Monday, September 29, 2008

Eagle Eye

I talked earlier about a lesson I learned from Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and another writing principle really crystallized for me while I was watching Eagle Eye this weekend, although in this case it was because of a failure (in my view) on the part of the script.

The premise of the film should be pretty familiar even to those who have only seen the poster. A mysterious voice on a phone is telling two people to do all manner of crazy illegal stuff -- but they'll die unless they do it. (There's also a good chance they'll die from doing it, but that's a story issue I'll skip over for now.)

On the face of it, that sounds like a fairly compelling film premise, even if it's one we've seen before. Enough for a $30 million opening weekend, anyway. And yet, the movie's biggest failing is that it adheres to that premise too completely. For the vast majority of the running time, the protagonists are only doing what The Voice is telling them to do. Sure, once in a while they say "No" to The Voice, but as soon as they do it, The Voice just gets even Voice-ier on them and they're forced to continue obeying.

People familiar with the academics of screenwriting might recognize that there's a cardinal rule being violated here -- the protagonists aren't acting independently; they're being driven by the plot rather than driving it. Yeah, yeah, I know. Academic arguments don't carry too far in the real world. If the movie works, it works, even if it breaks every rule there is.

But the movie doesn't work. The flaw in its DNA continues to manifest through 90% of the running time, and by the time the protagonists start doing things they're not being told to do, it's too late for the film to win back my interest (as well as the interest of the 73% of critics who rated it unfavorably). For the rest of the film, the deck is so stacked against them that they can never do anything but yield. Hence, the things they do are understandable and believable but not particularly interesting.

What if Principal Rooney had threatened to kill Ferris Bueller's entire family unless he came back to school? Well, I guess Ferris would've had to cut the joyride short. What choice would he have? He wants to have fun, but not if the lives of his loved ones are at stake. We'd see him sitting through history class with Ben Stein, eating lunch in the cafeteria, maybe dissecting a frog. No Cubs game, no parade, no "You're Abe Froman? The sausage king of Chicago?"

I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think that version of the film would have been quite as successful. Thankfully, John Hughes didn't go that route. He made it almost impossible for Ferris to get away with skipping school, but not quite. And thus all the pieces fall into place. Not only do we like Ferris, but we admire him, because he pulls off an impressive feat against improbable odds. Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, just can't do it. Their hands are tied. "If you want to live you will obey," the tagline says, and they want to live, so they just obey, obey, obey, and keep obeying. Can't blame them -- I'd obey, too -- but I do blame the writers for making it impossible for them to do anything independent.

But they can't. They're outmatched. Generally, "outmatched" is good in a movie like this (Terminator wouldn't have worked if Schwarzenegger were the good guy and Linda Hamilton were the bad guy), but there's such a thing as too outmatched. Eagle Eye isn't Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker; it's Darth Vader vs. Aunt Beru.

That's not my only issue with the story. Wrapped inside it is another one that may be even worse: The Voice is not just telling the protagonists what to do at every turn; it's also telling them exactly how to do it. And it's not just telling them exactly how to do it; it's also helping them do the things that it is telling them exactly how to do. Which is where the whole thing really falls apart. Despite my tail-wagging-the-dog quibbles with Shia and Michelle only doing what they're told, that conceit might have worked (or at least worked better) if they'd been forced to figure out how to execute the tasks The Voice was assigning them. In a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film, the protagonist usually just does what his superiors tell him to do, but at least he figures out how to do it on his own.

Of course, there are people in Eagle Eye who figure stuff out on their own; they're just not the main characters. They're Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, the intelligence agents the movie cuts away to from time to time in order to convey information that the audience already knows. We see Shia and Michelle's SUV lifted up by a remote-control crane; then Billy Bob shows up in the next scene to say something helpful like, "Looks like an SUV was lifted up by a remote-control crane." (For a movie that bills itself as edge-of-your-seat action, there sure are a lot of filler scenes.) Well, at least he's capable of independent thought.

* * * *

Anyway, that's enough bagging on this particular flick. I can only judge the script based on the finished movie, of course, not having read all (or even any) of the drafts. As far as I can tell, it was written on assignment rather than on spec (I assume this based on the fact that the "idea" for the film came from Spielberg), and when an entire script is written under duress, as it were, the results aren't always as good. Regardless of any of that, I think that good spec screenplay writers can and should aspire to better than this.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Well, the two-thirds itch has struck again, even more acutely than last time.  Am I to be plagued by this condition for the rest of my literary career?  Is everyone?  

Here's what I'm talking about.  I'm working on a script.  A good one, at least in my opinion and that of most people familiar with it.  Definitely the best one I've written so far.*  My ticket to fame and fortune?  Who knows.  I'm as optimistic as everyone else in this town who's never sold anything.  Anyway, I'm two thirds of the way through the first draft.  There's still a ways to go, but the end is well within sight if I can keep at it for just a bit longer... a few weeks, probably, definitely less than a month.

And two days ago I had an idea for another script.  Then yesterday, during a fire safety meeting, I fleshed it out a bit -- not all the way, but enough to make it feel like it could be an actual film.

You know how they always tell you to write the movie you want to see?  

This is not just a movie I'd want to see.  This is a movie I'd be desperate to see.  I'd crash the ArcLight website trying to get advance tickets the second they were released.  I'd scour the internet obsessively for early production details, right down to researching the filmography of the actor playing Unnamed Party Guest #6.

Of course, I can't work on that script yet.  I'm just not allowed to.  Okay, that's not true.  It would be a mistake.  In one hand, I have 60 pages of an actual script; in the other, a couple hours' worth of brainstorming on an idea for a script.  It makes no sense to quit the first to begin the second.  It makes complete sense to finish the good script I've already got and then move on.

But the screenwriting brain wants what the screenwriting brain wants.  It's going to be extremely difficult to write the remaining 30-ish pages without getting distracted by the other film, which, quite frankly, excites me a lot more.  I have to do that, though; and what's more, I absolutely can not rush through the rest of the script in an effort to get working on the new one more quickly.  The script that's two-thirds done needs and deserves 100% of my creative energy to ensure that the remaining third is every bit as kick-ass as it should be.  

What I'm going through is more or less exactly what I went through on my last script -- except, last time I wasn't in the middle of nearly as good a script as I am now.  So I have even more reason to fight the temptation.  Doesn't mean it'll be easier, though.

Anyway, I look forward to writing another identical post six months from now about how the awesome, exciting, incredible script I have in mind has become tiresome and an even awesomer idea has taken form and blah blah blah.  Should be a hoot.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My sunscreen speech

I've been writing screenplays off and on for ten years.  I think I've come a long way (though the results have been more mental than tangible), yet it's remarkably easy to go back into the mindset I had when I was writing my very first script.  What's interesting about that, in sort of a hilarious way, is I wasn't the least bit intimidated -- much less so than I am now when I write.  The task seemed remarkably straightforward, and I knew I was going to knock the sucker out of the park.

So, okay, there was one of my problems.

I don't know if I could have done a better job on that script.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  I think it's Robert Rodriguez who said that every writer has about a half-dozen bad scripts in him that need to be purged before the good stuff can start coming out, and the more I write the more I agree with the sentiment.  For whatever it's worth, though, I definitely would not write that script today, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I'm a much better writer.  I just know that I could not bring that idea off.  

Which leads me to wonder: What is a good script for a new writer to attempt?  I'm not sure I have a good answer.  There are a million pitfalls on the way to a first script, and rather than figure out how to avoid them, many budding screenwriters tend to run straight at them.  I can't blame them; I gleefully stuck my foot into dozens of literary bear traps when I was starting out, and it took well over a year to notice the blood on my shoe.  Anyway, here are some pieces of advice I would give to first- (or second- or third-) time writers, if they cared to listen to me.  The screenwriting equivalent of my "sunscreen" speech, if you will.

1. Don't write about a hitman.  I don't know why EVERY SINGLE novice writer has such a yen to do an assassin movie, but... actually, I do know why.  It's because they think hitmen are cool.  And that's about as far as they get, planning-wise.  They think about the "cool" movies that are out there -- Tarantino films, The Professional, Fight Club, etc. -- and the element that seems to tie them together is that the main character is more or less a bad guy.  This, they reason, is the shortest path to coolness.  What they fail to consider is how much of an uphill battle it is to get an audience or reader to sympathize with someone who kills for money.  A more seasoned writer might be able to pull it off; a moderately experienced writer would probably be scared away by the task; a newbie writer just doesn't realize it's an issue.  

Once in a great while, someone hits on a good idea for a hitman movie.  I think the last one was The Matador.  We should all be very, very lucky (and talented) to write a movie that good.  It really should have been nominated for Best Picture.  And that's what it takes to pull off a sympathetic hitman.  Anyone not in that echelon of screenwriting (which is to say, most of us) should stick to protagonists who are naturally easier to like.

2. Write what you know, to an extent.  "Write what you know" is a sentiment that's hard to argue with in theory, and there are any number of stories that can be trotted out in its defense.  Dashiell Hammett worked for Pinkerton's.  Ian Fleming was in the British Secret Service.  Michael Crichton is an M.D.  Charles Dickens was a child laborer.  Well, good for them.  (Not so much Dickens, though he clearly turned out all right.)  But not all of us has the exact right personal experience to draw from when we're sitting down to pen our latest epic.  Does that mean we should avoid completely any story that we haven't lived?  Of course not.  Quite the opposite, in fact, especially when it comes to screenwriting.  In practically every writing class I've taken, there's that one student who's writing a script that is very personal and yes, every single detail really happened, and it's very important that the story be told this way and so on and so forth.  I'm sorry, but in the vast majority of cases, no one is going to want to read that script.  It might be your story, but it's still a story, and the fact that you lived through it doesn't make a difference to anyone other than you (and maybe your family and friends).  A personal story is a great starting point for a script, but to make it a good one you'll need to change it, expand it, compress it, combine characters or create new ones -- and above all, remember that your goal at the end of the day is a good story, not a documentary about your life.   

Then again, the flipside is also true.  Consider Pulp Fiction.  Tarantino was never a hitman, probably never even knew a hitman.  He made up all the mob stuff or borrowed it from other movies.  But he did grow up in Los Angeles, and every quirk of L.A. life in the movie comes directly from his own experience.  Ditto the conversation about Amsterdam and the treatise on foot massages.  And by laying a big, made-up story over a variety of personally familiar details, he and Roger Avary wrote a fantastic script.  Doing this well is difficult, because those personal details don't fit in just anywhere; shoehorn them in and they'll look shoehorned-in.  However, I think it's important, especially as a new writer.  

If you want your first few scripts to be worthy of someone else's time, they need to have elements that only you can bring to them.  If that isn't the case, and your scripts are only inspired by other movies, then you'll be at a big disadvantage because you're trying to do something that lots of other writers can do extremely well -- and your work will be distinguished only by its inferiority.  In other words, if you've never written a screenplay before and you try to write a kick-ass James Bond script your first time out, it's going to suck.  (I know.  I tried.)  But if you write a script about a topic of personal interest to you, on which you have some interesting things to say, then it'll at least have a chance of being worth reading even if the execution isn't totally there.

But that summer you rented a shack by the lake with your friends and smoked a lot of pot and sat around telling dirty jokes -- that doesn't count.

So: why am I harping on the hitman stuff and the uninteresting personal story stuff so much?

Because these are the kinds of scripts written by people who are not really writers.  

The dispiriting stuff we hear all the time -- You're writing a screenplay?  Oh.  Isn't everyone? -- 40,000 scripts registered to the WGA every year -- all that stuff -- it's misleading because it doesn't take into account the massive number of non-writers who try to write screenplays.  Check out some of the material uploaded to the peer-reviewing site for a window into this phenomenon.  There are tons of people out there that couldn't put together a coherent paragraph if you asked them to, yet are bravely writing 100-page screenplays.   I don't want to discourage those people, but at the same time, if you're serious about making a go of it as a writer, you do NOT want to be mistaken for one of them.

If you write a hitman script filled with movie in-jokes, or a talky, rambling tale about breaking up and getting back together with your girlfriend, then you run that risk.  The people who read your first script are already armed with a million reasons not to take you seriously; there's no need to throw in a few more.

And, oh yeah, wear sunscreen.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to write

It's always fun to hear what famous and successful writers have to say about their writing schedules and habits.  Usually it's something like, "I get up at 8:00 every morning.  I brew myself a fresh cup of coffee, read the New York Times, perhaps circle some articles that have story potential.  Eat a healthy breakfast, then sit down to write for a few hours.  Have lunch, run errands.  Write for another few hours until dinner."

And... well -- yeah, great, dude.  That's great to know if you already write for a living.  Except, if  you already write for a living, you probably don't need any tips on organizing your writing schedule, because you must have come up with a pretty good writing schedule to get where you already are.  What about the rest of us, who aren't already under contract with Universal, receiving monthly royalty checks, taking our pick among lucrative writing assignments?

I get up at 6:45 Mondays through Fridays, work from 8 to 5, generally hit the gym after work three days a week, often have class one evening a week, and try to have some fun on the weekend before the cycle starts again.  There's time in there for writing, but it's not always easy to find.  (And it's a lot harder for people who work in entertainment, like I used to in my less sane days.)  Some people solve the problem by adhering to a strict schedule... like the hypothetical employed writer referred to in the first paragraph, but on a smaller scale.  Two hours a day, an hour a day, three hours three times a week, or whatever.  

I have tried many times to implement a system like this in the past.  As far as I can remember, it has never, ever worked.

First: I just hate trying to design and adhere to a schedule.  Ironically enough, this process actually enables my procrastination.  It works like this: if you assume that you need a schedule in order to write, then the converse must also be true... that you can't write until you figure out a schedule.  I say to myself, "I'm not writing yet because I don't have a schedule yet.  Once I figure out a schedule, I'll be productive.  I'll definitely do that one of these days."  Because the scheduling itself is not on a schedule.  It's whenever I get around to it.  And let me tell you, I can live in that netherworld for weeks or months.

Second: Well, here's where I risk drifting into writer heresy.  But I think it needs to be said.  And I'll even bold it.  Committing a certain amount of time to writing is not necessarily productive.  Yes, I went there, I crossed the line, I spat in the face of every writing teacher and book and mantra that has ever existed.  And hold your breath, because I'm about to make things even worse.  Sometimes -- maybe even often -- spending an arbitrary amount of time writing can be counterproductive.  I'll just sit here and wait for the gunmen to arrive.  In the meantime, let me explain why I believe that.  I'm drawing only from my own experience, of course, but I have a feeling I'm not the only person to whom this applies.

Some people write simply for the enjoyment of writing.  They're not looking to make a career out of it, they have no interest in selling what they write, they might not even show their work to anyone else.  For those people -- whom, it must be noted, I do not intend to disparage in any way; writing is a noble pursuit regardless of the context -- spending time writing is the goal in itself.  But it's not a goal in itself to the rest of us; we need tangible results.  A screenplay (or a book, or an essay) is counted in pages, not hours.  And not just pages -- good pages.  

Just spending the time does not guarantee that you will generate pages, and if you do, it definitely doesn't guarantee that they'll be good.

And -- I know, sometimes you need to crank out pages even if they're bad... to get to the next scene, to establish a placeholder for something better, etc.  But I really try to minimize this sort of thing.  Bad writing usually takes just as much time and mental energy as good writing, and I don't like spending hours upon hours feverishly sputtering out words and thoughts that are beneath my talent.  I don't know about you, but if you ask me what keeps me motivated as a writer (obviously not the money, at least not yet), my answer would be: producing good material.  When I read my own work and it really engages me, when I can visualize the movie the pages are describing and it's one that I'd want to see, then I'm spurred on to keep writing.  When I read my own work and it's bad, I don't feel the same push.  More likely, I'll have a bad case of writer's block the next time I sit down.  That, right there, is how writing can actually be counterproductive.  Bad pages plus being bummed out plus writer's block?  Not progress, to me.

So I try to minimize the bad writing and maximize the good.  (Yes, I am totally the first person to figure out such a scheme.)  I don't do this by keeping to a writing schedule.  Instead, I focus on results.  Ten pages a week, to me, is pretty good.  It's not going to set any land speed records, but that's still a pretty good complete script in a little over two months.  And when I write those ten pages is up to me.  Maybe I write 3-4 pages on three different days, maybe all ten in one marathon Sunday afternoon.  I just know I'm going to get them done.  Also, importantly, I really try to have a plan.  

Having some idea of what you're going to write when you sit down, can be helpful.  And I really do mean some idea.  Not necessarily the complete idea, but enough to go on.  Like, "this week I need to write the scene where Bob escapes the dude with the shotgun."  I don't necessarily know how he escapes him, but I'm confident that I can figure that out once I sit down.  I don't need to plan out every single beat of the escape, and even if I did, I'd probably change it once I sat down to write it.  But I do need that much.  "This week I need to write the scene where Bob does something heroic" isn't enough.  If that's all I have, then I know I'm going to be blocked when I write it.  My mind will go in a thousand directions and I'll just end up writing the first thing that comes to my mind, which will probably suck.  So, yes, having a plan is important.  And the great thing about planning is that I can do a lot of it when I'm not even at the computer.  Driving, working out, eating lunch, pretending to listen to someone... all great venues for planning.  

So that's what works for me right now.  Have a plan, write good pages, feel good about them, write more good pages.  I may one day repudiate everything I've just written, and that day may be next Wednesday, but until then I'm happy with it.