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

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Chases and Confrontations

It's amazing how often you see people warning writers against not using voiceover or flashback, because of the difficulty of using them right and because they tend to show up in the scripts of bad writers.

But no one warns about chases and confrontations, which to me are even more of an amateurish sign.

Too often they are just placeholders in a script. A writer has run out of story, needs something to happen, so they will throw in a chase. Or a confrontation. Or, even more generally, a confrontation, which the good guy ultimately flees, and is chased.

Don't get me wrong, I think chases and confrontations can be great, if done right. And they are also commercial; two current hits, the Da Vinci Code and Mission Impossible III, have lots of them.

But if you are going to throw a chase or a confrontation in your script, makes sure it satisfies both of the following conditions:

1) It should be integral to the plot.

2) There should be something fresh or inspired about it.

In regards to the second one, it's amazing how often people just dump in the same tired confrontations into the scripts I read. If I never had to read a random bar-room brawl again, I'd be happy.

But too often, these scenes are there not because they really fit in the movie, but because the writer seems to think they should. A typical script has an ordinary guy who suddenly finds himself pursued by thugs/the authorities/mobsters and is on the run for the whole script. "Enemy of the State" did this right. "The Fugitive" did this right.

But the generic script will have a lot of scenes in which bad guys burst into the good guy's apartment, and the good guy will either be able to flee down the fire escape or out the front door, and then make it to his car. Then there will be a car chase, and he'll lose the bad guys, often by driving down an alley and having a truck conveniently back up between him and the pursuing guys.

Then the main character will go to his girlfriend's apartment, the thugs will burst in again, and it will all start over.

Then there's the type of script (often affiliated) where the guy is fighting for his life; literally, everyone is being killed around him. But for some reason the villains never seem to be trying to harm the main guy in the scenes with him; despite being an ordinary guy (and more likely to be the target of death than half the supporting characters who are killed), he is able to get away too easily.

Chases and confrontations really have to kick ass if you want them to be the script. But your script ultimately needs to be about the story that links all these scenes together anyway; if this structure is solid, then the chases and confrontations won't feel as forced.

So before you drop a chase and a confrontation into your script, ask yourself these questions:

1) What does this scene reveal about my character?

2) How does this scene advance the story?

3) If it doesn't really advance the story, but it is just there because it seems time for a fight or a chase (or both), then can it reveal things about my character and advance the story anyway? And can it be so fresh and original that even if it doesn't, it'll be cool and memorable?

4) Is the car crashing into the fruit stand really necessary?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

An Interesting Little Contest...

Twixter pointed out an interesting little writing contest to me, that seems pretty easy: minimal writing, with possible production as a short film if you win, along with credit and $50. And unlike most contests, it doesn't cost anything to enter.

It's called the My Take film contest, and the idea is that you have to write a 1-2 page script with only these lines of dialogue, in this order:

"You nervous"
"A little"
"It's my first time"
"Really, you've never -"

Obviously, the trick is fleshing it out with lots of unique scene description. Sounds like the perfect gig for some of the oddball writing souls that drop by here.

Full rules and details here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

An Impossibly-Weird Plot Moment

So I saw Mission Impossible III over the weekend, which I actually liked for what it was, a fun thrill ride that holds together well as long as you don't actually think about it too much.

Except for one sequence, that had me largely baffled.

(No real spoilers. Read on.)

In a key part of the movie, Tom Cruise has to save his wife by stealing a certain item from a heavy-guarded building in Shanghai, that despite his being given 48 hours to get, somehow comes down to his actually only having 15 minutes to do it.

(Like I said, don't actually think about it too much).

It's actually a great writing test for a screenwriter. It's time for a big setpiece, in which your hero is indeed faced with an impossible mission; not only does he have to swing on a wire from one building to another, then gun down a bunch of guards (which we see); he then has to go down into the building, and find this object in less than fifteen minutes, despite the fact that he doesn't know exactly where it is, and he has to do it without being spotted or shot.

It's a mission so hard that the bad guy would rather have Tom Cruise do it than send in his own heavily-trained gunmen to do it.

Plus the setpiece has to be different enough from all the other setpieces of this movie (and the previous two movies), so that the audience doesn't feel you are going back into the same well again.

The filmmakers' solution?

They completely blow it off.

There's no setpiece at all.

Tom Cruise disappears into the building, and suddenly it's ten minutes later, and two of his cohorts are praying for him in the car (because this amazing mission is so impossible, even jaded agents worry he can't do it, though given that they have no other apparent purpose there than praying, one wonders why they bothered coming).

And then rather than give us any idea of what happened in the intervening ten-plus minutes, Tom is suddenly parachuting out a window with the item.

I have no idea whether there was a setpiece, and they cut it for budget reasons, or for pacing reasons, or whether they just couldn't come up with anything and did this bit of filler instead.

But it feels dumb, and lazy. They go to all this trouble to set up this contrived storyline, and then they can't even be bothered to pay off the action bits they are setting up. It wouldn't even have taken much, just a few bits of cleverness and then you can parachute him out the window.

Apparently a $150 million budget doesn't buy as much as it used to.

By the way, even though I saw this on at a 4 PM show on the movie's third Saturday, there were only 8 people in the whole theater. It was so quiet that Katie Holmes could have given birth in there.

Friday, May 19, 2006

When To Hide and When To Reveal

So I did buy a HP laptop, with plenty of memory power that I probably don't need, and auxiliary ports all over the side that I have no idea what to plug into -- there are more unfilled holes in this thing than a convent full of nuns.

The good news is that I'm using it to drive me to write more. Every night I go down to the dining room (well, it's not really a dining room, it's just the part of the living room with the table on it that we actually never eat on, because we're always eating in front of the TV), turn the laptop on, and just do the screenwriting thing.

It feels good.

I've moved my still-untitled supernatural thriller back up the front burner, and I'm back to reworking the first act. So far, so good. The main thrust here is still on eliminating the whole early sequence that establishes the main character and her unique situation, and instead dropping right into the story, and letting the audience wonder what the hell is going on with this woman, as information slowly emerges in dribs and drabs.

On the plus side, it kicks the story off a lot faster; the backstory sequence wasn't bad, but it didn't kick ass, and it ate up 12 valuable can't-start-the-story-yet pages. As it is, from the info we learn along the way it's pretty easy to guess what happened, and the audience's imagination of these events may well be better than what I actually came up with.

So the whole sequence, and all of its characters that never turn up again, are now in the metaphorical dumpster, where hobos can shove it aside as they search for apple cores and pizza.

The downside, of course, is figuring out when to reveal stuff. When I'm critiquing other people's scripts, this is often an issue that comes up.

Too many people try to make too much a mystery early, so the audience doesn't have anything to ground themselves in. Unless you are telling a very specific kind of story, it's not good to have the audience confused and uneasy for that long.

I'm a big fan of making the audience fairly comfortable with a situation as it is unfolding; give them enough info so that they don't feel lost, or that you're just jerking them around by hiding things from them. Then layer in the reveals.

But still, the idea of giving your character some mystery, something that is learned along the way, has to be balanced with this.

So in my first pass at the first act, I cut the backstory bit, and then promptly drop a big speech into my character's mouth in which she tells another character the whole story.

Ugh. Particularly inappropriate for this character, who is really not very talkative early on here.

So now I'm writing deeper. Figuring out ways to bring the audience along into the story, to give them little aha moments where they can see my character going through something and learn about her backstory that way.

The great thing about showing and not telling is that it really emphasizes the need to make your story more dynamic. It's not about talking heads, it's about action revealing character, it's about trusting the audience to make the logical jumps and appreciate a story that exposes more layers as it goes on in interesting fashion, rather than just having characters contrivedly blurt out chunks of backstory exposition.

In theory I know all this stuff, but every tale is different, and it's nice to be able to wrestle with my own script and really being able to spot what's not working and what needs to be reworked.

And to always realize that there's a lot of other ways to tackle a sequence, and that you should play with as many different of these ways as possible, just to see what will happen. Because good enough ins't really good enough.

But no complaints so far about my laptop, which is a delight despite the fact that I still have no idea what it can do. But I'm going to figure it out.

Monday, May 15, 2006

And Your Audience Is...?

So I just read a screenplay for a producer that I occasionally read things for.

The main character is a 12-year-old girl, who gets into an uneasy alliance with some popular 12-year-old girls, who are all fans of this boy band; they join forces to try and win a radio contest to meet the band.

It's not the worst premise, if you are trying to make a goofy comedy for 8-14 year-old girls, which the often bubblegum-ish take on the material would indicate.

But, inexplicably, the script is also inappropriately dirty. There are sexual references throughout, the girl's mother is lusting after an evangelist, the girls catch their principal in a hotel room in bed with his secretary, and worst of all these 12-year-old girls hope to lose their virginity to the band (with the fact that they think losing their virginity means "exposing their naked bodies to" still not helping much).

So in other words, this isn't a movie for little girls. But there really isn't anything here to entertain adults either; it's not that funny, it's not that clever, and it just feels like a really bad Disney Channel movie rewritten by a horny 14-year-old boy. It's a perfect example of a script without an audience (because ultimately even that horny 14-year-old would be bored by most of this).

Ironically, it was written by two women.

For a writer, the best case scenario is to write something like Pirates of the Caribbean or Spiderman, that can appeal to a big swath of age groups. But even if you aren't doing something that's aggressively commercial, make sure that there is some audience that's going to like it.

But taking a kids tale, and trying to adult-it up inappropriately to go after the adults? You're just risking losing both audiences, especially if you do it as badly as this script does.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Garage Sale Cassette Tapes

My attitude as regards to technology is basically "If it works, why change it?"

My cellphone, which I have had for about 7 years now, is more of a brick than my laptop is. Literally. I'm pretty sure I have the biggest cellphone in active service today.

I have had waitresses at diners eye in it shock. One even asked me if I accidentally brought my cordless phone from home.

Musically, I'm swamped. Being that I'm in my early 40s, I have a slew of albums, 4 shoeboxes full of cassettes and shelves full of CDs. I refuse to get an iPod; I have plenty of music and formats already.

Anyhow, my car ("the rolling brick", I guess) doesn't have a CD player, but it has a tape deck. Which is cool, because when else am I going to actually listen to cassette tapes?

The wife and I are in the habit of cruising around on Sunday mornings, looking for estate sales, garage sales, and yard sales (which are actually all the same thing around here; the phrasing is really just an indication of the pretentiousness or desperation of the seller). We head east on Ventura Boulevard, and look for badly drawn signs with arrows that often seem to point into trees.

The great thing is that often people will have their old cassette tapes out for sale, because no one listens to cassette tapes any more. So I can pick up classic albums-on-tape for 25 or 50 cents, and pop them in my car to listen to while I'm going to pick up work somewhere.

So, the other day I bought a few cassettes of well-known old albums, that I inexplicably have never owned or listened to. It's sort of like time-traveling back to the past.

One was U2's "The Joshua Tree", which turned out to be amazing.

The other was John Lennon and Yoko Oko's "Double Fantasy", the one John released just before he was killed. It spawned at least 5 hit singles, plus the goofy "Dear Yoko", which somehow works. So I had high hopes for it.


I know it's poor form to speak ill of the dead, and I love John Lennon. And the hit songs on this album are great. But wow, is there some truly bad music on this album.

Because half the songs are Yoko's. They ALTERNATE SONGS.

And Yoko's songs are bad. Not just bad, dreadful. Nails on the blackboard, murdering cats, crazy-woman-ranting-on-the-block godawful.

She squeaks, she moans, she sings off-key. There's not a hook to be found.

At least when Linda McCartney sang, it was dumb fun, like "Cook of the House". Not here.

And because it's a cassette tape, there's no real way to get just John and not Yoko. I found myself desperately jabbing at the fast-forward button while doing 65 on the highway, but the endless caterwalling continued.

But at the same time, John's songs are mostly about how he loves Yoko, which is kind of cool, because he isn't afraid to put it out there. In a way, a lot of his songs are an explanation; one senses that he knew her songs were -- um -- an "acquired taste", but he loves her, and he's giving her half the album, like it or lump it.

In a way, it's a little snapshot of their years together, for better or for worse.

Worth the 50 cents. Easily.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Answering a Few More Questions

Q: Out of the 9000 (or whatever) pieces of coverage that you have done, what percentage of the time have you been truly impressed by the work -- to the point that you are even a little bit jealous?

Honestly? Not as often as you might think.

There are certain times when good writing really comes together, a combination of originality and just inspired storytelling. I can remember reading "Being John Malkovich", and thinking "wow". I can also remember reading some mediocre David Mamet, and not going wow.

A lot of writers are very good at what they do, but there are really few times when I read something that I honestly don't feel I could have written. A lot of the stuff I read, from pros or from solid wanna-bes, is well-written on a scene-by-scene basis -- but it's all about whether it comes together as a story.

Often good dialogue will get an envious reaction from me, because that's not my strong suit. I'll read scenes with just natural, breezy, witty dialogue that doesn't feel forced, and that feels like a gift I wish I had.

There's a guy in Iowa who has paid me to read several of his scripts, who writes some of the best character-comic dialogue I have ever read. If he can pump up his story-telling skills to the same level, he's going to be a great screenwriter.

Q: Often spec monkeys are told to write something completely original -- Thank You For Smoking, for example -- and that the world doesn't need another serial killer story. But almost any script will seem derivative when you put it in a genre. So how do you transcend the genre? Do readers reach page 10, and think "Oh gawd, not another police procedural"? Even if that script has a great story with something unique about it?

I think one of the keys to originality is not just regurgitating the same old things we've seen in a million movies. If you are going to do a police procedural (which with the success of so many TV series like Law and Order has really become more of a TV genre now), you'd better have a big, interesting story, and you should research the hell out of it. Even readers want to feel that their eyes are being opened up to a new world, and learning new things; details can rock your script.

What I hate when reading a script is the feeling that I've read the same script hundreds of times before, because the "research" the writers seem to be doing is relying on their memories of the movies they are aping. So high school comedies will have the bitchy teen goddess, and give her exactly two sidekicks and a bullyish quarterback boyfriend. Bad romantic comedies will inevitably contain the scene in which the female lead thinks she sees her boyfriend kissing the vamp who is after him, then turn away just before the guy pushes the vamp away.

I can't tell you have many scripts I have read in which the main character loses their job, then catches their girlfriend in bed with another guy, then gets evicted from their apartment, all within 2 pages.

Figure out ways to twist as many story points as possible. Surprise the reader by taking things in interesting directions. The key is to use genre convention in fresh and interesting ways while remaining true to the story you are trying to tell.

As for "Thank You For Smoking", it was a book that did pretty well, so as a spec script example it's not the best. But "Rushmore" would be a great example of a screenplay that tackled the whole teen comedy genre in a very new way, or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" a way to bring life to the whole romantic comedy genre.

If a script has a great story with something unique about it, readers will be thrilled. Trust me.

Q: What, specifically, are you looking for on that first page that will keep you reading on?

The ironic thing about screenplays is that they are designed to be movies, and of course when they are movies, hooking the audience with the first few minutes won't be of key importance; you've gotten their money, they are a captive audience, and the opening can be slow as hell if the movie as a whole works.

"Casablanca" opens with a bunch of stuff on the screen to read, big clunky exposition setting up its story. On the page, it probably wasn't much of a gripper. On the screen, it all works.

As a reader, I'm a captive audience too, because I have to read every page of every script I get, that's my job. But obviously with a lot of people in the business hooking them is going to be a major concern; you want an exec or an agent to pick up your script and get so into it that they are cancelling meetings just to be able to finish it in one sitting.

Of course, there's no easy answer to how to write a perfect opening. But in general, you need to give a real sense that you are about to tell an interesting story. Jump right into an intriguing situation. Introduce a fresh, dramatic, or funny main character. Though it's somewhat overused, opening the tale with a chunk of action from later in the movie, and then jumping back three days (or whatever) can grab a reader, because it gives the subsequent scenes, setting up your main character, a real sense of where the script is going.

Clunkier, common things to probably avoid (unless you can pull it off really really well) : Dream sequences. Bits in which you pan across the main character's messy room, and then stop on him waking up. A lot of awkward voiceover, overexplaining the backstory.

Here's an exercise. Flip around cable channels watching random movies/TV shows. What happens that makes you want to watch a little longer? What are the things that hook you?

Q: Does anyone really care, or even notice, if a screenplay is on 20 lb or 24 lb paper?

No idea. By the time it gets to me, it has been photocopied (maybe more than once), so generally what I get is common photocopier paper.

My stupid human trick, thanks to years of reading, is that I can now hold a script between two fingers and pretty much tell you without looking how long it is, within a page or two.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

So I Need Some Laptop Advice

The laptop I currently have is a Compaq Presario that I bought 8 years ago, and it probably wasn't new then; I have a feeling the store saw me coming, and pawned off something from the back room on me.

Computer-savvy I am not.

Anyhow, though I have this laptop, I rarely use it because it's gotten more and more awful over the years. Don't ask me the specs, I have no idea, but it's mind-numbingly slow and powerless -- it literally takes 10 minutes to go from being off to being on the Internet, and then freezes if you actually try to do much online.

It was fine for typing scripts on, but now it suddenly won't let me save anything onto disk. Plus it's so heavy, it's not really portable. It's a brick.

Long story short, I need to buy a brand new laptop.

So I'm looking through the Sunday circular ads out there, and it becomes clear that there's a wide range of laptops available, with price escalation largely due to memory size.

I don't want to spend a huge amount of money on a laptop, especially if I'm spending money on bells and whistles and excess memory I don't need. I have a regular computer (as balky and aging as it sometimes is), and all I need to do on the laptop is write screenplays, and maybe hop on the Internet now and then. Maybe carry it over to a coffee shop, and use it there. That's all.

I don't need to download videos or burn stuff or anything like that.

So how many gigabytes does my hard drive really need to be? 40? 60? 80? 100? 120?

How much memory do I really need? 128? 256?

Which brands are good? Which should I avoid with all desperation?

Give me some advice, horror stories, etc.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Touching Base

Sorry. I just popped in, and noticed I'd only posted about 7 words in the last five days.

Sometimes I feel like my blog is a child, that occasionally I plop down in front of the TV and forget about for a little while (yeah, I'm going to be a great dad someday. Good thing there's no porn in the house).

Updates --

WRITING. In an encouraging bit of karma, work slowed down in the last few weeks just enough to give me a chance to give a solid polishing to my two good old scripts (the twins) and submit them to the Nicholl Fellowship. I actually mailed them in five days early too, which is shamefully early for someone whose gifts to his nieces and nephews always seem to get there late.

Then, literally, as soon as I mailed them off, I was swamped with work again. If I'd put off either script, it probably wouldn't have made the submission deadline.


By the way, did you ever pick up one of your scripts that you hadn't read for a year or two, and read through it, and not remember writing sections? Or read, it, and thought about how good of a writer you were "back then".

I had that in spades.

THE DIABETES. Aside from a trip to one of those Japanese teppan restaurants last weekend (love watching the cooks doing their thing in front of me, and hell, I had fish and chicken, so I wasn't that bad), I've been a very good boy with the diet and exercise, at least until I tweaked my hamstring the other day. So the treadmill is on hold for a few days, but I'm going to hit the pool later, and do some laps (even though the pool is so small that I could do 100 "laps" in about 3 minutes).

My blood sugar is way down, I've dropped at least 4 pounds in the past three weeks, I have more energy, and I'm sleeping better. So it's still all good.

Though I'm also going through the phase in which I read labels on everything, and I am constantly still appalled by things I ate as meals. I've also become hyper-sensitive to how other people are making pigs of themselves, which I hope I get over, because who wants to be THAT guy?

THE FUTURE. I still need to get more diligent about my writing. I need to shake out the rewrite of this supernatural thriller, I should knock out a draft of the sex-filled horror movie that I did 40 random pages of a few months ago, I need to do a definitive version of my fantasy/comedy, my teen sex comedy is still stuck on notecards, and me and my buddy Dave are still occasionally throwing ideas back and forth on ideas we may try to collaborate on even though we're 1000 miles apart.

So I'm not hurting for things to write. Just time.

Man, I'd love to see what I could turn out if I had the ability to do nothing but write for just a few months.