Ritchie, whose styles matched his vision. He had gotten sick of hearing that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose but only how you play the game. He had seen his whole life that it wasn’t true and he wanted to make a movie that showed the truth about winners.
  3. It’s the tragic paradox of all competition: who becomes the best? Those for whom nothing is ever good enough. Of course this means that being the best can’t make them happy either. The only way to get the big brass ring is lose all of your appreciation for it.
  4. As with Kind Hearts and Coronets and “The Sopranos” they get us to sympathize with a bad man by giving him an infuriatingly disapproving parent. His father asks “What do you do it for?” Redford responds, “To be a champion”. His father sneers, “The world’s full of them”. Still, given how heartless Redford is, you have to wonder is he’s a jerk because his father hates him or if his father just hates him because he’s a jerk.
  5. These days “realism” in movies is a synonym for “dreariness”. But in 1969, after years of bland technicolor epics, it meant the opposite: fast, raw, and thrilling, freed from heavy cameras, heavy make-up, and heavy-handed dramatics. They understood you could be brutally honest and still be fast-paced. Redford’s first descent, shot from his point of view, is absolutely breath-taking.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Redford and Ritchie reteamed for an equally good follow up about the price of winning, The Candidate. Another great underrated Hackman film from around this time is Scarecrow, if you can find it.

How Available Is It?: There’s an excellent Critierion DVD with long interviews with Redford, Ritchie and Salter.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Wonder Sauna Hot Pants!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 6: Story Happens When Character Collides With Plot

So we got lots of interesting answers to yesterday’s inquiry about whether to start with plot or character. Nobody said that they always started with one or the other. Most said that they sometimes start with character, sometimes plot, but then quickly try to supply the other so that it can become “real”, which makes sense. So it seems that there are two options…

Option 1: Come up with an interesting character, and let them simmer a brief while, but then rather than let them simply stew in their own juices, you have to yank them our of the frying pan and into the fire, or else they’re never going to amount to anything more than their raw ingredients. The simmering makes them spicy, but the fire forges them into what they must become. (Have I extended this metaphor enough?)

Option 2: Come up with the beginnings of a plot, some images, some twists, but before you let yourself get to the end, stop and ask yourself “So who’s the most volatile character who could encounter this problem and make it their own? What is the relationship of their goals to what they encounter: Is it their dream, their nightmare, or something more ironic than that? In the end, how is this going to change them?

The key is to let Hegel be your guide. Thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. Your hero’s personality is the thesis. The dangerous opportunity that arrives has to be the antithesis to that. When the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, a story is born.

The hero must affect the events and the events must affect the hero. That’s the first test of a great story idea. Clooney in Up in the Air is a thesis that never meets his antithesis. He is a character who is not transformed by the plot. The alien invasion in War of the Worlds simply collapses on its own. It is a plot unaffected by the characters.

Or, put another way: the best stories are not studies of inherently meaningful characters or sequences of inherently meaningful events. The best stories are about the meaning that is suddenly created by the collision of a volatile character with a transformative series of events. You can start with a character or a plot, but you don’t have a story until you figure out the nexus of the two.
Okay, when we come back to this, I think I have the 9 elements of a good idea...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #95: Money Is Too Generic. Be Specific.

Too much to think about from yesterday! Ill get back to The Big Idea tomorrow... (and feel free to chime in with more answers!)
Re-watching High and Low this week made something clear to me that I’d never really caught on to before: You can’t create a compelling movie character who wants “money”. High and Low was about a man trying to keep his fortune. But in order to make that problem compelling, Kurosawa had to make it clear that there was something specific he needed to spend his money on. Likewise, if you’re writing a script about someone who wants to get a lot of money, it will only be compelling if it’s for a specific need.

It’s no accident that the most common stand-by in these situations is medical bills. In Glengarry Glen Ross, if Jack Lemmon had stolen the leads just to get “money”, we wouldn’t care if he got caught or not. But he steals the money to pay for his sick daughter’s care, so we want him to succeed. In “Breaking Bad”, Walt starts his meth business to spare his family the crushing burden of his medical bills, and we’re somewhat on his side. It’s only when he beats cancer that that he, and we, are “left without excuses for the evils and abuses,” as Johnny Cash would say.

But wait, you say, why should movies be different from real life? In real life, money, in and of itself, seems to be the motivation for most of our actions. Why excuse greed onscreen by giving it medical justifications? Well, I would say that in this case real life is the illusion and movies are telling the truth.

In recent years, the white house tried to deal with a health care crisis and a mortgage crisis, but failed at both tasks, because they refused to admit that they were one and the same crisis. They acted as if people were borrowing on their homes out of selfish greed, and they set out to penalize that greed. But greed usually had nothing to do with it. The most common reason for going underwater on a mortgage was unpaid medical bills.

Likewise, the administration assumed that the solution to the medical crisis was to sell more health insurance. But the only way that anyone had been able to afford skyrocketing insurance premiums in the first place was by using their homes as ATMs. Now that the home-price bubble had burst, the insurance model was no longer tenable, but the administration refused to admit that.

This is actually an example of movies doing what they do best: making clear the connections that get obscured in real life. In real America, we fail to see that our economic desperation is largely caused by our medical/insurance industry, but onscreen, screenwriters quickly realize that they have to make that connection clear, because otherwise the story doesn’t make sense. If only we could carry that clarity back over to real life.

The Big Idea, Part 5: Do You Start With Plot or Character?

Anyone reading the trades would get the impression that “a movie” is synonymous with “a plot”. Anyone reading a screenwriting book would think that a “a movie” really just means “a character.” So which is it? Well, you can’t have one without the other, of course, but that leaves us with a huge conundrum: which comes first? Do you create an interesting character and then craft a situation around them, or do you create an interesting situation and then figure out who might be dealing with it.

The short answer: I just don’t know. This is a question I agonize about. Either way is dangerous. If you start with a character, even if they’re fascinating—especially if they’re fascinating— then they’re going to be resistant to change and unwilling to put themselves in danger. Beware of the “character piece”, where we watch someone drift from scene to scene, encountering characters who define them, but don’t challenge them.

Up in the Air is a good example of a movie that was defined by the character, not the plot. It was about a rootless efficiency expert who is only happy when he’s on an airplane. That’s an interesting character. But the challenges he runs into (having to compete with a young colleague, falling for a married woman) never seriously challenge that core characterization. The movie is more about defining the character than re-defining him, and that’s a problem. Clooney’s character is an unstoppable force (of rootlessness) that never meets an immovable object, so the movie never kicks into gear.

In movies, as in life, what we feel and believe is ephemeral. We see ourselves one way, the world sees us another way, and who’s to say who is right—until the rubber meets the road. We don’t know who we really are until we hit an obstacle. Trying to define yourself, or your characters, outside of a major challenge is a slippery business.So let’s start with a plot instead. This is more common. Situation: an alien invasion. Great. But who deals with it? Who’s the character? What is the character’s relationship to the plot? If you spend a lot of time coming up with a cool situation before you pair it to one character’s journey, then you could end up in big trouble all over again.

H. G. Wells’s novella “War of the Worlds” is about a hell of an interesting situation, and it’s lived on as a successful radio drama, a pretty-good 1957 movie and a so-so 2005 movie. Each version coasted on the value of the very-cool concept: Martians shoot pellets at the Earth, from which vehicles emerge that shoot death rays, but they are defeated by their lack of immunity to earth viruses. But there was one thing that all of these versions lacked: memorable characters.

In the 2005 version, Tom Cruise was an aimless divorced dad trying to redeem himself and protect his kids. Okay, but what does that have to do with aliens getting defeated by a virus? Nothing. The character arc and the plot never intersect. War of the Worlds is a plot that doesn’t have room for any characters.Great movies have characters and plots that can’t live without each other. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice isn’t interesting enough for us to just follow her around at FBI camp, generating her own conflict and getting to know herself. If the opportunity to interview Lecter hadn’t come along, there would have been no movie. By the same token, there would have been no movie if another, less conflicted agent had been sent to interview Hannibal Lecter. He only agrees to help solve the case because he finds Clarice so compelling. This plot was necessary to re-define this character and this character was necessary to instigate this plot.

So… the big question… if you wanted to write the new Silence of the Lambs, would you start with the plot or the character?? I invite comments…

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Time to Get to Work, Part 2!

Funny story: I wrote today’s post during my lunch break at work, then forgot to bring it home with me, so I’ll have to post it first thing tomorrow morning. And hey, while I’m talking about me, what about that calendar over there in the sidebar? I’ve been using my newborn daughter as an excuse not to work, but that’s backwards: Baby’s gotta eat! So let’s move the calendar back up top. And no more counting hours, now I’m counting pages! Five a day! No exceptions! Or else I’m betraying my little girl (who is, after all, rather cute). (And of course, as with all such declarations, this one starts tomorrow.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Underrated Movie #125: High and Low

Title: High and Low
Year:1963
Director:Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eijirô Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama

The Story: A Tokyo shoe company executive, in the middle of a takeover deal, gets a phone call that his son has been kidnapped—then his son walks into the room. It turns out that the kidnappers have accidentally grabbed his chauffeur’s son instead, but they insist that the executive pay up anyway. After the fateful decision is made, the movie becomes a gritty thriller as the police swing into action to do their part.

How it Came to be Underrated: Kurosawa is universally adored for his samurai pictures, but his modern-day crime movies are far less well-known. I would say that this challenges even Seven Samurai and Ran as a contender for the title of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is one of the most conceptually audacious movies ever made: it is all about dualities of high and low in every possible way: rich vs. poor, a mansion on a hill vs. a slum in a pit, high-quality shoes vs. low-cost knock-offs, high-minded moral decisions vs. lowly police work. Kurosawa’s brilliant idea was to mirror these dualities by splitting his movie, right down the center, into two different styles: the first half (the moral conumdrum) is very “high-art”: all on a tripod, very still, much like the classical Japanese cinema that Kurosawa had always resisted. Then, once the decision is made, we are abruptly slammed down into the chaotic “low-art” of Kurosawa at his gritty best.
  2. Only in the justly-famous final scene do the two worlds finally come together, as the high-minded businessman and the lowly criminal finally come face to face, but each can only see the other as a reflection of himself. Money may have changed hands, but the line between high and low (or Heaven and Hell, as the title could also be translated) can never truly be crossed.
  3. I was such a fan of this movie that I tried to track down the source material, an American pulp novel called “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain, one of his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. It was long out of print and I couldn’t find it, but I did find other “87th” novels and started reading those. They quickly became great favorites of mine, so I’m eternally grateful. When I finally did land a copy of “King’s Ransom” years later, I was surprised to see that the first half was more loyally adapted than the second half. I shouldn’t have been surprised: moral condundrums are more universal than the particulars of police work.
  4. Moral dilemmas that revolve around money are very compelling in real life, but it’s almost impossible to portray them onscreen. We all have a vague sense that it would be a bummer to lose a lot of money, but if you’re going to show someone agonizing over giving up their fortune for a human life, the audience is going to be disgusted—unless you create a very specific, very compelling need for that money on that day. First Kurosawa gets us to strongly root for Mifune to use his money for a one-time-only opportunity to pull off a daring takeover of his shoe company, saving it from greedy opportunists who want to drive it into the ground, then he gets hit with the dilemma. Amazingly, we agonize along with him.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Stray Dog was an even grittier Kurosawa cop drama, with Mifune equally great on the other side of the badge. The most wildly entertaining ‘60s Japanese crime movie is probably Branded to Kill.

How Available Is It?: My single-disc Criterion DVD from 1998 is very disappointing: it has no features, the titles are pixilated, the credits aren’t subtitled, it’s non-anamorphic, etc… Still well worth watching, but not up to Criterion standards. Apparently they put out a much better remastered 2-disc version in 2008 with features, so make sure to get that.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Tie That Blinds!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Underrated Movie #124: Cedar Rapids

Title: Cedar Rapids
Year: 2011
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Phil Johnston
Stars: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Alia Shawkat

The Story: A chipper-but-nervous insurance salesman from an ultra small town has to make a presentation in the big bad city: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he finds himself both corrupted and liberated by all of the temptations of modern life.

How it Came to be Underrated: When I saw this, I thought it had the potential to break out and become another Hangover-sized hit, only smarter and funnier. Instead, it sank like a stone. I guess it was a little too smart. (Or maybe it was just mis-marketed. Hopefully it’ll hit big on DVD.)

Why It’s Great:

  1. Arteta has been around for a while, and his previous movies, such as The Good Girl, were pretty good, but they fell into the recent trend of overly drab movies where the director seems to dislike all of his own characters. This movie is a big breakthrough. He retains his commitment to deadpan realism, but he’s stopped judging his characters and discovered a buoyancy he’s never had before.
  2. I thought Helms wouldn’t be able to hold a movie, but wow, was I surprised! Not only is he consistently hilarious, but he shows huge emotional depth and range as he travels the epic distance from innocence to experience. One of the hardest things to do is straddle the laugh-at/laugh-with divide. This man can fully commit to the bit and still win us over completely.
  3. But the real star of the movie is the always-reliable Reilly, who takes what could have been a one-note-Jack-Black-profane-friend role and transforms him into a tragic, hilarious fully-dimensional co-protagonist.
  4. In fact, a lot of underrated actors get a chance to shine here: Heche, Root, Smith, Whitlock, even Shawkat (Maeby from “Arrested Development”) as a happy-but-realistic hooker! These actors don’t always get great roles, but Arteta reminds us how much they can do with strong material. I even love the actress who plays Root’s wife, who doesn’t even have any lines! Just the resigned look on her face here as she calmly grabs the wheel while her husband freaks out makes me laugh.
  5. Obviously the initial joke is that Cedar Rapids is not actually a very big city, but that joke quickly gets turned on its head: we’re reminded that Iowa is home to happy gay marriages, unhappy meth addicts and all of the ups and downs of modern life. The heartfelt idea here is that any community, no matter how small, contains a full microcosm of every possible moral and ethical choice you could ever want or fear.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Reilly has gotten only a few chances to star and they’re both underrated gems: Hard Eight and Walk Hard.

How Available Is It?: It just came out on a disappointing bare-bones DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: A World of Beautiful Women -And One Man!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 4: Are There Too Few Good Ideas or Too Many?


When I got signed, my new manager asked me for a list of projects I was interested in working on. I excitedly made a list of my brilliant “takes” on all of the biggest stalled adaptations in Hollywood. How I would “fix” Superman, Conan, Flash Gordon, etc... Immediately, my new manager started to cool his interest in me. There was a palpable sense that “Uh oh, this guy just doesn’t know how the business works.” And he was right.

I had chosen this profession based on an entirely erroneous assumption. I thought Hollywood was out of good new ideas. Why else would they make so many bad movies? They just needed someone brilliant to waltz in the door and tell them, “Hey guys, this isn’t so hard! Let Dr. Matt diagnose all your problems!”

What I didn’t realize was that the problem wasn’t too few good ideas, but too many. Look at an unmitigated disaster like Superman Returns, in which the once-beloved hero was turned into a deadbeat dad stalking his sullen baby mama. Was that the best they could come up with? Of course not. The problem wasn’t that nobody knew how to fix Superman, but that everybody did. Every screenwriter has a Superman pitch (or even a script) in their drawer and at least a dozen per year actually got to pitch theirs to besieged Warner Brothers executives.

This can result in a horrible situation I call “The New Yorker Caption Contest Paradox”. Every week for the last five years, the New Yorker has run a caption-less cartoon and asked their very clever readers to supply the proper punch line. The next week, they run their picks for the three best lines, and usually all three are terrible.

Just look at this egregious example.  All three of these choices are blatantly incompetent.  Any caption to this cartoon must address three things: he is being held by a giant hand, he is on the phone, and he is talking to his wife.  Each of these captions addresses only two.  

Is this because they got no good submissions? I think there’s another explanation… I think the problem is that there really is one ideal line for each drawing (In this case, probably something along the lines of “They say they can’t do anything about it until Monday”), but they get so many slightly different variations of that one good line, that they all become a blur. The only ones that stand out are the oddball entries, so they just pick three of those.

I think the same thing happened with Superman Returns. They had bought dozens of very good Superman scripts over the years, but none had gotten made and now they’d gotten bored with the details that formed the heart of the story. At some point the scripts that started getting traction were oddities that seemed “fresh” and “new” by comparison.

Too many screenwriters, with too many good ideas, are canceling each other out. The producers and studio chiefs, confused by all the cacophony, are making bad decisions. In the end, who gets which job is essentially random. The amazing thing is not that they made such a wrong pick for Superman. It’s that somehow, even amidst all the confusion, they made a right pick for Batman.
Now I get it: If you’re an unproven screenwriter, you can’t immediately seek out the projects that you’re passionate about, because that means you’re competing against everybody else in town and you’re only adding to the problem. Instead, find a way to write passionately about whatever small assignment randomly comes your way, even if it’s something you’ve never heard of. Don’t stand there like Casey at the bat demanding a slow pitch up the middle. Be the guy who can hit any curveball out of the park. If you keep doing that, you’ll stay in the rotation for years, and someday the perfect opportunity will finally come your way.

All right, now that we’ve explored the nature of ideas, next week we’ll try to figure out the difference between a good one and a bad one…

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 3: What is "High Concept" Anyway?

So let’s say that great writing is 90% based on execution and only 10% based on the quality of the idea. That still means that either is useless without the other—at least if you’re trying to sell a spec script. Once you’re in, you can do choose to do endless rewrite work on other people’s scripts, where the last 10% is no longer your concern. But the only way to get there is with a great spec, which has to begin with a great idea.

It’s telling that so many professional writers –the same ones that insist that good ideas are a dime a dozen- quickly get addicted to rewrite work and stop churning out specs entirely. Ideas may be 10%, but they’re the hardest 10%.

So what is a “good idea” in this marketplace? Everybody knows the answer: it has to be “high concept”. But nobody seems to know what that means. In fact, the meaning has massively changed over the years. It used to mean “highly conceptual”: a movie with a wild, unique hard-to-explain story idea: 2001, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception etc… A big idea.
Then it flipped almost entirely. Now it refers to a unique but very simple idea. Something that you’ve never seen done before but you instantly get the idea and the appeal, just by reading the title or seeing the poster: Horrible Bosses, Date Night, Limitless, Unstoppable.The explanation is that few people want to buy a script that is “execution dependent”. The one-line summary of The King’s Speech, for instance, sounds like a terrible movie, but the moviemakers cared passionately about this odd story and made a great little movie out it. Nevertheless, the financiers took a huge risk. Instead of starting out with an asset (an appealing logline) they started out with a liability (an unappealing logline). Every step of the line, they had to explain to potential directors, actors, distributors: “We know it doesn’t sound very interesting, but if we do a good job we can make it really interesting.” That’s a hard job.

The lure of the “high concept” logline is that you can do the opposite: start with an initial idea that is so damn interesting that you can flub the execution and everybody will still come to see it. This has been Hollywood’s goal for years. This is why they try more and more to pre-sell movies to audiences before critics ever get to see them. Who cares what the critics say? This idea is so good that it’s execution-independent! You’ll want to see it even if it’s crappy.

But this is an impossible dream. Take a perfect logline like Time Capsule, add bad execution, and you get Knowing. Nothing is execution-independent. No idea is good enough to factor quality out of the equation. In the end, good ideas and good executions are both necessary, but why is that combo so hard? More tomorrow...

The Big Idea, Part 2: Does It Matter What Else Is Out There?

I’ve talked before about how insanely long it takes movies to get made these days. This leads to another sage piece of “common wisdom” amongst seasoned screenwriters: “Don’t worry about similar projects in development. Just worry about doing great work.”

But, once again, try telling this to the studios. After you’ve been pitching for a while, you quickly realize that the biggest single factor influencing the studio buyers on Monday morning is how the box office did that weekend. If your project is similar to something that did well, then they’ll say “Ooh! That topic’s really hot right now!” and they’ll want to buy it. If it has any element in common with a script that just flopped, you’re dead.

This is crazy. If they buy your movie, it will take them at least five years to get it made. By that time, every current trend will have come and gone several more times. But... 

A fellow screenwriter had a project about a heroic werewolf that almost got set up several times, and it always seemed like it was going to get made. Then, suddenly, all the heat was gone. The project was suddenly dead. Why? Because of the Benicio Del Toro movie The Wolfman. Even though that movie had lots of problems, Hollywood was so shocked that the mere presence of wolves failed to sell the movie that they instantly cooled on all werewolf projects. Nevermind the fact that there were so many successful werewolf projects before and since. 

Part of the problem here is that Hollywood types have a strong incentive to misidentify the reasons for a movie’s failure. For example, it’s pretty obvious that Mars Needs Moms failed because the public has thoroughly rejected Robert Zemeckis’s dead-eyed animation process. But people in Hollywood don’t want to say that out loud, because they’re afraid they’re going to run into Zemeckis at a party. Instead, they blame the presence of the word “Mars” in the title. They’re not going to run into the planet at a party, so it’s all good. 

And so you get this ridiculous trailer for the long-gestating adaptation John Carter of Mars. Not only did they remove “Mars” from the title (though the title is still imposed on a JCM logo!) but they removed the filters from the footage to make it look like the movie is set on Earth!
So what the hell? Is all the “common wisdom” wrong? What do studios really want to hear? We’ll get to that in the next piece…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Having a Moment

So, funny thing. As you may have read in yesterday’s comments, regular reader Christine Tyler was nice enough to give me a Ripest Pick award over at her excellent novel-writing blog The Writer Coaster (Here’s a sample entry about, among other things, “Why I Passed By Your Blog”, which I took some tips from). Thanks for the shout-out, Christine.

So a couple of hours later, I realized I should check to see how big of a bump Christine’s readers had given my stats, which are usually about 250 hits or so a day. Here’s what I saw:

Oh holy hell, I stammered, that woman commands an army! Then I clicked on the “Came From” and found out that, yes, I got plenty of visitors from Christine, but also, by coincidence, this was the day that Metafilter decided to link to every movie post I’d ever written. If you enjoy the movie write-ups, I encourage you to go over there and check out the 128 comments, where lots of fun mini-discussions are had about movies we’ve covered here.

So thanks as well to Metafilter poster “Iridic”, and welcome to the hordes of readers who have just found this blog! I hope some of you stick around and join our little community here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 1: Are Ideas Cheap or Valuable?

It’s considered the ultimate mark of the amateur screenwriter: “I just had a million dollar idea, but I won’t tell anybody so that no one steals it.” They cover their scripts in copyright icons and WGA registration numbers. Worst of all, they actually read the fine print of submission agreements and raise hell about the ludicrously broad language found there. 

Seasoned screenwriters always chuckle about the folly of this: “Ideas are a dime a dozen. Great screenplays are merely skillful new executions of old ideas. If you do have a ‘brand new idea’, then oh brother are you in trouble, because every studio in town probably already has a similar project in development. Want to do a dark reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz? Join the club.” 

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But someone forgot to tell the studios or the trade magazines. Every week, the new script deals are announced with much fanfare, and never once has anyone announced that their new movie is “a standard story with exceptionally rich characters!” No, script purchases are always accompanied by a one-line description of the brilliant brand-new-idea that the studio has purchased. And it often seems the studio bought the idea and only the idea, because an old pro is quickly hired to re-write the actual script.

So which is it? Are ideas cheap or valuable? The answer is tricky: Everybody knows that ideas are ephemeral and the only marketable skill is good writing, but you can’t boast to the trades about your opinion that the script you just bought was well written. You can only boast about the fact that it has a unique concept. So that’s what they do. 

Like most screenwriters, I read the new loglines in the trades every month. For each one, I either say, “I wish I’d thought of that!” or “That’s idiotic!” (My all-time favorite: “The story of a serial killer who only kills people in the middle of tornadoes!”) But eventually, I noticed something… None of these movies ever actually seemed to get made, even if the idea was fantastic. 

To understand why, I need look no further than the one exception that proved the rule... It was, hands down, the best idea I ever read about in the trades:
  • Title: Time Capsule
  • Idea: A kindergarten teacher and her class open a time capsule from the 1950s where kids drew what they thought the future would look like. To her horror, one kid drew childish crayon drawings of the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger blowing up, the twin towers getting hit, and a fourth disaster that has yet to happen! The cops assume this is her own sick joke, but she knows it’s real so she’s got to find the grown-up kid and help him prevent the last disaster.
How can you hear that idea and not picture the trailer? A camera pans across the four crayon drawings and then lands on the last one (maybe a nuclear bomb hitting DC)-- everyone in the theater would instantly get it and say “I gotta see that!”For years, I wondered what ever happened to that great idea… Finally, just when I’d forgotten all about it, the actual movie finally came out. The kindergarten teacher had been replaced by Nicolas Cage as an alcoholic mathematician. The drawings had become pages and pages of numbers (Numbers are more cinematic than drawings??) The disaster had become unpreventable (the sun going supernova), so the premonitions were for naught anyway. The convoluted explanation involved angels and aliens. The title had changed form Time Capsule to Knowing. It was a big flop.

For once, Hollywood had actually bought a once-in-a-lifetime, nobody-could-mess-this-up idea… and messed it up. And yet, the fetishization of ideas continues unabated. Why?? Let’s pick up there tomorrow…

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Underrated Movie #123: Who's That Knocking At My Door?

Title: Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
Year: 1969
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune

The Story: A young guy in Little Italy drinks and hangs out with his loser friends, wondering where he’s going. When he picks up an understanding WASP-y girl, he finds his horizons broadening, but his neurotic sexual hang-ups threaten to ruin everything.

How it Came to be Underrated: Most Scorsese fans don’t dig deeper than Mean Streets in his early filmography, but this little-seen debut, four years in the making as his NYU thesis film, is a worthy companion to that film, with Keitel playing essentially the same character at an earlier point in his mixed-up life.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Most movies have a romance, but the hardest thing to show onscreen is two people really falling in love from scratch, as we get to see here, with each hesitant step. What’s even harder is to show their sexual relationship without succumbing to either embarrassment or exploitation. There’s a lot of movies with sex scenes, but there’s only a tiny handful of movies about sex, in all of its promise and anguish. Fun to show, but so hard to talk about.
  2. After this, Scorsese would get a lot of credit for his “daring” displays of violence. But, as Scorcese’s fellow Sicilian-American Antonin Scalia will tell you, America only pretends to dislike violence. You can take people’s heads off as long as they don’t take their pants off. For daring to discuss the biggest taboo, this is probably Scorcese’s most truly daring movie.
  3. Scorsese’s overuse of ‘60s music has become so grating in his recent movies that it’s surprising to be reminded how startling and fresh it was in his early films (he was the first to do it well in feature films, taking his inspiration from the avant garde films of Kenneth Anger) It helped that he couldn’t afford in the early days to use the same few Stones songs over and over, so he dug deep to find great obscure doo-wop songs with an oddly sinister edge.
  4. This movie was made from ‘65-‘68, which was sadly the end of the era when jobless 20-something louts still inexplicably wore shirts and ties while drinking away a Friday night in somebody’s apartment. Even slackers had a little class back then.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Scorsese followed this up with a fun Corman quickie called Boxcar Bertha. His most underrated movie from the ‘70s was New York, New York.

How Available Is It?: It’s on a beautiful DVD with a nice commentary by Scorsese and his fellow film student Mardik Martin

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #94: You Have to Make Rules to Break Rules

My reps once suggested to me that I take a boat-set thriller and re-do the same concept on a spaceship. I spent a week on it before I realized that it just wouldn’t work.

On the water, the audience already understands what can go wrong. You don’t have to explain the concepts of “sinking” and “drowning”. The audience, in fact, already has an innate terror of these dangers, just waiting for you to tap into it. But in space, nobody knows the rules. Before your story really starts, you need to explain to the audience everything that can possibly go wrong on this imaginary spaceship you just made up, and some possible solutions as well. As soon as you’re done explaining them, anyone can guess what will happen next.

This is a huge problem for sci-fi and fantasy, but also for any setting where the rules are arcane: submarines, nuclear reactors, stock exchanges… If you describe the possible solutions before you need them, then they’re predictable. If you don’t, then it looks like you just made them up. You’re screwed either way. The simplest solution is to stick to boats, or other places where you don’t have to explain the possible dangers, but if you want to pick a more ambitious setting, then you have to be tricky.

Inception spent a whole hour explaining all of its complicated rules, which was way too long. But once they’d slogged through all of that exposition, they were able to deliver a fairly thrilling second hour (and a half). They were even able to “surprise” us in ways that didn’t feel like a cheat.

They kept stressing how crazy it would be to go three-deep into dreams within dreams, until we understood the concept pretty well. Then, uh-oh, our heroes fail at the three-deep level. Suddenly they get a wild notion: let’s go…FOUR-DEEP! And the audience gasps. No one had mentioned that possibility beforehand, but we instantly understood what it would mean and what a big deal it would be. The endless exposition had paid off: we understood this crazy world well enough that we knew what the rules were and how to break them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #93: Play By The Rules

I once wrote a spec script in which one character had psychic powers, but I was a little sloppy about the rules. The powers worked slightly differently from scene to scene, depending on what sort of danger I wanted to create. My managers loved the script but insisted that I nail down exactly how the powers worked in the next draft. I thought this was silly. The audience doesn’t care about a bunch of rules, I thought, and the powers are just a metaphor anyway. Why not bend the rules as I go along?

It took me years to figure out why I was wrong. The rules of your world have to be perfectly clear so that your audience can try to anticipate what might happen next. Audiences engage with movies by playing a guessing game. How will the hero solve the problem? What would I do in this situation? Will I spot the heroes’ solution before they do? Or will they come up with something I didn’t spot?But the audience can’t play that game if they don’t know all the rules.

That is why we need to know the exact powers of your superhero, and exactly how physics works on your fantasy world, and exactly what the threats are facing the family farm in your drama. The heroic finale, the surprising twist, the solution to the mystery all need to be things that the audience could have anticipated, or they will be unsatisfied.

If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up. You should create a world in which one of five things might happen, and the reader can’t decide which of those five it will be, and then they’re shocked which one happens. Or maybe a sixth thing happens that they didn’t suspect, but they instantly realize that they should have considered that possibility.

Although few moviegoers guessed what was really going on in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, it still felt fair when all was revealed. We realized that we really had seen enough to guess, and now we were kicking ourselves for failing to pick up on the important clues.

People walked out of that movie feeling dazzled, so of course they made a sequel, but in the sequel, the moviemakers just cheated. In the final twist, they revealed that the gang had secretly achieved their goal offscreen, and everything after that was just an elaborate con. Audiences were viscerally disgusted. They had been tricked into playing a rigged game, one that they had no chance to winning.

The audience is your opponent on the other side of the chessboard, trying to figure out what you’ll do two moves ahead. Even if you win that game, they’ll be happy to get a pleasant mental workout. But if you just cheat and change the rules halfway through, they’ll never want to play with you again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #92: You Can't Always Want What You Get

At the beginning of your story, the hero must want something, but that doesn’t mean that the hero must want the opportunity that actually comes their way. Not every story needs to be about making their dreams come true. Instead, they could get exactly what they don’t want. Or they could end up on a more circuitous journey that has an ironic relationship to their original goal.

Of course, as I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that they could just want nothing at the beginning of the story. They need to have something else that they wanted to do instead. Audiences hate heroes who are sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. Choosing something over nothing isn’t an interesting choice. Being forced to help rob a bank doesn’t sound so bad if the alternative is of loafing on the couch. Being forced to help rob a bank instead of picking up your daughter from the airport, on the other hand, is a painful dilemma.

So every hero starts out wanting something, but the relationship between what your heroes want and the actual opportunities they discover can play out in many different ways:

  • Some heroes, like Luke Skywalker, get exactly the opportunity that they’d always dreamed of: He’s always wanted to run off and join the rebel alliance, and then exactly that opportunity presents itself.
  • But for other heroes, the opportunity that appears is the opposite of what they’ve always wanted. Sheriff Brody in Jaws wants to prove himself as sheriff, but the opportunity to do so arrives in the form of one of his deepest fears.
  • For others, like Sarah Connor in The Terminator, it’s more of an ironic “be careful what you wish for” situation. She drops a bunch of dishes at work and then wonders “in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” It’s just a rhetorical question, but she gets her answer in spades.
  • Sometimes, the connection between their want and their opportunity is even more abstract than that. Marty McFly in Back to the Future wants to be cooler than his lame parents. Getting sent back in time is neither something he wants nor something he feared, but when he gets there he stumbles upon a strange opportunity to solve his problem: First he comes to understand his parents better, and then he accidentally improves their lives retroactively, solving his original problem in a very roundabout, yet satisfying way.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Underrated Movie #122: The Little Fugitive


Title: The Little Fugitive
Year: 1953
Directors: Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley
Writers: Ashley and Engel
Stars: Richie Andrusco, Richard Brewster, Winifred Cushing

The Story: When a Brooklyn single mom has a family emergency, she leaves her 12 year old to take care of her 7 year old. The older brother’s friends pull a mean trick and convince the 7-year old that he’s killed his older brother. Freaking out, the kid takes the emergency money and flees to live as a fugitive at Coney Island. As his money runs out and he starts to get scared, his brother conducts a desperate search…

How it Came to be Underrated: This was one of the few totally independent American movies of the ‘50s, self-made and self-distributed, meaning that almost no one saw it outside of festivals and museums. It has been rediscovered a few times over the years, only to disappear again. It was on VHS briefly, then it wasn’t on DVD for a long time. It’s always been a favorite among the lucky few who know about it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The best independent movies have always been those that did stuff that Hollywood movies couldn’t do. This movie was made at a time when Hollywood’s prestige and budgets could not have been bigger, but their artificiality at its peak as well. When MGM made its own movie about poor kids in NYC two years later, Blackboard Jungle, they told director Richard Brooks that there couldn’t be any fingerprint smudges on the walls because that would look too tacky. The startling, gorgeous realism of New York in this cheap little movie is something that Hollywood couldn’t capture at any price.
  2. Bell and Howell had invented new lightweight 16mm cameras for the U. S. army in the war. They were so sturdy that soldiers would use them to hammer nails and they still worked perfectly. After the war, every country that America had rolled through started to use the cameras to make freewheeling beautiful little independent movies, but America itself wouldn’t catch the neorealism fever until the late ‘60s. This movie represents what could have been.
  3. This is a movie of small moments made big by bringing us down to Joey’s size. As adults, we’re deathly worried for him as an unattended kid who doesn’t know how to protect himself, but we’re also equally invested in his own little struggles and victories, even as he remains mostly unaware of the larger dangers. All an audience needs is to watch someone struggle mightily to solve a problem that’s hugely important to them, no matter how big or how small it may seem to us.
  4. I can identify: When I was a child, I found that my socks had picked up some sort of black thorns somewhere. I asked my older brother what they were and he said that they were poisonous insects he had put there to kill me. It was just a tossed-off joke, and he was usually pretty nice to me, but for some reason I believed him, and I was totally freaked out. I didn’t figure out that he’d been kidding for years.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Engel and Orkin somehow scrounged together the resources over the years to make two more excellent follow-up movies that are also well worth watching, Lovers and Lollipops was about a little girl, and Weddings and Babies finally left the kids behind for a story about a commitment-phobic photographer.

How Available Is It?: A year ago, this was on my not-on-DVD round-up, but now it’s on both DVD and Watch Instantly.

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