Tuesday, January 31, 2012
True story: Many years ago, four Atlanta businessmen decided to take a weekend trip to the woods of North Georgia, hoping to canoe a river one last time before it got damned up. They didn’t plan things very well, and soon found themselves hopelessly lost on the river, far away from their cars or any town. They gradually came to realize, however, that the woods around them were filled with backwoodsmen. What happened next?
I’ll tell you what happened. Some mountain folk invited them back to their cabin, fed them a great meal and then escorted them back to their cars, with a warm farewell and an offer to stop by again anytime.
As the four men were on the way home, one of them wondered aloud, “Gee, what would have happened if those mountain folk hadn’t been so nice to us?” Things might have ended there, but one of the four men was James Dickey, who wrote the novel (and later screenplay) “Deliverance” based on that supposition. Ever since, the whole world has associated the fine people of North Georgia with psychotic depravity. No good deed goes unpunished.
One can carp about the ethics of throwing one’s rescuers under the bus like that, but it’s still a good lesson to writers: if the worst thing that ever happened to you wasn’t that bad, feel free to write about the worst thing that could have happened to you.
This gives you a chance to tap into the fears you actually felt, even if they turned out to be unfounded. After all, what really fuels Deliverance isn’t the (invented) evil of the tormentors, but the (very real) feelings of feelings of masculine inadequacy and disconnectedness from nature that grip the isolated men.
Monday, January 30, 2012
Sunday, January 29, 2012
The Story: An ultra-cool Detroit nightclub comic finds himself on the wrong side of his club’s mobbed-up owner. Fleeing on the lam to the seedy side of Chicago, he imagines killers are hiding in every shadow… but he has a pathological urge to return to the stage...
- By 1965, there was a huge gap between the unapologetic artistry of European cinema and America’s widescreen technicolor blandness, but a few brave souls wanted to drag Hollywood into the modern age, and none moreso than Warren Beatty (of all people). He really wanted to hire Godard or Truffaut to come over the pond, but instead, he made do with ambitious American TV director Arthur Penn. This was their first attempt to import a new wave sensibility, and they succeeded onscreen, but not in theaters. Nevertheless the pair tried again two years later with Bonnie and Clyde and finally ignited an American Renaissance.
- American street-level noir and European high-minded existentialism have always been incestuously entertwined: Nobody believed Camus when he said that “The Stranger” was merely his attempt to imitate James M. Cain, but he wasn’t half wrong, and noir itself never would have taken hold without the infusion of émigrés fleeing Hitler. (even then, it took the French to recognize the genre and name it). Penn’s oddball intellectual noir delicately straddles the end of one era (noir) and the beginning of another (art cinema), not belonging to either but worthy of both.
- The offbeat sensibility and staccato rhythms make this movie the visual equivalent of jazz, and so it’s only fitting that it’s got a hopping jazz score by the great Stan Getz.
- Beatty always seemed miscast to me in movies like The Parallax View and Dick Tracy… Basically I think that he’s only really good at playing one thing: angry, half-witted loverboys whose charm masks a deeper angst. ...But whenever he got a role like that, he was amazing. After all, many or our greatest stars made a nice living for themselves by doing one thing well.
- This kafka-esque nightmare is actually a great metaphor for the bleak life of a stand-up comic, then and now, where the goal is to “kill” onstage before the audience can do the same to you. At least these days the mob no longer runs the nightclubs, so that’s less literal, though just as figurative.
How Available Is It?: After the floodgates broke open last week, there’s no stopping me now: This is another only-on-bit-torrent special. The print I found is good but a little small.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
- You have old hardcore fans who are desperate to see more material, even though it might ignore previous stories.
- You have semi-interested non-fans who recognize the name and will see this as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a phenomenon they originally missed out on.
- Most importantly, you have years of stories to pick and choose from, allowing you to take the best elements and jettison everything that no longer works.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
To work on its own, “Angel” would have had to start over from scratch with a new metaphor. We’ll get to how to do that tomorrow... (Can you guess which movie will be our example?)
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Monday, January 23, 2012
- The advantage of voiceover is that it allows the hero to honestly and directly tell us what’s going on. The disadvantages, however, are many: it’s inherently un-cinematic, in that it’s invisible, and it takes us out of the story by breaking the fourth wall.
- Dialogue is also problematic: in real life, people don’t like to honestly tell other people what they’re thinking or feeling. Usually the other character has to trap the hero into revealing their thoughts.
- The best way to detect the internal state of others, in movies and in real life, is through behavior. But behavior is very hard to write. Many readers, myself included, tend to breeze through scripts by reading only the dialogue, skipping over the prose paragraphs entirely, because they tend to be turgid and repetitive. Knowing this, writers are understandably loathe even to attempt to write actions that will speak louder than their words. But this is a mistake. Instead, in order to keep the reader from skipping the descriptions of behavior, every screenwriter must (against expectations) also be an excellent prose writer.
You can do this with physical actions as well by creating reversible behaviors. Rather than come up with new behavioral clues from scratch in every scene to convey emotional states, you can give a character a behavior that means one thing, then later have the character reverse that behavior, letting the audience know instantly that the internal state has flipped as well. This is why it’s always good to look for behaviors that can do double-duty: meaning one thing now and the opposite later on.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Director: Elio Petri
Writers: Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro
Stars: Gian Maria Volonte, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Orazio Orlanda
The Story: As Italy’s postwar government slowly devolves back towards becoming a police state, an unhinged chief of detectives decides to test the limits of his power by murdering his lover, then leaving a series of clues pointing towards his own guilt, desperately hoping to be caught, but knowing full well how unlikely that is.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is a special case, it was not underrated at the time: in fact it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar…But, for some reason (which I’ve never been able to determine), it has never been available on video or disc in America. Until recent advances in piracy, it could be seen only at revival houses. Inevitably, it has been forgotten here, which is a shame, since it’s a masterpiece.
Why It’s Great:
- Also forgotten in this country is the great Gian Maria Volonte, though you’ve probably seen him more that you realize: as the bad guys in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and co-star of Melville’s heist epic The Red Circle, for instance. His coiled fury is utterly hypnotic, hiding a sublimated maelstrom of clashing emotions: guilt for his murder, hatred and lust for his dead mistress, anger at his colleagues, and utter despair at the state of the world.
- Volonte’s character has no confidant, so how do we know what he’s doing as he manipulates the system, much less what he’s thinking? Luckily his victim was a kinky murder-groupie and he used to explain the wickedness of the system to her during their assignations. Those flashbacks now echo through his head as a bizarre greek chorus, commenting and explaining on his actions. It’s a clever and entertaining conceit.
- Though no cop would admit it in court, they know all too well that most witnesses cannot accurately describe a face they’ve just seen. Volonte’s detective has had that working against him so long that he can’t resist using it to his advantage now, delighting in the act of prolonging eye contact with witnesses to his crime and cover-up, daring them to finally get it right for once, but knowing that the system only sees what it wants to see.
- This world isn’t so far away from ours: Steve Jobs refused to put license plates on his car, knowing that no cop in Cupertino dared ticket him, but all that power never made him happy. As terrible as it is to be in a situation where you know you’re being discriminated against, it’s also sickening in its own way to realize that you’re getting unfair advantages. This movie shows how you cannot have contempt for others without also having growing contempt for yourself.
At the beginning of the year, I mentioned that I was going to only count pages I wrote, not hours I worked when I wasn’t turning out pages, hoping that that would force me to write more pages: but I forgot that, for some reason, that never works. There are always going to be day when the pages don’t come, but I can still sit there and brainstorm, and when I stop giving myself credit for those hours, I spend too much time beating up on myself. So those of you playing along at home will note that I’ve changed the calender back to hours worked / pages written (lumping script and prose pages in together). Now back to the show.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I pitied him. On the one hand, here was I: Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing with my life, I got to say “I’m getting a masters from Columbia University.” Everybody was very impressed. Nobody responded, “Gee what a waste”. Nobody said, “Holy hell, man, how are you ever going to pay that off??” Getting a Columbia degree is a “very worthwhile thing to do.”
My friend, meanwhile, had to admit to people at parties that he was a film school dropout, working as a temp and performing with improv troupes around town. I went to a lot of his shows and let me tell you something about improv: it’s painful. The troupe would do a skit and you would hear crickets. Not one real laugh. I felt terrible: Here I was, being told by famous filmmakers at an Ivy League school that my work was great. And here this guy was, begging for laughs in a basement in Brooklyn.
It wasn’t until I graduated and that I finally asked, “What do I have to show for all those years and all that money?” The truth was that I had experienced the exact same realization as my friend had, two weeks into my own film school experience. That was how long it took me to realize that Columbia had a terrible film program. I should have left, right there and then, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t face the shame.
I wanted to sound impressive at parties. I wanted lots of praise from professors. I wanted these things so badly that I was willing to spend $150k to get them. (Really far more than that. It will probably balloon to $300k by the time I finally get it paid off.)
After graduation, the truth came crashing down: the professors that I thought were my good friends stopped returning my calls, now that I was no longer paying them to like me. Then I found out that no one in the business was impressed by a Columbia degree. Worst of all, my new manager started sending out my Columbia-award-winning scripts and guess what I heard?
Suddenly, I noticed something about my friend that I had never realized before: All that time, he could hear the crickets too. Unlike me, he knew that his work wasn’t connecting to paying audiences. And it hurt. And so he had slowly gotten better.
Let’s cut to the chase: A few months ago, he got a call at his temp job, and then he promptly quit. He’s now a staff writer at “The Daily Show”. Every writer on staff gets an Emmy every year. Now he has no problem telling people at parties what he does.
As for me, I started this blog, re-educated myself, wrote a bunch of new scripts and now I’ve making some money, though I’m still a long way away from paying off those loans. But most graduates of Columbia tragically never even secure representation, much less make a sale.
Now I know what I was really buying with that $150,000: I was paying the crickets to stay away. I was insulating myself from any real criticism. I was paying people to like me. In short: I was paying to be coddled. And all that money and all that coddling made me a worse writer.
Film school teaches you how to please your professors, please your fellow students, and, most of all, please yourself. It doesn’t teach you how to please a paying audience. In fact, at my school, if you even said that you wanted to please a paying audience, the professors would tell you that you were making a terrible mistake.
The only reliable way to get better is to put your work before paying audiences and learn to please them through trial and error. Everyday you do that, you will get better. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible. If you go to film school, that’s four years of not getting better, for which you get a lifetime of debt.
The moral of this little fable? DO NOT GO TO FILM SCHOOL. Find yourself a basement theater, or a small newspaper, or an open mic night. Listen to the crickets. Learn to please unfriendly audiences. Slowly, painfully, get better.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
But even so, that left one thing I still couldn’t forgive them for: the program had no standards. And standards are free.
Okay, things look bleak for the struggling filmmakers of the world. Is there any hope? Yes there is. Tomorrow, let’s talk about what to do instead...
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
If I had to summarize the message of film school in two words, it would be these: “Never Compromise.” Occasionally, they would bring in indie filmmakers to show their latest films. This was during a period when the audience for indie films was plummeting, and these filmmakers should have been adapting, but instead they were determined to go down with the Titanic.
Time after time, students would stand and say, “Your movie is so uncompromising! How do you resist the pressure to give in to notes?” And the filmmaker would tell them to be strong and always remember: “Never compromise!” As I pointed out before, this is terrible advice.
Here’s a typically painful example. I was a big fan of Slums of Beverly Hills and its director, Tamara Jenkins, so I was excited when she brought her long-awaited follow-up, The Savages. This was a movie about a brother and sister who have to take care of their indigent, unloving dad in his final days. They get more and more annoyed with him, and they they realize more and more that he’s really messed them up, and then finally… they get a call from the nursing home that dad’s dead. End of movie.
As the lights went up, I thought. “Gee, that was almost great, but it had no ending. The kids never confront their dad!” Sure enough, in the Q and A, Jenkins said that most studios and even most indie producers begged her to add a scene where the kids have it out with their dad. Even the production house that actually made the movie told her that they would give her twice the budget if she added such a scene. But no! She stuck to her guns! And let that be a lesson to us! Never compromise! (aka “Never fix your movie”)
Now obviously, the school can’t be blamed for the words of one visiting director, but this was a very typical example of what classes were like as well.
As with any art school, most of the professors were somewhat disappointed about their own artistic careers, but rather than say, “Oh well, maybe I should have been more of a team player,” they took the opposite message. They concluded that: “I was denied by a system that demanded that I compromise. Now that I’m teaching film school, I can create a utopian new generation that will end the era of compromise once and for all!”
Obviously, this is crazy. But why didn’t the school feel any responsibility to teach us the skills we would need to make careers for ourselves? Because of the incentive structure behind these programs, which we’ll get to tomorrow…
Monday, January 16, 2012
- You submit your material to a paying audience on a daily basis.
- There’s low overhead, so you can pay your dues for years without going into debt.
- You have to LISTEN to a lot of people.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
This blog is basically one big fraud. The day I put up my first post, I had that freak-out that all bloggers have: “Why should anyone listen to me? What authority do I have to talk about anything?” And so I gave in to my moment of weakness and put a bio in the sidebar that assured my readers that I have an MFA in Screenwriting from a hoity-toity university. And I never took it down. It’s still there today.
And so, on more than one occasion, fans of the blog have said to me, “I feel like reading your blog gives me all the benefits of a Columbia education!”
[record scratch sound] Um, no.
Of the 102 rules I’ve covered on this blog, I can think of maybe two that I was taught at Columbia. Almost every other rule is the exact opposite of what they teach there. In fact, anyone trying to teach these rules there would be fired.
It’s time to admit the real reason I started this blog: because I suddenly realized that almost everything I learned at film school was dead wrong, which is why far too many of my fellow graduates have careers that are dead dead. This blog is my attempt to unlearn almost everything they taught us, and forcibly re-educate myself from scratch by re-examining the movies that made me want to make movies.
My school was run like a summer camp, rather than a professional program. We were encouraged to dabble in everything and specialize in nothing, to follow our muse wherever it led us, content in the knowledge that we were in a “safe space”, free from serious criticism. The following concepts were verboten in most of my classes:
- Compelling Characters
- Universal Structure
- Selling a Screenplay
- And the most verboten concept of all: Pleasing an Audience
Instead, we were supposed to talk about:
- Executing Our Own Perfect Vision
- Big Ideas
Yeah, sure, okay, you say. Art school is arty. That’s no surprise. But at least it helps your career, right? We’ll pick up there tomorrow…
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Title: Every Little Step
Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
Stars: Bob Avian, Marvin Hamlisch, Baayork Lee, Jay Binder
The Story: An fascinating and suspenseful documentary about the casting process for the 2005 revival of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway that, like the original show, quickly becomes about so much more: the economy, the American Dream, the creative life, and the existential dilemmas that everyone has to face.
How it Came to be Underrated: This had a brief run here in New York where it was popular with Broadway fans, but it hasn’t yet pulled off the crossover appeal of the original show, reaching a broader audience who will discover that there’s more here than meets the eye. This is one of the best documentaries of the last ten years and I cannot recommend it enough.
Why It’s Great:
- When the movie begins, our sympathy is totally with the actors, and we take offense at the indignity of the whole process. But then, as so often happens in stories, our sympathies begin to creep upward towards the bosses. The turning point comes when the casting directors have to listen to thirty different Maggies blow the high note on “At the Ballet.” Suddenly, all you care about is their suffering. In the end, despite the fact that they started with 3000 wildly talented hopefuls for 20 parts, you actually begin to worry that the casting directors won’t find anybody good enough.
- One thing that makes the process especially tough for both sides is that these characters all describe their own body type, so even more than usual, the actors have a fatalistic sense that they’ll be judged more on “look” than acting ability. But then we get to the most amazing moment in the movie: An unassuming Asian guy named Jason Tam gets up to read for a white role and he goes so deep into the monologue that he begins to weep, and then everybody watching this movie begins to weep, and then even the casting directors, who have been listening to this same monologue over and over all damn day (and for the last 30 years), begin to weep! Suddenly, nobody could care less that he doesn’t have the right look. That’s an audition.
- The editing is breathtaking. It’s the ultimate post-modern nesting doll of a movie, with six overlaid parallel stories: the original, desperate life stories of a group of dancers, the versions of their stories that they put on tape one night in 1975, the original Broadway musical they created from those tapes, the revival being mounting in 2005, and the real stories we’re seeing onscreen of all the dancers trying out to star in that revival. And yet all of these are the same story: we see our auditioners tell the camera how badly they need this show, then we see them audition by singing songs about how badly they need the show within the show…
- …It could have been a navel-gazing mess, but it works for the same reason that “A Chorus Line” works, because none of this is really about dance. It’s about the most universal dilemma or all: individuality vs. solidarity. As Frank Rich points out in the special features, the existential power of the show comes from the fact that none of these characters is even trying out for a once-of-a-lifetime role that’s going to make them a star: their goal is to be allowed to melt into an anonymous, homogenous, background chorus line. But in order to earn the right to melt away, they need to prove that they’ve become the most extraordinary individual they can be.
- The ending was a little anti-climactic for Betsy and me, because we had seen the amazing revival on Broadway so we already knew who was going to get each role, but that also added another level of poignancy because we knew that, despite glowing reviews and strong sales for the first year, the show had already closed by the time the movie opened.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another recent documentary in the same vein was “Stage Door”, about a camp for theater kids, which has one of the most heartbreaking endings of any doc I’ve seen. Another great doc from around this time about a competition with larger metaphorical meaning was “Spellbound.”
How Available Is It?: But wait, we still have one more meta-layer: the commentary, which is fun, as are the deleted scenes and various interviews on the well-made DVD.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
This one is especially useful because despicable dialogue is some of the hardest dialogue to write without resorting to clichés. Most of us do everything in our power to make sure that we never have to listen to evil people, but almost every story contains at least one evil character, so writers have to know how they actually talk. Sometimes such people actually get caught on tape, as with the late night energy traders in the above clip, but this twitter feed is the next best thing:
- “Living my life is like playing ‘Call of Duty’ on Easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.”
- “A new year. Time for a new slampiece.”
- “Seriously… that idiot hedging an oddlot position with futures is like a fat chick buying a rape whistle.”
- And one from the ladies: “I love it when a guy hits on me & then gives me a business card with a gmail account. Asshole, I work at Goldman Sachs.”
Nine times out of ten, racism is not a conscious attitude, it’s a set of unconscious assumptions. People reveal it most when they try to say something magnanimous. Every time I eat at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I remember Bill O’Reilly’s infamous praise for it: “And I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks […] There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘Motherfucker, I want more iced tea.’” Okee-dokee then.
A previous rule was Let Them Hang Themselves. There are two great ways to do that: let them try to be funny or let them try to be nice.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
- As we saw, several heroes were members of several groups, but nobody was a member of all of them. Simply because these are all admirable types doesn’t mean that a hero can be a shapeless agglomeration of traits. Likeable heroes come in many different shapes. You have to give heroes a certain set of heroic traits and stick to those, even if it means that they’re distinctly lacking in others. That way, when a producer says, “A hero wouldn’t do that”, you can respond, “This type of hero would”.
- Even though I initially found it cynical and depressing, I now see why it’s important to surround heroes with characters that lack their qualities. The point, I think, is that nobody gets any credit for doing what everybody else is doing. This ties into another recent idea: movies aren’t about morals, they’re about ethics, and ethics are entirely relative. In the same way that actions are only heroic if they’re hard to do, personality traits are only admirable if it you have to go against the grain when you act that way.
- Another reason why context is important: A hero who is likeable in one situation might be entirely unlikable if you put them in a different movie. Each situation has something lacking: a vacuum that needs to be filled, and just begging for a certain personality type to come in and fill it. Sometimes the situation calls out for a hero who will speak truth to power, but other times they just need someone to come in and start a keg party. Find the right vacuum for every hero, and the right hero for every vacuum.
- Indeed, even in real life, every hero is determined solely by his context: Compared to most people, Churchill was a white supremacist genocidal maniac, but compared to Hitler, he wasn’t so bad, and in fact he turned out to be just the right hero at just the right time. (Of course, as soon as the war ended, he had to be whisked back out to the curb post haste)
Monday, January 09, 2012
The Fifth and Final Group: Fun Lovers. Obviously this is a type most associated with comedies, but they can also be surprisingly effectively in dramas: after all, there’s nothing that angers some people more than positivity, so there’s lot of room for serious conflict, as movies like Prick Up Your Ears and Happy Go Lucky show.
- Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns
- Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude
- Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears
- Vince Vaughn in Swingers
- Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and just about everything else he’s done
- Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again
- Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles
- Bob Hope in Son of Paleface, and just about everything else
- Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky
- Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids
- Zooey Deschanel on “The New Girl”
Sunday, January 08, 2012
Group C: Sensitive Types. These are some of the hardest characters to make sympathetic. Americans are hard-wired to hate losers. Of course, if you think about it, that’s somewhat weird… If I were to ask you, “who’s more sympathetic, a homeless guy or a CEO?”, most people would say the homeless guy. The problem, I think, is that moviegoers aren’t looking at snapshots, we’re living with someone. We’re not being asked to judge them, we’re being asked to identify with them, to share their lives, and if you asked people which of those two they’d rather share their lives with, you’d probably get a different answer.
- Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and most everything else.
- Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (again, only partially: but Potter, Sam Wainwright, even his brother all qualify)
- The Rabbit in Salesman
- Albert Brooks in Lost in America and Defending Your Life
- Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross
- Michael Scott on “The Office” is an interesting case: Careerwise, he’s an insensitive winner surrounded by sensitive strugglers, but in terms of social skills he’s certainly a sensitive failure, surrounded by insensitive winners.