This Christmas day, my wife and I went to see The Pursuit of Happyness. Good film, very much enjoyed it. Will Smith flexes his dramatic acting skills in a head-shaking true story.
However, this dude sat next to me. He was generally quiet and unobtrusive, which is always a blessing. But the most amazing thing happens about a half hour in...
First, his cell phone rings...
Second, he answers the cell phone...
Third, he continues speaking—not whispering—to the caller.
I was stunned. I stared at him, hoping his peripheral vision would feel my steely gaze, but to no avail.
My wife almost lost it. She leaned over and said, in a loud whisper, "You need to hang that up right now!" He ignored her and kept talking.
I sat there. Fuming. Certain things should be common sense. Not turning off your cell phone in a movie theatre is being pretty think-skinned, but (barely) forgivable. But answering a phone call? And then not whispering??? It's so far beyond the pale that my wife and I were speechless.
This... thug wasn't mostly listening on his call, so I told myself that the next time he speaks... and he did—
Turning to him, I said—in a regular voice—"Dude, seriously—you're talking on a cell phone. In a movie. Get real." (Should he not take my reproach gracefully enough, I at least wanted everyone within earshot to know I wasn't being nasty about it, just appealing to his sense of decency.)
He looked at me, for a long moment during which he must have thought he had a right to be offended. And then he hung up. Nothing else happened for the rest of the film.
Though I'm not really for capital punishment, it might be the only way some thugs will ever learn.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
This Christmas day, my wife and I went to see The Pursuit of Happyness. Good film, very much enjoyed it. Will Smith flexes his dramatic acting skills in a head-shaking true story.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
A "clever romantic comedy" is what the back of the box said about The Break-Up with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn and wow, was that ever misleading advertising. The Break-Up was so un-funny and so un-romantic that my wife and I had to stop watching after half an hour—and we never do that.
Vince Vaughn is a talented comedic actor, right? In Wedding Crashers, his motor mouth antics must have made it a challenge for the film crew to keep quiet during takes. I'm not always a fan of Vaughn's schtick, yet certain roles often work well for him.
Jennifer Aniston, too, knows her chops, as her many years on Friends have proven.
So what gives? Why was this film so bad? Well, that's just it—it wasn't bad per se, just that it was poorly advertised: instead of a romantic comedy with some dramatic moments, it's actually a romantic drama with some comedic moments. Their quarrels in the first half hour are uncomfortably real, and thus not really funny at all. Honestly, what's so funny about watching people fight with such sincere malice?
I think I know what happened. If I had to guess, The Break-Up's shooting script was probably very clever and very funny, and garnered enough buzz to attract several big (comedic) names: Justin Long, Jason Bateman, Ann Margaret, Vincent d'Onofrio, Cole Hauser, Judy Davis. So, great, you've got all these great supporting actors, and you've got two amazing lead actors known for their comedic talent... so it's got to be a romantic comedy, right? Hardly. Because Vince Vaughn is notorious for his improvisational tangents, his improvs with Anison were very very good material... but only for a drama. And at times, Aniston's line delivery is so resonant that it hurts. She's clearly as gifted doing drama as she is with comedy.
The problem is that the ultra-serious tone of their fights starts the movie, so any subsequent humor has a wet towel draped over it. You keep cringing—when is the next painfully real argument going to happen? It's more angst-filled than enjoyable.
The Break-Up shows that you can have all the elements in the dish, but if they don't work together harmoniously, then you've got zilch. Setting the proper tone at the start of a story is paramount, and The Break-Up's director, the relatively unknown Peyton Reed, gave too much liberty to his comedic actors to do their thing. Everyone might have fared better, then, to clearly define the movie's tone to everyone while in pre-production... if we improv, we improv around this particular kind of tone, i.e. we don't want serious/angry, we want silly/angry.
Apparently, the critics agreed with me: 113 of 168 reviews were unfavorable. The math says that's a pitiful 33%, a big fat "F" no matter how hard you spin it.
Ready for the plot reversal?
Production Cost: $52 million
Worldwide Gross: $203 million!
Which means that The Break-Up makes a profit purely because of its star appeal, even though—as a romantic comedy—the movie stunk. Wonderful. More of the same is sure to follow.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Okay, not for the squeamish on this one, but I wanted to share a short film I found a couple of years ago by John Bryant called Oh My God. I can't link to it, but you can watch it on Atomfilms here.
WARNING: Oh My God is extremely dark humor... so dark that some people don't find it funny at all, but they're missing the point. A must see for anyone who enjoys parodies of movie cliches.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I thought it would be fun to do a clip show to track the progress of Arousal from its first baby steps. Here goes:
A discussion with a fellow filmmaker about gratuitous sex in films fires up my engines. I ruminate.
Still mulling over the discussion about gratuitous sex scenes, I stumble across a related concept which might be a cool idea for a film. I run it by my wife for medical plausibility and it seems feasible.
DECEMBER 2005–JANUARY 2006
Think some more. Ultimately, I decide the idea is worth spending time turning into a script.
I write the Origin of my Arousal.
Research begins in earnest. Writing a horror film means I need to know the genre, to anticipate the audience's expectations. I start adding films to my Netflix Queue. Here is my list as of today:
My Netflix Queue for Horror Research
Repulsion(When it's crossed off, I've seen it!)
Wages of Fear
Come and See
Knife in The Water
Ju-on: The Grudge
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
Eyes Without a Face
House of 1,000 Corpses
Shaun of the Dead Cannibal Holocaust
Films I've already seen
28 Days Later
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
While toggling work on other projects, including being a Script Super on a feature, I think about Arousal in all my free time. Daydream is more like it... I wake up thinking about it, I go to sleep thinking about it, I eat with the TV off and drive while thinking about it. Could all this be considered billable time?
It's time to start hammering the errant ideas into a story of some kind. Do I tell one person's story, or many? Do I tell a nonsequential narrative like Jackie Brown or The Limey? How should the story end? How can this film be different than all the others that came before it while still be fresh and surprising? At last, I feel it's time to get Aroused, so I spend most of June fine tuning my five page single-spaced outline.
At some point in the mix, I write about Throwing Rocks at a Tree, which is getting your characters in a mess, make them think they find a way out, but put them in an even bigger mess. Wash and repeat.
The dam bursts! All my many months of troubleshooting story problems culminates in what feels like divine will. Draft 1 is written within 10 days (spaced out over 35 days), and I provide updates at 14%, 19%, 22%, 39%, Halftime, and 67%. At 77%, I talk about the coming denoument of the plot, and at 83%, I talk about Shane Black's good news/bad news theory of action. Not surprisingly, the five page outline I had started with changes a lot as the story is translated into finer details. Character motivations pull the story down unexpected paths, plot holes once glossed over in the outline become gaping holes not easily spackled over.
As Draft 1 comes to a close, I throw out an invitation to chat with me via Instant Messenger as I type out the final pages of Draft 1 (which haven't changed much in Draft 3!)
On September 6th, 2006, the news becomes official: Draft 1 is 100% complete!
I go over that first draft and am generally pleased how much of it I like. Sure, it's got flaws and is nowhere near done, but I don't feel like I'm going to have to rewrite it from the ground up. After an two hour extension for my self-imposed deadline, I announce that Draft 2 is officially ready for scrutiny! My growing list of readers has queued up to read this draft and I implore them all to be brutally honest.
The first of the feedbacks trickle in... and one reader in particular, while entertained for the first half, is so shocked by the degree of violence in the second half that she stops reading it. Had I not prepared my readers for the anguish within? To offset that kind of reaction, I issued an Arousal Warning.
Feedback is an indispensible tool of the trade and, while I half-expected some adverse reactions from those who don't like gore, I had also not expected any reactions that severe. It got me thinking about what exactly I was aiming for with my story. Some people like gore for its own sake, while others consistently prefer suspense over gore. Was I writing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Scream? If I were showing gore for its own sake, then that would be—technically, at least—gratuitous. And if that were true, had I lost sight of my original intentions? And if so, was I bad, sick and wrong for that choice? Thus I had a long internal (and external) debate about Gore vs. Suspense.
I always try to collect as much feedback from my readers as possible to allow the proper context for the feedback as a whole: if 1 of 20 people hate the story, I can probably ignore that 1 person's feedback. If all 20 people hate the story, I need to take heed. Because I have relatives in town, I extend the deadline not just once, but twice.
For a second draft, I am happy to see a lot of really positive feedback. There is also much constructive feedback, so I compile it all and let it percolate in my head for a few weeks.
As I begin rewriting Draft 3, I remember what Harvey Weinstein had said about Clerks, so I pay particular attention to Arousal's first 30 pages by dissecting it into a whammy chart.
Knowing that I need a little extra time, I give myself an extension (my readers expect nothing less!) and yesterday, I decide it's time to put the pen down: Draft 3 was done.
JANUARY 2007 (projected)
While some people think there are three stages to a film—pre-production, production, and post-production—there are actually only two: making a film, and selling a film. For scripts, this truth becomes glaringly obvious. Now that I've written this script, I expect to follow my own advice in submitting scripts to Hollywood. Oh joy of joys.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
That's it. I'm done. I'm shagged out. I'm spent... draft 3 of Arousal is complete. (For now.)
I made several improvements from Draft 2, thanks in great part from my feedback readers. Arousal is still at a barely passable 120 pages, but it'll have to do for now. I'm sure that, with enough skullsweat, I could cut out another 8-11 pages, but I've memorized almost every page by now—which means it's time for a break.
Maybe I'll work on Safe Harbors over the holidays, or maybe my as yet untitled romantic comedy about reincarnation.
Thanks for all the great comments. I know some of you wanted to read the last draft, but preferred to wait for Draft 3; if you still want to read Draft 3, please contact me!
Friday, December 15, 2006
I know, mea culpa, because I waited until a week before Arousal's draft 3 deadline to begin rewriting in earnest. Still, though—in my defense, I had printed out everyone's feedback and kept it all in mind so that when I did start rewriting, I wasn't beginning in a total vacuum. A stitch in time and all that.
Page length has been pretty amusing to observe with each successive draft:
Draft #1: 107 pages (31 Aug 06)
Draft #2: 117 pages (16 Nov 06)
Draft #3: 125 pages (17 Dec 06)
In my own view, a script's length (and here I mean only a reader's script bandied about for a studio sale) really hits the mark at 109 pages—109 is enough pages to develop a feature length story, but doesn't look too daunting to read on a Saturday night because of the twisted pyschology behind 99 cent pricing: if you had a choice between reading a 110 page script and a 109 page script, you'd probably choose the 109 pager because that 1 page difference feels much shorter.
While I was pretty happy that draft #1 came in so svelte, and luke warm that draft #2 was longer, you can imagine my face while looking at my behemouth of 125 pages. Good Christ, I'm not James Cameron yet!
So axe some of it I must. I'm trying to cut between 6-8 pages (leaving me with a decent 117-119 pages). That's a lot to strike out, but it's possible to excise a line here, a word there, a paragraph here, a redunancy there... I'm constantly amazed how much repetition can be removed to make each remaining word really pack a punch.
This part of the process is where you really question the need for scenes (indeed, the need for every word of every paragraph in the script), and where I feel the most important work is accomplished, where the script's sparkle finally begins to show. It's painful because you've got to kill some babies along the way, but the script is almost always the better for it.
Draft #3 new deadline: Sunday, December 17, midnight.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
This is so embarrassing I want to cry—it's 22 minute audio clip, but worth it:
Verizon repeatedly quotes a data transfer rate of 0.002 cents per kilobyte. When one customer uses 35,893 kilobytes, he owes—according to Verizon's quote—35,893kb X 0.002 cents, which equals 71.786 cents. It sounds like painfully simple math, but at least three service reps repeatedly quoted this customer as owing 71.786 dollars... even after he walks them through the math!
What's so astonishing is that it's not a very hard math problem to illustrate if you use multiples of 10 to get a feel for how large the final number should be:
1kb X 0.002 cents = 0.002 cents
10kb X 0.002 cents = 0.02 cents
100kb X 0.002 cents = 0.2 cents
1,000kb X 0.002 cents = 2 cents
10,000kb X 0.002 cents = 20 cents
30,000kb X 0.002 cents = 60 cents
35,893kb X 0.002 cents = 71.786 cents
How do those cent units become dollar units??? Verizon's service reps must have kept looking at their computer screen instead of relying on grade school mathematics and common sense. It turns out Verizon's actual rate is 0.002 dollars per kb, but they fundamentally didn't understand the difference between quoting cent units vs. dollar units.
Fortunately, Verizon eventually came to their senses, perhaps after being publically humiliated via that dude's blog:
Dear George Vaccaro,
Thank you for your reply. Again, I apologize for the miscommunications regarding this issue and for your frustration and inconvenience as a result.
In review of your account a previous representative has credited for the data charges in question for $71.79. You may take this amount off of your current amount due. In the future please keep in mind that it is .002 dollars per KB while in Canada.
It has been a pleasure assisting you today, and we appreciate your business. Have a wonderful week!
"We never stop working for you!"
Monday, December 04, 2006
Bad Highway Productions, Inc.
1412 21st Street, Suite B
Sacramento, CA 95816
Ross Pruden, Publicist
98 ROCK'S MARK GILMORE HOSTS SOUNDTRACK SEARCH FOR FEATURE FILM
"Local Licks" host Gilmore to help find music for Bad Highway's feature film Lunatic Messiah
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, December 4th, 2006
SACRAMENTO, CA -- Mark Gilmore's "Local Licks" radio 98 Rock show is hosting a "Soundtrack Search" so bands across Northern California can submit original music for Bad Highway Productions' Lunatic Messiah, a feature film currently being produced in Sacramento County. Selected bands will receive film credit, inclusion in future press releases, and airplay on 98 Rock's "Local Licks" radio show.
Soundtrack submissions will remain open until the end of the year. "After we wrap in late December," says Doc Maxwell -- Lunatic's director and founder of Bad Highway Productions -- "I'll lock myself in the studio to piece everything together and base my decision on the quality of the music as well as how it fits the feel of the film." Maxwell always prefers local talent: "There's too much undiscovered talent around here to look further." Examples of preferred music are Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall". Tempo and style may vary, but lyrics must be clearly understood. Preferred themes include paranoia, confusion, unrequited love, anger, fear, and vengeance.
For more guidelines on submitting songs, please visit www.lunaticmessiah.com/music. To submit music for the Soundtrack Search, bands should email their name, band name, phone number and MP3s to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the film Lunatic Messiah, please visit www.lunaticmessiah.com/press or contact Ross Pruden: 415/823-0672 or email@example.com.
Friday, December 01, 2006
The first time Harvey Weinstein saw Clerks, he walked out: "It looks like hell and everyone's talking and nothing happens in the first five minutes."*
That painfully honest feedback was bouncing around in my head as I wrote Arousal's second draft. Weinstein wasn't wrong—generally, you know instantly whether you're going to like a movie or not. Not to say that rules can't be broken, but Clerks is the exception because Kevin Smith is endowned with a unique brand of whimsey.
Storytelling is, at its core, about sales. However, instead of selling a tangible product, you're selling an experience, a feeling. Because the key to sales is getting your foot in the door, you have to do or say something which grabs your potential customer's attention for the first 10 seconds. Once you've won that 10 second battle, you have to do or say something that buys you another 30 seconds, and then a minute, and then 10 minutes, then a half hour, then an hour. It's about small battles, carefully planned and executed.
For screenplays, this translates into pages: each page is a battle. Of course, each scene is a battle, too, but pages are a physical delimiter and if you can just... get them... to turn... that... page... YES! They'll read a little more... and then a little more. And look—a new scene! Why, what happens in that scene? Oh, I have to turn the page again? Okay... And so on. Pages are the small battles that win the war.
Thus, the Whammy Chart. It's so easy to focus on the particulars of a scene, to weed out the plot implausibilities, correct the typos, the vapid dialogue, the stale characterization... and all the while, lose sight of how the script feels as a whole. This technique is mentioned in Writing Treatments that Sell, among other places. It measures the story's intensity rating on a page by page basis and provides a holistic viewpoint where a script's weak points (and strong points) stand out immediately.
Using Excel, this is the Whammy Chart I completed for Arousal's Act I. I had been concerned not enough conflict was happening to get readers to turn the page, and I was right. This is the amended Whammy chart, so you can't really see what the original story looked like, but the first draft had a lot of 2's and 3's in the first 15 pages. I pictured myself sitting in the audience with Harvey Weinstein as he assailed the screen, "Nothing happens in the first five minutes!!! Killing... me..."
Thanks to my Whammy Chart, I revamped Arousal to make the threat more real in the first 3 pages. In theory, the palpable danger should give the reader enough whiplash to want to read until the 10 page mark, where something else side-swipes them. That should kick them to the end of page 30... and so on. Evidently, readers agreed.
On a micro scale, the Whammy Chart is also useful as a mental guide: whenever I'm done with a draft, I weigh the pace and tension happening across each page, and—starting with page 1—try to move the paragraphs around so that the bottom of each page ends with a mini-cliffhanger. I am, literally, trying to create a page-turner. No novelist can ever pull that trick out of his tool chest!
* Harvey was told to watch Clerks again and "keep thinking 37". Miramax eventually bought Clerks for $227,000.