Friday, December 29, 2006

Talk like a Duck

If it looks like a duck,

if it walks like a duck,

if it quacks like a duck,

it must be... attempting to sell a screenplay.

With the Christmas season things are not moving at all. And yet I find myself getting meetings with producers about my screenplay. The sad irony is that in early December I decided it would probably be a good idea to do a page one rewrite and turn my drama into a comedy.

So, now my script is in this limbo between what I queried and what it will soon be. And of course, this is when people want to talk about it.

Ever notice how it really doesn't matter what your screenplay is about. (I know, to you it does, but I mean to people who actually matter). All that matters is the person you're talking to and their reaction to what you tell them your screenplay is about, which really could be anything. On the other hand, you really only get one shot to impress them.

Is it my clothes?

Do I smell funny?

I fidget, and have little quirks, like loud noises bother me. Or the phone ringing in the middle of my "meeting" really throws me off. Especially when the guy you're sitting with ignores it.

ME: Umm, are you going to answer that?

I guess, I should be thrilled that I am getting time to talk with this guy who has the ability to pay me for my work over the person trying to get through on the phone, but the inability to turn the ringer off during a meeting just smacks of unprofessionalism to me.

My mindset is changing.

I don't know about you, but I've always felt like the helpless writer, lost in a sea of people who know what they are doing. In a way this made it easy to play the role of the victim. Hollywood is so big and mean. They don't want my brilliance. They don't know what they're missing. Boo hoo.

Boy, was I wrong.

The overwhelming majority of people I have met are not only inept, but really do not have much more knowledge on the subject of filmmaking than I do. The major difference is that they tend to be extremely diligent and shrewd business people.

Ah ha!

It's time to play by their rules, and become a marketable property to be bought and sold.

Or at the very least something that looks like one.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hollywood's Love Affair with the Hero's Journey (pt 1): Night at the Museum

I don't intend for this site to become a massive list of reviews. In fact, I despise those sites.

However, I am ramping up to do a massive dissection of the Hero's Journey in an attempt to discover why Hollywood has married itself to this singular convention.

is a great example of strictly adhering to the Hero's Journey at the expense of the content.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is not a bad movie. It's not a good movie either. It's merely luke-warm. For today's standards, that's about par. For mine, it's a triple bogey.

It does have an interesting hook: A man takes a job as a museum security guard only to discover that the attractions come to life at night.

As a comedy and a family film I can picture this. I also have a good idea of who the protagonist is going to be.

Add a little plot: When thieves steal the amulet responsible for bringing the museum to life, the security guard must return it before daylight to save the museum attractions and his job.

Now I can picture the antagonist and the conflict. Maybe this sounds a little hokey, but in the context of the hook, a comedy, and a family film it seems to be shaking out to be a nice popcorn movie.

But there's a hitch. Someone saw the need to mess things up. What could have been wall to wall laughs and fun, instead had to drag and make children yawn. No joke.

Why does this story have anything to do with a father/son relationship?

It is the injection of the son (and ex-wife) into the story that really screws it up.

It's a big problem, I've been seeing in many current movies. The INNER CONFLICT of the character is non-existent. And I believe, producers and execs think that including a loved one automatically gives a character INNER CONFLICT. It does not. Case and point: NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.

The story thread of the son is actually an OUTER CONFLICT for the protagonist. His son wants him to get a job. The protagonist goes out to find one because...? We assume it's because he wants to spend more time with his son. He has also been hopping around from job to job... maybe he's just doing it for a sense of his own security. The point is, we really don't know.

The dilemma with expanding the son's story is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the hook or the plot. It is simply the drive for the protagonist to get a job. That's pretty shallow, if you ask me.

SON: Dad, will you get a job for me?
DAD: For you son, I'd move mountains.
SON: I said, get a job.
DAD: Oh. I'm not sure I can do that...

If the movie really wanted to incorporate the son into the story, it should have done so by including the son into the hook and plot. Instead he is merely a static outsider, observing and as a result can be cut from the film with little to no change in the overall film. In fact, it'd probably be a less boring movie to do so.

In NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, Ben Stiller actually has two separate Hero's Journeys neither of which include INNER CONFLICT. This is why the movie misses its target, even with its strict adherence to the Hero's Journey. There are hints to what each INNER CONFLICT should be, but they are never explored in any satisfactory manner.

To use STAR WARS as a good example:

I want to be a Jedi Knight (OUTER CONFLICT) like my father (INNER CONFLICT).

Just because Luke's INNER CONFLICT deals with his father, is not what makes it a good INNER CONFLICT. It's the fact that his journey to becoming a Jedi Knight incorporates his INNER CONFLICT. He is trying to live up to an ideal, both in becoming a follower of the "Force" and in wanting to be like his father (a universal theme). So he follows in his footsteps to become a Jedi Knight.

It isn't until the second movie that Luke's world is shattered when he discovers that the ideal he thought his father to be is really his arch nemesis (another universal theme). What he thought was his OUTER CONFLICT has now been put to the test. In terms of the trilogy as a singular Hero's Journey, this would be THE ORDEAL. And it is.

In the third movie, Luke must face his father to prove that he is not like his father (a third universal theme). He starts the movie RESURRECTED as a pseudo Jedi Knight, to show that despite the end of the second movie, Luke will continue on his journey towards becoming a Jedi. Yoda informs Luke that his journey to becoming a full fledged Jedi Knight will not be over until he confronts his father. A great strategy of tying the INNER and OUTER CONFLICTS together, as well as ending a trilogy.

On the other hand, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is two halves of OUTER CONFLICT coming together to form a singular Hero's Journey (which doesn't work). With no INNER CONFLICT, the movie falls flat despite a good hook, workable plot, and a handful of genuinely funny moments.

10,000 Bad Drawings - The First Screenplay

So, some of you... who am I kidding...

One lonely guy with nothing better to do during the holidays sent me an email asking about my first screenplay. His keen eyesight and moderate reading skill caught the minor detail that the screenplay I am forcing on production companies is the second I have written. So he asked:

What happened with the first? Did it get turned down? Did you get to talk to agents?

No. It did not get turned down.

No. I did not talk to agents.


Because it SUCKED!!! And I knew it.

Just to shortcut all of the emails that will flood in... Or just answer the one rebuttal email I ~~might~~ get (doubtful), I'll answer.

My GOAL for my first screenplay was to simply see if I could write 90+ pages.

That's it. It wasn't to sell it. It wasn't to make a million dollar sale. It was simply to see if I could do it. Oh yeah, there was an addendum: To write 90+ pages in screenplay format.

I did okay. There were a few decent scenes in it. A few mediocre characters. Zero plot. But I learned a lot.

It was called A NOVEL ROMANCE about a sexually deviant romance novelist who runs into an ex-camp counselor from his youth. He falls madly in love with her, but can not muster the ability to have sex with her in the same machismo manner as his other conquests that he writes about in his romance novels.

The story goes in and out of reality and the fiction of his romance novels. Something only Michel Gondry would want to touch with an eighty foot pole.

I later read Chuck Palahnuik's, CHOKE, and was, like... ummm... he wrote what I wanted to write only cooler, more coherent, and edgier.

That was the final nail in the coffin for that script. The story was uninteresting and better mastered in the work of others. I also used Voiceover - poorly, Flashback - poorly, tried to write the script with a "low budget" in mind, and substituted gimmicks for story when I would run dry, which was quite often, considering I had no idea what I was doing. But, I accomplished what I had set out to do. Write a 90+ page screenplay. And LEARN from the experience.

If screenwriting is craft, like Alex Epstein likes to believe, then everything leads to the mastery of the craft. If it is art, then the same applies. Practice has always made perfect in art.

Me, I grew up on comics and cartoons. There's a quote from the great Chuck Jones that talks about how he learned to draw. His father noticed that he had a proclivity towards drawing, so he would bring home stacks of paper from his work. With the paper he bestowed this piece of advice:

We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us that have to come out before we can get to the good ones.

I am a firm believer in 10,000 bad drawings.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Return of the Dead Horse


The holiday season is here and I've found myself watching too many movies. Movies I've already seen, or didn't really want to see again.

This has been a long time coming...

I finally figured out why Peter Jackson's third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, THE RETURN OF THE KING, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Don't get me wrong.

The first two movies are incredible, not just visually, but in terms of storytelling, scope, power, and the ability to balance multiple stories and still carry a main protagonist.

The books are phenomenal. Before I even knew that I wanted to write, I knew that I wanted to tell stories on par with The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.

You can't argue with source material that inspired countless films, books, writers, filmmakers, artists, video games... you name it.

When I exited the movie theater, departing from Middle Earth, I felt that something was not quite right. Maybe my expectations were too high. Or the eight endings were just too much for me to handle.

I eventually rationalized the feeling as a side effect of the movies being in excess of 3 hours a piece. Stretching 9+ hours of conflict and struggle to deposit this One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom can't possibly have a satisfactory climax... Can it?

But that's not what happened. What happened is...

The movie made me HATE Frodo.

THE RETURN OF THE KING artificially forces Frodo to be the hero. The problem is that every single heroic action that happens, in this movie, on the path to Mount Doom is a result of Sam's heroism. Not Frodo's.

Frodo has become nothing more than luggage. A vessel that carries the ring. Hell, Sam even has to carry him up the side of Mount Doom.

Sam you're my hero!

But why is Sam treated like a secondary character? Why is Frodo the one they celebrate? If it wasn't for Gollum, Frodo would have doomed all of Middle Earth. Let's face it, Sam can only save the day so many times.

And this is where the book worked, where the movie did not...

In the book, we were able to be with Frodo. To see the agony and inner turmoil he was going through carrying the ring. The burden that was baring down on him. The heroic self-sacrifice of being the one, and only one to carry the ring. In the book, Frodo has carried the burden so long that when he is at the edge about to toss the ring into Mount Doom, he is filled with conflict.

Not only is the ring calling to him, but the sacrifice of the ring also means Frodo's journey will come to its end.

This moment is ripe with strife.

In the movie, it simply appears selfish.

Sam saved your butt, how many times? He gave you his last few drops of water so you could make it to the fiery precipice and now you simply won't throw the ring into the pit? Who do you think you are, little man?

Sam saved you from Gollum how many times? You cast Sam aside because he was protecting you from Gollum and he still comes back in the nick of time to save your life, twice! And somehow, through all of Sam's self sacrifice, you manage to decide, nah, the ring's mine, suckers, and let Gollum blindside Sam with a rock to the noggin?


For a trilogy that hits so many story beats in stride with Star Wars (not surprising as Lucas was a big fan of the books, but that's a whole 'nother thread) something is lost in RETURN OF THE KING, that RETURN OF THE JEDI manages to put on screen.

In Star Wars, Luke has a similar opportunity to delve into the deeper reaches of his own "dark side." In the heart of enemy territory, the Death Star, Darth Vader and The Emperor issue an ultimatum to Luke. Join us or die!

That's a tough decision.

So, The Emperor makes it an even tougher one... scratch that... kill your father and take his place by my side.

Rock on!

On the one hand, the two most powerful villains in the universe are telling you to submit. So, you'd live. The last time you fought the weaker of the two, you lost a hand. Only got one of those left (pun!). If you join, you could be an uber badass like Vader. Cool capes. Neat voicebox trick. A planet or five. And hot dames, I'm sure.

On the other hand... Well... Really, the only reason for Luke to say no, is simply because he couldn't live with himself if he chose the path of evil and killed his father. He is the embodiment of good. And as much as we are all our father's sons (unless you're a girl), it is rare that we want to grow up and be our fathers. Usually it is a rebellion from said cause.

RETURN OF THE JEDI ends on a note of a universal theme. I am not my father!

Despite the insurmountable odds, Luke, much like the end of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, chooses death.

And guess what?

Luke's act of heroism and sacrifice is so completely over-the-top heroic, that the most evil and inhuman (as well as best dressed) bad guy in the universe, Darth Vader, becomes good.

By the end of their journeys:


I HATED Frodo.

And I LOVED Sam.

All platonically, of course.

Isn't it funny, that Sam's journey in RETURN OF THE KING is more closely related to that of Luke's than Frodo's is. Whatever the odds, Sam takes heroic action.

There are many genres in which the hero can fail, can be a bad guy, or can even take steps that are unheroic. But...

For the EPIC TALE, a hero must never submit to an unheroic deed, no matter the cost. That's what epic heroes are made of.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Response - The Recycle Bin

I'm not sure, how tactful it is to post a personalized response to an email about the topic. If there are any objections from the concerned parties, I'll pull it.

But for now...

ICM Story Editor and writer of The Inside Pitch, Christopher Lockhart, kindly replied to my inquiry with the following:

Often the secret ot succes is finding a premise that worked once before and offering up a modern spin. The difference here is that the protagonist (anti-hero) is responsible for putting the girl into prostitution - where the Taxi Driver was an outside observer.

On the other hand, the use of the words "mean streets" is coincidental, since the log line was written by neither the author of the script nor the producers.

Interesting. Enlightening... And now I have even more questions.

Guess, I have to track down the script (somehow) and read it.

P.S. I left the typo "ot" in the message because I was unsure if he meant "to" or "of." Both work, but I don't want to change someone else's words.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Recycle Bin

Here's what I don't understand about pitching "original"premises...

This is one of this year's "must read" screenplays.
THE CITY WALLS by Caleb Kane

A young man feels remorse after he delivers a teenage girl to his pimp benefactor and attempts to rescue her and himself from the mean streets of Eighties New York.
The above logline describes, word for word, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and alludes to another Scorsese film, MEAN STREETS.

Quentin Tarantino takes a stab at reinventing this premise in the First Act of the 1993, Tony Scott feature, TRUE ROMANCE. However, reinvention is the name of this game, and Tarantino uses this many times tried and true premise to launch the heroes on their journey, rather than simply being the journey itself.

What is it that sets this screenplay above the hundreds of thousands of screenplays passed around Hollywood every year?


What is it about this premise that intrigues an audience repeatedly, to the point that we can watch the same exact plot over and over again?

These are not rhetorical questions. Nor do I pretend to have the answers.

I am genuinely intrigued.

Learning to Pitch

I love learning.

I love doing things I have never done before.

I hate pitching.

It's probably because I grew up with this mentality that "to sell yourself" is akin to prostitution. Can you tell I was raised Catholic? Ironically, I am all for prostitution... just not my own.

I had a meeting this morning with a producer of a low end production company. I figured this would be a safe place to start. Little did I know, they recently purchased a spec that was the subject of a fierce bidding war for six figures.

I know! I didn't think that sort of thing still went on. And if it did, most certainly, only by the big boys.

Well it does. Low end, high end alike, are looking for one thing: a spec with a good hook. But the question is how does a screenwriter get a producer to actually read a spec? By pitching it to them in one form or another.

I sent a query letter. They responded and asked to meet with me.


I arrived at the address that Studio System has. I pushed the buzzer labeled with their production company logo. It rang, until I got the "this number is no longer in service" message.

Great start.

Luckily, I had their number still on my cell. I called and they told me they relocated. Fine. Pushing aside the thoughts of "where the hell did they come up with six figures to pay for a spec," I crossed the threshold into the realm of the producer.

I was greeted by a kid who looked much too young to be a producer. In his office we exchanged niceties and then he said "What do you got?"

Man, was I not prepared for that.

I stammered. Choked. Resorted to reading off a paper I had brought with me. Basically, sucked ass. And it showed on this kid producer's face. He wasn't interested at all. Not that you could tell from the exchange of dialogue. He was very pleasant and engaging. It was at this point that I deciphered some producer "code."

He said, "You got anything else?"

Nearing panic, I pitched a secondary project I have been working on. His face lit up. At the moment in the logline/pitch/bullshit session, where you reveal the ironic twist of your story, he laughed out loud. Yes, a true to god, lol.

A second code phrase was uttered, "What happens next?"

Ecstatic, I revved up to tell him all about it, when someone else burst into the room. An older producer looking type.

OLDER PRODUCER: "Hey, I think that's my ten o'clock."
KID PRODUCER: "Oh yeah, I was wondering why I didn't have any information on this guy."

I was promptly traded, much like a worthless baseball card.

As I returned home, still trying to figure out where they got six figures to purchase a spec from, I found new resolve. Not for my old project, but for the new one.

The next step, in this writer's journey.

Friday, December 1, 2006

"What You Know" Leading To "Who You Know"

So... there is a single meeting where I was able to meet the "Who" because of the "What."

In the Spring of '06, all those long months ago, I became a Marion Knott Scholar at Chapman University. I'm not sure what the daughter of Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm fame, has to do with filmmaking, but I am not one to look a gift-horse and a couple free dinners in the mouth.

Through this program, I got to meet and work with writer/director Tom Mankiewicz, probably best known for his work with Richard Donner on the original Superman. The guy is incredible, but in all honesty, I liked him because I didn't have to talk about film. Tom liked to tell stories. Y'know, shoot the shit.

And that's what I did on my first meeting with him.

I came in completely unprepared, not wanting to talk about my project, at all. My only agenda was finding out what kind of guy Tom was. A wiry man with a lot of life and energy masked by his calm, patient, and methodical manner.

But this was a semester class, taken for course credit and we eventually had to get down to brass tacks. Do some work.

I was still at 65 pages, or so in my screenplay, and didn't want to bring it in. You know, fear of someone stealing my idea or some such nonsense that only proves how amateur a writer I actually am. So I pitched the idea to Tom. You see, it's about this guy... and his wife.. but there's, like, this motel... and... he goes away... and comes back... and then he stalks her, but it's, like... she loves him, really...

God, I suck at pitching. (reminder: practice my pitch)

Of course, Tom had no F-ing clue what I was going on about. So I caved and brought in the sixty five or so odd pages the following week. We shot the shit, and Tom took my script home. I was just excited someone was actually going to take the time to read the damn thing.

It's been a week and I walk in. Tom greets me, and fills me in on a little tidbit. "I lost your script."

Great! Seriously... Here I was afraid of people stealing my ideas, and now my script is missing. Go me.

Weeks went by and I was running out of shit to talk about. And it was starting to show. Tom started telling stories that were part of his teaching routine. Stories that I had heard before, in class. And again, the week prior.

Things were stagnant for a while and this being my second script and all, not even completed at that, I had decided I was done with screenwriting. There's got to be something else, I can do.

On a day, which I planned to be my final meeting day, I dragged myself, lifeless, into the conference room to have another discussion with this poor man who had run out of things to tell me. Here I was, a student that really didn't have much to offer. And very little in terms of conversational skill.

Kill me, now.

And there it was. Slapped on the desk. Tom nudged it, square to the edge of the table and smoothed out the pages. My 65 pages of pure garbage, crap script.

Tom says, "I like it. You're a very good writer"


Anytime, but now! I suck. I am quitting screenwriting.

"No really. You write good dialogue," Tom says, as he begins to read my dialogue back to me.

It wasn't this that changed my mind about screenwriting. I am very cynical and pessimistic of any compliment, especially when it seems unwarranted, which c'mon... it was a completely unfinished script with half an idea in it. It was something else...

When Tom leaned forward to read my dialogue, I could see, he had written notes on my script. Black little scribbles on my pages. I took the script home that night and re-read the whole thing with his notes.

Oh my god.

There is a world of difference getting feedback from a professional than a teacher or a friend. It was insightful, to the point, and addressed many of the same concerns I had about the story.

The STORY!!!

Not bad formatting. Not improper grammar. Or bad sentence structure. The notes were specifically on the content of the script. On sticky plot points, poorly designed characters, with suggestions on what to do as possible fixes.

Never before, nor since, in my screenwriting life have I hit my lowest low and highest high within the same hour. To that I thank Tom.

Tom is the first "celebrity" I've ever met, though I doubt he'd call himself that. He'll claim that nobody even knows who he is. And he's probably right. But to me, Tom is a star.