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

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Out Of The Box

So as I wrestle with my still-untitled screenplay, I find myself tempted to do something that most gurus would probably frown heavily on.

Whether that is a reason not to do something, I don't know.

I'm a big advocate of the "learn the right format" school of screenwriting, but I'm not sure this is really a format issue. It might be a tool issue.

Some context --

My main character starts off the script, for a variety of reasons, as a heavily-medicated woman, whose dialogue reflects this. It's meant to be strikingly emotionless, lifeless dialogue; she's lost inside herself, and her speech no longer reflects any shadings of her character.

Right now, I have a mention before her first speech, about how, until stated otherwise, this is what her speech sounds like. But it doesn't seem to be enough, somehow. While constantly referring to it in the script (it covers the first 15 pages, and then occasionally is required later) just feels clunky.

Then, the other day, I was reading a largely mediocre college comedy (which has an agent, and which I was covering for a major prodco), in which one of the characters was in a wheelchair and spoke in an electronic voice, through his computer.

And every time he talked, his dialogue was in a different font than everyone else's dialogue.

In other words, not Courier.

And somehow, it worked. It captured the form that his dialogue was always taking, and didn't let you forget that it was electronic. And you shouldn't forget, because watching the movie you certainly won't.

So I'm considering doing the same thing. If I can find the right font, that somehow captures what I am going for, without being too distracting. (And if my archaic Final Draft can even change fonts. So it might be a moot point).

But another part of me worries that it's a gimmick, that jaded contest readers or young assistants or uptight story analysts will snort and take off points, as if it is a sign of my amateurism, rather than an attempt to use a tool to really capture something in my script.

Yeah, I know, I'm a reader, and we should have firm opinions about these things. But it's not like all of us readers get together and compare notes.

But I say if I play with it, and it works... maybe it's worth doing.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cleaning Up Other People's Messes

So my friend Tom posted a meme (no, I can't pronounce it or define it either) over on his blog, challenging people to name four films they'd like to rewrite, for any reason.

Good question.

I think the best answer are movies that almost work for you. Not utter crap, but films that hint at the great film that is there, but just wasn't realized.

So a quartet, completely underthought and off the top of my head --

UNBREAKABLE. Though this could be any of M. Night Shyamalan's post Sixth Sense oeuvre. He's a great director (really), but seems to be a lazy writer. Unbreakable could have been great, and has some great sequences, but it peters out at the end, wastes a main character with a lot of potential, while the climax is as flat as flat can be. I'm not sure how I would have fixed it (it probably needs a whole new third act), but it would have been worth the whack.

PEARL HARBOR. 40 minutes of great combat stuff, lost in some really bad character stuff. How would I have fixed this? Let's start by setting the entire movie at Pearl Harbor. Make it about the place, the arriving pilots, the seemingly-easy-paradise-duty, and allow the (better-developed, more-interesting) characters to unfold against the backdrop of this world. And then the roof caves in.

ELIZABETHTOWN. Again, some very good scenes, lost in a story that really never gets started. I like some of the cute romantic stuff, I even like the road trip at the end, which could have been a quirky road movie all of its own. But the family stuff needs some real reworking; it's a complete non-starter here. It needs an actual plot, not just secondary characters bumping up against the lead for no real purpose, or a main character who too often seems comatose.

STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE. I'd make it more about the kid; tell it from his POV, have the Jedis come into his world. Lose the racist stereotypes, lose all the painfully dry political stuff, and keep in mind throughout that you can make a movie for all ages without putting something like Jar Jar Binks in it.

Fell free to crack on my picks here, though if you're going to make picks of your own, do it over at Tom's place (The One Year Push); it's his meme.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Let's Talk About The Bucket

The longer I read, the more intolerant I have gotten about dumb logic mistakes in scripts.

There's nothing that makes me throw a script across the room quicker than when something happens in a screenplay that makes no sense at all, and only exists because it serves the plot.

Of course, I wasn't always this way. Because it took a long time for the bucket to bother me.

In fact, I don't think I even realized how stupid the bucket was, until I was an adult.

The bucket, of course, is the bucket of water that Dorothy throws on the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, melting her.

There are so many amazing things wrong with the bucket.

First of all, it has no reason being there. None. It is just... there.

Think about this. You're a witch. And your main Achilles' heel (other than houses falling on you, which knocked off your sis) is that water will melt you.

I mean, you have to know this. Because it takes a lot of effort to avoid water your whole life.

We're talking no showers. No swimming in pools, or lakes, or skinning-dipping in the local pond. No dancing through the rain as a little girl.

I'm guessing there probably wasn't any running water in her castle. Too much of a risk. No toilets, because she wouldn't want to risk the splashback.

Could she even drink water? Or was she limited to juice? Milk? Martinis?

(I know there was a novel that came out about a decade ago about the Wicked Witch of the West, called WICKED. I have no idea whether it dealt with any of this.)

But despite what must have been a tyrannical water ban... there's a bucket of water. Just sort of sitting there.

As a villain, this whole water-will-kill-me thing makes her very vulnerable, and ultimately rather painfully easy to defeat.

And you'd have to think word would have gotten around about the water avoidance. Hell, the smell alone... unless she could cure that with a spell.

Or with perfume, like the French.

But obviously, rumor must have spread that the witches have this water problem. And the obvious fix is to have Dorothy learn of this, and bring a little water with her, to actively take on the witch. A stoppered bottle, a prototype water pistol.

Hell, even a flying monkey, that needs to pee really badly.

But Dorothy has no idea.

And this is the second problem. She douses the witch with the bucket accidentally, while putting out the scarecrow. Who is on fire. Caused by the witch, who is too stupid to realize that she might be bringing the bucket into play. The bucket of water, that shouldn't even be there.

Obviously, the idea is that Dorothy is really not a bad person. She's not a killer, she just conveniently kills witches by pure contrivance.

And looking back, I have no idea why none of this occurred to me as a kid. Maybe because, as a child, I was more than ready to suspend my disbelief for the right movie.

And some people -- even adults -- get mad when you bring up the bucket. They don't even want to think about the bucket.

They just want the bucket to do its job.

I'm more jaded now. The bucket has to be earned.

I think that's a good thing. Maybe not.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

In Praise Of A Great Writer

PBS is running a documentary on playwright Eugene O'Neill this coming week, that is supposed to be great.

Not only does it cover O'Neill's life and works (in less than 2 hours), but it also delves deeply into his creative process.

Plus studs like Al Pacino do bits from his work.

The amazing thing about O'Neill, who died in 1953, was that he had already won 3 Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize (the only one ever awarded to an American playwright) before he dug deep into his own demons late in life (while battling health problems) and wrote the three plays he is most known for -- "The Iceman Cometh", "Long Day's Journey Into Night", and "A Moon For the Misbegotten".

O'Neill was born in a hotel room in Times Square, to a tyrannical actor father and a depressive, morphine-addicted mother, who later blamed O'Neill for her drug problems. O'Neill had such a bad drinking problem when he was 23, that he tried killing himself, before giving up the heavy boozing that was killing him and turning to playwriting.

He won Pulitzers for "Beyond the Horizon", "Anna Christie" and "Strange Interlude". But rather than rest on his laurels, he dug deep into the wreckage of his family, and into himself, for his late, great works.

O'Neill died at age 65, from a progressive neurological disease that left him unable to write for nearly his entire last decade.

I'm ashamed to admit that I'm largely unfamiliar with his plays. And I don't think I would have wanted his life. But kudos to him for wrestling it into something that managed to move a lot of people.

This week, on PBS. Seek it out.

Friday, March 24, 2006

I'm Forgetting the Smell of Popcorn

I was just looking at the list of the top 50 movies at the box office last weekend, and I was semi-stunned to realize that I hadn't seen the top 19.

#20 is Brokeback Mountain. That may be the deepest I ever had to go down a list to find a film I saw.

But it makes sense. I haven't been to see a movie in at least 6 weeks, and before that I was just catching up on late 2005 releases.

I haven't seen a 2006 release yet.

Because I haven't wanted to.

There generally comes a time each weekend when my wife and I think about seeing a movie. There's a multiplex a couple of miles away, an art house theater over in Encino, even a weird place on Fallbrook that mixes artsy stuff, new releases and Bollywood movies.

We chew over the options. And so far, there just hasn't been anything that lures us away from another night of TV and Scrabble.

V for Vendetta almost did it last weekend. Not quite.

Failure to Launch? Saw the trailer, felt like I saw the movie.

She's the Man? Amanda Bynes is no Joyce Hyser.

I wasn't always this picky. Back in my movie theater manager days, I used to see about 160 movies in theaters a year. I'd watch anything.

It helps that I don't mind seeing a movie alone. I'd say that, back in my single days, probably 90% of the movies I saw, I was by myself.

But now I'm married. Every year, I'll see a couple of movies without my wife, but generally anything I want to see, she wants to see too, so we'll see it together.

So that's makes one even more inclined to see good movies.

But the first three months of the year are always the doldrums. The theaters are filled with palate-cleansing nonsense after the late-year wave of Oscar-grubbing films comes out.

Which is really stupid. There were times in December that we had so many choices, that a lot of movies I wanted to see just slipped away. Hell, if I even had the chance to see The Family Stone now, I'd take it. Even The Ringer would be tempting.

Fortunately, the sky seems to be clearing.

Thank You For Smoking goes wider this weekend. Maybe it'll hit the valley. Inside Man looks like it might be good.

Otherwise, the selections are Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (yikes), and Stay Alive, which is a PG-13 horror movie, and what's the point of that?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Kind of Thing that Gives Voiceover a Bad Name

Voiceover is one of those tools that should be used wisely.

I'm not one of those who doesn't think it should never be used; if it works for your story, and you can wield it with the skill of a swordsman, go for it.

Just know that it's true that there is a lot of bad voiceover out there.

The following is an example from a particularly pretentious, superficial script I read last night (submitted to a prodco from a producer).

To set the context, Jasmine (the name has been changed) is working as a Parisian escort, though she doesn't actually seem to have needed to sleep with anyone. Sexy Marcus, who has hired her, suspects her amateur status. She wishes she had met him under different circumstances.

He unveiled a feeling within me I hadn't
discovered, I hadn't known. I soon felt a
vacuum of uncertainty emerge like a storm
causing me to question where I stood within
my own gamut of truth and lies.

Italics the author's.

Headache the reader's.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Must Be Nice.

So there's this guy named Russell Gewirtz.

7 years ago, his family sells one of their NY clothing stores, leaving 33-year-old Russell with a pile of money.

He was a lawyer, but now he doesn't have to be a lawyer, so for the next three years he just lives the high life, travelling between Cannes, Brazil and Miami Beach.

As he happily says "I didn't have to wear socks for three years."

Russell had written some short stories while younger, and while watching movies he feels an affinity for film, and decides to write a screenplay.

Russell runs into a producer friend at Cannes, and pitches an idea he has. The producer loves it, and helps guide Russell through the process of writing his first screenplay.

Within a year, the script is in good enough shape to take to an agency.

Ten days after Russell signs with an agent, the script is sold to Universal.

Three years later, the movie is coming out on Friday.

"Inside Man". Starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. Directed by Spike Lee.

I'm not sure if this is a tale of hope, or if it is going to be one of those things that bad amateur writers cite when they try to sell their first screenplay. Maybe a bit of both.

All I know is that I wish I had the chance -- the time -- to do nothing but write.

With no socks on.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

What's With Gang Tattoos?

Every time I read a script about a street gang, they inevitably have their gang name or symbol tattooed in some readily-visible place.

And this ultimately does more harm than good, because there's usually a moment where one is being questioned by a cop, who sees the tattoo, and knows that the character is in the gang.

And I'm wondering if real street gangs are this dumb. You don't see Mafia hitmen with "MADE" tattooed across their fingers.

Doesn't it make it obvious if you are caught with a spray paint can next to the same symbol on a wall that's on your wrist?

I get it if you are part of an organization that isn't considered automatically criminal, but if the cops are going to give you crap just because you are in a violent, drug-dealing gang prone to drive-bys and violence, don't you want to make it a little harder for them -- or for the rival gang that wants to kill anyone in your gang?

Just once, I want to read a script in which the newest member, told to get this tattoo, tells them how stupid this is, and how it really helps with the whole plausible deniability thing if you don't have a gang tattoo on your arm or your hand.

Or he brings up that, because the gang only has 10 members and they all live in the same neighborhood, that it doesn't even help for IDing members of the gangs.

Better yet, why can't they get random tattoos, just to blow the cops' minds?

Instead, writers have characters walking around who might as well have "arrest me" stamped on their foreheads.

At least if you have the leather jacket with the gang name on the back, you can choose not to wear it. Or you can claim it's your boyfriend's.

Plausible deniability.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Hey, I'm Now Pitching For The Atlanta Braves

Actually, I'm not, but someone with my exact name - Scott Mullen - is.

He's a left-handed pitcher who has been around for a while; he even won 4 games for the Royals 4 years ago, and pitched briefly for the Dodgers before heading to Japan, where he's played for the past few years.

It's weird having someone out there with your name, though. I know there are others, too; I've gotten phone calls from people trying to track down other guys named Scott Mullen (at least, so they claim). It's not that common of a last name, but it pops up other places; Mel Gibson's family's last name in RANSOM is Mullen.

I haven't seen a movie yet where my name comes up, but I'm sure that happens to people all the time. Lord help you if your name is Vito Corleone. Or Steve Stifler.

Or Jar-Jar Binks.

Whenever I google myself though, all I get is the pitcher. Which is actually sort of cool, because I've always loved baseball, and fantasized about being a star.

Hopefully the Braves will release him though. Because I'm a diehard Mets fan, and the Braves are the enemy. And hey, the Mets could use another lefty.

That's my fantasy, right there. A baseball card of Scott Mullen, in a Mets uniform.

Oh well. If I ever go to Japan, at least everyone will be able to pronounce my name, which is more than I can say for my mother-in-law.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Glimpse Into Development Hell

So one of the companies I read for (a fairly major production company) gave me an interesting assignment this week.

They gave me four drafts of a script they have in development. The first was dated in November 2002, the last in April 2003.

My job was to do a somewhat-detailed synopsis of the first one (it came out to about 4 pages long). And then, while doing a synopsis of each of the subsequent ones, I had to put all of the new stuff in bold.

I never did this before, but it's actually very effective. It's a good way to track how various drafts ebb and flow, because in bold the changes really pop out.

I wish I had done this for some of the scripts I have written, because it also makes it easier to dig back into drafts and find stuff that was lost along the way.

But the really interesting this about this assignment? It really gave an insight into the development of a script. I'd read one draft, think about the work it needed, and then I'd read the next draft, and see if it got it.

These four scripts were actually the latest in a long line; I know this because the examples they gave me of what they wanted the synopses to look like were of three earlier drafts of the same script, one a year from 1999, 2000 and 2001.

From what I can tell, the script was originally written by two guys. A third guy was brought in, to do at least one pass at it. The drafts I had were all the work of a fourth guy. None of the names are familiar.

Glancing at the plot from the earlier drafts, it's clear that the fourth guy did some decent work early. It's a comedy, and the changes to the story are smarter; among other things, a goofy-seeming subplot involving mobsters was excised.

But even the first of the four drafts I got was far from perfect. Call it 50% there. Some funny gags, but the two main characters really aren't developed well, though they have the potential to be. Basically, the main storyline just isn't there yet, and there is a lot of funny stuff that could come out of the characters if what the characters were doing made any sense.

But as I'm reading the next three drafts, it just becomes apparent that what is really wrong with the script just isn't being addressed much at all.

There are changes, definitely, and some are smart ones, though a few seem to miss the point. There are some new running gags, that add laughs even if they are still a bit underexplored. There are some ideas that should be the basis of major comic subplots.

Each draft, the script is better. The problem? It's not that much better.

Even comedies need to be based around a solid storyline. But the changes here really aren't addressing the story; they are just moving around some of the details. Whatever writer #4 brought to the table, he did it in the first draft I read. If that one was 50%, maybe by the fourth draft it's 52% there.

So this might be a good example of the development scenario that no one really talks about much, that is probably really common.

Everyone likes to argue whether development improves a script, or ruins it. Here, it's really not doing either. It's just adding draft after draft to a potentially-interesting idea with story and character problems, in which the drafts really aren't addressing these problems, just coming up with a few more gags to hang on it.

And sadly, this is probably how bad movies are made. Because if a name comedian wanted to do this, they'd probably just make it. And it wouldn't be a terrible movie, but it wouldn't be a very good one either.

I guess the idea that they are having me do this is a sign that maybe someone wants to go back and try to figure out how to make the script work. So in theory someone realizes that at this point it doesn't.


The sad irony?

They are paying me just to do the four synopses. They don't want any analysis.

Oh well. Here's hoping that writer #5 doesn't worry about rearranging the deck chairs, and goes down to plug the leak instead.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sometimes, It Just Boggles The Mind

So I was reading a TV pilot spec last night, as a writing sample for one of the companies that I work for. And this gem appeared on page 1.


A female with died blond hair leans over to do the first line of coke. (This is PAULA JOHNSON)


It's hard to know where to start. The fact that doesn't end in a period is dumb, the parenthetical is awkward, and I don't know when it become cool to write "female" rather than "woman" (I think people have been watching too much CSI).

Of course, it's the "died blond" that really jumps out. Even the blond bothers me, because it should be "blonde".

Why am I picking on this writer?

Because he's repped by CAA. And they are sending this out as a WRITING SAMPLE. With all of this crap on the first page.

Yeah, if the story had been great, it probably wouldn't have mattered. But it isn't.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Paul Haggis

Rather quietly last weekend, Paul Haggis became the first writer in history to write two consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners.

Even more amazing? Million Dollar Baby and Crash were his first two screenplays to reach theaters.

(Turns out he wrote and directed something called Red Hot in 1993. Balthazar Getty and Carla Gugino. Apparently it went straight to video, and then left video. It doesn't seem to be available on any format now.)

He wrote both Million Dollar Baby and Crash on spec. For Million Dollar Baby, he optioned the short stories they were based on. Word is that Clint Eastwood directed Haggis' script as written.

Crash started out as a dream Haggis had one night. He called up his friend Bobby Moresco, and they knocked out the script.

Haggis was 51 years old before he had a movie produced that hit movie theaters. Which is sort of encouraging. I'm 42, so on one level it makes me feel young.

On another level, it makes me feel very old.

Because Haggis isn't really an overnight sensation. He's been writing TV since his early 20s, on TV shows like One Day At a Time, The Love Boat and Diff'rent Strokes. He worked on The Facts of Life during its later years, when a very young George Clooney was part of the cast, and no one could have guessed they'd be up for 5 Oscars between them in two decades.

(The mind boggles as well, at the thought of how the racial politics of Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life planted the seed of what would someday become Crash. Okay, maybe not. But again, I liked Crash).

Haggis wrote and directed episodes of Thirtysomething, LA Law and Family Law. He created TV series like EZ Streets (which was supposed to be great) and Walker, Texas Ranger (which at least got Chuck Norris out of movies).

Haggis has been busting his ass for a long time. Working his way up. And when he got the chance, when he built some connections, he spec'd a couple of great scripts.

He had a heart attack during the filming of Crash. He refused to let anyone else finish directing it, and returned to the set 2 weeks later.

This year, he has another script coming out, called "Flags of Our Fathers", about Iwo Jima. Directed by Clint Eastwood. So three in a row isn't out of the question.

Sometimes it's all about paying your dues, and building your chops.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Couple of Blogs I Like

The other day, I finally got around to adding a few more names to my sidebar of blogs I like.

Writer Ken Levine's is one; if you don't check him every day, start doing it now. One of the most regular posters, as well as one of the most knowledgable and funny.

Patrick Rodio has been writing Could You Describe The Ruckus? for about six months now, and he's already trying to predict the summer box office. Patrick has written a ton of stuff, and any day now I expect him to sell something.

And my old friend Tom has started writing a blog, The One Year Push, chronicalling his attempt to try and spark his screenwriting career. His post today is particularly good.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I just read this good book called "Ten On Sunday", by a former TV writer named Alan Eisenstock.

The book isn't really about writing, or about TV.

It's about the informal basketball games that Alan and his friends started playing every Sunday in the driveway of his Santa Monica house, that for five years (until Alan finally moved) turned into a hugely important thing in these guys' lives.

They scheduled their weeks around it, they even scheduled their vacations around it. Doctors, lawyers, contractors, teachers, writers, just getting together to play a little hoop, eat some bagels, chat, and eventually even get to know and care about each other.

I get this. And I wish I could have played in it.

Because I never really get to hang out with guys any more.

When I was a kid on Long Island, I hung out with the guys all the time, but when I was a kid -- and a teen -- it was easy, because time was all we seemed to have.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a huge empty lot behind me house, which we kept clean and mowed, and where we played softball. The lot was long and rectangular, so we learned not to pull the ball, but it was just the right size for a bunch of kids knocking a ball. We could even get away with playing pitcher-shortstop-outfielder.

My dad used to play softball with us all the time, too. I guess we were his guys. It would be anywhere from 3-7 kids (and eventually teens) and my dad, and it was great, because he wasn't a big jock, but he could hold his own with us.

No one else's dad ever played. Ever.

I also played board games with the guys. Stratego. Risk. Strat-o-Matic Baseball.


In high school, there was a group of guys I even regularly played bridge with. We'd drink wine coolers and shoot the shit. We weren't as nerdy as you might have thought, either.

Okay, maybe I was.

After college, in New York, there were still semi-regular poker games (which my dad joined too, naturally). And some of the guys would get together to knock a softball around, or a whiffle ball; we set up a makeshift field in the back, with an overturned wheelbarrow to mark the strike zone.

But then we got older. You lose the free time. People move; you move. I lived in Manhattan. My buddy Kevin moved up to Albany, then down to North Carolina.

For a while, in our late 20s/early 30s, me and my pal-since-3rd-grade Joe would still go down there to see Kevin. Play some golf (I was bad, while the courses had lakes - bad combo), play some Strat-o-Matic, play some Magic: The Gathering (it was a phase, we got over it). Beer and pizza, Sportscenter playing on loop on the TV.

Then Kevin got married, and he had less time. I moved out to Los Angeles, and suddenly that's far. And I see the guys less and less.

Poker games if/when I visit my folks at Christmas. Everyone came out for my wedding 6 years ago, and we played some cards then. Even got in a round of golf. Everyone to New York 17 months ago for Joe's wedding; played some poker then, too.

Nickel-dime-quarter. It's not about the money, it's about the guys.

But now the poker games in New York go on without me. Out here we play poker too, but the wives and other women jump in. It's fun, don't get me wrong.

But it's not a guy thing.

The closest I came to hanging out with the guys here in California was 4 years ago, when my brother-in-law Steve got me to join his Saturday softball team. Bunch of guys in their 20s/30s, playing on a field in Glendale.

I was the old guy; they batted me down at the bottom of the order, and made me play catcher, which in that league meant standing 10 feet behind the plate and picking up the pitch on the third bounce.

Still, it was fun. It's also the best time I've ever had with my brother-in-law, who I really have nothing in common with.

Except, on that field, we were guys together.

And when that first season was over, damned if I didn't have the second-highest batting average on the team, albeit mostly dinkers and dunkers over the infield.

Saturdays went on for a while, then shifted to Wednesdays, and then the team fell apart, as teams usually do.

And now I only see Steve at family birthdays and holidays.

I'm older now, but I don't feel old. Still, there never seems to be any time. And there never seem to be any guys. I'm cursed with two lonely professions -- I'm a reader, and I'm a writer.

So I play poker now and again, with the ladies. Went to a great Oscar party the other day; met a lot of nice people.

But there's just something different about hanging out with the guys.

And that book made me nostalgic about something I just don't have in my life any more, and I'm not really sure how to get back.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Today's Eye-Rolling Conspiracy Theory....

Film critic Kenneth Turan has an article in today's LA Times, in which he blames Brokeback Mountain's not winning Best Picture on homophobia by the voters.

Writes Turan, "In the privacy of the voting booth... people are free to act out the unspoken fears or unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed Brokeback Mountain."

Of course, some obvious flaws in this argument quickly emerge. Voters certainly weren't against the movie (or homosexuality) enough not to vote Ang Lee best director, or the film best screenplay, or Philip Seymour Hoffman best actor for playing a gay man in Capote.

But it's when you read deeper into the article that the reasons for Kenneth Turan's take become clear --

Kenneth Turan HATED Crash. HATED it.

And in Kenneth Turan's mind, the only possible way that Crash could have won, is because homophobic voters who didn't vote for Brokeback Mountain defaulted to Crash instead.

Writes Turan, "For people who were discomfited by Brokeback Mountain but wanted to look at themselves in the mirror, and feel as if they were good, productive liberals, "Crash" provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what "Brokeback" had to offer. And that's what they did."


I have a real hard time believing that when the average Academy voter sits down to fill out their ballot, they aren't simply voting for something they liked.

And if one wants to credit the idea that voters would shift their votes away from Brokeback Mountain to another well-meaning movie, wouldn't the more logical choice have been "Goodnight and Good Luck"? Especially if you believe that Crash sucked? Goodnight and Good Luck is an almost universally-acclaimed movie that has none of that pesky LA racism; instead, it's filled with good people doing good, brave things. THAT would have been the safe harbor choice.

In fact, one could easily argue that more voters were uncomfortable with the portrayal of LA being rife with racism, and that many of them would have more logically shifted their vote to the safe, well-reviewed Brokeback Mountain.

(By the way, I don't have a horse in this race. Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Capote and Goodnight and Good Luck were all on my top ten list for the year.)

When you try to make sweeping generalizations about a group of people, you're just asking for trouble. Were there voters who didn't vote for Brokeback Mountain because they are homophobic? Probably. Was it a substantial amount? Probably not.

The amazing thing about Crash is that it won despite the fact that a lot of people totally hate it. It's one of the most divisive movies I can remember.

If you ask the people who have seen Brokeback Mountain to rate it from one to ten, even the people who don't think it is great will give it at least a 5 or a 6.

Crash pretty much splits people down the middle. It seems like either you think it was a 9 or a 10, or a 1. The people it didn't work for (and I can sort of see their side of it) see it as contrived and manipulative, or criticize it by claiming that it is trying to make you feel better about yourself because you aren't as bad as the people in the movie.

Still, even if only 30% of the Academy voters thought Crash was the best movie of the year, and 70% thought it sucked ass, that still would have been enough to easily win the vote. The count could well have been:

30% Crash
25% Brokeback Mountain
20% Goodnight and Good Luck
15% Capote
10% Munich

What this all points up is just how flawed the Oscars are. Winners don't need a clear majority, while criteria for victory is vague at best, particularly in the acting categories.

They are chosen by a group of people who can be easily derided as having conflicts of interest (though they probably don't), or can even be described as being massively homophobic -- despite the fact that Hollywood is one of the most gay-friendly businesses in the world.

They are the faceless mass known as "Hollywood", who are continually credited for giving people awards or not for particular reasons, when in reality they never do anything for any one reason.

My conspiracy theory? Maybe people were just choosing what they thought was the best movie of the year.

Oh well. At least Salma Hayek looked hot.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

This Year's Oscar Drinking Game

Take one drink if...

-- Joan Rivers embarrasses herself on the red carpet.

-- Someone on the red carpet takes the opportunity to pimp their upcoming release.

-- Felicity Huffman turns up looking HOT, just to remind everyone that she is neither a man or a frazzled desperate housewife.

-- The opening sequence tries to distance itself from Billy Crystal singing, but you still miss Billy.

-- Jon Stewart mentions his dire film career.

-- There is a shot of Peter Coyote lurking around backstage, doing voiceover stuff while trying to get someone to hire him to actually act.

-- You guess the Best Supporting Actress winner wrong.

-- You guess the Best Supporting Actor winner wrong.

-- Jon Stewart makes a Dick Cheney joke, or one about the Knicks. Or about something else having nothing remotely to do with movies.

-- They pair up two presenters who have nothing to do with each other, and you can't come up with a good joke about why. Or why they paired a 5' 8" guy with a 5' 11" woman in heels.

-- Someone makes a joke involving the words "I can't quit you" (even if it is someone in the room watching with you). Limit 7.

-- The winner of Best Live Action Short thrusts the Oscar into the air.

-- The winner of Best Costume is wearing something boring.

-- They cut to someone who is there with their mother.

-- They cut away to Jack Nicholson looking smug. And he isn't with his mother.

-- There's a commercial for a movie in which something blows up, despite the fact that no one watching the Oscars this year actually likes that kind of movie.

-- Any of the winners comments about how "important" their movie was. (But 3 drinks if it's the Wallace and Gromit guys).

-- You wonder how Dolly Parton's breasts are still staying up.

-- Jon Stewart makes a joke about Dolly's breasts (two drinks if he wonders if the wire guys from "The Matrix" are involved).

-- Larry McMurtry wins best script for "Brokeback", and mentions his damn typewriter again.

-- They run the death roll, and there's someone you forgot was dead (pour a little bit of your drink on the floor, in respect).

-- They pan over the crowd, and there's someone you forgot was alive.

-- Reese Witherspoon lets a little more of that southern accent slip into her acceptance speech, just because it's cute.

-- You're relieved that Philip Seymour Hoffman shaved.

-- Jon Stewart makes a joke about the length of the show.

-- Ang Lee resists the opportunity to apologize for "The Hulk" -- or try to defend it by pointing out the gay subtext.

-- Someone in the room you are in points out that Martin Scorcese got ripped off again -- even though he didn't direct a movie last year.

-- The producers of Brokeback Mountain accept their award by announcing that they are doing a prequel, involving a gay cowboy's forbidden love with a gay Indian, against the backdrop of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Feel free to add to this list...

Friday, March 03, 2006

I Just Fled the Black Hole of Zoetrope...

To give some context, I finally wandered over to Zoetrope a week or so ago, because someone had posted something about my $60 Notes service over there.

I was surprised to run into an old friend who I hadn't spoken with in about 15 years, so I hung out there more. And then I joined in some of the screenplay discussions.


Turns out that, for whatever reason, the boards over there have apparently become the playground of the happily, aggressively ignorant.

(I'm sure there are a lot of great people over there. But most of them are very, very quiet).

There's nothing like trying to give good advice, and having it slapped down.

Of course, I should have fled earlier, when I got not one but THREE e-mails warning me not to get sucked in over there.

Instead, I got aggressively involved in a debate over format, of all things, and whether it made sense to write your script out of format, and then completely reformat it later.

My take? A waste of time. Learn to write format, have it be second nature, and then feel free to concentrate on story.

The regulars there didn't want to hear that.

One even defended not putting DAY or NIGHT in his scene headings, because -- ready for this? -- they "don't advance the story".

Finally I realized how pointless it all was, and I have finally pried myself loose. Though not without this final rant, which came in response to one of the regulars complaining that "no one helps beginning writers". I'm going to repost my rant here, because what the hell.

"A few things...

I feel like I just spent too much time with beginning writers, just posting on this topic. (And yeah, I know I'm a beginning writer too. Doesn't mean I don't speak from experience).

Sometimes I feel like I need to offer advice. If beginning writers don't want to listen, that's their problem.

You know what. Write your script however you want. Just know that there are 1000 -- 10,000? 100,000? -- people writing better stories than you, and their craft is impeccable. And that's what you're up against.

And there are 100,000 people writing utter crap. And that's what your script may resemble.

The irony that no one is talking about? The "rules" are really set up for the protection of the beginning writer, because you aren't ready to deal with most of these tools/devices/ways to break format. It would be one thing if everyone were required to actually learn -- to write 10 screenplays before trying to submit one -- but that's not the case. Everyone wants to sell something now, now, now. No one is ready.

So it's like the warning signs on the really steep expert ski slope. You all want to ignore them, and the bodies are piling up on the bottom.

There's an excerpt up there somewhere from Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", that is actually a great example of how if you are a great writer you can bend the rules.

As far as I can see, few (if any) people who have been posting here are ready to bend the rules. Because you just aren't good enough writers yet. So your writing is pointless and hard to read, like Lawrence's excerpt somewhere above, where you have to work harder just to figure out what's going on.

And yeah, now you are pissed off, because no one likes rules telling them what not to do. And you think you're ready, but you're not, because you don't even understand what I'm talking about.

It's not about format. It's about telling a great story. And the "rules" for format (which are loose in many areas) enable you to do that in a way that will make your script more readable and professional.

Correct format is easy. You should be able to pound out pages in correct format without even it being an issue. If you can't, then you really haven't put enough effort into this writing thing.

This is baby Screenwriting 101 stuff.

But maybe you need to take that course again. Because it's part of a growth curve that just doesn't seem to be here."

The irony is that I was initially trying to be nice, and see how they turned me into a bitter ranter? Yikes. Life's too short.