Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Franken-script

A recent Hollywood Reporter article (discussed by John August and Craig Mazin in this week's Scriptnotes) explores the trend of double-hiring writers for big movies:

Executives and agents say double hirings are on the rise partly because of the demands of the tentpole era. Dates for movies often are set while projects still are in development, creating urgency to move fast. And with reboots and reimaginings, studios sometimes ask for multiple takes before jigsawing the scripts together.
If you want the Cliff Notes version of what's wrong with Hollywood, circa 2014, there it is in a nice little package. You'd think that the business of screwing up big movies would be fully perfected by now, and yet there Hollywood goes finding newer and more complex ways to do it.

Honestly, I wish screenwriting really worked the way many executives seem to think it does; it'd be a hell of a lot easier. I've got one script that I've worked on on and off for years, during which time it's gone through about six distinct versions (four full drafts and two additional treatments). One version was funnier; another was more emotional; the most recent one was bigger in scope. The one in between had a really fun opening sequence but not much else.

Wouldn't it be great if I could just Frankenstein all those drafts together and end up with a script that has humor, emotion, big action and a killer opening? Yes. Yes it would. I'm sure it would actually sell, instead of only getting me a few general meetings with people who didn't want to buy it (or help me sell it). Unfortunately, that's not how it works. I can't stitch those drafts seamlessly together because each one is a different version -- a different take -- on the same basic story, and each of those versions has an organic set of characters whose behaviors drive that specific plot. Therefore, if I combined my favorite parts from each of those scripts, I would end up with wildly inconsistent characters and a senseless plot.

Which, I guess, is a fair description of a lot of tentpole movies these days.

Here's one of the in-development examples the article cites:

Warner Bros. hired writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer to each pen separate scripts for Tarzan, now in preproduction with Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie starring. The studio preferred Cozad's action and structure elements and Brewer's characterization, so it fused both drafts. (Cozad now is working with director David Yates to finalize the film.)
Again: The idea that "action and structure" and "characterization" are such separate concepts that a different writer can handle each one and the whole thing can fit together like Tetris pieces? It's ridiculous. Action and structure are both functions of character, and "characterization" is exemplified by what a character does, which is also known as "action." If you try to force one specific version of a character down a path that isn't organic to him or her, you're most likely going to end up with a shitty script. (And I know this because I've done it over and over.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reboots vs. Remakes

In this week's episode of John August and Craig Mazin's Scriptnotes podcast, John and Craig answer a listener question regarding the difference between a "remake" and a "reboot."

The questioner (Ben) suggests this as the distinction between the two:

To me, you remake a singular film, and you reboot a franchise. "Stargate" can be rebooted because the TV series has continuity, and you can reboot or reset the continuity like a computer. There's no continuity to "Cliffhanger," though; it was a one-shot story. So it's a remake of "Cliffhanger," not a reboot.
To me (as well as to John and Craig) this makes total sense. And yet, as Ben points out, the entertainment industry rarely makes this distinction in practice. Virtually any time you read in Variety or Deadline about a new version of an existing property, the term being used is "reboot" (or "re-imagining," which wasn't mentioned on the podcast but is also commonplace) by either the publication or the studio or both.

So, why?

For one thing, there's the fact that Hollywood is, always has been, and always will be addicted to buzzwords. The moment a word or phrase becomes associated with something cool or popular or innovative, everyone instantly wants to use it to refer to everything, regardless of whether it actually fits. (I guarantee you that right this second, an executive somewhere is using the phrase "killer third act" to describe a macchiato.) Reboots have been having their moment ever since the mid-aughts, when Batman Begins and Casino Royale kicked off the trend (followed by Star Trek a few years later). Remakes just haven't enjoyed the same cachet; some have been successful (the Steve Martin Pink Panther) and some have been well-reviewed (the Denzel Washington Manchurian Candidate) but I can't think of any that have really lit the place up. Studios want to use the term associated with big hits, so they're apt to say "reboot" no matter what.

But while I think optics is a big part of this issue (as it is with most issues in Hollywood), I think there's more to it. I think the word "reboot" genuinely speaks to what studios hope and believe is possible with the films they're making.

The original Cliffhanger was a huge hit, taking in over $250 million worldwide (in 1993 dollars), and Stallone was still at or near his peak of stardom, but there was never a Cliffhanger 2. (In fact, of the top ten grossing films of 1993, the only one that was sequel-ized was Jurassic Park.) Here, twenty-one years later, such a situation is pretty much unthinkable; a studio president could easily be fired for declining to greenlight a sequel to one of the biggest movies of the year. And you can bet that the new version of Cliffhanger will be written with an eye toward making it a franchise, and that its stars will be contracted for at least three films. That's just the way things work now. (Pretty much the only studio movies that aren't designed with sequels in mind are Oscar-bait films, and there are even exceptions to that rule.) So, when Cliffhanger is referred to as a reboot -- even though it only ever existed as a standalone film that wasn't part of a larger mythology -- it's not an accident, and it's not just chronic buzzword-ism.

The one time the word "remake" is still useful is when a foreign-language film garners so much buzz from festivals and the Internet that an American studio decides that they need to produce their own version of it (Let Me In, for example). And in these cases, the studio wants to indicate that the movie will hew pretty closely to its source, except that it'll be in English with actors we all recognize. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel; they're just trying to sweep up all the money that was left on the table due to subtitle-phobia (and the fact that foreign films are rarely screened outside of major cities).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gurus and Mentors

To the average Angeleno (and even moreso to people outside L.A.) screenwriters are a semi-amusing cliche: neurotic navel-gazers drinking too much caffeine and alcohol and fretting about all kinds of first-world problems.  Actual in-depth explorations into the life of the average writer are rarely published in the mainstream; instead, they're typically confined to the subsection of print and online media that is specifically By Screenwriters, For Screenwriters: magazines like Creative Screenwriting and Scr(i)pt, or the self-published blogs of individual writers (like, say, the one you're reading).

I was pretty intrigued, therefore, when the L.A. Times Review of Books published an article that is premised on the exact kind of navel-gazing that usually keeps us writers from being seen outside the walls of our own community.  The piece, written by Jonathan Zimmerman, is titled, "A Three Act Journey in the Land of the Screenwriting Gurus," and it explores a topic that is a perpetual hot button among screenwriters -- namely, the vast (and ever-increasing) numbers of screenwriting how-to guides.

Zimmerman's story is familiar to me and, I imagine, to most writers like me.  He wanted to be a screenwriter, but he grew up far away from The Industry (in Rhode Island), and thus it made sense to turn to screenwriting books as a primary source of knowledge on the subject.  One book turned into 25, and eventually he found that he was relying on how-to books so extensively that his work no longer even looked like his own: "Years later, I see as much Vogler [the author of one popular screenwriting guide] in the script as myself. It is stilted and feels foreign, like an awkward paint-by-numbers attempt at classical storytelling. Rather than writing, I’d been regurgitating undigested bits of Vogler onto the page, and the results were as unappetizing as they sound."  

He is far from alone in this experience.  Most screenwriting books are their own little bibles.  (One of them is even called The Screenwriter's Bible.)  They preach an orthodoxy that is designed to guide you through every word of your script, and writers both new and experienced can easily be tempted to follow them just as religiously as people tend to do with other holy books.  I've been in writing groups where people criticized my work simply by pointing out that it didn't follow the prescriptions of certain screenwriting books.  It is frankly a pretty spineless way of giving feedback, because you're ostensibly taking your own opinion out of the equation and outsourcing your criticism to a supposedly omniscient third party.  And yes, I'm sure I've done it myself on occasion.  Looking another writer in the eye and telling her that you, personally, have problems with her script is not an easy thing to do, especially for those of us who have very consciously chosen an introvert-friendly profession.  Likewise, when it comes to the actual writing, inventing your own stories and characters whole-cloth never ceases to be a frightening proposition.  Much easier in both cases to have a rock-hard set of principles to rely on, so that all you have to do is fill in the blanks.  

Eventually, Zimmerman decides that he'll need to abandon his screenwriting book crutches if he's truly going to move forward in his career.  It's a noble conclusion, but the guy's only written three scripts.  I'll bet you lunch at The Ivy that he dives back into the guides at least a couple more times.  And I don't blame him.  I've sworn off screenwriting books several times, which obviously means that I've also gone back on that vow several times.  In that time, I've come to the conclusion that these books are appealing to many of us not just because they're a synthetic cure-all for our creative woes, but because they're filling a genuine void -- taking the place of something that is sorely lacking in the world of screenwriting.  And that thing is mentorship.

In many professions, mentorship is a given. If you get into medical school, you're going to spend a lot of time around actual doctors, watching them do their jobs and getting plenty of feedback on your own techniques.  But if you want to be a screenwriter?  There's nothing remotely similar in place, unless you're lucky enough to have an aunt or uncle or family friend who's a successful writer and willing to show you the ropes.  (The Writers Guild has some mentorship programs, but they're only available to Guild members, which is kind of like starting your medical residency once you've already been hired as a surgeon.)  We are essentially on our own from the moment we decide to pursue a career in the field -- even our closest friends and family members don't usually understand what it is we're doing.  Is it any wonder that we could be drawn in by a book that promises to sit down with us and talk about how this whole thing works, what we're doing wrong, and what we need to do to succeed?

Obviously, screenwriting books are a dismal substitute for actual mentorship.  Most of the people who write these books are not mentors, but "gurus," to use Zimmerman's terminology.  They are not moved to write these books as a result of their stature in the industry (in fact, very few of them are successful working writers), but rather because they just happen to have figured out the principles of good screenwriting and they want to share their knowledge with the community.  Mentorship is a far less lofty principle, and yet far more useful.  You don't have to be brilliant, or even above average, to be a mentor.  You just have to be willing to show the next generation how you do what you do.  It sounds like a simple concept, but good luck finding it if you're an aspiring writer, because it's just not part of the infrastructure of the profession.  And as long as that's the case, self-professed screenwriting gurus will always be able to earn a living on the backs of the Jonathan Zimmermans of the world.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Managing myself

I have neither an agent nor a manager, so I don't have any firsthand experience working with either one, but I believe I have a pretty decent grasp of the difference between the two roles. An agent finds you work that's as frequent and lucrative as possible, while a manager is more focused on steering you toward the projects that are right for you and your career. These days I find myself spending a lot of time and energy doing the latter. Putting together a decent script takes me months -- sometimes a few, sometimes several -- and I want to have something significant to show for that kind of temporal investment. I want a solid addition to my portfolio, something that really helps to sell me as a writer. So I have to choose the right thing to write. I have to be my own manager.

Here are some of the criteria I use in determining whether an idea is worth my time to develop:

1. Is the idea high-concept; i.e., easily pitchable?

No, this is not me happily internalizing the marketing-driven world of today's studio system. I just want to make sure that people will read what I write, and I'm not exactly a known quantity in Hollywood (despite having 136 followers on Twitter, at least half of whom are not spam-bots!). But if I can sum up the appeal of the script in a zippy logline, then a stranger in a position of power just might deign to pick it up. To quote one of my favorite movies, these are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

2. Can I actually pull it off?

If coming up with a script that fit criterion #1 above were all it took, then L.A. would be stuffed to the gills with millionaire scribes. Great high-concept ideas are a dime a dozen; people who can execute those ideas are rich. A humanoid dinosaur and a supermodel travel back in time to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I would write that if I thought I could pull it off, because why not? Someone's going to read that script if it comes across their desk. But I don't think I have the chops.

Managers pride themselves on knowing their clients' creative strengths and weaknesses. As my own manager, I have to know mine. There are certain types of characters, certain types of scenes, certain types of plots that I know I can do well. I'm good at snappy dialogue and unexpected injections of humor. I can write a passable action scene, but I'm better at building and sustaining tension. These are all major considerations in the kind of script I choose to write.

3. Does the idea of writing this excite me?

This is a no-brainer, and should be for anyone writing a spec. If you have the power to choose what you write, choose something that really sparks your interest and makes you look forward to sitting down at the computer. Even the scripts that most ignite your passions will cause you pain and frustration at some point (if not many points), so it's essential to find a project that makes all that suffering worthwhile.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The right details

Here's a sample scene.


Dim lighting from four overhead incandescent bulbs. Another six are burned out. The walls are brick and concrete; three crooked nails are hammered into the far side, about five feet up. Nine metal and vinyl stools are positioned against the bar, and thirteen tall, faded oak tables with three barstools each are staggered around the rest of the interior. The bar itself is polished mahogany, chipped away in places. The wall behind the bar is a mirror with protruding glass shelves, holding the following bottles of liquor (left to right): Dewar's, Johnnie Walker Red, Johnnie Walker Blue, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Captain Morgan, Bacardi Gold, Bacardi Silver, Appleton Estate...

Okay, that's enough. Clearly, that's not how you write a script you want anyone to read. Unless it's animation! Then, from what I hear, you have to write it that way; otherwise, the animators won't know they need to draw all those things. Or, if the entire movie takes place in that bar, you could probably get away with that level of detail. But if you're writing a normal cinematic scene and you want to put the reader inside this location, this is not the way to do it. You need details, yes, but they need to be the right details.

So what are the right details? In my opinion, they're the details that convey (a) something distinguishing and (b) something emotional. Looking at the bloated description at the top of the page, the list of alcohols on display doesn't fit either of those criteria. You'd find most of those at any bar in America, from the Bel Air Hotel to an airport in Fort Lauderdale. And there's little emotional impact to be mined from rattling off a list of common boozes. On the other hand, the description of the lighting is much closer to the mark, if not exactly Oscar-worthy. The fact that more than half the bulbs are burned out signals that the place might not be all that well taken care of; might not be clean; might not be safe. Suppose our protagonist is a pre-teen girl and she has to walk into this bar alone, late at night. With that one brief sentence of description, we're starting to trigger emotional reactions in the reader. This place is no TGI Friday's. Something bad might happen.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Changing things up

The start of a new year is a natural time to make some changes, so I'm going to do that. I've been writing this blog since early 2008, and it's been a great opportunity to put down in print a lot of principles that have crystallized for me in the course of my development as a writer. (That was my mission statement, after all.)

But as time goes by, I find I'm devoting less energy to learning and more to applying what I've learned. Principles occur to me less often, and exceptions to the principles I've already learned occur to me more often. As a result, when I sit down to write a post about some basic tenet of screenwriting, I usually end up putting it on the back burner or discarding it all together, because I've already started mentally poking holes in it. And thus I've ended up with a whole lot of unfinished mini-essays on all sorts of topics. I only published eight posts in all of 2010, but I probably started three times that many; I just couldn't quite bring them off.

So I think I'm done with the didactic stuff for the time being. (The post below was kind of my last hurrah in terms of passing on tips and lessons.) But I'm not done with this blog. To the contrary: I'd like to expand it to include a wider variety of topics on movies, TV, books, L.A., and entertainment in general. I'd like to write about some of these things without forcing myself to tie them directly to lessons about screenwriting.

Anyway, we'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Things I've Learned About Screenwriting, In Handy Bullet-Point Form

The end of the year (and beginning of the next) is a great time to make lists, isn't it? Everyone else seems to think so, and since I'd be hard pressed to come up with a list of the ten alt-punk albums with the best allusions to midcentury Bauhaus architecture, I think I'll just spout off a list of random things I've learned about screenwriting in the last ten or so years that I've been doing it.

  • Drinking and screenwriting don't mix. Sure, it seems like every famous novelist of the last 700 years was known to suck down a few before sitting down at the computer/typewriter/quill, but screenwriting is different. You need full access to your logical mind, which is exactly the thing that alcohol takes away. Save the cocktail for after you're done; it'll help you decompress.

  • If you decide to write a script because you think it will be a good learning experience -- and not because the story and characters excite you -- then don't expect it to be anything other than a learning experience.

  • That being said, every script (and every rewrite) should be a learning experience anyway, and you should be looking for ways to grow and expand your talent with each one. Take chances; do things a little differently than you did last time.

  • Writing advice is like religion: it's ubiquitous and comes in many varieties. It's also like religion in that people tend to use it to validate their own preconceptions, rather than challenge them. Thus, if you're the impulsive, impatient type, you're likely to fixate on the charming curmudgeon who tells you to plunge straight into the first draft with zero prep work, and ignore the zen master who tells you to spend two months on character sketches before you even outline. Which is too bad, because it's the second guy you should be listening to.

  • Don't let anyone tell you that dialogue doesn't matter. There is virtually no script that cannot be made better by improving the dialogue, even if all the other elements are perfect.

  • However, banter is not good dialogue.

  • Also, improving the dialogue often means cutting some of it out.

  • By far the most important reason to write an outline is to ensure that you have enough great scenes for a complete script. It's not fun, but you know what's less fun? Getting to page 50 and realizing you're already in the third act. If you're tempted to skip straight to FADE IN: without outlining, it almost definitely means you're going to come up short.

  • About 10% of people who say they have writer's block are actively struggling with a story problem. The other 90% are just afraid to sit down to write because they think they'll have writer's block when they do.

  • When reviewing someone else's script, be brutally honest but always leave them some hope. Find things to like about their writing style, or one of the characters, or something else. Say the nice things first, then go into the faults, and end with a statement of confidence in their ability to improve the script. All the better if you can find a great scene and tell them that more of the script should be like that. If their response is to defend almost every point that you criticized, well, that's too bad for them. The surest sign of a novice writer is the inability to handle criticism (and even more importantly, to use it).

  • An "everyman" (or everywoman) protagonist who does exactly what the audience would do in the same situation is interesting only if she finds herself in truly extraordinary circumstances -- and even then, a more unusual character is usually more compelling.

  • People who aren't writers themselves can often give incredibly useful feedback, because (a) they're human beings with feelings, just like your characters, and (b) they see movies.

  • When you tell yourself that a script will be easy to write, what you're actually saying is that it will be easy to write badly.

  • The great thing about aspiring to be a professional screenwriter is that you already get to do the exact same thing that the pros do. Nothing's stopping you from writing a movie that would cost $250 million to produce. Aspiring directors sure don't have that luxury.

  • Lots of movies and scripts fail because the tone is inconsistent. And lots of movies and scripts succeed in spite of all kinds of other problems because the tone is perfect.

  • A good action scene is not one in which a lot of cool things happen; it's one in which the audience legitimately worries that the good guys will lose.

  • Never be afraid to think bigger. You want people to read your script and imagine a movie on a fifty-foot screen, not a webisode on an iPhone.

  • If you find that you're forced to suck all the fun out of your premise simply for the sake of adhering to logic and "rules," then you're doing it wrong. A great premise that is well-serviced by the story and characters is the brass ring of screenwriting. If you can pull that off, nobody's going to notice whether you've broken a few "rules."

  • And yes, the word "rules" should always be in quotes when it comes to screenwriting.

That's about all I can think of for now. ("For now" being the last few weeks that I've worked on and off on this list.) Happy new year and happy writing!