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

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Weekend Boxoffice #25

There are three movies opening widely this weekend:

MEET THE ROBINSONS (3413 screens). This looks like it could be funny, but from the commercials I have seen I have no idea what it is about, other than there's a dinosaur with short arms and a goofy voice. Still, it's the most interesting-looking family film out there. Prediction? $32.5 million.

BLADES OF GLORY (3372 screens). I think this has a good shot to be #1, because it looks funny, and people like funny. The early word, unfortunately, is that Will Ferrell blows Jon Heder off the screen (not really a good thing given that they are costars), but the laughs should still be there. $37.2 million.

THE LOOKOUT (955 screens). This is supposed to be pretty good, though it might take a little time for word to get out, and it's not on very many screens yet. $7.7 million.

Your guesses?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

1000 Jump Shots From The Corner

This past Monday night at our script group, my friend Deb put on a full reading of her screenplay. Because the main characters are 14-year-old girls, she went outside the actors in our group, and cast two 15-year-old girls, professional actresses, to play the leads.

The girls were great, and impressively they really worked hard at it. Though it was a staged reading, there was a lot of movement by the actors, and they obviously learned a lot of their lines. These two girls put a lot of time and effort into reading these parts --

Time and effort that has no tangible payoff. Because if this script is made into a movie, they likely won't get the roles. They weren't paid, and they probably didn't meet anyone who is going to further their careers, both of which are going pretty well anyway; one has a fairly-major role in a movie coming out this spring.

So why did they do it? And why do all these other actors pop by the group every Monday night, to read these pages by us lowly scribes?

Because they are actors, and because they like doing it. Because it's a good training tool; every time they read something, cold read a character, practice an accent, play off another actor, it's going to make them just a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable, the next time they have to audition for something.

And maybe it's just fun to exercise the muscles of the thing they have chosen as their lives.

No one thinks it is odd when an aspiring basketball player plays a pick-up game at the local park. No one feels it is strange when a young basketball player shows up at the gym in the morning to take 1000 jump shots from the corner. It's expected. It's what you do.

For actors, it's the same way.

For writers? Ah...

The odd thing about screenwriting is that the screenplay form is a weird beast. It's not really meant to be read by a wide audience; it's just a stepping stone to something else.

Still, it's something solid. Something one can hold in their hands. And that might be the problem.

For actors and basketball players, learning their crafts is a matter of just going out and putting in the work, with insubstantial rewards. Sure, actors can accumulate lines on a resume, but most of the work they do has been forgotten in ten years. Basketball players play a lot of ball, they take millions of shots in their lives, but individual scores of games don't matter as much as the fun of playing, while the immense practice time they put in is only reflected in their improved skillsets.

But writers always have the fruits of their "practice". The best way to become a writer is to learn to write, to write every day, but the catch is that this writing actually produces something, pages that pile up on one's desk.

And I think that's the trap that too many aspiring writers fall into. It's just way too easy to forget about the learning curve, when the learning curve is producing something that "could" be sellable.

So suddenly the learning curve becomes the writing-something-to-sell curve. For way too many writers that I have dealt with, the motivation is not "what can I do to make myself a better writer", it's "how can I sell this first script right now". And they don't want to listen when you tell them that they shouldn't even bother, until they have written 5 scripts, or 10. Really learned what it takes to be a writer.

As someone once told me, when you can't remember how many scripts you have actually written, then maybe you are on the right path.

Still, it's rare as writers, outside of writing class, that we actually write something as pure exercise, as writing-for-writing's sake, to explore something in particular, to hone one aspect of one's writing, or even to have fun. It's rare that we do what these actors do, just show up somewhere one night a week and practice our craft for the hell of it, and not because it's going to produce something tangible.

One reason is probably because writing is by its nature a solitary, internal profession. But another is because, I believe, most of us have trained ourselves to focus all of our writing energy on actually producing something that might just sell, rather than on exercising other writing muscles.

I've actually been lucky along the way, because I have been paid at random times to do some odd, educational writing work. For Miramax (apparently because Harvey's brain freezes if he has to read anything not in screenplay form), I once had to type up the play version of "Chicago" into screenplay form. It's an experience retyping something a good writer has written, you really get a feel for how something that someone else has written flows over a screenplay page.

How many people would do that if they weren't getting paid for it?

For another company, I regularly had to do scene breakdowns. Literally, it was a chart that listed every single scene in a screenplay, where it took place, and what happened in the scene. Again, it's another interesting way of learning how to break down scripts, and see how they build and flow. Not a whole lot of actual writing, but again, something that helped me in some way as a writer.

Again, not something that most writers would even consider doing if there wasn't a paycheck at the end of it. And it's sad, really. I'm not saying that I'm not just as guilty as everyone else; I am. Too much of my screenwriting education has been an accidental side-effect of my day job.

But screenwriting is hard to do well, and Hollywood is littered with the scripts that come out of people who really haven't come close to mastering it, the people who think that the end-result of their playing with the screenplay form for the first time is somehow worthy of actually being made into a movie. That occasionally one hears of someone selling the first thing they ever wrote only feeds this idea.

Personally, I think there should be a law. Writers should be required to write five scripts, while also doing other things to learn their craft. Writers should treat it like they are learning to be doctors; you have to learn the nuts and bolts before you are ready to actually step up and be a pro. Writers should treat this learning process as a time when it doesn't matter what you write, because you aren't allowed to submit it anywhere.

Five scripts. And only then can you start inflicting your scripts on agents, managers, producers.

I know, I know. Crazy. And obviously it's unenforcable, and I know, your third script was great. And your second. And your first.


Take the metaphorical 1000 jump shots from the corner every day for five years. Learn your craft. There are no real shortcuts.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Weekend Boxoffice #24

Spring is here, which means that movies are opening in fast, furious fashion, to clean out the crap from winter and lead audiences into funny, intelligent movie experiences.

In theory, of course. Your actual funny, intelligent movie experience may vary.

This week, there are six movies opening, on at least 1500 theaters each:

TMNT (3110 screens). Yes, that's the official name of the movie. For some reason, studios think kids love initials more than actually saying "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". Anyhow, this looks dumb, and it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see it aside from little boys. It'll still probably make around $16 million, but who knows, could be a lot more.

THE LAST MIMZY (3017 screens). I'd like to believe that families would be smart enough to take their kids to this rather than TMNT, but The Last Mimzy is a real stupid title, the commercials don't do a very good job bringing across the movie, and reviews haven't been good. I think it'll do some cash from the we-have-to-take-the-kids-to-something-they-are-driving-me-crazy-no-not-those-damn-turtles market, but I can't imagine this is really going to break out. $6.9 million.

SHOOTER (2806 screens). I think this will be number 1 for the weekend. It looks entertaining, Wahlberg's a likable actor, and the reviews have generally been good. $26.2 million.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (2447 screens). They don't have my eyes. $12.7 million.

REIGN OVER ME (1671 screens). I love Don Cheadle, and I like Adam Sandler, and I want to see this movie, but... I don't know. It looks like a downer; you know that if they can't find a funny scene to put in the commercial to at least make you think it's a funny Adam Sandler movie, then this must be really serious. Which can be a good thing, if the film is great, and the reviews have been decent. Though I saw Mike Binder's last film (Man About Town, with Ben Affleck) and wow was that bad. So... I don't know. $8.1 million.

PRIDE (1518 screens). I'm not sure what the audience is for an earnest little movie about black swimmers, and I think there's way to much competition out there right now for this to do well. $4.7 million.

Sadly, all these new movies mean that some older films are being bounced out of theaters; the big victim is Zodiac, which is losing two-thirds of its screens in its 4th weekend. It never did catch on, though I bet it'll find ots audience on DVD.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Charlie Kaufman

So I finally read Charlie Kaufman's next screenplay, "Synecdoche, NY", which he is also directing; it is starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I'm not one to splash plot details or spoilers on my blog of something that isn't out yet, so all I'll say about the story is that it's about a theater director who falls ill, and then odd things happen.

I'll also say that:

IT'S LONG. 152 pages. Kids, don't try this at home.

IT'S VERY STRANGE, AND NOT MUCH FUN. This is much more David Lynch than Spike Jonze; it's unpredictable, but it's also a bit glum in its weirdness.

KAUFMAN WRITES VERY GOOD DIALOGUE. As someone who reads (and writes) a lot of dialogue that tends to the mediocre, it's nice to read back-and-forth dialogue that has some real shape and snap.

THERE ARE SOME INTERESTING WOMEN'S ROLES. And he has cast the hell out of them -- Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tilda Swinton, Samantha Morton, in some combination of actress-to-part.

IT'S NOT VERY MAINSTREAM. It's hard to see this finding much of an audience; it has a definite art-house vibe to it. It might rival "Human Nature" for the lowest-grossing thing he has ever written. Unless he nails it, and it catches on, then.... who knows?

But there's enough here that is so intriguing that I'll go to see it when it comes out, just to see if he can pull it off.

Enough said.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some Weeks, I Just Have Nothing To Write

I seem to be getting to the point of a blogger's life where the well is running a little dry.

In the past, I fell back on posts on reading: amusing typos, complaints about common errors, advice for writers. But the mental file cabinet is empty now.

I haven't seen a movie in a theater in ages, so I can't weigh in on whether 300 looks too fake or too perfect or if it is too bloody or just bloody enough.

I've been busy with work, so I haven't written a word in my script in about 10 days, but I certainly don't want to blog about that. Much.

The new Nicholl Fellowship applications are out, so I guess I could blog about what a great experience being a semifinalist was last year. Except it wasn't such a great experience. People requested my script, people were sent my script, people didn't care.

So other than the minimal respect garnered from being able to say I was a Nicholl semi-finalist (hey, anything helps) there wasn't much there.

Not that you shouldn't enter. Go for it.

I've been planning to blog on the new scripts by Charlie Kaufman and Noah Baumbach, two of my favorite writers, but I haven't read them yet. I have them, but they are sitting under a pile of something. Somewhere. Someday I'll read them, when I feel like picking up another script at the end of a long day.

If there's a post about one of them tomorrow, you'll know I did.

I've been watching some decent TV DVDs for my reviewing-crap-in-exchange-for-DVDs job, which is basically geared toward filling the late-night hours when I don't feel like reading or writing; it feels more productive than watching the stuff actually on TV at midnight. So I watched the first season of a British cold case TV series called "Waking the Dead", which is very good, and I watched the first season of a Fox sitcom called "The Loop", which was surprisingly funny in an amiably-juvenile way.

I suppose I could write about taking Sunday off and driving up the coast with the wife; we hung out at the Santa Barbara marina for a while, and watched the little crabs scuttle around. Some day we'll break into Oprah's place, but we haven't figured out where it is yet.

So I don't really have much to write about. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Weekend Boxoffice #23

Expect 300 to dominate this weekend again, though there are three new movies opening wide:

PREMONITION (2831 screens). It'll be interesting to see how this does, since it's the kind of tale I tend to write; unfortunately the reviews haven't been good. Still, Sandra Bullock's career might have some life in it. $16.7 million in its first three days.

DEAD SILENCE (1803 screens). From the guys who did SAW, which is about its only selling point. $7.3 million.

I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE (1776 screens). Somewhat mixed reviews, but Rock has a lot of fans. $9.7 million.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Commentary Tracks

So as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've been doing some DVD reviews for a website, in exchange for free DVDs.

It's sort of an experiment on my part. I've found that my movie-watching is down a lot, and I wanted to be forced to watch a wide swath of movies, the good stuff along with the bad.

A wide swath it is indeed.

One thing I'm amused by are commentary tracks. I watched a few decidedly-mediocre films in the past week, in which the director does a commentary track, and just once I'd like them to talk about why their vision didn't result in a film that actually works. Of course, they never do; most of them just spend their time praising the actors and the crew. Few of them offer anything that is intructive to any aspiring writers or directors.

So I want to know where the bar is. What's your favorite commentary track? The most entertaining? The most informative? The most honest?

Let me know where the bar should be set, because none of the ones I've listened to recently set the bar very high (and though I have a ton of DVDs of movies I like, many with commentaries, most of them I've never found the time to listen to).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Buyer Beware

A few weeks before Christmas, to make Christmas shopping for my brother and sister and their families easier, I bought them what I gave them last year -- a family day out.

Essentially, a $100 American Express gift card, and a camera to take photos of whatever they do with it.

It worked so well last year that when I mentioned switching to actual gifts this year, they said no, that they liked the "family fun day" idea instead.

So I went down to my local Vons, and bought two $100 American Express gift cards, which are cool because they can be used anywhere.

Fast forward a few months. My sister, who lives in Connecticut, finally goes to use hers -- and they tell her it was reported stolen. So she sends it back to me, to try and get things sorted out.

I contact my brother in Alaska, asking him to check his. He finally does, and finds that inside the $100 gift card packaging is a $50 gift card, and when he checks it online it tells him that there is $2.13 on it.

What. The. Fuck.

He eventually sent his gift card back, and I took it back to Vons, and they are trying to take care of it, though they weren't happy to see me. Why not?

Because they'd already had to deal with a ton of similar incidents. Just in this one Vons.

So I don't know what's going on, but there seems to have been a screw-up of epic proportions somewhere, though I haven't heard of any mentions of it anywhere.

Hopefully it'll get straightened out, and I'll get my cash back.

Beware when you buy any sort of gift card, though, particularly American Express. And save every receipt you get (I didn't, and it is complicating things).

Meanwhile, I'll be sending out checks next year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Weekend Boxoffice #22

Only one film opening very wide this week, but it's a big dog: 300, opening on about 4800 screens at 3103 theaters.

Unfortunately it's apparently not all that good.

Shot-in-the-dark guess? It'll do about $35.6 million in its first three days.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Group Is Good

So this past Monday night I got to debut the first 26 pages of my new script at my screenwriting group.

For those of you who haven't been following along, this is a very cool group over in Studio City, in which actors sit on the stage and read long chunks of four writers' scripts every week. Afterward, the other writers in attendance throw a lot of knowledgable notes at you. It was the second time one of my scripts was read; after the first session, I bounced that flawed tale to the back-burner while I fast-tracked this new one.

This is the first writing group I have ever been in, and I'm finding it productive in several ways:

IT IMPOSES A DEADLINE. There's nothing like knowing that you have to have 25 pages ready on a specific date to force to to set aside the time and actually do the work. Though in a perfect world, I'd set aside this time myself, this isn't always a perfect world, and it's nice to have a goal, particularly when I'm as swamped with other stuff as I am now.

IT MAKES YOU WRITE BETTER, AND TIGHTER. Nothing jumps out like a typo (or just plain bad dialogue) coming out of someone's mouth; fear of that made me polish my script pages to a shine. But I also had a problem in that I wanted the reading to stop at a specific beat, and as of Saturday night that beat was on page 30. So I curled up with the script on Sunday, just cutting out the fat, eliminating unimportant lines of dialogue and tightening scene descriptions. After another go-through on Monday, that story moment was on page 26, which was much better anyway. Most scripts can use a good shake-out like this in general.

IT GIVES YOU A BETTER SENSE EARLIER IF THINGS ARE WORKING. There's nothing worse than pouring a lot of time into knocking out a complete draft of a script, only to realize that there are fundamental flaws that you really wished you'd seen a lot earlier. Though my 26 pages were fairly solid (and I have the rest of the script fairly well blocked out in my head), I did get a lot of good notes to help me see what needs to be emphasized more and how certain things were and weren't playing, that is going to wind up effecting the shape of certain upcoming sequences in important ways. And it was nice to see that no one saw the page 22 twist coming.

HEARING YOUR WORDS IS INVALUABLE. For most of the reading, I sat in the audience with my eyes closed, just listening to the actors (as well as to the veteran actor reading the scene description). It's remarkable how different things sometimes come across when you are hearing them, rather than seeing it on the page. It also helps with my writing, because now I have a better sense of how the things I write sound as I am writing them.

So it's all good so far. The organizer of the group has assembled a solid, ego-free collection of writers and actors, and I'm all geeked-out to churn out the next 25 pages for my next session. It's nice to see that the people there were intrigued by the first 26 too; having expectations to live up to is a nice driving force as well.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Of Course, You Wouldn't Buy This If It Happened in a Road Movie...

My wife, her legally-blind sister and their mother are currently on a road trip down into the heart of Mexico, where my mother-in-law was born.

Which sounds like a movie in and of itself -- sort of a cross between Thelma and Louise and Y Tu Mama Tambien. I'd see it, as long as it didn't suddenly swerve into Turistas.

Anyhow, my wife calls me up the other day with a story.

It turns out that they'd gotten delayed at the border, tried to make the drive to their destination anyway, but found themselves at 2 AM in the middle of nowhere in Mexico.

So they stop to get gas, and ask the attendant if there is a hotel around there.

He gives them directions, and they wind up at this huge white house. It doesn't look like a hotel, there's no sign, but they figure maybe it's a bed and breakfast.

So they knock on the door, and a sleepy woman finally answers, and she tells them that they are mistaken, that it is just her house.

So my wife, her sister and my mother-in-law pile back into the car, my mother-in-law backs out of the woman's driveway --

And she runs over the woman's lamppost. Flattening it.

So they look at each other, and get out of the car, and knock on the woman's door again, and they explain what has happened.

And the woman is not only not mad, but she tells them that she has some empty beds, and she invites them to stay for the night.

And they do.

And in the morning, she gives them breakfast.

And invites them to spend the night there again on their way back if they need to.

They had to talk her into taking some money to pay for the lamppost.

It's nice to see that there are some good people in the world. Next time someone wakes me up at 2 AM, I'll try not to be so crabby.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Weekend Boxoffice #21

Opening this weekend:

WILD HOGS (3287 screens). The reviews I've seen seem underwhelmed, but it's a comedy, you can't beat the cast, and I think people will turn out in droves. I estimate it'll do $26.7 million for the three-day weekend.

ZODIAC (2362 screens). Apparently its more of a thoughtful character/investigative tale than a serial killer one, though it's supposed to be fairly good. $15.7 million.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (1252 screens). This seemed like it was going to be a big sleeper hit, but it seems like the backlash is already starting, and reviews haven't been particularly good, while the screen count is really rather low. Still, it should muster up about $9 million.