Monday, November 13, 2006

Strangely Disappointed

Does anyone mind if I vent about Stranger Than Fiction? (If you do mind, then... click the "Back" button or something.) I’ve been waiting for this movie to get released for what has felt like the frickin’ Stone Ages. I also have in my hand as I type this (yes, I’m typing with only ONE HAND - I’m quite talented) a GIANT full-page spread in my new “Creative Screenwriting Magazine” proclaiming:

“For your consideration: Best Original Screenplay, Zach Helm”

I’d give Zach the award for “Best Original Concept,” if there was such a category, but original screenplay? Unfortunately, no.

Watching this movie felt like I was reading one of many high concept amateur screenplays on TriggerStreet written by smart, talented, ambitious writers who are still in need of sharpening their skills - just a bit more. I wish Zach had known us. He could’ve gotten one of my outrageously thorough 2,000 – 5,000 word reviews that left zero stones unturned. He could’ve gotten a review from Mickey Lee who would’ve happily printed his script, written all over it, rescanned it, and emailed it back to him. (And he would’ve treasured Mickey’s notes, by the way.) Or he could’ve had his problems spelled out for him in 200 words or less by David Muhlfelder. Or he could’ve received one of many damn good and insightful comments by Matt, Miriam, Peter, Carl, Bob or any of a number of other obsessively devoted students of the craft.

Because let me tell you, this movie was weighed down with way, way, way too much dialogue. Every newbie screenwriter out there should see this film in a theater and observe the audience go from delighted to restless in about 30 minutes or less. You might also catch people sigh loudly, adjust in their seats, check their watches, or (if you’re lucky) give up and make-out.

We had Emma Thompson’s many voice overs, which were essential to the story, but when she wasn’t talking, the characters were talking… and talking and talking. There were too many scenes in a row early in the film that went on too long with too much talk. And when they weren’t talking, Emma was talking. Oy vey... I remember thinking toward the end of Act II that a lot of what was being said felt redundant.

I could hear my own TriggerStreet review get written as I watched this movie. And let me tell you, everyone on TriggerStreet, and I mean everyone, would’ve said with one clear voice, “You’re a great writer, but you’ve got too much damn dialogue. You gotta show, don’t tell.”

Side note - Maggie was so cute. I can’t imagine that anyone would’ve fallen in love with Ana Pascal as she was written on the page, but Maggie can pull it off. She could play the meanest bitch in the world and you’d still fall in love with her.

As we left the theater, I heard a guy say, “It was okay. It got us out of the house for one night.”

He should've stayed home and rented “Adaptation.”


GameArs said...

Nooo! I was looking forward to this. The trailer looks like so much fun.

Mystery Man said...

You should go see it BECAUSE it has too much talk. A great lesson learned. You'll remember it the next time you sit down to write.


Mim said...

Sounds like we need to form our own company to give notes to the professionals.

You're right about David. He honed his reviewing skills at TS back when the limit was 250 words.

Mickey Lee said...

I may be in the minority here, but I thought the movie looked lousy from the trailer. I wanted to get out my big red pen and write all over it!

The problem with Hollywood high concept is that they have no problem getting the cat up in the tree, but they usually have no satisfactory way of getting him down, and that's what the trailer looked like to me.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I too was waiting anxiously to see this and it's not THAT original..I have a story with a very similar concept.

Mim said...

I think it's very difficult these days to come up with an original concept. There have been so many stories told in so many ways over the thousands of years that we have been telling them and writing them down.

Clive Barker said, " any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players."

So I think it's not the concept we go to see, but the execution. Who are the characters? How are the common themes played a little differently? What are the symbols?

Perhaps the mistake these film-makers made was in relying too much on their concept and thinking that would support the execution.

Mickey Lee said...


Agreed. It IS difficult to come up with an original concept and this one was so off the wall that I had very little faith that a Hollywood studio (trying to keep that happy ending in mind) would be able to pull it off.

Oh, and I hate Will Ferrell.

Mystery Man said...

Mickey, once this cat was up in the tree, all he did was meow for two hours, and then he suddenly got knocked out of the tree. With voice over.

Ya know, there's a part of me that still likes to believe (perhaps too naively) that there are still plenty of great high concepts out there for the taking. But whatever the concept, you had damn well better be a master craftsman if you want the audiences to love the movie and continue to be paid to write. Nowadays, it's a bigger financial risk than ever before, and so I'm reluctant to push for sales of stories I've written unless I know in my gut that those scripts truly excel and will likely be loved by audiences, ya know? I do sort of fear mega-success a little bit, too, to be honest. And I do fear the fallout of friendships, family relationships, etc, with stories I write that they think might have objectionable material/messages. I don't want to screw up my career with something that's half-assed either. I'm rambling.

Great posts, guys.


Shares Dream World said...

I always thought Stephen King was guilty of that in a lot of his books (It, The Dark Half, The Dark Tower series). Great setup, interesting writing, wonderful mysterious concept with lots of questions -- all leading up to a disappointing ending that fails to answer all the questions raised. I really love his descriptions and often his concepts, but the payoff is rarely there. I remember him say ing in his book "On Writing" that The Dead Zone was one of the few stories where he really knew the ending. I remember reading it and wanting to smack him on the side of the head and say, "That's why that novel is among my favorite of your novels! Please plan ahead on the next book. Even if you change your mind along the way, at least have a plan!"

Okay, done venting.

s.warren said...

Two years ago I was at the Screenwriting Expo and one of the speakers had just read this script. It had sold for big money and Will Ferrell just signed on. She spent five minutes or so talking about how brilliant the script was. She even went as far as to say that Zach Helm could be the next Charlie Kauffman. I've been looking forward to this movie ever since.

It's too bad the movie doesn't sound like it lives up to that hype.

shecanfilmit said...

I don't know where to start. First off, I've seen the film. It sounds like no one other than MM has seen it also?

I left the theater disappointed. I liked parts of it a lot, but it felt hollow. I didn't consider the explanation that it might have too much dialogue. I agree with that, but I think there are greater problems.

I didn't like how sparse the sets were, or how empty the protagonist's life was to begin with. That felt too easy. Because no one lives that way, except for the Ed Norton Fight Club protag. But Fight Club developed the vacancy into something palpable.

The characters didn't feel developed. Maggie pulled off her role, Dustin coasted in an easy one, Emma Thompson was pretty good given the limits of the role and Queen Latifah? Totally UNDERUSED, and used wrongly. She's too funny and alive to go dry. If they wanted wry wit, why didn't they get someone like... Zooey Deschanel?


I took a UCLA class once from an instructor who was really good at analyzing films that *almost* worked and identifying the fatal flaw. One of the films he made us watch was one called In & Out starring Tom Selleck. It was about a Midwestern high school teacher who questions his sexuality. It was a cute film, but everyone in the class admitted we were left a bit dissatisfied. The instructor's explanation: the protagonist was not the (direct) agent of his own salvation -- his students ended up defending him and saving the day.

At the end of Stranger Than Fiction, I realized that Will Ferrell's salvation - if he got to continue living - is completely in the hands of the writer. Even when he DOES agree that she should kill him, she doesn't. He doesn't have that much influence.

Perhaps if the story were ABOUT the writer character, this ending would work, but it feels like a mismatch in arc - Harold is supposed to have the (big) arc, but Kay Eiffel initiates all the action. So either the action/arc have to be Harold, or Kay needed a bigger arc (than just letting a character live) and needed to be the protag. How about Kay getting a life? She certainly needed one.

If you read the creative screenwriting magazine article about Zach Helm, they summarize his education... in theater arts. So, that explains the dialogue and the vacant sets.

I totally agree that movies are motion pictures, not motion mouths. A play can get away with being a meditation, a movie can't - unless it's told visually. They should have watched Mulholland Drive (or Adaptation) to get some clues about using imagery to tell more of the story. Even Laurel Canyon, a movie with a frustratingly ambiguous ending and multiple character arcs that are left unfinished, felt much more satisfying and juicy than this one.

End of rant.

GimmeABreak said...

Re: In and Out. I'm going to disagree with your instructor a bit. Yes, the students, his parents and the rest of the town supported him at the commencement but Kevin Kline saved himself by showing up (when he was told to stay away) and facing the homophobia head on in a very public arena. He could have turned tail and run. He didn't. That was his final triumph. What made it a little unsatisfying to me is that the act 2 midpoint should have been him acknowledging his homosexuality, at least to himself. That was the point of no return. Then he could have spent the last half of the second act trying to come to grips with it (or not) until he publicly admits to it at the end of the second act. That was what didn't work for me. He found out about it the same time as everyone else did. They did a pretty decent job of having him try to be more masculine but it wasn't real because Kevin didn't understand he was gay until everyone else in the town did, too. That felt like a cheat to me.

Re: the topic movie. I dislike Will Farrell almost as much Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler so I won't be seeing it.

christina said...

About In & Out, yes - thinking about it, I do agree that showing up at the school was a way of standing up for himself, but was it strong enough? I remember student speeches defending him as he sat in the audience, but I don't think he got on stage to defend himself.

Re: the midpoint. He did acknowledge his homesexuality - that's when he kissed the gay man back who kissed him first. (A scene I barely recall.) But again, it wasn't strong enough - I specifically remember the teacher asking us where the midpoint was and none of us could say. Then he pointed out that when the man kissed him, he kissed back. We missed it. Overall, the movie was a bit too subtle.

Mystery Man said...

Christina, I loved your thoughts on "Fiction."

I completely agree with you (although I have not seen “In & Out”). I agree that it is inherently unsatisfying to watch the protag skate through the third act without having any power to influence the outcome. In the Creative Screenwriting article, Zach said that he was more interested in the idea that Crick was giving in to “what is possibly a greater power or path,” and I think that was the wrong road to take in this kind of story.

And ya know, there wasn't anything about Key Eiffel's writings that actually felt literary to me. The "brilliant" death scene didn’t seem to me all that brilliant in literary terms.

Plus, it felt off to me that Dustin Hoffman's character would actually take an interest in Harold Crick. No respectable professor would behave that way, and I suspect you'd have to make the professor a little off, a little goofy, for it to be more plausible that he'd go along with Crick's problems.

And on a side note, the article in CS shared a story in which Zach met Spielberg and was given an assignment to do a remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He was given twelve weeks to turn in a draft. He said it wasn’t enough time. As far as I’m concerned, twelve weeks is plenty of time for a remake.


mernitman said...

great post, great comments.
not a great movie...

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