Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Creative Screenwriting Rant

In the latest issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine (Volume 14, Number 4), Jeff Goldsmith wrote a giant 6-page puff piece on Milos Forman and his latest film, Goya’s Ghosts, which Jeff called “a finely told tale of torture and the abuse of power, a story whose sophisticated narrative and memorable characterizations… make it one of this summer’s standout screenplays.”

THIS, a film that scored 30% on the
Critic’s Tomatometer. THIS, a movie Richard Roeper said was “Wrong, wrong, wrong, every step of the way.” THIS, a film Matt Zoller Seitz called “an unwieldy mix of political satire and lavish period soap opera.” Even Roger Ebert, whom I love dearly but his reviews have become generous to a fault, admitted in his review, “It's filled with so much melodrama, coincidence and people living their lives against the backdrop of history that Victor Hugo would feel overserved. There are so many dramatic incidents, indeed, that it's hard to figure out who the central figure is supposed to be.” And this was almost everyone’s complaint, the fact that the film’s title character, Goya, was lost in the shuffle and shoved into the background to make way for a subplot involving a Priest named Lorenzo and a girl named Ines, who is wrongfully imprisoned, raped, and tortured as part of the Spanish Inquisition.

My question is this – how does an article like this serve all those aspiring screenwriters out there who are trying so hard to learn the craft? Because this does more to reinforce Goldman’s comment that “nobody knows anything” than provide any semblance of edification for newbies. Almost all of the articles (in both
Creative Screenwriting and Script Magazine) about screenwriters whose scripts have been produced and whose films are soon-to-be-released never fail to be mindless puff pieces, because the assumption is that they succeeded because they got a sale and because they got produced.

Just because a script got produced does not mean that they wrote a good script that’s worthy of our time. This is not the measure of success. All things are not equal when it comes to script sales.

It simply isn’t enough to get a sale. You have to master the craft in order stay alive. Would anyone think Milos Forman successful just because his Goya’s Ghosts screenplay (in collaboration Jean-Claude Carriere) got turned into a film? The fact is, even the masters fail from time to time. Magazines like
Script and Creative Screenwriting sacrifice intellectual honesty about the craft by foolishly propping up endeavors that fail under the guise of “supporting the writer.”

What’s better for the writer - false praise or intellectual honesty about how something failed?

So where can a screenwriter get fed? For me, personally, I feel more nourished by reading the
New York Times Arts Section, Roger Ebert, GreenCine Daily, and all the people on my sidebar.

How about you?


Mim said...

Very good point. There have lately been some more (new) naysayers about rules and structure and all that stuff we feel elevates a story. Their standard argument is that so-and-so, or so-and-so, or even so-and-so, did it in his screenplay, so it must be okay.

GameArs said...

Having not seen the film (or read the script) I can't comment on the reviews. But your point, Mystery Man, is a critical observation and right on point. As always.

bob said...

first off, welcome back MM!

For the last couple years I read the film reviews in the local Rocky Mountain News by a guy named Bob Denerstein. He had a great sense of what worked in a story and what didn't, but alas he has moved on.

I think this whole screenwriting biz can give us wannabees such mixed messages. On one hand, we know we have to write the great american screenplay to get a look in the "wood", yet stories with the flaws you cited in Goya's ghosts get made and released month after month after year after year. A puff and disingeneous review that falsely praises a flawed script doesn't make it anybetter because it blurs reality. What is good???

All my life like at school and work, I've been able to succeed because I've been able to figure out what's been expected of me, and I deliver.

So I take my time to learn how to write a screenplay, and by all accounts I write a damn good one, and it gets nowhere in contests. Is it the subjectivity of art? Is it a disconnect between what works financially and what works artistically? Is it a generational disconnect in that your work has to appeal to people that you cant relate to anymore? Probably a little of all of that and more. But it's frustrating as hell that I cant figure out what's expected of me.

But I whole heartedly agree that not telling the truth about whether something is good or not doesn't do anyone any favors (except maybe the dude trying to scratch for more interviews)

Laura Deerfield said...

oooo - MM, I love it when you show your teeth.

crossword said...

there ya go... always stirring things up...


Mystery Man said...

Hey guys, thanks so much!

Mim - just because someone did it in a screenplay that got produced does NOT mean it worked. You'll never convince me that all that excessive dialogue in Tarantino's "Death Proof" didn't ruin that film.

Hey, Carl - Great to hear from you. I hope you're doing well. Anxious to hear about those productions you've been working on.

Bob - Hey, man! Hope you're well. In your case, I think it's just a matter of patience and just getting hooked up with the right producer who wants to make the kind of films you're writing. I'm not worried about you. Father Max is still one of the great undiscovered gems outside of Hollywood. It just takes one GOOD script to get made, and you'll be in high demand.

Laura - You should see my real teeth. Hehehe...

Len - I don't know why, but people love it when I'm pissed. Hehehe...


Anonymous said...

Nothing to really add to this discussion, but I can't wait for day Mystery Man gets riled up enough to go on the 10,000 word rant.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Okay, well first of all, I have to say that I have READ the article and my biggest problem with that sentence is the structure.

Secondly, Jeff is discussing the screenplay. He says it's a standout "screenplay", not a standout "film" but even if his opinion does differ from the critics and even if he does think it's a standout film, that doesn't mean he's mistaken or purposely selling out or misleading writers and feeding us anything incorrect for the sake of sucking up to writers in order to get the story in order to sell the rag.

If Jeff thinks something sucks, he's usually very clinical in his approach to writing or talking about it. Just my own opinion from reading him and listening to his podcasts, don't know the guy personally.

It's all subjective and since when are the critics always right? Critics have been panned some great films and given thumbs up to losers. And Rotten Tomatoes has been known to miss the mark a time or two as well.

Bottom line here is that it all comes down to what you and are willing to pay to see anyway.

We'll just have to find a way to read the screenplay and draw our own conclusions. We're not entitled to any more than that.

Joshua said...

I of course agree one hundred percent with what you wrote . . . in fact, I've had many the same arguement over at artful writer (before I found you) about the idea of quality . . . Craig Mazin (and those who agree with him) don't believe in an objective quality . . . they think it's ONLY subjective . . . and therefore, if it's popular, it's quality . . .

So if a lot of people go see LITTLE MAN it must be good, regardless of the reviews (and as an aside, how much does a person suck at making movies if they rip off a Bugs Bunny cartoon without crediting the original authors, rip off a Classic Bugs and STILL the movie blows, how bad are you at this game? But I've digressed.)

Popular and quality aren't necessarily timed to the same clock . . . THE WIZARD OF OZ wasn't successful during its run, and neither was a whole lot of other films, only to become classics later.

And quite a few movies made money only to be justifiably forgotten as time goes by . . . I think Blair Witch will be one of these, but that's me.

We've seen this with books, music and art. Sometimes it takes time for an audience to find a classic, and sometimes the herd is confused and runs at something that may be embarrassing later on, like parachute pants or leg-warmers.

But popularity doesn't necessarily mean quality. We hope and believe high quality will lead to high popularity, but popularity has, in the end, nothing to do with how well the work is crafted . . . it's it's done well, it's done well . . .

But there are those who believe, people see it, so it must be good.

That's how that author of that same article you cited works it, it seems . . . if a movie got made, the script must be good, irregardless of anything else . . .

Me, I disagree, I believe there is a quality at work, and objective excellence that can be strove for . . . Josh Olson and I used to bicker with Craig incenssantly about that in comment flame wards . . .

Movies get made for reasons other than the script is good, and likewise people go see movies for reasons that, at times, have nothing to do with how good it is . . .

But that doesn't change our job, which is to strive for excellence. And it can be reached, as a craft, and it's personal journey as well as a public one, but it can be had.

Storytelling excellence is why we exist. No more, no less.

Again, this is all just my opinion, subjective as that is, heh-heh.

Mystery Man said...

Josh – Thanks so much for that. I loved the comment, “I believe there is a quality at work, and objective excellence that can be strove for…” I completely agreed.

MaryAn – Hey, how are ya? I hope you're doing well.

Okay, well, I guess I should say that I do love Milos (and his writing partner, Jean-Claude Carriere). I did enjoy reading about Milos’ background in the article, although I had read that before. I don't recall having any previous complaints about Jeff Goldsmith, either, and I most certainly believe in supporting the writer.

Have you seen the film? The critics were absolutely correct. It’s not even debatable. True, they don’t always agree and they aren’t always correct, but you can’t ignore them, either, nor dismiss their sometimes valuable insights. They’re quality control, and the industry needs them. (My God, can you imagine these words actually coming from a screenwriter?) I read Ebert every Friday and the New York Times every day and I learn a lot from them. And when the day comes that you write a script for a four star film that’s struggling to find a distributor, you’ll be grateful for those critics who recognize quality and champion your film as the work of art that it is.

But let’s go back to the script mags. This isn’t just about Goya’s Ghosts. This is symptomatic of a bigger issue in all those mags, I think - almost every writer (including the hacks) will get universally propped up just because their script got greenlit. Or simply because they had success in the past. That does not define quality writing, nor does it mean that their latest scripts are examples for newbies to study. Come on. Does anyone recall the puff piece in CS on Shyamalan and his disastrous script for “Lady in the Water?” The only thing subjective about that film is HOW BAD IS IT. All things are not equal in the world of script sales. Just because they got a sale or past success does not mean they should be above criticism. There’s quality and crap and both get produced. What’s better for students of the craft? An exploration of excellence – or propping up bad writers just because they got sales?


Editor said...

I disagree. Not about the subjective/objective argument, of course, but about measuring success by virtue of the fact that a script was produced. Of course we do. Whether a film is "Citizen Kane" or "Sunday Night Zombie Orgy," did the writer go through a process to complete, sell and produce that script? Is that process valuable for the audience to read about? And, most importantly, is that person now making his living as a writer -- instead of pumping gas at Citgo -- just like the reader hopes to some day? If you're going to argue that some films have merit and deserve coverage and others stink on ice, that's different than arguing that there's nothing to learn from someone who wrote -- and made -- a film, no matter what the quality.


Mystery Man said...

Hey Amy, thanks so much for that.

I'm not quite convinced that studying the process helps if the end result is a critical/commercial flop, unless, of course, you're trying to figure what went wrong and what can be learned by it. That's a favorite topic amongst us - studying the masters who wrote scripts that failed.

I'd also like to add that just because a film got made does not mean that the screenwriter will continue to work, especially if that individual gets a hazing from the critics. Your phone WILL stop ringing if you bomb and/or fail to impress. There are many, many cases of people writing one script that got produced and it bombed and they didn't work again. It's a tough business and it's scary.


Mark said...

I might be out of line but I stopped reading 'Creative Screenwriting' years ago. I found there was too much cheerleading going on and not enough critical thought.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Mark, thanks for that.

Guys, do you know Mark Achtenberg? He's a writer, director, editor, and teacher of screenwriting courses in Toronto.

Great to have you here, Mark.


Blake said...

I agree about the puff piece aspect of these magazines. The best thing in them is usually an interview, like the one with Jim Brooks in the latest issue of CS. It's hard for me to accept, as someone who also reads a ton of criticism, (mostly the NYT and Ebert also) that the script for Rush Hour 3 is worth discussing at all.
Goldsmith's podcasts are interesting (with certain writers), but also can have a breathless, fawning quality to them. It is as if none of the scripts/movies he is discussing have any flaws. But this seems to be the deal with "insider" film journalism - even The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell, which I usually like, is all laudatory comments and questions. Granted, the people he has on are generally doing high quality work. I don't think he has interviewed Brett Ratner, for instance. But I could be wrong.
Do you think CS or Script will have a feature about Good Luck Chuck next month?
I guess if anything, I wish there was a little more honesty. "The two scribes who wrote Wacky Hijinks admit that they wrote it strictly for the money. They are not happy with the final product, and the admittedly thin narrative of the original draft has become unrecognizable due to rewrites, studio notes, testings, reshoots, and an overwhelming feeling of insecurity and fear by all involved. Their next project will be an adaptation of Pnin, and they have both agreed that if the studio casts either Jessica Alba or Dane Cook, they will promptly kill themselves."
Something like that.

Mystery Man said...

Hehehe... That's pretty funny.

Ya know, I think it's the absence of critical thought about screenwriting that has made my blog fairly popular, because it's hard to find. The craft is far more vast than what any of the guru books cover and there are alternative opinions to be discussed, and as community we're not doing enough to engage each other about the craft. I crave critical thought just as much as everyone else, and I feel that I have to turn to the film critics and film scholars (and all the people on my sidebar) in order to get fed to some degree (or at least get exposed to new thoughts or alternative opinions about storytelling/filmmaking). It's like night & day with what the gurus emphasize in their books and what film scholars/bloggers/critics care about. I'm going to write more about this in the coming weeks.

There are aspects of CS that I enjoy, which is why I keep a subscription: interviews, articles about the GOOD scripts, as well as the business side of the writing.