Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Recent Script Reviews (& Cool Posters)

MM's 200-Word Review!

In honor of David Muhlfelder and his unfailingly accurate reviews that are usually 200-words-or-fewer, I, Mystery Man, will now endeavor to write my first 200-word review.

[The above paragraph doesn't count.]


[The "gulp" doesn't count either.]


Hello, my friend, I've been meaning to read this script since - oh shit, I only have 200 words. Um... how much fun is this? Anyone who loves the classic Bonds would naturally enjoy this send-off. I think David leans more toward humor over intense action, which is fine because it's SO much fun. (Too many films have excessive action to compensate lack of good characters.) This spec is evocative of Bond in structure ONLY because Thorne is amusing in all the ways he ISN'T Bond - love of golf, fear of flying, and "neat" bourbons. (ScriptShark's "AM" couldn't have been more wrong about Thorne needing work in manifesting "internal and external goals.") The butterflies were ingenious - visual, delicate, and deadly, like the antagonist. Exposition could have been tightened up. Great exposition is usually served in the context of something else. The characters could have been tightened up, too, as some didn't serve the story that much - Ellery, Blair, Benton, and... General LeMay? I did agree with AM that I'd distance this story even further from Bond and make it your own. You don't need Bond. You already have plenty of great strengths to draw people into your world.


Screw it. That's 201 words. I can't do it! Hehehe...

Great job, man.


As always, let's start with praise. This had all the markings of a devoted student - the short scenes, the short action paragraphs, the trimmed-down dialogue, the well-executed setups and payoffs, and the great format. A few words on format - study my notes on how to handle INSERTS and ON MONITORS. Use them only when you want us to read the words of something and then bookend the INSERT with a BACK TO SCENE. The Secondary Headings were so great and welcome, but you don't need those extra spaces above the headings or other slugs like "LATER." Avoid "then" in the action lines. Also, some words in the action lines didn't need to be in caps, like the important actions or the characters who were inconsequential to the story. Don't use "(cont)" when a character speaks twice in a row. You're breaking one of Trottier's Ten Commandments in doing that. Only use "(more)" and "(cont'd)" when dialogue carries over to the next page. Don't italicize words in the dialogue, just underscore the really important ones and only if the emphasis isn't implied. I also think you should've used a MONTAGE every time you used a SERIES OF SHOTS, and you need to understand the difference between the two. A MONTAGE is a kind of music video set to a theme of some kind, usually the passing of time, whereas a SERIES OF SHOTS is usually a list of tight shots that leads to a dramatic climax, like, for example: A) a look, B) a hand moves, C) a bead of sweat, and D) a gun goes off. See what I mean? Montages are listed with dashes instead of letters, too.

All in all, great job with the format. There's one point I want to make with respect to the action lines. I loved how you began some of your scenes with establishing shots before revealing the character in the room. For example, in the beginning in the Bureau de Change, you showed us "Manicured fingers efficiently count currency. Dollars are placed into an envelope and slipped under the glass partition. Euros FLUTTER through an electronic counter" before you introduced Toby Sharpe. Similarly, in the advertising agency, you imply a tight shot and then go wide to reveal the character. We first see "Files and papers piled chaotically on an ’L’ shaped desk" before we're introduced to Sally Pickles. I love that. That's Cinematic Storytelling. I recently wrote an article called Write the Shots:

Just because we no longer write camera angles does not change the core principle of action lines in that we should write the shots. I also quote a friend who is a screenwriting professor, former pro reader for Universal, Jennifer van Sijll, who wrote: “Writing cinematically is not the same as Directing-the-Director. Directing-the-director is when you write: “JOE’S POV WINDOW– LOW ANGLE,” instead of “Joe looks up at the window.” They mean the same thing. The first unnecessarily draws attention to camera information taking us completely out of the story. The second method implies it’s a POV shot and a low-angle, but it does not distract us with technical jargon. Similarly if a tracking shot is essential to a scene it’s better to say “Joe jogs alongside Susan” rather than “TRACKING SHOT – JOE AND SUSAN JOGGING which is considered directing-the-director.”

…another aspect I'd like to praise is the way that you cut back and forth between two storylines taking place at the same time. All aspiring screenwriters should be able to do this well. I pushed Bob Thielke into doing this with one of his Father Max scripts, I think, and now he does it all the time. It's addictive. And I liked the way you were working in contrasts between the way Toby and Sally were dealing with it. I have one suggestion for you, though. Particularly in the beginning of this script, when you have a sequence involving, say, Toby, it should have a beginning, middle, and end, and THEN you switch over to a sequence involving Sally. Or in other terms, make your point with a simple setup and payoff and then switch to the other person. At times, like on page 10, Sally would be doing something, like walking down a corridor, and you'd leave us hanging by cutting to Toby, leave us hanging again, and then cut back to Sally. Well, (like on page 10) you should go from Sally down the corridor to the Sally smoking scene and THEN cut to the Dr. Patel scene. Leave us hanging ONLY if the one story line AFFECTS the outcome of the other storyline. As it is, keep 'em separate until they meet.

You mentioned on your profile: "I hold the structure and pacing of a story in high regard... I strongly believe that concept is king and the execution of that concept is the single most important thing a writer can do to create marketable screenplays." I think execution of a good story is more important than concept. High concept is great for summer blockbusters, but in the fall, with the quality films coming out hoping to get Oscars - anything goes. It's never what it's about but HOW it's about it. Let me ask you - what's more important? Story or character? Character. People will forgive structural issues, pacing, wandering off on tangents, etc, if they love the characters. Structure is always debatable - but having good characters - it's NEVER debatable. More often than not, newbies get produced with scripts that totally breaks structure. In fact, just recently, a first-time screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, is being praised for her work on Sidney Lumet's new film, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Here's Ebert: "The Japanese name some of their artists Living Treasures. Sidney Lumet is one of ours. He has made more great pictures than most directors have made pictures, and found time to make some clunkers on the side. Here he takes a story that is, after all, pretty straightforward, and tells it in an ingenious style we might call narrative interruptus. The brilliant debut screenplay by Kelly Masterson takes us up to a certain point, then flashes back to before that point, then catches us up again, then doubles back, so that it meticulously reconstructs how spectacularly and inevitably this perfect crime went wrong." Just food for thought.

I liked your use of "he/she" in the action lines, as weird as that sounds. Writers with little confidence will start every sentence in the action lines with the name of a character. "Jack does this." "Jack does that." "Jack goes here." Blah-blah-blah. Well, you know that Jack only needs to be mentioned once at the beginning of the paragraph and then the rest of paragraph can have "he" and we'll know exactly who you're talking about. You're great at that. I think it's a sign of amateurish writing when they begin every sentence with the name of the protag, as if the writer has no faith in the reader that we won't know who you're talking about. It's a quicker, smoother read when you write "he/she" and it just conveys the message "I'm confident and have faith in you to get it." There were a few moments, like the top of page 17 where you could've gone further with "he" even in separate paragraphs, because we'll assume you're still talking about Jack.

Okay, let's talk about realism with characters and dialogue. I get the impression you aim for that with Jack, as a character, and the way he interacts with others. It's been the trendy thing to do. It's as if Dr. Phil's "Be real" mentality has bled over into screenwriting. We may disagree on this, but frankly, I have never once believed in realism when it comes to the craft of screenwriting. Realism has made for the most boring movies, boring scenes, and boring lines ever. I think realism is what has kept aspiring screenwriters from getting sales and breaking in and why so many films don't soar, ya know? Screenwriting is about mastering the techniques of drama cinematically. It feels good to write dialogue that's true and real, but that doesn't always make for the most interesting read. I say you should aspire to tweak your scenes to make them as compelling as possible though character depth and subtext. Jack felt like he was the same with the way he treated everyone he knew, and while that's great in real life, it's more interesting in a film if you show us different (perhaps even contradictory) dynamics to his character. He's one way with Gwendolen and completely different with Lance and Brianna, yet he's the same guy. We feel like we're getting exposed to something different about him when we see him interact with a different character. In the cases of both Gwendolen and Brianna, I felt that the women took the lead too much in the seduction, and I think those scenes are really about Jack and not the women and how Jack treats THEM and how he has this personality that, despite his inner problems, is something so charming that Gwen still can't resist the temptation of reconciliation, because he knows how to make her laugh and feel good and he still tempts her physically and her excuses to visit the house was really about her loneliness and him making her feel good, ya know? And your showing a contrast with the way he treats one woman as opposed to the other would speak to the different sides of his dueling nature, which would have been more compelling. And I think I would've liked to have seen Jack say things that were full of subtext that hinted at inner needs that define his actions as opposed to scenes of Gwendolen telling Jack verbally what he needs to learn, like on page 46.

Realism in dialogue, to me, means "too much boring on-the-nose talk." I think you can make things real and believable but still have an engrossing film by designing a heightened realism that's full of subtext. Every time I came across a line of dialogue that was on-the-nose, I would wonder "what's a good alternative with subtext?" On page 10-11, we had this slight argument about Jack smoking in the house. Gwen tells him to put it out. He does so and then says "Sorry." Well, what else could've been done? He could've been obstinate and refused. He could've blown smoke in her face. He could've seductively wooed her into having a cigarette, too, and she accepts, as if to say she still can't resist his charms. Anything other than him putting the cigarette out and saying "sorry" would've been more interesting, because as it is, it's too straightforward and real and on-the-nose. Do you see what I mean? I had thoughts like this almost every time I read something on-the-nose. I must sound like crazy man with these paragraphs, but I hope it helps.

The problem for me is that I think the plot is too thin, and I don't think that this conflict between Justin and his father, Karson, is enough to really carry a film. Pardon the expression - it wanders dangerously close to "Idiot Plot" territory. Don't be offended by that. An "Idiot Plot" is a Roger Ebert-ism, I believe. They're stories built upon a simple misunderstanding between characters that can be cleared up with a few simple, apologetic words. Of course, coming out to your father is more complicated than that, but the cast design makes this setup weak. Timothy's shop, A Magic Hand, is right next to Liz's Bar, and so you can't help but wonder how this secret could've been kept for so long. Karson is so cushioned and protected (in the context of the story) because he's friends with Timothy who's gay and you just know that he'll eventually talk some sense into him and push him into accepting Justin. If Karson was so homophobic, would he really be so friendly with Timothy? Even if he was, would it really be such a difficult transition for him to accept his son since he's already friends with Timothy? In real life, anything is possible, but in drama, I think you have to construct the cast design in such a way as to really bring home the ideas you're trying to convey about a character. If you're trying to say that Karson is homophobic, then you have to construct his life in such as way as to illustrate just how homophobic he is in order to heighten this growing tension about Justin coming out to him. As it is, the conflict isn't that big of a deal because you can already see where this story is headed before it even starts - Timothy will talk sense into Karson, who will do something big and dumb and ruin things, apologies will be made, acceptance will rule the day, and we'll get the happy ending. I also want to mention that Karson's friendship with Timothy makes his coming out even less of surprise. The fact that they're even talking to each other (and it's quickly revealed that he likes Timothy's "toys") you know that Karson will eventually come out, which is a disappointment because you want to be surprised by things like that later on in the story, not on page 3.

By the time I got to the 60s and 70s page-wise, I was writing in my notes that I think the plot has been stretched to its absolute limit and now it's just getting dragged out just to cross that 90-page mark. And going through the script a second time, I could really feel this thing dragging toward the end of Act Two. And I think it had to do with the fact that we had to wait so long for a simple reconciliation that in most stories like this would happen pretty quickly. Consider that Karson is essentially outed to his son on page 62. This whole conflict could have ended with their talk by the Hudson river on page 68. While Karson does apologize, he still says something stupid and punches Justin, which drags out this simple reconciliation. Then Karson gets punched out for being gay and we're in the hospital where, again, all of this could've been cleared up but Karson reaches out for Carlos' hand instead of Justin's, which upsets him and he leaves, and this apology gets dragged out yet even longer. On page 78, they get one step closer to reconciliation with Karson saying "I'm a dick head." You'd think that would be enough but it isn't, and it's not until page 86, in Liz's Living Room, that all of this FINALLY clears up. That's too long in a film, I think, to simply wait for two guys to apologize to each other. In real life, these kinds of things can certainly drag on interminably, but in a drama, it feels too much like a weak plot that's being dragged out for the sake of page count.

I also want to talk about inner conflicts, because I think a better construction of inner conflicts in your main characters might help this story a little. For example, this whole business with Mazzini could've been handled better. He was setup so well. We had all that talk about him, voice mails being left demanding answers about rent, and then he just shows up. Great! He invites Liz to have dinner to "negotiate." Great! And then he tells her "One day, you will say 'yes.'" Double great! But then nothing happens with Mazzini, and we never see him again. You have a number of setups in that scene without a single payoff. When he asked Liz to have dinner, I think she should've reluctantly said "yes" because she was desperate in her financial situation. She has dinner with him and negotiates. Then she meets Shell and falls in love, and thus, she's stepped into a conflict - continue seeing Mazzini and save the bar or risk everything to be with Shell? Do you see what I mean? As it is, she rejects Mazzini, nothing happens, and the plot pretty much stays at status quo when you needed a turning point in that scene with him that pushes the plot forward. Not much happens with Liz to really warrant her existence accept for the fact that she's Justin's mother and owner of a bar where everyone hangs out. Adding a subplot between her and Mazzini might help the plot feel less thin. More could've been done with her. Also, with respect to inner conflicts, Justin was just too singularly worried about his cranky garbage man father's reaction that it felt like a bit of overkill. At his age, with his life ahead of him, he should be worrying about so many other things, too, not just his father. And indeed, he was, but they were down played too much in the narrative. Karson could've been constructed differently to give him a more clearly defined inner conflict, like say, he's religious and so he has to choose between his church and his son. Or something like that. So all of this talk about Liz, Justin, and Karson, I think, leads to a discussion about inner conflicts, and I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to share what I wrote in my blog about this subject:

If you were writing a tragedy, this would be the tragic flaw. In Aristotle’s Poetics (which was his response to Plato's attack on Greek tragedy for encouraging a shameful indulgence in sorrowful emotion) this would be Hamartia – the mistake, the flaw, the failure, the fault, or the sin of the protagonist that would lead to his or her downfall. This is where we find in Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Shakespeare's Othello men who fall into pride, error, and in the end, self-destruction.

In non-tragic contemporary terms, this is the weakness of the hero, the internal obstacles of characters that keep them from achieving their end goals. It is the adventurer with the deathly fear of snakes, the spy who can’t resist women he knows will ultimately betray him, the mobster who believes in "family values," or it’s the romantic with that one little hiccup that keeps him/her sidelined in the game of love. Or it’s what characters think they want and what they really need. It’s poor Willy Loman who wants to look at his life with a sense of pride and accomplishment, but he just cannot emotionally accept his failure as a breadwinner, his failure as a faithful husband, and his failure to bring up decent sons. And it is our job to not only define what the inner conflict is but also exploit that conflict in an external way, usually through relationships, in order to maximize its dramatic potential.

There was a great post by Nienke Hinton last January over at the "Writing Life" on Inner Conflict. I loved this quote from Caro Clark:

“A character's inner conflict is not just being in two minds about something, not just being torn between obvious incompatibles (“I want to be a priest, and yet I love her”) but is about being in a new situation where old attitudes and habits war with and hinder the need for change. For instance, a man who drives himself to succeed because he doesn't want to be like his happy-go-lucky father is suddenly confronted with a situation where he isn't winning. Or an executive discovers that her ambition to be vice president of her company is being thwarted by her own self-doubt. This war inside each of your characters makes them act and react in complex ways.

“You show these internal conflicts not by means of internal dialogue (which is a cop-out and is dull), but by showing your characters responding to their own inner compulsions. She, for instance, decides to confront her own self-doubts by taking on a no-win project where the local people are opposing a development. She is determined to be hard-nosed, prove she's vice-president material. He is always confrontational, fearing that one minute of negotiation would be the first step to becoming a wimp like his father. You have a grade-A opposites-attract situation here, yet it is believable because we understand why each of them is acting the way they do, why they are foolishly stubborn, by it's important for each of them to win.”

I hope that helps. I had also discovered a wonderful webpage, Shy United, who posted a list of inner conflicts that might help inspire you.


bob said...

thanks for making me lose my lunch (or breakfast I guess) on that first movie poster, MM.

You know learning all these tools, makes me feel like I did when I had amassed all these weapons playing Dungeons and Dragons. "How shall I smite this dragon?"

great blog post and great movie posters

Christian M. Howell said...

Great review, MM. You touched on a lot of points that I see everywhere in screenplays.

The Idiot plot for example; which happens to be the plot for MOST rom coms.

Also the quote about inner conflict was on point. I try to look at inner-conflict from the outside.

What I mean by that is what you said, have different characters or situations show the conflict.

I try to do that as much as possible, especially in a drama.

Also the "character is king" notion I highly agree with. My first script is "small" in some ways but big in characters who just "are."

Meaning that they don't apologize for their actions or regret anything they do. Especially the antags.

Anyway, good job. It should be very enlightening to all who read it.

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