Sunday, May 20, 2007

Identification With the MAIN Character

In short-hand this is often referred to as making the main character "likable." Rarely is the term "likable" ever what anybody means when they use this term in reference to a screenplay.

What they really mean, or are asking, is how will the viewer/reader identify with the main character.

Why is this so commonly asked? Why does it seem like every producer and network exec all ask this very same question?

Because it is IMPORTANT.

In a novel, we get to hear the inner thoughts of every character (if the writer chooses to let us in on those thoughts). Identification in literature isn't as big of an issue as it is in film. In film, the main character is the viewer's ticket into the story. And ultimately into the thoughts of the writer.

When you can put yourself in the main character's shoes, the screenwriter and director have succeeded. However, there are two kinds of viewer identification.
  1. I feel for the character and would NEVER want to be put in the situation that main character is in.
  2. I want to be the main character.

Believe it or not, but GENRE actually plays a huge role in differentiating between the two. Almost every HORROR film plays off #1. Most FANTASY films play off #2. THRILLERS tend to play off #1.

But interesting things happen when you play with viewer identification within a given genre.

Let's take two examples. THE FUGITIVE and THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

Both are excellent films. In terms, of screenplay, direction, genre, and fulfillment of genre expectation they are pinnacles of the craft. Both are Thrillers. Structurally they are very similar. Both are "chase" films in which the main character is fleeing for their lives, trying to resolve the issue/problem that put them in this predicament in the first place. When the chase is over, so to is the movie.

But the identification is EXTREMELY different.


Richard Kimball is convicted of murdering his wife. When the bus transporting him to a maximum security facility crashes, Richard is given the chance to prove his innocence. This is the First Act of the film. From this point on Richard is constantly on the run.

It is easy to identify with Richard Kimball's plight. But no one would trade places with him.


Jason Bourne has lost his memory. He puts together a few clues, opens his safe deposit box, discovers his identity (or at least one of them). This alerts the powers that be to his presence, and from this point on Jason Bourne is continually on the run.

Again, it is easy to identify with Jason Bourne's plight. The difference is, I believe there are a lot of people that would like to be Jason Bourne.


The plight is the same.

The difference lies in the central premise of THE BOURNE IDENTITY. If I were to pitch the story to an exec or producer, all I'd have to say is, "It's The Fugitive, except instead of being a doctor, the guy was a hired assassin who has lost his memory."

The difference being that Jason Bourne is a trained assassin. And when he is chased, he kicks some serious ass. The stakes are innately higher because if Jason Bourne were put in Richard Kimball's situation, the movie would be 15 minutes long. This creates a much more iconic figure, which in turn makes it a much easier film to market. It also opens it up to a variety of ancillary markets. Hence, why most Blockbusters tend to be of the #2 variety.

Here's the kicker...

Viewer identification has nothing to do with REALISM. It has to do with understanding the situation of the main character, and rooting for him.

There is no right or wrong in the crafting of a story. THE FUGITIVE is excellent. I'd argue, better than THE BOURNE IDENTITY. But you won't see action figures of Richard Kimball. You could easily see action figures of Jason Bourne (or Mini-Coopers brought into popularity in the U.S.).

P.S. -- As far as GENRE EXPECTATION goes, Chase/Thrillers such as these two movies tend to also be Fish-Out-of-Water stories. Note, that THE TERMINATOR is a similar Chase/Thriller. Sarah Connor is most certianly out of her element in that story.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY does a terrific job of pretending to be a Fish-Out-of-Water story. It did this by erasing Jason Bourne's memory. Think about it... He really isn't a fish-out-of-water. He is always a kick-butt assassin, able to handle his own. He just doesn't know why he is able to do that, which gives the audience the illusion of a fish-out-of-water. Richard Kimball, a renowned doctor being placed into the realm of criminal is truly a fish-out-of-water.

In both instances, the story is about how the audience will react to it, and living up to the expectations of the genre. Not the actual nuts and bolts of the story itself.

My next post is going to be on WISH FULFILLMENT in films, which plays largely into #2 and why such movies are easier to market.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Do we really even need the MPAA?

"Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society," MPAA topper Dan Glickman said in a statement.

Uh huh.

~~Maybe~~ in California.

Apparently, this guy has never been on a movie set. Or in any artistic field. When I was messing around with my art career, illustration or some such nonsense, there were SMOKING BREAKS in every class, every 45 minutes or so because 99% of the people smoked.

But let's skip ahead to the real issue:


Jim Steyer, CEO of family advocacy group Common Sense Media, called the announcement "a big step forward for the MPAA to connect the dots between onscreen behavior and the impact on kids' health."

Or maybe, you know, PARENTS actually taking an active role in ... well... PARENTING. Could the ever-escalating numbers of single parent households be responsible? And not the movies. That would seem to be Common Sense to me.

What I really don't understand is... Why take a stand against cigarettes? Why not alcohol?

There's many, many, many more times the amount of deaths DIRECTLY related to alcohol than has ever been even indirectly connected to cigarettes.

What's a PG-13 coming of age, college, comedy without excessive binge drinking? I've yet to see ANY movie portray cigarettes in a light that is a fraction of the endorsement movies are for alcohol.

Or how about food consumption? Should we stop showing people eating? The number one cause of death in the U.S. is HEART DISEASE. And somehow we like to dismiss the fact that America is rapidly becoming the most OBESE nation... by a large margin. Gee, wonder if that extra ton of belly fat puts more strain on my heart, that leads to further complications, such as heart disease. Go figure.

Are we going to start warning against all the evils of the world that can be put into a film? I thought the singular LETTER was supposed to represent the general idea of how acceptable a movie is to a given age group. Not the be all, end all, final decision of every minor offensive vice held within. That decision is SUPPOSED to be made by the parent. But so many people in this day and age love to blame others for their problems. And corporations, in the endless pursuit to avoid any liability, placate even the smallest minority.

Could you imagine the warning label that would play at the start of the film if this trend continues? It would be longer than the end credit crawl for a Peter Jackson film.

There is only one word that can sum it all up:


Friday, May 11, 2007

Montage in Screenplays

Montage is a great tool in films. It can tell a lot of story in very little time. Add tension and drama through intercutting. Create tone.

The problem is... it is not a WRITER'S tool.

It really is an editor's tool. (Director too. Cause you know, he'll tell the editor, "Hey, nice montage" and take credit for it).

Here is the thing about montage in a screenplay.

It SUCKS to read.

The majority of the time when montage is used in a screenplay, it is because the writer is lazy. He wants to shortcut through necessary exposition with a montage, instead of crafting a dramatic scene/sequence. Or worse, supplements drama with a laundry list of things to "look" at.

In my experience, there are two types of montage.
  1. Symbolic Juxtaposition
  2. Series of Shots
When you link symbolic actions or items in a way that juxtaposes the images, the reader has to understand the meaning of the symbols and then figure out what the writer is trying to say by juxtaposing them. It is much easier for a reader to understand symbolism when it is placed within a scene, rather than just thrown at them.

The alphabetcal list of items in a series of shots often reads with a very sterile tone. More often than not, the reason to use montage is to CREATE a specific tone. Montage does a great job of creating tone on the screen. Montage on the page reads extremely flat.

If you are a screenwriter, your job is to create the tone of the movie on the page. Montage, more often than not, works against that goal.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Sometimes I Hate Being Right...


(MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS TO BE POSTED. If you have plans on seeing the movie, do NOT read this).


When I heard they were doing Venom, I knew it was going to royally screw things up. Why?

  • Spiderman 1 + 2 were setting up for Harry Osbourne to become the Green Goblin 2. Along with that comes a REVENGE story.
  • The problem is the Venom storyline is not a revenge story. It is a story of an IDENTITY CRISIS.

From that point on, I knew things were going to be messed up. Here is an excerpt from The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri:

QUESTION; IS it possible to write one play on two premises?

ANSWER: It is possible, but it will not be a good play. Can you go in two different directions at the same time? The dramatist has a big enough job on his hands to prove one premise, let alone two or three. A play with more than one premise is
necessarily confused.

And we have located the problem with SPIDERMAN 3, before ever stepping foot inside the theater, or reading the script, or knowing anything other than the characters.

What blew me away was that it not only tried to juggle two premises... it tried to juggle upwards of SIX, if not more. It was worse than I had ever imagined. The themes that are vaguely present and somewhat expanded upon in Spiderman 3 are, in no particular order:


Note: Egri intentionally makes no distinction between premise and theme. I do. I think a movie can present multiple themes, while still having only a singular premise. They can exist together in some form. You just can NOT try to PROVE more than one.

Unfortunately, Spiderman 3 tries to prove ALL of them. Symptoms include the drawn out the drawn out ending and a majority of the corny dialogue.

So let's get to the nitty-gritty.

The script sucked.

The script was 100% to blame. Whether it be the studios, the director, or the writer that made it that way, I have no idea. All I can tell you from watching the movie is that it was very obvious that the script was at fault. Evidence:

  1. The movie, in TONE, played move like a sappy romance than a Spiderman movie.
  2. Opportunities to use the VISUAL METAPHORS inherent from the comic books where completely wasted.
  3. Opportunities for GREAT CHARACTER INTROS where BLOWN!
  4. Complete lack of DRAMATIC TENSION, which resulted in melodrama.
  5. Flat and in some places just horrible Dialogue.
  6. Inconsistencies.


This goes hand in hand with genre. People are going to see SPIDERMAN 3, a superhero blockbuster, because they want to see the hero kick some badguy butt in only the way Spiderman can.

Not to see a sappy, overly drawn out romance. And a bad one at that. The love story is, will be, and ALWAYS has been SECONDARY to the plights of being Spiderman. The love story is an OBSTACLE to being Spiderman, but it is not THE story of being Spiderman.


It is the same mistake made time and time again with comic book adaptation. Particularly those of the superhero variety.

  • Comic books have this unique way of turning inner turmoil into externalized Action.
  • Movies MUST externalize inner conflict.

I think most comic book movies get OVER-analyzed to death. To put it simply, you could have the most absolutely mundane plot, as long as you cash in on the visual metaphor to its fullest.

Simply have Spiderman go around doing his thing, saving the day, being the hero, and when the Venom symbiote attaches itself to Spidey, all of a sudden he starts doing bad things.


Oh nos!

Now he starts hurting those around him and has to decide whether or not to keep the symbiote. INNER CONFLICT. See how easy it was to get to inner conflict?

Then he finds out he can't. You have both INNER and EXTERNAL CONFLICT. The act of Spidey trying to remove the symbiote is now completely integrated with his INNER CONFLICT.

That is the definition of visual metaphor. Most comic books innately externalize the inner conflict. The symbiote is an AMAZING externalization of the conflict within ones own self.

Here's where the movie got muddy...

Eddie Brock. essentially Peter Parker. A darker version.

Venom essentially Spiderman. A darker version.

See the parallel here?

Eddie Brock's "revenge" story is really Peter Parker's IDENTITY CRISIS story. The revenge aspect is simple plot, to give Eddie motivation to put Venom and Spiderman head to head. But it is not the CORE of that story. The IDENTITY CRISIS is.

Peter Parker gets the symbiote. Gets power. Cocky. Hurts those he loves. What have I become? Decides to lose the symbiote. Finds out he can't. Goes to the bell tower because he knows sonics hurts it. And removes it.

Meanwhile, Eddie Brock has been shown up by Peter Parker at every turn. Peter always gets the perfect shot of Spiderman. Spiderman saves the day. Hell, it'd even STRENGTHEN Eddie's character to have him save the day, only to be overshadowed by Spiderman. Now, you're hitting his character on all cylinders. He can't accomplish ANYTHING because of both Peter Parker and Spiderman.

In a rut, Eddie goes to the church. Praying for forgiveness of his sins... Why? Because he is about to kill himself. Suicide.

The bell rings. Venom symbiote drips on him. And what do we have? A good old-fashion, hero's journey, RESSURECTION. The symbiote knows Parker/Spiderman's secrets. And now EddieBrock/Venom does too.

And there's innate structure in that as well. Getting the symbiote is the INCITING INCIDENT (Call to Adventure). The need for Parker to get rid of it is the MIDPOINT. Parker getting rid of it is the ORDEAL. And Venom being created is the twist that propels the Third Act.

Everything else is gravy. Mind you, it should be steeped in IDENTITY CRISIS gravy. but gravy none-the-less.

There really is no room for Harry's REVENGE story in that. The one thing that actually did fit, however, was Harry's amnesia. The nice thing about his amnesia was that it opened up the door to put the REAL Harry Osbourne comic book stuff in there. You could have had Harry doping up with his own Identity Crisis, while Peter was "doping up" on the symbiote of his identity crisis.

Likewise, I thought the idea behind M.J.'s character was a good choice. But... well... to be put bluntly... obviously written by a man. It was lacking in execution, let's say.


Where the f--- were they?

I can harp on all of them, but I'm going to stick with Venom because it is by far the WORST of the bunch, that could have easily been the best.

So... Eddie Brock gets dipped in leftover Peter Parker goo. It really isn't clear what happened at this point (Bear with me, comic book fans. I know, you know what happens, but still, to tell a dramatic story, you need to pretend no one knows).

Did the symbiote kill him? Is he something new? It's up in the air.

So, you have M.J. at home. Maybe she's sad. Still pissed at Peter for combing his hair down in front of his eyes to be Emo-Parker. Spiderman swings in through. It's dark. All you see is the black suit. The black suit spider symbol. The white eyes.

M.J. rants and raves. Wants him to leave. And "Spiderman" smiles. In the darkness, a giant white, toothy grin.

See, what happened there? Nice little twist. Intro of a new character. Your Venom fans would LOVE you. Plus you're actually using the original material. The only ones left in the dark, but now incredibly intrigued (and most likely with 1/2 a clue after seeing Brock doused in symbiote) are the non-fans. But, man... you've hooked them.

A brief segway: A little backstory on VENOM.

Besides having all of Spiderman's powers. Being bigger and stronger. He does have an extra bonus, that is rarely used anymore. He doesn't set off Spidey's Spider-Sense.

Let that sink in for a moment. No one can sneak up on Spiderman because of that damn Spidey sense. No one, except Venom.

THIS HAS TO BE CAPITALIZED ON! Really, there's no point for the power other than to make a very, very frightening character entrance.

Being a movie, makes this a little harder to sell. But being a sequel, and third at that, helps. His Spidey sense has been established (Hell, it's how he kills the Green Goblin... or lives I should say). A minor scene early in the third movie to establish that no one can sneak up on him would pay off HUGE for a later Venom intro.

Pretty much all character intros dropped the ball. Peter, Mj, Spidey, Harry. They aren't really introduced. They are just there.

The Sandman with his powers intro was the one real saving grace. Well handled. I thought it was great to see him actually learning how to be Sandman.


I'll just refer back to my previous post on dramatic tension.

This happens because the movie doesn't have a central idea. Instead the only thing it has to cling to is plot. And because plot doesn't give the huge emotional swings that creating tension through a central premise does... well...

You get scenes like... Harry, as the Green Goblin, abducting M.J. for no real reason (other than that shock scare). If Harry hadn't abducted her, he probably could have had the EXACT SAME RESULT just by flirting with her a little more.

Cut that scene, and M.J. breaking up with Peter would seem fine as well. You'd never notice it missing.

You also get a lot of talking heads. And very unmotivated action.

Not to mention a predictability that makes me want to hurt someone. Did anyone seriously thing Harry wasn't going to come back and save the day at the end?

Bad choices also lead to a lack of dramatic tension... the first example of Sandman's power is to become a giant sand monster. Umm, that's really cool. I actually leaned over to my g/f in the movie and was like, that's a bad choice. You have no where to go from there, without being redundant or less cool.

Show him making rock fists. And sliding under stuff to start.

My g/f laughed with a "You were right" when you see the even bigger Sandman at the end. It's like... oh yeah... great... an even bigger sand man. Didn't we see this already?


M.J. and Parker sitting in a web. Looking at the stars. A couple lines about the play. And how much she likes to sing. Followed by a TOTALLY unnecessary:

"I love you."
"I love you, too."

And then they kiss.


How about... her return line being something more like... "But you have to stop singing along." And then they kiss.

That says more about the playful nature of their relationship, while still saying I love you, without actually saying it.

Similar comments for the majority of "deep" conversations between M.J. and Parker. There is a hefty lack of subtext. The scene in the French restaurant nearly killed me. It was a great scene up until the point where M.J. shows up and becomes a total rag. Good job on that characterization boys.

For future reference, the overwhelming majority of female leads/co-stars/etc in comic books are BADASS! Tough as nails. They have to be to keep pace with their superheroic counterpart. Lois Lane in SUPERMAN RETURNS, is NOT Lois Lane. M.J. is not M.J. in this flick.


I never knew sand could fly.

Apparently, a bomb going off next to someone's face, only disfigures half their face. Yet, that same bomb going off next to Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote completely disintegrates them.

Hmm... Do you think Sam Raimi hated Venom? /grumble Make me do Venom. Fine! I'll just make sure no one else can use him. So much for the Carnage storyline, eh?

The whole movie is one large inconsistency.

This movie was a let down on all fronts. As a screenwriter. As a Spiderman/comic book fan. As a fan of blockbuster tentpoles. As a normal person that wants to see a good movie at the theater.

I don't typically like doing movie reviews. And to be honest, this isn't much of a movie review. This was a dissection of SPIDERMAN 3 and why it is so heavily flawed. Gotta keep those screenwriting skills honed and sharp.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

At the Start...

I just finished an adventure screenplay. Finally got it to a place where I'm happy to send it out into the world. Final page count: 107 pgs.

At the start of the year, I made a New Year's Resolution to write 3 specs by the end of 2007. This is the first.

So, now the question is: What's next?

I have a horde of ideas on the backburner. But those are mostly in their primordial, soupy idea state. A handful of visuals. Interesting scenes. A character or two. But nothing really substantial that makes me want to get off my butt and push them to the forefront.

And then there are the ones that keep vying for my attention. These tend to have the legs to at least put together the semblance of a story. They are...

  1. An old idea I had written to ~ 80 pages before deciding it was flawed. And not worth writing another page until I found a new way to approach it. Essentially a Page One rewrite.
  2. An old premise that has been fleshed out once. But most people want in a different genre than it is.
  3. A wacky genre bending modern fairytale.
  4. And of course, the incredibly personal story, that burns a hole in my soul to tell, even though it is the most non-cinematic idea I have ever had.


1) I don't have a new approach. Re-writing this would most likely result in another Page One rewrite. Why waste the time, right?

2) I have had lots of feedback on this script. Both positive and negative. Rave and dire. I probably could sell this one if I gutted the core of the story and pushed it into Comedy of the Thriller genre. But I just don't have the heart.

3) This one is so ridiculous. A wacky genre-less modern day fairytale. So not commercial. That it almost is. Basically, I could never sell this script as a first time writer. It's not the type of premise you break in with when you have no credibility.

The irony is, I'd love for it to be the first feature I direct. Shhhh.... That's on the DL. We're all writers here. /wink

To give you guys an idea of what I was going for...

The ultimate compliment ... The reaction I want when people leave the theater after seeing this movie is that they will be struck dumbfounded. Upon being asked their opinion of the movie, these viewers will only be able to make weak eye contact and nod mindlessly.

POTENTIAL VIEWER: How was the movie?
JUST SAW IT: I. Don't. Know.
JUST SAW IT: No. It wasn't bad.
POTENTIAL VIEWER: Oh? So it was good.
JUST SAW IT: I'm not sure.

But I also want it to make money. I won't start something that I think has no possibility of a return (I'm not always, right, but hey... Nobody's perfect). Which is a nice segway to...

4) Isn't this the piece of crap screenplay every aspiring screenwriter tries to write their first go at it?

I'm hoping that I have the willpower to just ignore it.

Either that, or get some random Indie Prod. Co. to buy it as a pitch, so that I can write it to be the overbudgeted piece of crap, that hits as limited an audience as possible, that it was meant to be. But hey, maybe Naomi Watts will star in it, as the character that is barely veiled as me.

...And that leads us back to the essential question.

Where to start? Where to start?

I have no idea how I am going to start my next spec. And a vague idea of which of the 4 it will be. I bet, you can tell I favored one. I didn't mean to. I actually only realized it, after putting it down on paper... umm... Internet... digital... numbers... thingy? Whatever.

The last screenplay I wrote was (The Adventure) with the intent to write something that my father would pay 10 bucks to see.

On Jan. 4th of this year, I wrote a post about the neglected demographics in Hollywood.

Strangely enough... Coincidentally... Through sheer serendipity... Who am I kidding? It was on my mind. I was hating the script I had been working on previously (which was actually #1) probably because it was a little too reminiscent of a #4.

And I started anew.

What I am missing now, is that fire under my rear. The kind that makes me write blogs about what I want to do until I realize the stupidity of ranting and raving about what I could just as easily be sitting down to do.

A couple more lightning strikes. A blog post or two. And I'll probably sit down and write #3.