a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Carl Has a Life, Too

So I was reading an article yesterday about the terrible situation in New Orleans, with the streets flooding and the looters looting; you get an instant picture in your head, of immoral people crashing into stores and ripping off anything they can find. And a lot of them probably were.

But later in the same article, the writer talks with a guy who admits taking some food. He feels ashamed about it, but he was hungry. He's trapped in the city, he's trying to survive. It isn't always so black-and-white.

Screenplay characters should have that sort of depth. I don't care who the character is, he is motivated by a human need, and some of them are easy to identify with. They shouldn't be just one-note characters there to serve a function.

I always like scripts that unexpectedly bring together characters you wouldn't expect, to show us new sides of them as they interact with each other. There are a lot of good film examples too -- DeNiro and Pacino talking in HEAT, all the mobsters hanging out with Scorcese's mom in GOODFELLAS. Even bad guys have human sides, and it makes it more interesting to find them.

One of my pet peeves is that, in James Bond movies, there is inevitably the scene in which he escapes from the bad guy in his lair, kills a bunch of security guards and then the villain, and flees with the babe before the lair blows up. But who are these guards? They are probably just guys, trying to feed their families, who think their job is to guard a factory; likely they don't know there is something wrong going on there (and even if they do suspect something, well, it's a job, and Molly is in diapers and Penny needs braces and the guard (let's call him Carl) doesn't want them to go stay with their mom again, where everyone has to live in the same room and Carl's drinking problem always flares up).

So Carl works at this factory, which might be a little weird because it is hidden in an old volcano and the boss walks around stroking a cat, but hell, someone works for Martha Stewart too, and Carl's getting benefits, and the employee break room actually has a coffee machine that serves damn good coffee.

And then one day, some guy in a suit starts shooting people where Carl works. So Carl runs over, to try and stop him, and he shoots Carl too. Carl's dead. Daddy's not coming home.

I always thought it would be a great movie to have Carl's pissed off friends track down the guy in the suit; give them a lot of lively banter along the way, have them slap Miss Moneypenny around a little to get her to talk, and then maybe they realize that James Bond is just doing his job, and that maybe Carl should have been a bit more circumspect about where he works.

Or maybe they just kick James Bond's ass.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Samuel L. Jackson is mellowing out

I saw a commercial the other day for THE MAN, and remarked to my wife that Samuel L. Jackson always seems so angry in every movie he plays; you don't see Sam doing romances. One assumes that he's going to be angry in SNAKES ON A PLANE, too; can't wait for the inevitable scene in which he grabs a snake by the tail and, swinging it like a whip, smacks its head into a bulkhead -- or the villain's throat.

(By the way, has it occurred to anyone that these snakes are really being used by the bad guys? I mean, they don't mean any of the good guys any malice -- they're just snakes on a plane, which really must freak you out if you are a snake. Maybe Sam will give them a pep talk in the third act, and get them to turn on the man who put them on the plane. Maybe Barry White will do a cameo.)

Anyhow, I just read a script that Jackson is starring in, to shoot this winter, and I was shocked to see that it is a real stretch for him; aside from one late, grieving trashing of a garden, there isn't a single scene in the script in which Jackson is mad, or where he even raises his voice to anyone. Instead, there are scenes in which he... cries.

Of course, there's still no romance. He's Samuel L. Jackson, dammit.

But it's nice to see him searching out this kind of role, one that really depends on him just inhabiting the character. If the screenplay has problems right now, it is that the writer hasn't quite finessed making the passive-Jackson character really work; there are long stretches of this where there just isn't much at stake. Being mellow during a conflict is one thing; not having enough real conflict for him to react to is another. But it'll be interesting to see if Jackson can really carry a drama that never needs him to be angry or raise his voice.

Of course, if you need angry Sam (and the persona works) according to imdb he has a slew of movies in the pipeline, and I'm sure in most of them he'll be good and pissed off.

Extra Butter on That? (My Origin Story Part II)

So after I graduate college, I try to turn my underwhelming English Major (and my several years of toiling on the college paper) into a job on a Manhattan magazine, only to fail miserably; in retrospect, I wouldn’t have hired me either.

I’d been working part-time as an usher during college at a local theater in Huntington, NY, partly for the spending cash but mostly to see the free movies; these were the days (mid 1980s) when theaters were so overstaffed with ushers that they would actually leave an usher in the theater for the entire movie, just to make sure the crowd was behaving. (Soon, this job became largely busting smokers, when the ban on in-theater smoking went into effect, and there is nothing so amazingly obvious as a plume of smoke rising into the light from the projector). I remember my first night as an usher, I watched “Careful He Might Hear You” (which, if you have never heard of it, is foreign. And depressing). And then they put me in the same theater for the second show, and I watched it again. Okay, no job is perfect.

So after college, I’m living at home and enduring my parents’ glares, so when I got offered a job as an assistant manager at the theater, I bit the bullet and said yes. After a year I was promoted to manager and given my own theater (actually, moved around to a few theaters); after another year I moved into the city (into a very small apartment with a friend) and start managing Manhattan theaters.

Initially, the good part of this is that I was working for Cineplex Odeon, which was peaking at that time. They were Canadian, they were expanding, they were building big, beautiful theaters. Unfortunately, they were building them too fast. Pretty soon they started hemorrhaging money, and then the desperation struck.

One of their gimmicks was that the served real butter on their popcorn, which was a dicey idea to begin with – no one was really trained in handling the butter, and otherwise all the candystand had was low-maintenance items like popcorn and candy. So sometimes the butter got left in the machine over night, and often it had a brown tinge.

But to make extra money, Cineplex Odeon decides to charge for “extra butter”. Customers would get an allotted dose, but if they wanted extra they’d have to pay 10 cents a squirt.

The problem was, of course, that they were pressuring the theaters to sell a lot of extra butter. Some of the managers, like me, refused to really go along with this; I’m not going to use high-pressure tactics to convince a patron that they need to drown their popcorn in the real stuff (which, by the way, tended to make the popcorn very soggy and greasy anyway). Other managers encouraged their candy girls to do whatever it took. And some theaters were averaging charging 3-4 squirts on every bag of popcorn they sold.

But they weren’t really selling this butter. They were just banging the 10 cent extra butter button every time they sold anything to anyone (even if it was just candy and a soda). Because the theaters were charging tax, apparently no one noticed the extra 20 cents they were being nicked for.

Of course, it was painfully obvious if you look at the numbers (or at the printer record that the concession stand churns out in the office). But not only did Cineplex Odeon not warn theaters not to do that, they proudly sent out to the theaters ranking sheets of who was doing the best at selling extra butter.

(This was actually – briefly – a minor scandal in New York, when a newspaper reporter broke the story. But nothing was done about it, and Cineplex Odeon soon shelved the whole real butter thing anyway. They’ve since been sucked up by Loews).

I actually liked being a theater manager most of the time, because I like movies, I like having a good time in movies, and I want other people to have a good time in movies. One of my favorite things was to stand at the side of a theater auditorium during comedies, and just watch the crowd react in unison to things that were funny, squirming in their seats – it’s priceless. But I digress.

Manhattan had its challenges; I remember on opening night in Times Square for a Steven Seagal movie, he was there, with a guest list full of young Gottis and Gambinos (though I didn’t see anything, and they were very well-behaved, I swear). The theater was also open to the public, which made it a little nuts (this was the only time we ever had this mix of star-attending-premiere/public-paying-to-get-in-too).

So one guy was unhappy that the candy stand was moving too slowly, and he punched a 16-year-old candy girl in the face. So we hold him for cops (I had at least one security guard – this was the big city) and they take him away, while the girl, blood streaming down her face but no major injuries, gets cleaned up. Several hours later, the puncher’s mother comes by, furious that we had her son arrested for no reason. I told her what happened, and even pointed out the girl (who must have weighed 90 pounds, soaking wet). The mother turned around and immediately left.

Another day (when I wasn’t working), during another Steven Seagal film (whichever one he fought rastafarians in), a rasta guy stands up in the middle of the theater, and, upset at the depiction of his people (I assume), fires his gun into the ceiling. Half the crowd bolts. The manager calls the cops, who go into the theater, to find that the shooter left, and that the other half of the crowd is still happily watching the movie.

Another night, same theater (the National, which they since turned into the ABC Studio, a shame), a large group of teens “bum-rushed” the theater, trying to get in without paying, even though the last show had been on about 45 minutes by then. The National had a long staircase going up to where the theaters were, so we heard the stampede coming; I was there to meet these 20-30 teens, with maybe one (unarmed) security guard and a couple of ushers loitering behind me.

Now, I don’t want this to be a black-and-white thing, but just for visuals, I’m white and meek, and the teens were all black, and they were probably all great kids when they weren’t trying to break into movie theaters but now they are trying to break into mine.

And the lead teen, I’ll never forget this, is holding a little paper plate of cake, with a fork in it. I’d love to know the backstory on that, but I forgot to ask him.

Instead, I just stood there, and as he approached, I stuck out my hand (missing the cake, probably a good idea) and stopped him. I looked at him, he looked at me. And then he turned around with his cake, and headed down, and all his friends headed down with him.

But these were the things that made the job interesting, these were the stories you could tell (hell, I’m telling them), these were the anecdotes that made it all worthwhile.

It was the bureaucracy that sucked out my soul. The extra butter, the slashing staffs down to levels where some nights it was just me, a candy girl and someone ripping tickets and hopefully the people in the theaters aren’t killing each other.

I’d gotten some work reading plays for a theater in New York (in exchange for free plays, cool) and turned that into doing some reading work for New Line, and then for HBO. Even though reading still wasn’t full-time yet, I bowed out of the theater managing business (actually, not really true. I backslid a year later, and worked for United Artists theaters for about 4 months, but when they started making me work 12-hours shifts for 7 straight days, and paying me so little overtime that the concession staff was making more per hour than I was, I stopped that gig as well).

Still, being a movie theater manager gave me my best story. I was managing the Chelsea Theater, on 23rd Street in New York, 9 screens on 5 stories. Opening weekend of “Do The Right Thing”, late show, and the movie breaks during the opening credits.

The crowd isn’t happy, and it is taking time to find the projectionist (the place had 6 projection booths, and one projectionist, but don’t feel sorry for him, those guys made more than everyone). Plus I know that, to run off film to splice it together, the movie is going to start 15 seconds after it broke. So I get up in front of the crowd, tell them we are going to get the movie on soon, and tell them they are going to miss about 15 seconds of the movie.

And someone yells out “What are we going to miss”?

Now, I’d seen the movie. I know that it’s basically just Rosie Perez, dancing up a storm. And I tell them that.

And someone yells “Show us”.

So I do.

I start doing the Rosie Perez dance, right there, in front of a packed house of about 300 people, and they are dying, they are freaking out, they are loving it. Again, I’m not only a white guy, I’m a white guy in a suit with glasses and no rhythm whatsoever. Any little children there are probably still traumatized.

Then the lights go down, the movie comes on, Rosie starts doing her thing, (which is so much, much better than my thing) and I’m out of there.

But its those kinds of things that made the job worthwhile.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Things In Your Script That Turned My Hair Gray (Part I)

There are a bevy of repeated awful things that I keep seeing in screenplays, that have left my dashing brown waves a dull gray... oh, who am I kidding. My dad started to go gray in his 20s, and bald a few years later, so I'm not doing so badly.

But I'm constantly amazed at the amateurish things I see a lot of in scripts, and I'm not talking about the really amateurish things, like character names that keep inexplicably changing throughout the script, or a character's name on the bottom of one page and the dialogue on top of the other. That is basic stuff -- if you aren't reading your screenplay over before it is sent out, you have more problems than this blog can ever help with.

Still, as nagging things occur to me, I'll post them, just to get them off my chest. Here's a few --

THE MAIN CHARACTER'S LIFE THROWN INTO CHAOS BECAUSE HE OWES A BOOKIE MONEY. Really, how often does this happen, particularly nowadays, when the bookie has gone the way of the beehive? But it still pops up in screenplays all the time, a thin excuse to drive the action, while generally by the end the main character's gambling problem isn't even dealt with. Instead, it's cue hulking guys named Rocco, who bang on the door while the main character dives onto his fire escape, or flees down the stairs with the befuddled love interest.

NAME-CHECKING THE SCRIPT YOU'RE STEALING FROM. It's dumbfounding how often I come upon this. Generally, the writer will take big plot hunks from a popular movie, and then have the characters talk about that same movie during the script, as if this somehow makes it okay -- as if it's somehow a "homage" if you acknowledge it. It's not. Even all the Die Hard ripoffs had the class not to have the characters talk about Bruce Willis during the movie.

If you are doing a movie about single girls looking for love, don't have them mention "Sex In The City". Please. Please. Please.

SEEKING LAUGHS IN A CHARACTER FORGETTING ANOTHER'S NAME. Yeesh. This is generally the bottom of the barrel in terms of seeking humor, when a character purposely or forgetfully calls a character by a bunch of different names. "Chip!" "My name's Bob". "Bart!". I know, itt has been done in movies a lot, but as a source of humor this is marrow that has been pretty much sucked dry.

FART JOKES. If you haven't come up with the greatest twist in fart joke history, don't go there.

My Origin Story

My current crippling stupidity at computers (symbolized by my wrestling with a browser that won't recognize cookies) is ironic, because in at one time it looked like the computer industry is where I was headed.

My problem was is that I was born too early.

In the late 1970s, my high school had a computer room, that basically consisted of a bunch of small computers (Commodore Pets?) and a couple of big printer-computer things. Aside from learning a little Basic, all we really did there was fool around during our free periods, playing some (in retrospect) shockingly primitive games, including the famous Adventure, which didn't even have graphics -- it was just text description of what was happening as you walked through underground caverns picking stuff up.

Otherwise, what we used the bigger computers for was for talking to girls. In what was almost a precursor to the Internet, our school's system was tied into the systems of other schools on Long Island, so you could chat with other students in their computer rooms, and yeah, some of them were girls. So for a shy, low self-esteem 16-year-old like me, this was a dream, and just added to the allure of the whole computer world, an obvious magical place.

(In an aside, I wound up having long phone conversations with one of the girls I met this way. Her name was Rachel, and her father was a rabbi, which should have been a tip-off that things weren't going to work out, since I'm not Jewish. But she invited me to a party, and I took a bus 20-30 miles to Bay Shore, with the promise that the rabbi was going to drive me home at the end of the night. It turned out that Rachel had just invited me to make her boyfriend jealous, but the irony was that I hit it off with her boyfriend and her other friends, while Rachel spent most of the night sulking in her room. In one of the most awkward moments of my life, her father drove me home at the end of the night, with Rachel and I sitting together in the back seat. No one said a word the entire 40-minute trip, though Rachel held my hand the whole way. I never saw her again.)

So anyhow, when I went on to college (State University of New York at Stony Brook, which I guess is a good school for some things), I decided to major in computer science. My first mistake was living on campus, where I wound up sharing a room with a guy named Kenny from Haiti. Kenny was a nice enough guy, except for his habit of pumping iron in the middle of the night while listening to Black Sabbath at full blast, which is death when you have 8:30 AM classes, very few of which I actually attended.

The second problem was, as I mentioned, I was born too early. Because in 1981 at Stony Brook, their computer classes didn't have actual computers. Let me repeat that -- There. Were. No. Computers. Instead, what you had to do was fill out a punch card for every line of code you wrote, punching out the letters, and then wait on a huge line to hand in their punch cards, which were then run through a big mainframe somewhere.

Well, you know. That's really stupid. And somehow, in my no-sleep-addled brain, I wasn't ready to go through the ridiculousness of punching out cards and waiting in long lines. So I failed computer science 101. No biggie. I think I failed 8 classes in college, and still graduated with a 2.7 (and no, I'm not proud).

But when I failed computer science, they politely told me that this meant I couldn't major in computer science any more. No second chances -- turn in your punch cards. Oops.

So I majored in English, the first step in becoming a professional reader, a job that I didn't even know existed until years after graduating from college.

I'm not sure what the moral of the story is, other than I used to be a passive lazy ass. But in the long run, I think I'm happier reading screenplays than I would be writing code all day, so sometimes things work out anyway.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

So this is a blog....

I signed up to comment on someone else's blog, and wound up with one of my own. America is a great place.

I'm a longtime scriptreader/aspiring writer, first in Manhattan and for the past 7 years out here in Los Angeles. I've written about 8700 pieces of coverage, which means 1) my brain hurts, and 2) I never have time to work on my own stuff. Still, it's a heck of an education.

The title refers to the upcoming film "Snakes on a Plane", the title of which has apparently struck a cord, so I thought this would make a great sequel. The true test of a great writer is to mine a 95-minute movie out of at least two alligators in a very small helicopter.

I guess if I get distracted, I'll write more soon. I'll try to figure out what stories I can tell without getting fired.