Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Post Oscar Post

All these screenwriting blogs are posting post-Oscar wrap-ups on their blog.

Can you say BORING?

They're all identical. Oh I thought so and so should have won. Marty Scorcese... what a tribute... About god-damn time! Seriously, did it need to come down to the three most prolific directors of our time getting on stage to present his award for him to actually win one?

They knew ahead of time. No shock there. Why'd they even bother opening the envelope? Spielberg barely even looked at it.

And here I go. Getting lost in the minutia of... well, minutia.

This post is here for one reason:

I like what they did with the screenwriting categories.

Actually reading along with the script as we saw onscreen what was chosen by the director to be depicted. That was a nice touch.

I also liked how it shows weaker screenwriting. For instance, THE QUEEN. I'm not knocking the movie, or even the screenplay. But the scene they chose to show (the queen looking at a deer, while the screenplay described the deer in a rather flowery language) was very average screenwriting.

The scene they chose to show from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, was masterful. Short. To the point. Less words than the entire description of the deer and yet there is still tone, setup, and payoff. AND... a big 'and' here... the reader understands the meaning without having to hazard a guess.

Huh? you don't make sense. what's your point?

My point is... the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE section they chose did not need the visual to understand it. The visual was just gravy.

And that's how good screenwriting works.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Hook -- The First Couple Pages

Isn't the hook always a pain in the arse?

It needs to establish tone. Mood. Hint at what the driving forces in the movie are going to be. And lay out the world in very broad terms. Most screenplays that are made into movies accomplish this. Even bad ones. But there is one other thing they do, as well.

They make the reader want to read more.

Here's an offbeat example. I like it because it accomplishes the above without using the main characters (probably why it was cut). It also is a scene that would be an otherwise boring day. Plus, it's a favorite guilty pleasure. BENEATH PERFECTION, better know as 1990's TREMORS.


The high desert -- absolutely silent -- a vast, hard landscape stretching away to distant mountains. The silence is broken by hoof-beats.


It's a simple cabin dwarfed by a big, ramshackle barn. EDGAR DEEMS (60s), a weathered desert rat of a hermit, is walking his donkey around in circles. Now, rattling toward them down an endless dirt road, comes an old, sun-bleached Buick. It stops and out leans OLD FRED (70s) wearing a sweat-stained fedora. The two friends nod.

How's she doing?

She wants to lay down. I'm a
little worried.

Old Fred climbs out with a bushel basket of carrots.

Well, I brung her something I know
she likes.

Damn, Fred, you can't give away all

Forget it. I got vegetables coming
out my ears. Usually the varmints
eat up half my crop, but lately I
ain't so much as seen a gopher or a
jack-rabbit nowheres.

If that ain't the truth. And I
count on them for a little bit of
stew meat...Thank you, Fred.

Edgar takes the carrots and feeds one to the donkey.

EDGAR (cont'd)
Here you go, Justine. Look what
Fred brought you.

We playing cards tonight?

I think I'm gonna be sitting up
with her.

I'd do the same. Well, catch you

You bet.

The men nod, and Old Fred drives off.

CLOSE-UP of the donkey's hooves thumping along as Edgar leads her to the barn.

EDGAR (cont'd)
Let's get you out of the sun for a

EDGAR (cont'd)
I'll get you some fresh water.

But, suddenly, we hear the donkey restlessly stomping its
hooves and braying. Edgar turns, concerned. Now we hear an odd sound. Distant thunder? The wind? The donkey gets more and more frantic.

The barn shudders violently. Frightened birds explode from the eaves. Dust puffs from every old seam. Roof shingles rain down. Edgar stares in amazement.

EDGAR (cont'd)
...some kind of earthquake!?

Then another sound -- the donkey starts screeching in wild

EDGAR (cont'd)
Justine, hang on! I'm coming!

Edgar races back to the barn and flings open the doors.


Dust swirls through the air. But -- the barn in empty. No donkey. Now Edgar is hit by a ghastly stench. He staggers back, and covers his nose with a handkerchief. Then he sees, splattered across the walls -- blood!

What in the name of Jehovah...?

He raises his arms above the door frame. When he lowers them he's holding a 12 gauge shotgun. He races outside, ready to shoot, but there's nothing -- as far as the eye can see.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Great Character Intros

First impressions make or break a job interview, a blind date, pretty much any form of social interaction. This goes 100-fold for movies. The introduction is PRICELESS. I think we can all agree on that.

The answer always seems to be stated that it is not what the character looks like, but what they are doing that contributes to their character. I couldn't agree more. However, the majority of examples simply add an activity thinking that's all that is needed.

JOHN TOUGHGUY smokes a stogie and spits.

That's not enough. The introduction of a major character needs to be incorporated wholly into the scene. Not just four lines of description after you write his name in caps for the first time.

Watch HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. Could you care less when Cedric dies? Why?

How was he introduced?

Can't remember?

Harry and Co. are looking for someone. They wander through the forest and find him. It is Cedric's father. All of a sudden, Cedric falls from the sky. "Ah, there's Cedric. A strapping young lad."

So far, so good. But this is the equivalent of "JOHN TOUGHGUY smokes a stogie and spits." We don't really KNOW who this character is... yet.

And we'll never get the chance. Cedric immediately walks off screen with everyone except Harry and Cedric's father. What should have been a scene about the introduction of Cedric (a character that play a rather significant role in the supposed drama of this film), it instead turns into a scene about Harry. A pointlessly expository one at that.

I can't tell you if it is the writer's fault or the director's. Frankly, I could care less. The scene doesn't work.

Let's go with a good example. Like his writing style or not... Shane Black knows how to write an introduction. Here's the scene that introduces Riggs for the first time in LETHAL WEAPON.


FOUR TOUGH-LOOKING DOCK WORKERS are camped out under the pier, warming themselves around a small bonfire, laughing loudly. Christmas decorations dangle above them from the pier, and empty beer cans litter the sand around them.

CAMERA PUSHES IN to discover an old collie tied to one of the pilings. Then we realize that the dog is being tormented by the dock workers. They flick lighted matches at him. Shake their beers and spray him in the face. These guys are not rocket scientists.

The dog cowers, tugging bn the rope. Tries to get away. All to the great amusement of its tormentors.

One of them turns, laughing --

As a shadowy FIGURE strides calmly up to the fire:
Long hair.
Cigarette dangling from-lower lip.
Shirt-tails hanging loose below the waist.

Nothing threatening in his manner as he plops down beside the men, smiling. They are immediately on their guard.

Happy holidays. Mind if I join


Fuck off.

Riggs smiles at him innocently. Strokes the collie's fur with one hand. With the other, he reaches intb a paper sack and produces, a spanking new bottle of Jack Daniels, possibly the finest drink mankind has yet produced.

I need help drinking this. Cool?

The dock workers exchange glances. There seems to be no harm in this. One of them frowns:

You a homo?

Do I look like a homo?

You got long hair. Homos got long

I hate homos. Arrggh.

Riggs shakes his head, laughs.

Boy, you guys are terrific. You
make me laugh, you just do.

At which point, appropriately enough, Punk #4 shakes a beer and sprays it in the old collie's face.

The DOG pulls away, WHINING.
Riggs leans forward.

This your dog? Nice dog.

And then, he proceeds to do a peculiar thing:
He starts to talk to the dog --
in what seems to be the dog's own language.
Very weird, folks...
He coos, snuffles, barks softly, then withdraws, listening, his ear to the dog's muzzle.
Riggs nods. Frowns.
The others look on, puzzled.
Then Riggs looks at each of the four dock workers.

Huh- You know what? He says he
doesn't want you to spray beer in
his face. He says he just hates

A pause. Uncomfortable. Then --

Oh, he does ... ?
Well, mister, why don't you ask
him what he likes...?

The others snicker. Riggs simply nods.


And once again, begins to confer with the dog. Listens intently, piecing together what he is hearing.

What ... ? You want ... oh. Oh,
hell no, I couldn't do that ...
Nossirree bob, you little nut.

He ruffles the dog's hair.
The men are more puzzled than ever as Riggs turns and says:

Get this: He wants me to beat
the shit out of you guys.

Everything stops. A cloud passes over the assembled faces and a pin-dropping silence ensues.

Riggs, completely heedless, once again attends to the dog:

What's that ... ? The one ... in the
middle... 'is a stupid fat duck'...
What ... ?
(listens again)
Oh ... Oh! A 'stupid fat fuck!'

He looks up, shakes his head.

Boy, this dog is pissed.

The one in the middle grabs Riggs by the collar. Hoists him to his feet. Gulp.

Stands, staring down at Riggs, whose eyes are completely neutral, like a snake's.

Buddy, you're shortening your
life span.

He flicks open a mean-looking switchblade.

Riggs is dead meat.

So why then, does he choose this moment to execute a Three Stooges' routine, consisting of nose tweak, eye gouge, and rotating fist that bobs the dock worker on the head... ?

He's nuts or something ...

Riggs steps back and adopts a neutral fighting stance. The others begin to circle.

The DOG BARKS. Riggs turns to the dog, but his eyes never leave his grinning attackers.

(to the collie)
What's that ... ? You want me to
take the knife away... and break
his elbow... ?

Circling ...

Riggs, watching them, his eyes beginning to dance ... Breathing slow and even...

But that would be excruciatingly
painful ...

Something inside Riggs is gearing up ... the others can perhaps sense it, their smiles falter a bit, they crouch, combat-ready...
Riggs, eyes blazing ...

And if I separated the fat one's
shoulder... he'd probably scream...

No doubt about it. We know from the look in Riggs' eyes he's nuts. He wants the fight, badly, all four of them at once ...

And then Punk #1 springs...
Big mistake.

Needless to say, mincemeat is made of the four meddlesome dog-torturers.

The beach is littered with their writhing forms as Riggs does, finally, what he set out to do:

Unties the dog.

Starts to go.
As he does, he pats his shirt ...

Pats his jeans ... Realizes his wallet has flown free during the fracas.

Scoops to retrieve it from its resting place on the sand, where it lies open, and as it lies open, yes, folks, that is a badge we see.

Riggs, we realize, is an officer of the law.

Monday, February 12, 2007

In the Writer's Room

Last week, was a busy one for me. My car broke down. It needs a part, I can't afford. Things are taking off in my g/f's life, so it's hectic, but in a good way.

As I have mentioned before, I am interning on a television show. What I haven't mentioned is that I drive a fair distance to and from this internship each day. And it's starting to add up. Wearing me down. Time spent in the car (and normally I love driving) could be spent doing other things.

But they let me sit in the writer's room and listen to them break story. Somehow, this makes it all worthwhile.

And yet, I am afraid I may have made a complete jackass out of myself.

You see, I am the type of person that is very shy. I can not possibly ask to be let into a room like this. I beat around the bush. A lot. It also doesn't help that the writers are also Executive Producers of the show. Not only do I look up to them as possible mentors, but they are the ones in charge. Every reason in the world to be nervous, right?

I have read all their scripts, kept up to date with the story, and am writing a spec based on the show (Not necessarily for them, but I figure if the show takes off, being a front-runner with a spec in a medium where speed is prized couldn't hurt). And here I was... simply listening to them break story. The really interesting part is that they are down to their last three episodes of the season. So, things are really heating up story-wise.

There were numerous ideas pitched back and forth and not one was shot down. I know! All of you writers, and soon to be writers, out there gasp in amazement. There was no teacher, agent, or anybody criticizing. The good ideas would stay afloat and bad ideas would simply fall out of discussion. Very interesting. Film school, nor any experience I've had with features (which admittedly is limited) has had anything to do with developing ideas into the best they could possibly be. Usually they are deemed interesting enough to read (send your script in) or not. There is none of the back and forth to really make a story shine. In the old days, I believe this was called development.

I listened for hours, and they finally hit a sticky point that had split the room.

The problem was... I was bursting with ideas. I wanted to add to the discussion, so badly... but who am I? I am just an unpaid intern. Bite your tongue peon! I had been for the duration, but at this lull, I politely asked if I could give my two cents.

And they said, "Go ahead."

I don't know how it happened, but my body was instantly covered in sweat. Head to toe. The room was red-hot. My face was flushed. I immediately regretted piping up. I stammered out an idea that I thought would not only up the stakes for the episode, but provide jeopardy for the remainder of the series.

But I could hear it. I probably shouldn't have said anything. They were all very quiet. They let me explain, but I don't think they liked the idea. In fact, at that moment I had the feeling that they thought the idea was stupid and undermined the concept of the show. It may have. Then I politely, if not awkwardly thanked them for letting me speak. As soon as the words "Thank you" left my mouth, they rung in my head as if a judge had made his final verdict. Solid. Definitive. God, I hope it didn't come out like that. I think it only sounded like that in hindsight. In the echo of my memory.

I was truly honored that I was given a chance to say anything. My thank you was very sincere.

Luckily, it was treated as such. They very politely thanked me for my idea, told me it was a good one, but not to be surprised if it wasn't used. And the session continued on.

Now, I have no idea if they were just brushing it aside or if they really felt like it had merit. But you know what? I really don't care. I was able to sit in on the process of a television show as it is being created. Not only that, but I got to speak up, even if just for a moment. And I did so without making a complete jackass out of myself.

To me that was worth it. Especially, the not making a jackass out of my self part. I tend to be a master at that, unintentional or otherwise.

Now, I have to work up the nerve to see if I can sit in again, and this time not say anything at all.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Pursuit of Unity

Let's start off with the good...

The father/son dynamic of a real father and son allowed for honest moments that are severely lacking in our overly politically correct world of today. I found myself wondering if a grown man soaping up a child, or asking the kid to kiss him on the lips, and the kid does, would play as smoothly to a modern audience with only a make-believe bond.

Also, the acting is very good. Both the Smith's did an excellent job. Even the supporting cast did an excellent job. As did the chick from CRASH, even if her character sucked a limp one.

At the end of this movie I could almost hear the Creative Exec leaning back in his chair, flipping through wads of cash, kissing a picture of Will Smith, whispering "Thank you test market audience." I've never felt so manipulated by a movie before. (This coming from a guy that cried in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).

I know I have argued that Dramatic Tension overcomes most obstacles. Even a major plot hole or two. Unfortunately, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS has many, many problems... too numerous to list really. But one the defining flaw in this movie is the lack of unity. The lack of a central idea, theme, premise, spine.


UNITY - How about tying the swiss cheese of a theme into the story? You know, like most professional writers do. So, Thomas Jefferson wrote your title into the Declaration of Independence. What the hell does that have to do with the movie?

The movie is vaguely about attaining the American Dream. Or... The Pursuit of Happiness.

But the film takes an enormous leap, thinking that bringing up Thomas Jefferson and The Declaration of Independence would be all the heavy lifting that is needed to tie one poverty-stricken man's struggle to attain that American Dream.

To illustrate the film's lack of unity, try answering this question: What does the movie say about the American Dream?

Will's American Dream was selling bone density scanners. He sunk his whole life savings into them. That's a BIG risk. He must have believed in it. Alas, his dreams failed him. Left him broke, wifeless... although that is all arguably because he was simply lazy.

The stock broker thing is a stereotypical American Dream. But it wasn't Will's. Not until he noticed a stock broker's Ferarri. Wow! I want to do what you do, so I can drive a Ferrari. So he applies himself. And succeeds at becoming a stock broker, very easily.

Is this movie saying that the American Dream is a farce, and even the most impoverished can easily rise to the top if he wants a Ferrari badly enough and/or asserts himself?

Obviously, it isn't. It isn't that cynical. What it is TRYING to do is to tie the struggles of homelessness and poverty with the ability to succeed at the American Dream. That is what the movie SHOULD have been about. Unfortunately, instead of finding a way to tie the two together, the movie went for phony tear jerking moments, by creating situations that were easily preventable.


  • Saying happy 13 times in a period of 3 minutes does not mean you have a theme. Yes, even if it is in the title of your movie! You have to do more than just say, "This is about the pursuit of happiness." Prove it!
  • Ummm, tone down the race card, thing just a little. Of twenty interns he is the ONLY minority. If you're going to play with stereotypes in the business world of the '80s you might as well have made an army of Japanese interns that are all smarter, faster, and harder working than Will. Hell, at least I could see why he would be worried then. Apparently being black and able to endure homelessness with a child for 6 months is the only thing it takes to get a paid gig as a stock broker.
  • After the test... Did we really need to see the Arian poster child standing next to Will Smith in the elevator. Couldn't find an Adolf Hitler look alike?
  • END TITLE CARD. Not only does it distract from a quaint little ending by offering up completely unnecessary exposition... It does so TWICE.
  • If Will Smith can stay up all night for nights on end till he is beat to hell... Why couldn't he have flipped burgers at McDonalds on a nightshift? Or over the weekends? That would have covered rent. (and food).
  • When you have money why don't you pay your landlord? ...Oh because then we won't get kicked out when the IRS cleans out our bank account. Right.
  • How is it that a man that can not sell 1 Bone Density scanner in three months with nothing else to do but somehow manages to sell 6 in 4 months time, while solo taking care of a kid, doing an internship, waiting in lines for a roof over his head... Then it won't be hopeless when the IRS conveniently clears out the bank account just as the last one is sold.
  • How can one man recover a bone density scanner in a major metropolitan city every time he loses it. It was an unintentional running gag. And it was literally a running gag.
  • THE WIFE. She is one big common sense hole. I can't even begin with this character. There is no reason for her to be in the movie.

I will end on THE VOICE OVER.

I am a BIG fan of voice over. Almost all of my favorite movies use it. SUNSET BLVD, AMERICAN BEAUTY, FIGHT CLUB... the list goes on. It pains me to see voiceover so horribly misused and abused. The voiceover is only used to talk down to the audience. If you want a textbook example of bad voiceover watch this movie.

This is the time in my life I call "stupid..." mainly because I think the audience is too dumb to be able to figure out that me leaving this thing with this hippy chick is a bad idea.

And the sad thing is that scene was actually not half bad. The problem is it would have played better WITHOUT the voiceover. Watch that scene again, with the sound OFF.

Will points to his scanner. Hands the hippy chick a dollar. Walks inside leaving the scanner with her. Inside some CRUSTY WHITE DUDE interviews Will Smith. Will Smith looking good. Straightening himself up. A smile. A solid handshake. Things are rocking until... hippy chick walks by in the background. Crusty white dude blabs on. Will Smith panicking. Crusty white dude starts to get uncomfortable with this interview. Will Smith excuses himself. Crusty white guy looks dumbfounded.

Also note that the voiceover is the only delivery system the film uses in an attempt to somehow tie Thomas Jefferson to the rest of the film.

I am not surprised at the business this movie is doing. But I am truly surprised this movie is getting so much acclaim.