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

Friday, June 30, 2006

Mr. Fix-It, Pt. II

Updating my "Adventures on the Edges" post, the very-low-paid, no-credit rewrite continues.

I really feel the urge to blog about this, because there's a lot of ambiguity to it on many levels. The whole idea of rewriting someone else's script is always a dicey thing, though in this instance, I'm able to justify it in several important ways:

1) The script has a good, high-concept horror-thriller idea, and C- execution. And, despite being given a lot of opportunities, the original writer just never managed to elevate the material much from his original half-assed take on it. And the writer has (supposedly, though I trust my producer/friend who told me this) given the tacit okay to overhaul it without him.

2) As rewrites go, I think I'm approaching it in a way that you'd want some guy rewriting your script to approach it from. I'm doing it because the basic idea has really fired up my imagination, and I want to make the script work. I'm NOT doing it simply for a paycheck (obviously), while I'm importantly NOT doing it with an eye on making enough changes to it to get my name on it as a co-writer, because it was made clear to me that that was off the table from the start.

And that's actually very freeing. There's no baggage here, no conflicting motivations pulling at me. It's just about bringing out the potential in this script, and making it kick ass.

3) It's a much, much better script now, but at the same time, it's still the original writer's structure and story. If it's a car metaphor, the engine is his, but I've souped it up, and completely overhauled the rest car to make it a better ride inside and out.

This update comes because I spent much of the past two days (probably about 10 hours total typing, 3 more hours on the phone) doing another major rewrite of the script, incorporating scads of notes that the producer and I worked out together. If I ever do sell a script to a producer, this would be the kind of relationship I want; he liked my ideas, added some refinements, we kicked a lot of stuff around over the phone, and hammered out a string of much better second half action beats.

And then I just sat down at my laptop, and disappeared into the zone again.

And that's what has me freaked out, and exhilarated. Because I've rediscovered something in the past week, that I thought I'd lost. The ability to just sit down, and write, and write, and write, and write good stuff, and crank out endless pages, and finally look up and realize that 4 hours have passed and I didn't even notice.

That's heaven, and that's what I need to continue with my own stuff. As soon as this rewrite is over (it's almost there, maybe one more tighten-up-the-nuts polish, but the major work is done) I can try to translate this new writing zone to my stuff.

And lord knows, I have enough choices in my own things-to-be-written pile to find one that has me disappearing into the laptop for 2-3 hours every night.

I can't wait.

So it's a weird shame that I'm finding all of this inspiration in a script that I have no claim to; if the producer can set it up, he'll probably throw me a bit more cash, and if it helps make him a little more of a player, well hopefully he'll throw me some work in the future with some real money attached. Of course, if this movie is made, and is successful (which is possible; it has some good moments, for a lowbrow thriller), it's the original C- writer who will get the gigs from it.

But again, it's not months of work that I've sunk into it, it's literally days. It's been a hell of an experience, my first actually working with a producer, aggressively shaping work, pounding away on a tight deadline, and discovering that it feels really, really good.

So even if the script goes nowhere, I think it's still win-win.

And if anything happens with the script in the future, I'll send up a flare.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Today's Word -- Gormless

So I'm reading a book (for work, naturally), and I come across this character description:

"He was a walking definition of 'gormless'".

Gormless is a word that I've vaguely encountered in the past, but I have absolutely no idea what it means, and the problem with being a "walking definition" on the page is that if you don't know the definition to begin with, you're sort of stuck.

I know the word is British, because they have lots of great words like this, that somehow inexplicably never made the crossing to America.

So I look in my big tattered dictionary (so tattered that I think it's a Webster's, though since the cover -- and cover pages -- are long gone, it's unclear what it is). It has provided lots of obscure words in the past to aid in Scrabble triple-word scores, so I figure gormless has got to be there.


So it's on to the Internet, where you can google anything (side note: I saw two separate things on TV the other day that made a sexual joke out of the idea of "googling" something. So the joke has been made. Take it out of your script).

178,000 hits. 178,000 hits on Gormless? Yikes.

And there's the definition.

Gormless. It means "stupid or slow-witted". Which I wish I knew when I was 10, because it's a great insult that makes people actually feel a bit gormless when they look it up and realize maybe they are.

Gormlessness is a word. So is gormlessly. "Gorm", however, has disappeared into the ether. So without gorm, maybe everyone is gormless.

I'm not saying you should use obscure words like this in a screenplay; you shouldn't. But it's kind of fun to have them hanging up on the wall of your brain, ready to unsheathe if they are ever necessary for witty byplay in the real world.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Adventures on the Edges

So occasionally, over the past few months, I've been helping a friend (okay, a former exec from a company I used to work for, who is now trying to make it as an independent producer, who I am friendly with. And who is younger than me, of course, sigh.) with a project he has been working on.

He optioned a dark thriller from a writer, and has been throwing me a little money to give him notes on how to make it better.

(By a little money, I mean mid-three digits. Total. Not a lot, but more per pass than my $60 script notes offer. Because basically, he has no money.)

His original offer was $1000 to rewrite the damn thing, but I was rather leery of this, because A) The script needed a lot of work, and B) It should be the original writer doing that work, and C) That's way too much work for $1000, particularly since it wouldn't include writing credit along with it.

So I threw him notes on a draft, and sure enough he got the original writer to make some changes, and then I threw him notes on the next draft, and the next. The script coming together more and more each time, plus the guy had friends looking at it, and putting in their two cents.

So I read the latest draft, and it's closer. Still not there yet, but closer.

The problem was that the original writer was burned out on it, and told the producer to make any further changes himself. The producer isn't really a writer, but he knows that changes have to be made (because my latest set of "this is what the script needs to work" notes were pretty dead on, and because at 117 pages it is bloated and puffy), and he's rolling up his sleeves, and getting ready to do it himself.

So my dilemma was this --

There's a good idea here, that could be a movie, and I can see sequences in my head, that aren't going to get written unless I write them. There's a whole cool subplot that really needs to be added, that I find myself making notes on about how to do right.

This, of course, is the moment you know you are hooked. And for me, maybe I needed to be hooked. Because I haven't worked much on my own stuff in the past few months, and any writing that gets me excited has to be a good thing.

So I shot off an e-mail to the producer, offering to do a pass myself. To add in all the fixes that I suggested in my last set of notes, throw in the cool subplot, and try to tighten up every scene to get the script to flow better.

He, of course, said thank you.

Still no writing credit. Probably no more immediate money. But if the movie ever gets made, if it helps his career get started, it'll help mine as well.

So fuck it. I've been writing on spec my whole life. I can rewrite on spec too. Plus, again, given the limited actual hours I've probably put into thinking about this script over the past few months, even if it goes nowhere the money I have seen still covers it.

So I curled up with the script on my new laptop (which is finally getting some extended use), and started reworking stuff from page one, with the little asterix thingy turned on to let him know where the changes are.

Putting in the fixes was really sort of easy; I'd identified the problem areas, he added a few thoughts of his own, and I reworked the scenes. The subplot was fun to add, and if this movie is ever made, the new sequences definitely provide a lot of the most memorable scenes, plus some nudity and gore for the kids.

The interesting part was the tightening-down process. My notes had generally focused on getting the story right; I wasn't going to harp on tightening everything else down until the structure worked.

But as I started going through the script, looking for extraneous things to cut, I realized they were all over the place.


#1) If you are writing a horror/thriller, you really don't need scads of dialogue that just makes the same minor exposition points over and over.

For some reason, the writer was obsessed about explaining how this one woman is raising her younger brother, and why she is friends with this other woman, and that's fine, but establish it and move on. Don't keep having characters blandly talk about it.

#2) There's really no reason to have characters talk to each other on the phone about what just happened, especially since the audience just saw what happened. I get that this happens in real life, but wow did it play redundantly here, and there was a LOT of it.

Ironically, there's a beat in this script where phone service goes out. So I just moved it 30 pages earlier. Boom. No way to make phone calls, so no phone calls. All of these incredibly pointless scenes, gone.

How much of this was there? Well, the script started out at 117 pages, and I added probably 3-4 pages of new subplot stuff. And by the end, the script was a nice, tight 105.

So if I did nothing else, I did THAT.

The one really happy thing about the whole experience though, was that I did it all -- the entire free rewrite/polish -- last night. I was in the zone. I curled up with this script for about 6 total hours, and took it up about four notches. I was focused, and utterly absorbed, and it all just flowed.

So if I can't find this zone with my current script, maybe it's the script, and I need to move on.

One final note. I also am realizing more and more that I am exactly like my father. Who has some unpublished work of his own stuck away somewhere, but spent most of his career working for United Press International.

As an editor.

Cleaning up other people's stories. Taking out the fat, and tightening them up.

So maybe it's in the genes. Along with the gray hair, and the grumpy driving, and the inability to hit a curve ball.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sometimes Real-World Dialogue Is Better Than Anything You Can Make Up

So I spent much of the weekend down in San Diego, where I dropped in on my brother and his family, who spent the whole week down there in Mission Bay.

They live in Alaska, and though I've been up there a few times over the years, the last time was 7 years ago, so I'd never met his 6-year-old twin daughters.

Bad uncle, I know.

So anyhow, I'm hanging out with these two little girls, who look scary-identical but are sweet nonetheless, but obviously they are a little cautious, because I'm this uncle who they have never met before.

So we swim in the ocean together, and we swim in the pool, and hey, I'm the fun uncle, and we're all having a good time. And finally, one looks at me, with big eyes, and says:

"I'm getting used to you."

Doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Somewhere, a Chinese Scientist Is Crying

So every day for about a month now, my bulk mail file has been filling up with strange e-mails whose header lines are filled with an odd combination of symbols and lines. I must get a dozen a day.

I tried to open one once, just to see, but I got a message that I needed to convert it into Chinese. Which explains the odd symbols -- it's the computer trying, badly, to recreate the actual Chinese words.

Of course, I don't convert it into Chinese, because even then I wouldn't be able to read it. And I'm sure it's just offering me something to lengthen my penis, which I (cough, cough) certainly don't need.

But the really strange thing is that the e-mails are from the future. All the dates are the same -- Monday, January 18, 2038. The dates never advance, or retreat. It's always that day.

It's probably just a glitch in the system. Though part of me also wonders if the message is coming from the future.

Just maybe, there's a Chinese scientist banging out these desperate e-mails, instructing us to do something to avoid armageddon, like banning tofu or duct-taping a plastic bag around Paris Hilton's head.

And he's weeping, because he's not getting any response. Instead, it's just delete, delete, delete.

So if he's reading this blog in the future, dude, send me a signal. Throw in one random English word -- let's make it "propinquity". Work that puppy into the header, and I'll open it, and get it translated, and I'll do Paris myself if I have to.

But if it's about my penis, let it drop.


Random bad homonym from a screenplay I just read --

The scene? A high school prom.

The students dance on a "parkay floor".


Monday, June 12, 2006

The Mattress and the Monkey

So the night after I wrote yesterday's saddo post, I had a really strange dream.

(Bear with me. I usually hate people's dreams too. But I usually don't remember mine, and hell, this one relates. I think. And it's my subconscious, which can use a bit of exploration.)

So in the dream, I'm back at my parents house on Long Island, only of course it's not how it is now, it's a blend of now and the years I grew up there, when the landscape was different -- among other things, there was a big open field behind the house, where we used to play endless softball.

And at the end of the field, if you hit it too far (which we never really did; the damn field was pretty much the perfect size for the length of our longest hits, provided that we didn't pull the ball into the houses) is a swamp. It's a small swamp, and pretty inconsequential; we used to roam around in it, the water is never deep at all, and there are no alligators. Though I did step on a wasp's nest back there when I was about 14, and was stung 18 times.

But I digress.

Anyhow, in the dream, somehow my wife and I get roped into taking part in a race, which in the dream is some big thing. It's basically around the neighborhood, which in the real world is probably 1/4 mile max, but in the dream is about 4. There's two other couples taking part in the race as well.

The catch is, as part of the race, you have to lug around a mattress. And a monkey.

I'm not sure what the mattress represents, other than the fact that they are cumbersome without ever being all that heavy. The monkey? I dunno. Kids, maybe. Except we don't have any (which makes me automatically ineligible to whine about ever being busy, I know).

So the race starts, and we're both lugging the mattress, and the monkey must be around somewhere, and we're keeping up, and then we fall behind. One of the other teams takes the path between the swamp and the houses (there was one); the other team tries to brave the middle of the swamp.

Not wanting to get stuck in the swamp behind them, we take the road around the swamp.

Only it quickly becomes clear that as a short cut it sucks. My wife is getting tired, the monkey doesn't want to be held, we're not making much progress, and again in this dream world it's a long, long road. Clearly we've lost the race. So we stop for lunch, we chat with a friend, we relax, and then we head on.

I'm carrying the mattress by myself. My hand is covered in blood, but the mattress feels lighter now. My wife has the monkey.

We get to the finish line, and learn we won the race. $200 prize (it's a random detail; I don't know what it means). I have no idea what happened to the other teams, though they are looking sad; maybe the swamp got them.

And then I wake up.

This might be the most important detail of all. I'm a night person; after my wife goes to bed at 10 (she gets up at 5:30, and has a 7-4 job she just started a few months ago) I usually work (reading/writing coverage) until 12:30-1:00, then crash in front of the TV for about half hour before going to bed and waking up at 9:00 and starting all over again.

Only this morning, it's 7:30. After typing this post, it's 7:50.

So now I'm going to go boot up that laptop, and wrassle with my script for an hour or so. Pick your metaphor. Maybe I've escaped the mattress early this morning, or maybe the point is that as obstacles go, carrying a mattress is really not the most daunting one.

Or maybe the point is not trying to fight your way through the swamp, but to take the more enjoyable route, but make sure you always keep moving for the finish line anyway (I'd say there was a tortoise and the hare element to the whole dream, though then again we did stop for lunch, which seems like a hare thing).

Maybe it's just my subconscious pissed off that I'm not writing, and it's throwing its shit at me. Like a monkey.

Though I think the monkey in the dream had a leash and a diaper.

I'm going off to write now.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

So I'm Turning Into "That Guy"...

So I'm turning into "that guy", and it's making me unhappy.

That guy I'm turning into (who am I kidding? I'm there.) is the guy who is really smart about screenwriting, and gives a lot of people a lot of good advice, and isn't doing shit himself.

The kind of guy who eventually people are going to say "Why should I listen to that guy? What has he done?"

That guy.

I don't want to be that guy.

But I'm slipping. I'm swamped with work, and writing is not just taking a back seat -- it has been left at the rest area about 500 miles back, frantically waving as it gets smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, with no one noticing.

I'm swamped, and I'm tired, and the last thing I want to do at the end of the day (or the beginning of the day, or the middle of the day) is write.

I know I have to. I have to regularly open my new, already-being-ignored laptop, and just make myself write, and make that a priority.

I know.

But I turned 43 two weeks ago. I'm getting achy in strange places. I'm tired. I'm in a funk, I'm weary, I'm overworked, I'm every writing cliche you've ever heard of.

And now I'm the whiny guy too. Fuck. I don't want to be that guy either. Though I'll even whine about my tired busy life if it'll help kick-start me out of this funk.


Well, I'm blogging again. That's something.

And at least the Mets are winning.

Tell me a joke. Something.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

I never read the book, but boy was I underwhelmed by the movie.

Just a short list of the things that bothered me --


-- I never felt that what was happening was all that important. In fact, if you look back at the whole movie, the only thing it all achieves is to let the girl learn who she is, something that wasn't a huge mystery anyway (and which became pretty obvious about 2/3 of the way in), while apparently that whole town knows anyhow; as it is, it's not even clear what the revelation really changes in her. It's unclear why her grandfather couldn't have just sat her down, told her "I know we've had our differences, but there's something you should know", and then told her. It would have acheived the same thing as the whole movie, but with a lot less albino monk angst.

-- The MacGuffin is pointless. The bad guys don't want it revealed, the good guys don't want it revealed. Only Ian McKellen wants it revealed, but he's a stupid villain, because if he had half a brain he would have just let Tom Hanks lead him to the answer, rather than trying to pull off the completely pointless reversal in the middle of the movie.

-- Important plot twists are contrived. The dying man has enough time to plant a million clues all over the museum, while even though he sets off an alarm, no one responds to it. The villains conveniently kill each other off, so that Tom Hanks and Audrey Tattou never have to get their hands dirty. Ian McKellen leaves his footprints in the only dusty place in the whole movie. Tom Hanks is able to remove a clue from an intricately designed clue holder and then put it back together with no one noticing, even though that's not what it was designed for. And the good guys make two different places have the exact same clues describe them, for no apparent reason other than the writer thought it made sense.

-- The confrontations are all really rather generic and dumb, and Tom Hanks never has any real problem escaping.

-- The puzzles were boring. There was never really the sense we ever had enough info to try and puzzle them out ourselves, so it was just all about waiting for Tom Hanks to figure them out.

-- The religious stuff was superficially handled. No one in the movie really has an interesting conversation about what impact this would all really have, while the late attempt to convince us that it really shouldn't make any differences to Christians even if it were true just makes the movie seem even more pointless and muddled.

I have no idea if the book makes more sense, but it's clear that in boiling it down to feature-length they must have lost an awful lot. I guess that's what happens if your main impetus for making a film is "the book sold a hell of a lot of copies", rather than "it's a fresh, original story that would kick ass on film".

Friday, June 02, 2006

Glug Glug

I'm absolutely drowning in reading work (with 7 more books and 8 more scripts rolling in in just the past two days), so I haven't been able to stick my head up long enough to formulate any real blog posts this week.

I do have a bad random misspelled word though, in a script co-written by a young actor (okay, it was Nick Cannon) obviously looking to play the main character himself. In one scene, he is devastated when he is fired as a dancer in a video shoot.

I'm sorry Mr. James!

I just couldn't get the image of Nick Cannon with a harpoon out of my head...