Saturday, September 30, 2006

Character Depth - Hannibal Lecter

From Pat (GimmeABreak):

Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon) - One of my fave characters ever. That a sociopathic cannibal could be brought to tears by beautiful music, recall with delight the fate of a census taker who had the temerity to disturb him, behave so tenderly toward Clarice (the finger touch as he hands her the file), take such pleasure in tormenting Miggs, salivate at the thoughts of eating Dr. Chilton, patiently explain the delicate flavor of (human) brains to a child, gently guide Will Graham toward death, and disfigure himself instead of his captor (who happened to be the only person he loves or has ever loved) makes Hannibal Lecter my nominee for the most interesting and complex character in modern cinema, the only character I've loved, feared, admired, and despised all at the same time.


All right, guys, let's have some fun, shall we?

I want to do a new study on the fine art of CHARACTER DEPTH.

I hear you chanting out there – “BRING IT ON!” Hehehe… Yeah, well, if you think you’re so smart, let me tell you – this is a study for advanced students. Mystery Man doesn’t waste his time with advice-for-wimps like “3 Simple Tips to Make Your Characters Unique.” This isn’t “Creative Screenwriting Magazine.” WE are going to dive into the DEPTHS of the most complicated characters that ever lived on film. Are you guys with me? Because this is the stuff I live for…

Okay - one could do a gazillion studies on characters. However, I want to focus on 2 very specific ways of looking at depth:

* Contradictions in the Character
* Depth through Cast Design

Did you get that? Contradictions in the Character. Depth through Cast Design. Now I want you to say it out loud with me: “Contradictions in the Character. Depth through Cast Design.” Okay?


As I’m sure all of you fanatical students of screenwriting know, one of the ways you create depth is by constructing contradictions in the character. For example, a character talks one way but BEHAVES another way. Or a character ACTS one way but at his/her core, that person’s True
Character is in fact, something very different. On these points, McKee wrote: “Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.”

The problem is that McKee only gives ONE EXAMPLE:

Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written. Hamlet isn’t three-dimensional, but ten, twelve, virtually uncountably dimensional. He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone hiding behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent wordliness, a worldy innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.


Here’s another angle in which we can focus on the multi-dimensions of a character. I’ve talked about this in my reviews on TriggerStreet for some of the more advanced scripts. You have a protagonist who is basically the sun around which all of the other supporting characters rotate. But you have to carefully construct your cast design. You have to make sure that your supporting characters serve a storytelling function by having each one bring out very specific, very distinctly different dimensions out of your protag. By doing this, we get to see ALL the different sides of your leading character, right? So that, for example, your protag behaves:

* optimistic and amusing toward Character A but morose and cynical toward Character B.
* compassionate and fearless toward Character C but fearful and cruel toward Character D.


I invite you to email me ONE, SHORT PARAGRAPH describing one character with depth. It can be any character from any movie - past, present, Hollywood, Bollywood, I don't care. I want the paragraph to be fewer than 300 words (yes, that’s short to me). I want you to articulate in your paragraph the CONTRADICTIONS in that character and/or how that character is fully fleshed-out by the way he/she behaves DIFFERENTLY toward all the other characters. This can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You can talk about one simple contradiction in a character or dive into all the multi-contradictions of a character like Hamlet.

My posts on character depth are going to be short. No more lengthy introductions, just a quick link to your blog (or profile on TriggerStreet) and then we’re going to dive right into the analysis of your character. I’m also going to be more strict about the submissions I receive than I was with our subtext study. Don't give me scenes. I want one, short descriptive paragraph. You MUST follow the guidelines I gave you.

Now, here’s an example of what I’m looking for. This is something I wrote in a review of an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac:

“Cyrano is an interesting character for sure full of contradictions - on the one hand fearless of nothing and on the other terrified of rejection. He will openly mock his own nose, declare that he is proud of his great appendage, and yet, his hopeless insecurity about said nose keeps him from declaring his love to Roxanne. He is self-involved and yet selfless as he sacrifices his own happiness in order to give his love that which her heart desires most. In the play, he talks to Le Bret about refusing to be morally tainted or compromised (sadly missing here) and then Cyrano allows himself to become entangled in a great big deceptive lie to his most beloved object of desire. All the while, apart from the occasional duel, he fights for the pride of the Gascons, he fights for France, he fights a hundred men for Ligniere, he fights for everyone within reach but himself.”

Let the revolution begin.

OH! I almost forgot. You can't touch Michael Corleone. He's mine. I'm going to write about him on Monday. Hey, this is MY study...



Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Where’s the Screenwriting Revolution?

This is a call to arms, my friends.

From a recent post by Jim Emerson:

“It's Friday, I'm still at the Toronto Film Festival which winds up this weekend, and I just got back from lunch with Girish Shambu, a movie blogger based in Buffalo, NY. I'd never met Girish before -- I've known him only through his blog, and the community of bloggers who contribute to critical discussions of movies on one another's sites (including my Scanners blog) -- and I've never been more excited about the future of film criticism than I am at this moment…

… the most exciting place for film criticism, and an informed film community, these days is on certain Internet blogs -- where each individual blogger can write in detail (with digressions and tangents into other areas of related knowledge) -- but that is just the beginning of the conversation, since others can post comments, continue the discussion, and elaborate upon the original post. The blogger also has the opportunity to clarify, refine, and move the discussion into a fruitful direction. These are knowledgable, personal voices -- much more fun and distinctive and interesting than most of the edited and sanitized stuff that appears in "professional" outlets -- written mostly by people who are doing it for the love of the medium, rather than because they're getting paid to. As Girish put it today: I feel like we're all little Manny Farber termites carving out our own paths through the cinema…

I'm talking about blogs like
Girish and Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and The House Next Door and Like Anna Karina's Sweater and No More Marriages! and Lost in Negative Space, just to name a few -- places where the bloggers themselves write about their obsessions, what they know and whatever they want, when they want. They respect their readers (with spoiler warnings, for example) -- and the readers themselves respect each other in the reasoned comment-section discussions that are ignited. For any film critic, this is the ideal audience -- a bunch of people who are smart, well-informed, passionately interested, who actually go and see the movies for themselves, and then come back to read and respond to what you and other readers have written…

One more thing about the whole idea of film criticism as writing: Written language is perhaps not the ideal medium for discussing film. (To me, film has always seemed closer to music -- patterns of images and movement and color, than to literature or theater or any other art form, and that can be hard to capture solely in words, sentences and paragraphs. Maybe "dancing about architecture" is a good idea...) I've been experimenting with different kinds of film criticism on my blog, and (going back to 1998) on my web site,
Jeeem's CinePad -- using images and layout to create ways of exploring film that are not limited to linear text. On CinePad, this includes a whole section devoted to various motifs in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," and "The Dark Room" (still unfinished), an image map built around a composite movie photo, where you click on various items in the room -- a cigarette, a hat, a dead body -- to find an essay about the significance of these elements and images in film noir; or a multi-part exploration of the use of Plumbing in Cinema as a powerful metaphor. On Scanners, I've been hosting the Opening Shots Project, encouraging readers and other critics and filmmakers to send in detailed descriptions of their favorite opening shots (accompanied by actual frame grabs from the movies), and to explain how these shots work to set up the movies, or how they relate visually to the journey the movie takes…

Girish wrote in the comments:

“Jim, it was a great pleasure to meet you and have that wonderful, stimulating conversation over lunch. I walked out of there with my head buzzing with ideas you'd planted there.“

May I ask a question?

Why aren’t we screenwriters having the same kind of revolution of thought in our own community?

Why do I have to turn to the film scholars (and a few notable screenwriting blogs – like Billy Mernit, John August, and the Unknown Screenwriter to name a few) in order to be fed the meat & potatoes I crave about movies? Where are the great thinking screenwriters of today? Where is that next generation screenwriter who annoys the hell out of everyone by always asking, "WHY?"

Speaking of "why" - why is Emerson the only one doing cool studies like his Opening Shots Project? Why do I have to turn to Girish to think about things like Cinephiliac Moments, the fine art of The Long Take, or the question, "What is Realistic?" Do you think that those subjects AREN’T important to screenwriters today? Or do you think we should only follow the screenwriting gurus and not pay attention to what other informed minds have to say?

(I know. That’s like, more than one question. SO sorry.)

In any case, I felt inspired and frustrated reading Emerson’s post (not because he said anything wrong – I love the guy) but because in comparing their blogs to ours, they make us look like children, quite frankly. We should be experts on a par with the scholars. We should be able to wow them with our insights and they us in equal measure.


The film bloggers expound upon every little obsession they have about movies - the people they love, the faces they love, the filmmakers they love, the techniques they love, the great compositions of shots, the art of visual storytelling, and on and on. They continually feed each other and they are revolutionizing the way people talk about film.

They reveal everything because they have nothing to lose.

We screenwriters, on the other hand, reveal nothing, because we think we have everything to gain by keeping it all to ourselves.

Who gives a flying flip if you – OH MY GOD - reveal the things you’ve learned about the craft? Or what you love about movies? Or the script-to-screen studies you did six years ago? Or the insights you have about film technique, formatting, characters, dialogue, style, structure, or anything else you love about screenwriting? How else are you going to grow if you don’t talk to others about the craft and ask questions and get the kind of feedback that takes you to a new level?

Another question: Did I shoot myself in the foot by having a subtext study? Did I give up my "advantage" over other writers by revealing my "secret insights" on subtext? Did I give my competitors a better shot at beating me to the finish line in the race to the Almighty Script Sale because THEY are now going to write better dialogue thanks to ME?

How can anyone think that way?

The truth is, revealing what you know means very little. It means you know stuff. That's it. How well you APPLY what you know to your own stories is a vastly different matter altogether. You won’t actually know how well you’re doing until like-minded students of the craft give you feedback. Besides, how do you know that what you know is actually correct?

Coming up with great scenes filled with subtext was very difficult for many, including myself. Why? Because we, as a community, DON’T TALK to each other. In this day and age with over a century of cinema behind us, we should already be experts capable of listing (without even thinking) the scenes we love that exemplify subtext. Sure, some scenes we posted were hit and miss, but hey, at least we’re TALKING ABOUT IT. You should be secure enough in your own talent to engage other screenwriters and talk about anything and not worry or care if they learned something from you. What separates the amateurs from the pros is not simply how much we know but how well we apply the principles and master the form.

Here’s another question. Do you know what it means to have one of your scripts turned into a movie? It means that your weaknesses as a writer will become public knowledge. Do you honestly think that because you have a couple of movies under your belt that you can STOP studying the craft? Are you so naïve that you’ll buy into all the praise everyone heaps on you for a semi-good movie you wrote? Do you realize that you are never more than one script away from a career-halting, publicly-humiliating, box-office bomb?

If you are truly serious about screenwriting, you will be a student of the craft for the rest of your life, am I wrong? Do you not think that your opinions will evolve over the years as you engage other writers and filmmakers? So why not engage them now? I'm sick of the "gurus." I'd rather talk to the people who are in the trenches writing every night like I am. What do YOU think? What excites you about screenwriting? What are your opinions? (You’re not actually afraid to have your thoughts challenged, are you?) What do you love? What have you discovered for yourself that you think is amazing? What are the things that you’ve seen in other screenwriters that you admire? It's a complicated game, this strange art. So what are YOU going to talk about on your blog that no one else talks about? Because, frankly, the world should be looking at OUR blogs and feeling excited about the future of films.

Let me ask one, final question - is it possible to squeeze another question into this post? Is it?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Celebrating Over 25 Posts on Subtext!

I feel the need to celebrate...

We now have over 25 great posts on subtext in dialogue. We decoded wordless subtext, one-word subtext, single and double entendres, lines that have two or even three layers of meaning, subtext in seduction, poetry, evasion, and appeasement, the subtext of not saying what would normally be said, I could go on and on…

Did you pick up on the subtext?

I want to officially and most sincerely thank from the bottom of my heart all of the contributors:

Billy Mernit, Unk, MaryAn Batchellor, Will Dixon, Matt Spira, Miriam Paschal, Ross Mahler, Mickey Lee, Nena Eskridge, GimmeABreak, Rose Gibbs, David Muhlfelder, Kevin Broom, and Bob Thielke.

We will not ever conclude our study on subtext. When inspiration hits us, when the subtle hidden meaning of a character’s words tickles our intellect, we will post new scenes to study & debate. (If you discover a great scene with subtext that you wish to add to our list, please feel free to email me.)

However, I’ll be starting a new study on CHARACTER DEPTH, which I’ll start blogging about in the next couple of days.

Also, we will be seeing more of Miriam’s very special Movie Breakdowns - Grease, The Skeleton Key, and Frailty. PLUS she will start giving us breakdowns of at least one movie from every great filmmaker – Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, De Palma, and more. I’m very excited about that.

I’m also going to start posting script reviews of (a couple) upcoming movies and famous unproduced scripts, which was the whole reason I started the blog.

Plenty of Format Articles to come as well.

Below are all of our Subtext Articles, which I hope you enjoy.

Thanks again,



Subtext with Billy Mernit

Subtext with Roger Ebert

An Explosion of Subtext

Casablanca, Apollo 13, and Raiders of the Lost Ark


The Queen of Subtext in Comedy

Subtext & Natalie Wood

The Dying Words of King Lear



Apocalypse Now Redux

As Good As It Gets

Back to the Future


Body Heat


Eyes Wide Shut

Finding Neverland

The Graduate

Groundhog Day

His Girl Friday

In Her Shoes

James Bond

Leaving Las Vegas

Ordinary People

Pride & Prejudice

Pulp Fiction

Shakespeare in Love

The Shawshank Redemption


The Woodsman

Friday, September 22, 2006

Subtext – The Dying Words of King Lear

Over at Slate Magazine, Stephen Metcalf and Ron Rosenbaum were having a discussion about Ron’s new book, The Shakespeare Wars. On page 2 (of 4 pages), Ron describes a “virtual civil war” amongst scholars about King Lear’s dying words. Apparently, there are two different early texts of King Lear and there’s a raging debate as to whether Shakespeare wrote his final line as we now know it.

To set the stage, King Lear has fallen on his knees and he’s leaning over the dead body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. He puts a feather in front of her lips to see if she’s breathing. In the older, 1608 version, King Lear finds no hope and cries out, “Break heart, I prithee, break.”

Then he dies.

In the later version, which was published in 1623 (about 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), Lear’s line is given to another character. Instead, King Lear puts the feather in front of her lips and utters:

Do you see this? Look on her. Look,
her lips! Look there, look there!

Then he dies.

Whether or not Shakespeare wrote the revised line or it was touched-up by an actor or penned by another writer in his company, I would not dare speculate. I will say this – the first version is on-the-nose and the second is filled with mysterious subtext.

Here’s what Ron said of the second version:

“…it seems as if he has a vision of the breath of life stirring on Cordelia's lips. He has a final, real or imagined, momentary communion with her before he dies. He dies thinking she lives. To some, this suggests a note of redemption absent from the earlier version. To others, it can suggest an even deeper bleakness: a delusion that betokens the recurrence of his madness at the moment of death, his damaged mind playing a bleak joke on the foolish old man.

“The second version of the last words at the very least opens up fascinating, if unanswerable, questions: Did Shakespeare add them to offer a hint of redemption, a suggestion that Lear's suffering is not without some recompense? Or was it a final twist of the knife? Different final words offer us different Lears, and different Lears offer us different Shakespeares.”

What a world of difference one line filled with subtext can make.

Feast - A Limited Dump

The day is upon us. Feast is finally getting its limited weekend dump.

I hate to poo-poo anyone’s new movie, but friends, we gotta face reality. A limited midnight-one-weekend-only-showing and straight-to-DVD unveiling next month is an embarrassment to the filmmakers and an open admission by the studio that the movie sucks. They know that not even word-of-mouth will save this thing from tanking by about 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon. The limited dump and quick DVD flush is the only way they can fathom making a quick buck.

By the way, you guys think we’re tough reviewers on
TriggerStreet? Read these real reviews by real critics and be terrified. For a screenwriter, these may very well be career-ending reviews:

James Berardinelli's ZERO STAR Review:

“We have seen this sort of thing too many times for it to be inventive or clever. It's tired, and the filmmakers fail to find a way to invest it with anything fresh. (Here's a novel concept: why not try to make a horror film scary?)

Feast makes Snakes on a Plane look like the pinnacle of cinematic achievement.

“Zero stars does not mean the movie is completely without merit. By my estimate, the film includes approximately 45 seconds of worthwhile material (a couple of amusing visual gags, one of which features a stalled car and occurs just in advance of the end credits). Since the running length is short of 90 minutes, that means about 0.9% of Feast merits viewing. That means 9 cents of your $10.00 movie ticket is well spent…”

Andrew Wright of Seattle’s The Stranger:

“Give novice scripters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton some amount of credit for trying to craft a winking ur-text for the genre – the characters are all given generic titles like Heroine, Bartender, and Beer Guy – but their conceptual goals appear to far outweigh their actual writing ability.”

Nick Schager of Slant Magazine:

“Writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton's script barely generates any chuckles from its strained one-liners… the fact remains that, rather than catching Feast during its limited midnight-movie theatrical release, one can enjoy comparable B-movie goofiness via any Saturday-night Sci-Fi Channel offering.”

Dennis Harvey of Variety:

“Basically throwing together familiar horror ideas without focusing on any in particular, Feast hopes its wild tone will compensate for the lack of distinctive characters or ideas.”

They should be grateful Ebert is still hospitalized.

A friend of mine sent me an email that I’m sure is exactly what word-of-mouth will sound like across the nation: “Oh, yes... it was BAD. With the exception of a few humorous lines, the story sucked. In retrospect, I should have used the free Jackass 2 tickets I had instead.”

What did I tell you guys in my
previous post about Feast? Take heed my words or suffer the consequences: “Before you step into the spotlight on the world stage with your screenplays, you had better a) possess a God-like knowledge of every facet of screenwriting b) already be a master craftsman, and c) have awesomely executed scripts under your belt that will stun the world and have them begging for more. Period. You have to be THAT good. And, in this day and age, you’re only as good as your last script, which means that you have to deliver something incredible every time you’re at bat.”

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Subtext - In Her Shoes

I know a girl in Atlanta. Her name’s Rose.

She’s a southern, half Japanese, lesbian screenwriter. (It’s quite a bit of fun saying that, actually.) She was a finalist in the 2005 Writer's Arc competition. She also remodels homes for “mostly gay men who are positively neurotic about their living space.”

She has a blog called
Huh? She’s quite funny. You know you’re in for something really entertaining when you get an email from her entitled “The Further Adventure of the Half Japanese Lesbian Screenwriter.” Hehehe… See? It’s kinda fun saying that. (You can read about that particular adventure here if ya like.)

You may also know her on
TriggerStreet as Atlhalfjap. Her ID is very simple really:

Atl = Atlanta
Half Jap = Half Japanese

She's also the author of
Regular Army, which is a story about an “ambitious, but closeted Lieutenant, newly commissioned from the enlisted ranks, (who) struggles with being gay and falling in love while serving her country in the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ Army.” Not only was Regular Army a regular on the site’s Top Ten List, but it also just recently got nominated for September’s Screenplay of the Month! (Kudos, Rose!)

Her submission – wordless subtext from
In Her Shoes.

Thanks so much, Rose, you incredible, southern, half Japanese, lesbian, screenwriter-friend.


In the movie In Her Shoes, Toni Collette's character (Rose... co-incidentally my name too) has finally gone out on a date with a lawyer from her former firm after having discovered her former workplace lover and her sister "inflagrante delicto." Rose (the character) has self image issues. Her sister has always been younger, prettier, and flat-out sexy. She, on the other hand, (while not bad looking) has no confidence in her ability to attract men. Of course, it doesn't help that she caught her lover and her sister in her bed...

Anyways, she's finally decided to go out with this nice guy and whaddaya know, they wind up back at her place. The set up for the scene is that while she's in the kitchen making sure the old bottle of red wine that she's got is potable, he discovers one of those Harlequin romance type novels (like Billy Mernit might have written when he was masquerading as a woman), and he winds up reading a sex scene from it as they sit on opposite ends of the couch. It's flowery and suggestive. He remarks that he's embarrassed but turned on. He finally gets himself across the couch and goes in for the first kiss. This is where the subtext begins:

His approach is tentative (asking permission to come closer); she doesn't stop him (granting permission).

They kiss.

It deepens.

She reaches out and turns off the lamp above the couch. (I don't want you to see me, I'm not sure you'll like what you see).

He breaks the kiss, gives her an exasperated look before he, wordlessly, reaches out and turns the light on again as he goes back to kissing her (I want to see you. It'll be OK, I promise... I like you.)

She reaches out and turns the light off again. (Yeah, that's what you say now.)

He, again, breaks the kiss, gives her a "you gotta be kidding me" smile and turns the light back on. He strokes her face (No, I mean it) for a second or two as he returns to kissing her.

The scene ends with them kissing, light blazing away in the background...

Well, that's my contribution, I hope it wasn't too off the mark.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Subtext – Airplane!

This is taken from the Airplane! transcript, which was penned by Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker.

Sometimes we hear subtext in dialogue that makes us laugh because we really DON’T want to know what the hidden meaning is, like all of Captain Clarence Oever’s strange questions to Joey. Hehehe

Denver : Flight 2-0-9er, this is Denver flight control. You are approaching some rough weather. Please climb to 42,000 feet.
Oever : Roger, Denver.
Elaine : We have a visitor. . .
Oever : Hello.
Murdock : Hi!
Elaine : This is Captain Oever, Mr Murdock and Mr Basta. This is Joey Hammond. . .
Oever : Well hi Joey.
Murdock : Come on up here, you can see better.
Oever : We have something here for our special visitors ( takes out a model airplane for Joey ), would you like to have it?
Joey : Thank youuuuuuu! Thanks alot!
Oever : Sure. You ever been in a cockpit before?
Joey : No sir, I've never been up in a plane before.
Oever : You ever . . . seen a grown man naked ?
Murdock : Do you want me to check the weather Clarence?
Oever : No, why don't you take care of it. Joey, did ya ever hang around a gymnasium?
Elaine : We'd better get back now Joey!
Oever : Noooooooo, Joey can stay here for a while if he'd like.
Joey : Could I?
Elaine : Okay, if you don't get in the way.
Murdock : Flight 2-0-9er to Denver radio, climbing to cruise at 42,000. Will report again over Lincoln. Over and out.
Joey : Wait a minute! I know you. You're Kareem Abdul-Jabar. You played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Murdock : I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I'm the co-pilot.
Joey : You are Kareem! I've seen you play. My dad's got season tickets.
Murdock : I think you should go back to your seat now Joey. Right Clarence?
Oever : Nahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, he's not bothering anyone, let him stay here.
Murdock : But just remember, my name is ROGER MURDOCK. I'm an airline pilot.
Joey : I think you're the greatest, but my dad says you don't work hard enough on defence. And he says that lots of times, you don't even run down court. And that you don't really try . . . except during the playoffs.
Murdock : The hell I don't!! ( grabs joey by collar ) LISTEN KID! I've been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Denier up and down the court for 48 minutes.
Oever : Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

"Less is More"

From a review I posted today of a new story by Ross Mahler, who gave us An Explosion of Subtext:

“Mahler’s economical use of words in the action lines may very well be more effective than anyone else, including myself, I hate to admit...

“Consider the opening scene: Chinatown, New York City, a place that really needs no introduction. Just by saying, 'Chinatown,' the visuals are already forming in our mind's eye, and you just KNOW (without needing to be told) that the opening shot will be a visual feast. Many amateurs, however, would've weighed down page one of their scripts with VOLUMES of needless details about every little nitpicky thing we would've seen. Ross is a craftsman. He gives us only TWO action paragraphs both TWO LINES each. Actually, they're not even two full lines - more like a line and a half.

“And those two action paragraphs contain very carefully chosen details that are essential to his story - the statue of the Chinese Emperor, the XXX-rated peep show and the Asian women, which gives you the sense that we're entering the more seedy side of Chinatown, and THAT WAS IT. After that, we dive right into Chance's interaction with the Hustler. This is what everyone means when they say 'less is more.' Good job, Ross. When it works, when it's really effective, good craftsmanship like this is usually overlooked and under-appreciated. And that's fine by me. As far as I'm concerned, nobody else needs to be in on our little secret about how effective we're being in our scriptwriting.”

Breakdown - Bridget Jones's Diary

[Great job, Miriam! I'm keeping an up-to-date list of all your movie breakdowns under the "Best Of" category on the right. -MM]

Bridget Jones's Diary

1 - 4:03 – Bridget goes to her parents for the annual New Year's turkey curry buffet and makes a fool of herself in front of Mark. Introduces Mum, Dad, and Uncle Geoffrey, as well as Mark and Bridget. 04:03

2 - 2:11 – Title sequence over Bridget getting drunk at home in her pajamas. 06:14

3 - 0:49 – Bridget starts her diary with confidence and vows not to fantasize about... 07:03

4 - 0:38 – ...her boss. Flashback to the Christmas party where we see more footage of Bridget drunk and singing badly, only this time in public and with some kind of metal foliage on her head. 07:41

5 - 1:58 – Bridget introduced the office staff while she ogles Daniel. Good example of the right way to use voice over. She makes a huge gaff with Daniel while trying to cover up a personal call. 09:39

6 - 1:05 – Bridget goes out with her friends. All major characters now introduced. Nothing is resolved except that more vodka must be thrown at the problem. 10:44

7 - 1:36 – Bridget and her boss exchange e-mails about her skirt. 12:20

8 - 0:18 – Bridget resolves not to flirt with her boss any more. 12:38

9 - 0:51 – More flirting capped off by the wedding fantasy. She's out of control. 13:29

10 - 1:33 – Daniel holds Bridget's arse in the lift and asks her out. She manages to equivocate. 15:02

11 - 2:01 – Intercut between friends advising Bridget and Bridget getting ready. 17:03

12 - 2:45 – At the book launch, Bridget sees Mark again, and again embarrasses herself. She also guesses that there is some dark history between Daniel and Mark. 19:48

13 - 1:54 – Bridget demonstrates that she doesn't know how to turn on a microphone and nearly says, "Tits Pervert" instead of Fitzherbert. 21:42

14 - 0:37 – Mark is about to approach Bridget when Daniel claims his prize. 22:19

15 - 1:23 – Daniel tells the story of how Mark stole his (Daniel's) fiancee. 23:42

16 - 0:42 – Daniel asks Bridget back to his place for a drink and she says no, so he kisses her. 24:24

17 - 0:57 – Daniel discovers Bridget's granny panties. 25:21

18 - 0:17 – Bridget is happy. She's losing weight and smoking less. No info about the drinking. 25:38

19 - 1:10 – Bridget asks Daniel a serious question and he sidesteps the issue. After all, they're in bed. Also demonstrates that in movies women have sex in their bras. 26:48

20 - 0:40 – Bridget's Mum demonstrates a sexual egg-peeler. 27:28

21 - 1:24 – Bridget's Mum says she's leaving Bridget's Dad to be with Julian from the Home Shopping Channel. 28:52

22 - 1:24 – Bridget tells her Dad to flirt outrageously at the upcoming tarts and vicars party to tempt Mum away from tangerine-tinted Julian. 30:16

23 - 1:03 – Daniel takes Bridget to the country in his sports car. He doesn't want to read poncy poetry and she loses her scarf. 31:19

24 - 0:50 – Bridget arrives with wind-blown hair to see that Mark and Natasha are staying at the same hotel. 32:09

25 - 1:05 – Out in the boats, Daniel and Bridget clown drunkenly while Natasha and Mark row sedately and discuss their cases. Mark watched Bridget and Daniel. 33:14

26 - 0:58 – Bridget asks Daniel if he loves her and he threatens her with an unspeakable sex act. She has so little self-esteem that she accepts. 34:12

27 - 1:33 – Daniel buggers off to London instead of going to the party. He says the American office is thinking of shutting them down. 35:45

28 - 1:41 – Bridget arrives to find the tarts vicars theme has been called off. Uncle Geoffrey behaves suspiciously when asked if he called to let Bridget know. Bridget's Mum asks what she thinks Dad is up to. He's scaring some poor woman who just had her ovaries done. 37:26

29 - 0:41 – Bridget and her Dad commiserate over a fag behind the roses with the Garden Gnome in the background. 38:07

30 - 1:04 – Bridget hints to Mark that she knows about his shocking behavior with Daniel's fiancée, but doesn't spell anything out. 39:11

31 - 2:19 – Bridget goes to Daniel for sympathy and finds Lara. 41:30

32 - 1:38 – Montage of Bridget feeling sorry for herself, watching Fatal Attraction and lions mating, and spying on Daniel and Lara. 43:08

33 - 2:04 – Daniel tells Bridget he and Lara are engaged. 45:12

34 - 1:30 – Bridget gets drunk and when she sobers up she puts her life on a new track. 46:42

35 - 1:06 – Bridget gets a job in television, where one is never sacked for shagging the boss. 47:48

36 - 1:51 – Bridget tells Daniel she'd rather wipe Saddam Hussein's arse than work for him (Daniel). 49:39

37 - 1:30 – Bridget winds up her first television assignment with her bum on national news. 51:09

38 - 2:07 – Bridget is roused from her depression to attend a dinner party full of smug married couples that leaves her even more depressed. Oh, and Mark Darcy is there with Natasha. 53:16

39 - 2:39 – Mark catches her on the way out of the party and gives his long speech that doesn't end up with her saying, "You had me at hello." Bridget doesn't know what to think. 55:55

40 - 0:29 – Bridget's friends manage to convince her she's wrong to consider responding to Mark. Let's not forget that they're single, in terrible relationships, and/or gay. 56:24

41 - 0:58 – Bridget's new boss gives her one more chance... 57:22

42 - 0:59 – …which she nearly flubs, but Mark saves her bacon. Introduces the colorful British phrase, "having a slash," which can only be uttered by men. 58:21

43 - 0:50 – Bridget interviews Kafir Agani and Eleano Heaney and becomes a legend. 59:11

44 - 2:05 – Bridget attempts to cook a gourmet dinner. Just as it explodes on her, Mum calls to say she's not happy with Julian. Then Mark shows up with some marvelously understated acting. 61:16

45 - 2:14 – Mark saves the meal and they share a moment, or a lot of them. 63:30

46 - 1:20 – Mark stays to dinner with her friends and they toast to Bridget just as she is. 64:50

47 - 3:11 – Daniel shows up and sweet-talks (manipulates) Bridget into thinking he wants to marry her. Please note that he never actually says "marry." Mark says he's leaving and then tells Daniel to meet him outside. 68:01

48 - 4:48 – Mark and Daniel fight inside and outside of the Greek restaurant. Despite Daniel's cheating, Mark wins. Bridget rejects both of them. 72:49

49 - 2:43 – Bridget's Mum comes home for Christmas. 75:32

50 - 0:49 – Bridget finds out the truth about Mark, Daniel, and Mark's cruel wife. 76:21

51 - 5:55 – A series of related scenes: Bridget rushes to the Darcy's and apologizes to Mark, only to find out that he's engaged to Natasha and on his way to New York. 82:16

52 - 1:21 – Montage of Mark flying to New York and Bridget resigning herself to spinsterhood and lunacy. 83:37

53 - 1:04 – Bridget's friends show up to take her to Paris. 84:41

54 - 1:26 – Mark shows up and tries to kiss her, but is interrupted by the cheers of her friends. 86:07

55 - 2:03 – Bridget postpones the moment to change into genuinely tiny knickers, which gives Mark time to read her diary. She comes out to find him gone and races out into the snow, stopping only to throw on some trainers. 88:10

56 - 2:44 – Bridget runs through the streets in her genuinely tiny knickers to apologize to Mark. She is relieved to find that he was buying her a new diary. They kiss and she says, "Nice boys don't kiss like that." He replies, "Oh yes they fucking do." 90:54

There are 56 major scenes that average 1 minute and 37 seconds in length. Only four of them are over 3 minutes long and seventeen of them are less than a minute long. The total length of the film itself, not counting ending credits, is 90 minutes and 54 seconds. The end credits are worth mentioning, though, because they are footage of little Bridget and little Mark Darcy shot to look like home movies. It's too cute.

The choice of songs in this movie is perfect.

Mark has a very long speech in scene 39 when he tells Bridget that he likes her just the way she is. Personally, I think this is a much better speech than "you had me at hello," but you'd have to ask Renee Zellwiger which one she liked better. I transferred the speech into Final Draft and, in standard formatting, it is 18 lines long. There are a few cut-aways to Bridget for her reaction during this speech, but it's mainly Mark talking. It's a good example of how to use long dialogue sections sparingly for effect.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Subtext – Groundhog Day

All right, guys, we all know Will, (aka “dix” or “wcdixon”), author of uninflected images juxtaposed, funny man, devil’s advocate, rock 'n roller, and slow convert to the art of subtext. He's a father, a teacher, and a filmmaker. He's “starkly gleeful meets darkly sardonic meets sadly simplistic.” He's the little independent guy who's always aspiring to be the summer blockbuster.

He should also be congratulated, as he was just recently hired to write for an existing teen drama TV series. All I’ve got to say is - there better be a lot of subtext on that show. Hehehe

I will admit, he went through a few scenes before settling on
Groundhog Day by Danny Rubin (with revisions by Harold Ramis). There is some subtext here, I think, with Rita’s quotation of Sir Walter Scott. There's also the usual “seduction subtext” as Phil tries so hard to get Rita to sleep with him.

Here are Dix’s thoughts:

There's an old saying that goes "dying is easy, comedy is hard". I would imagine that "dramedy" or comedy with dramatic subtext is even harder. That's probably why I have so much respect for one of the true comedic geniuses of our time, Bill Murray and his best role was as Phil Connors, the weatherman stuck inside Groundhog Day.

The transformation that overcomes Bill Murray's character is mesmerizing. He starts out the film crabby: "You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life". As the effect of being stuck in the same day takes hold, he turns alarmed: "Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today!" Realizing that he can use this bizarre twist of fate to do some good, he actually turns into a sweet gentle soul: "When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."

Phil, though he probably never realized it, was trapped in a life that made him bitter and insensitive. It's only when he is forced to take each day as his last and learn to make full use of that day — to live in the moment — that he achieves a form of self-actualization.


Phil is sitting at his usual table, which is covered with an incredible variety of rich foods— eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, pies, cakes, eclairs, ice cream, puddings, etc. Rita sits across from him, watching in amazement as he stuffs himself with pastry.

Is this some new fad diet? Don't
you worry about cholesterol?

Phil scrapes a plate and takes a final bite of a chocolate eclair.

I don't worry about anything

What makes you so special?
Everybody worries about

That's exactly what makes me so

He takes a big bite of cake. Rita shakes her head.

(with his mouth full)

"The wretch, concentered all
in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair
And doubly dying, shall go
down to the vile dust from
whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and
unsung." Sir Walter Scott.

(stares at her for a
long moment)
"There was a young man from

That's really funny. When are
you going to grow up, Phil?

At this rate-- never.
(he pulls out a pack of
Okay if I smoke?

Rita shrugs. Phil lights up a cigarette.

You really do have a death wish,
don't you?

Just the opposite, Rita. I have
a life wish. I'm just trying to
enjoy it. Taking pleasure in the
little things. Don't you ever
just want to cut loose and go

I wouldn't even know what it
means to go wild.

Yeah, well, that's where I come
in. Going wild is one of my
specialties. Last night I got
completely loaded and drove headon
into a police car.

Oh, really? You look pretty good
this morning.

That's my point. I know you
won't believe me, but we could do
anything we want today and it
wouldn't matter one bit.
Absolutely no consequences.
Complete and total freedom.

And how..,do we manage that?

You leave that to me. Why don't
you send Larry back and hang out
with me for the rest of the day?
You never make it through that
blizzard anyway.

Larry enters the diner and spots them.

I'll take my chances with the
-weather. But you have a good

Don't worry. I plan to.

Or maybe this scene...


Rita hugs him again and starts to exit.

Thanks. See you tomorrow.

Tomorrow? Wait, aren't you going
to come up to my room for a

(very reluctant)
I don't know, Phil—

No reason to end a perfect day.

Well— we better not.

No, you should. The, uh, the
poetry! I've got some books,
Rimbaud, Beaudelaire, we could
light a fire—

Thanks, but —

(seeing it all slip
Please come, Rita. It'll be —

Phil, I'm tired. We can be
together tomorrow.

(getting desperate)
But there is no tomorrow for me!

Let's not ruin it, Phil. There's
no way I' m sleeping with you

Why not? Rita, I love you!

You don't even know me!

(grabs her hand)
Please! You have to!

Rita shakes loose from his grasp.

What's wrong with you!

There is a long moment of silent tension, then all her old doubts about Phil come rushing back.

(shaking her head)
Oh, no. I can't believe I fell
for it. This whole day was just
one long set-up. And I ate
fudge. Yucchh! I hate fudge.

No, it was real. I love you.

Stop saying that! Do you really
expect me to trust you? The
whole secretarial pool is a Phil
Connors recovery group.

But I can change! I really can—

Rita slaps him hard on the cheek.

That's for making me care about

She turns and stomps off, leaving Phil standing there hurting.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The New Spec Style

Dave Trottier, format-God and author of the Screenwriter’s Bible, has an article on his website called New Spec Style.

There were a couple things I found interesting:

1 – Many reviewers on TriggerStreet (including myself) have been telling writers to keep their action paragraphs down to 5 lines or fewer when, in fact, Trottier recommends 4 lines or fewer. He writes:

How lean is lean?

Try to keep your screenplay within 110 pages, about 100 pages for a comedy and 105 for a drama. Paragraphs of narrative description should not exceed four lines. As a general rule, each paragraph should focus on an image, action, or story beat. Thus, paragraphs will often be only a line or two in length. Dialogue lines should not exceed 3 1/2 inches in width. Ideally, dialogue should consist of one or two lines, maybe three. (Yes, there are exceptions to everything.)

2 – We also frequently gripe in our reviews when authors write actions in their parentheticals or (wrylies). It’s actually okay to do that, if it’s done SPARINGLY and “adds movement to the scene:”


You have read that you should use actor's instructions (parentheticals) sparingly, that you should not direct the actor in saying his/her lines unless the subtext is unclear. You've also read that since executives only read dialogue or just a few pages, that you should include some action as a parenthetical to help improve the read. There's truth in both statements. Let's be honest, executives are getting younger, often lack a creative background, and are asked to read more. The result is they read less. But readers (professional story analysts) read everything, after which they make their recommendation to the executive or producer. It's that recommendation that places your script in the running for a deal.

In view of that, continue to use parentheticals sparingly, but consider taking occasional opportunities to add a line of action (about 3-4 words) as a parenthetical if doing so adds movement to the scene. And don't be afraid to write brief description. Film is still a primarily visual medium.

3 – SIDE NOTE: I’m also noticing that a lot of reviewers will fault a writer if it’s not clear who the ONE protagonist is. As I’m sure we all know, it is perfectly acceptable to have dual or even multiple protagonists. Hello? Robert Altman, anyone?

Here’s McKee: “On screen the Multiprotagonist story is as old as GRAND HOTEL; in the novel older still, War and Peace; in the theatre older yet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Multiprotagonist stories become Multiplot stories. Rather than driving the telling through the focused desire of a protagonist, either single or plural, these works weave a number of smaller stories, each with its own protagonist, to create a dynamic portrait of a specific society.

I wonder how TriggerStreet would’ve reacted had an unknown video store clerk uploaded his Pulp Fiction script. I can tell you this – they would’ve bitched about not understanding who the ONE protagonist was supposed to be.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Subtext - Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas – by Mike Figgis

This, of course, is a very sad film about Ben & Sera.

Ben is trying to kill himself with alcohol. Sera’s a prostitute who takes him in. They fall in love. (It’s funny. I can drink through ANY movie EXCEPT this one.) Ebert said, this “is not a love story, although it feels like one, but a story about two desperate people using love as a form of prayer and a last resort against their pain. It is also a sad, trembling portrait of the final stages of alcoholism.” Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said, “It is a cauterizing movie - it burns like bourbon splashed on an exposed heart.”

Here’s one of the key moments in the film:

No... Sera, no...
See... what you don't
understand is...


Ben is deeply troubled. He comes to a decision.

You can never... ever... ask
me to stop drinking. Do you

(dead serious)
I do. I really do.

Of course, what’s Sera’s actually saying - “I don’t understand. I really, really don’t…. But I understand you, and I will play along until I can find the right moment to save you.”


Ben and Sera sitting opposite each other. He has a bowl of rice, which he is pretending to eat in between sips of vodka. She has a bowl of vegetables and rice. She sits, silently for a while, and then puts down her chopsticks.

You're pretty sick.

Ben looks away.

What are you going to do?

She folds her arms.

I want you to go see a

He thinks for a while and then turns to meet her gaze. They look right into each other's eyes.

Sera... I'm not going to see a

Sera continues to look at him almost defiantly.

Maybe it's time I moved to a

And do what... rot away in a
(becoming angry)
We're not going to talk about
that. Fuck you! I will not
talk about that. You're
staying here. You are not
moving to a hotel.

Will you lighten up, please?

(close to tears)
One thing... one thing... this
is one thing you can do for
me. I've given you gallons of
free will here! You can do
this for me.

In one simple statement, “I want you to go see a doctor,” Sera admits everything. The subtext is huge, because she’s also saying, “I don’t want you to kill yourself. I want you to live. I want you get healthy again. I want you to make a life with me because I love you.” Nothing less than Ben’s life hangs in the balance of her words.

But, of course, Ben refuses. His immediate reaction is to threaten to leave, the very essence of his character – escapism through alcohol – flight, not fight. By this point, it’s the addiction talking, not Ben, which is stronger than his love for her.

I love the way she downplays her request, too. “One thing… one thing… this is one thing you can do for me.” Come on, Ben, it’s just one little thing I’m asking of you – to not kill yourself, to get better, to stick around and love me and make a life with me. Come on, Ben...

But words alone weren’t enough to save him.

Subtext – As Good As It Gets

As Good As It Gets, penned by Mard Andrus & James J. Brooks.

I wonder, isn’t evasion subtext? Because when Simon visits Melvin and asks him if he threw his dog down the garbage shute, Melvin goes on a tirade about being interrupted while he's working. Isn’t the subtext of Melvin’s tirade – “guilty as charged?”


Quiet -- safe -- just Melvin's voice reading aloud as he writes.

'Somewhat in the dark, she had
confessed and he had forgiven.
This is what you live for, he
said. Two heads on a pillow where
there is only the safety of being
with each other. How, she
wondered, could she find such hope
in the most shameful part of her.'

He barely reacts as we hear a LOUD KNOCKING at he reads.

Mr. Udall.

But Melvin's into it. His fingers flying as he reads.

'At last she was able to define
love. Love was... '


Mr. Udall, I'd like to talk to you

'Love was... '

He almost has the rest of the sentence -- the meaning of love -- but the knocking throws him.


He burst from his chair.


As Simon hears MELVIN through the door and takes a step back. Melvin throws open the door. He looks demonic.

(loud and angry)

Maybe this can wait.

Frank signals encouragement as Melvin opens the door.

I found Verdell, Mr. Udall.

Well, that's a load off.

Melvin walks back into the apartment and is about to close the door when Simon has another burst of bravery.

Did you... do something to him?

Do you realize that I work at him?

(eyes downcast)
No, I didn't.

Do you like to be interrupt when
you are danging around in your
little garden?

No... actually, I even shut the
phone off and put a little piece
of cardboard in the ringer so no
one can just buzz me from d...

Well, I work all the time. So
never, never again interrupt me.
Okay? I mean, never. Not 30
years from now... not if there's
fire. Not even if you hear a thud
from inside my home and a week
later there's a smell from in
there that can only come from a
decaying body and you have to hold
a hanky against your face because
the stench is so thick you think
you're going to faint even then
don't come knocking or, if it's
election night and you're excited
and want to celebrate because some
fudge-packer you dated has been
elected the first queer President
of the United States... and he's
going to put you up in Camp David
and you just want to share the
moment with someone... don't knock
... not on this door. Not for
anything. Got me. Sweetheart?

Yes. It's not a subtle point
you're making.

Okay, then.

Melvin enters his apartment and slams the door shut.

So the theory of confrontations is
that now he'll think twice before
messing with me?

Subtext - Pulp Fiction

You ever read the Bible, Brett?

(in spasm)

There's a passage I got memorized,
seems appropriate for this situation:
Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the
righteous man is beset on all sides
by the inequities of the selfish and
the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is
he who, in the name of charity and
good will, shepherds the weak through
the valley of darkness, for he is
truly his brother's keeper and the
finder of lost children. And I will
strike down upon thee with great
vengeance and furious anger those
who attempt to poison and destroy my
brothers. And you will know my name
is the Lord when I lay my vengeance
upon you."

Whenever a character quotes a verse or a poem, there is, of course, subtext, because while that character may be quoting poetry or a verse, he or she is actually saying something about something else. Here, Jules famously quotes Execkiel 25:17, but he is also placing himself into that verse somewhere. But where? Who is it that Jules thinks he is in the context of that verse? Is he the Lord? The Shepherd? The Righteous Man? Even Jules isn’t sure until he’s in the coffee shop at the end of the movie and has that little "talk" with Pumpkin:

…Besides, I ain't givin' it to him.
I'm buyin' somethin' for my money.
Wanna know what I'm buyin' Ringo?


Your life. I'm givin' you that money
so I don't hafta kill your ass. You
read the Bible?

Not regularly.

There's a passage I got memorized.
Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the
righteous man is beset on all sides
by the inequities of the selfish and
the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is
he who, in the name of charity and
good will, shepherds the weak through
the valley of the darkness. For he
is truly his brother's keeper and
the finder of lost children. And I
will strike down upon thee with great
vengeance and furious anger those
who attempt to poison and destroy my
brothers. And you will know I am the
Lord when I lay my vengeance upon
you." I been sayin' that shit for
years. And if you ever heard it, it
meant your ass. I never really
questioned what it meant. I thought
it was just a coldblooded thing to
say to a motherfucker 'fore you popped
a cap in his ass. But I saw some
shit this mornin' made me think twice.
Now I'm thinkin', it could mean you're
the evil man. And I'm the righteous
man. And Mr. .45 here, he's the
shepherd protecting my righteous ass
in the valley of darkness. Or it
could be you're the righteous man
and I'm the shepherd and it's the
world that's evil and selfish. I'd
like that. But that shit ain't the
truth. The truth is you're the weak.
And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But
I'm tryin'. I'm tryin' real hard to
be a shepherd.

You can read Quentin Tarantino's script here.

My 50th Review

I recently posted my 50th review on TriggerStreet – of David Muhlfelder’s The Professor’s Widow (which was great fun, by the way).

My reviews average 2,000 words (sometimes a lot more). There’s usually 1,000 words for the review and another 1,000 for the running notes. (I’m always apologizing to the authors. “I’m so sorry,” I tell them. “I could sneeze a thousand words.”) In fact, keeping the reviews DOWN to 2,000 words is a constant struggle, as it doesn’t even represent maybe a third of all my thoughts.

In any case, with my 50th review, I’ve now contributed over 100,000 words of critical thought on the art of screenwriting.

Of course, many others have written far more reviews but they aren’t as thorough. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me, though, it was never about quantity. What’s the point of writing hundreds of reviews if you get nothing out of it?

By far, my most popular reviews – a 3-part series on the comedies of Ger, which are highlighted in my post -
Comedy Writing Secrets.

So I thought I’d share highlights from 5 reviews I enjoyed writing. (And like all of my reviews, this entire post is, coincidentally, 2,000 words.)

The Uncrowned King:

I think one is first drawn into this story by John Browner's wonderful rendition of the Irish dialect, not to mention the speech and mannerisms characteristic of the late 1800's, no small feat that. You can almost hear the infectious Irish lilt in Parnell's voice. There is peppered throughout this spec the famously characteristic and highly-colored Irish hyperbole, the flowery exaggerations - "It is a good sign that this masquerading knight-errant, this pretended champion of the liberties of every other nation except those of the Irish nation, should be obliged to throw off the mask today..." And there is also a taste of some vivid simile filled with a soulfulness that would typify a sentimental Irishman - "The National Land League is fraying apart like an old blanket." Aye, lad, it'd scald the heart out of ye.

I also loved the etiquette. "And to what, Mrs. O'Shea, do I owe the honor and pleasure of your summons?" "I was hoping, sir, that you might be persuaded to join my husband and me at a small dinner at Thomas's Hotel in two nights time..." "I will most definitely and with great pleasure accede to your wishes." At a time when our loved one would say to us, "Don't be such an ass," Katie would ever so politely say to Parnell, "Pray be not petulant, Sire."

On For Greece:

I read this script because I really wanted to, and I must say, this spec did not disappoint. What I love about this story is not just the comeback of an athlete whose life and dreams were set adrift by war, but that Stelios sensed in himself the best way to use his own talents not for personal glory but as a means of helping his own suffering country. I loved the fact that the story did not open with a contrived "Inciting Incident," which is the first major event of a story that's usually the primary cause for everything that follows. I guess it could be argued that the Berlin Olympics was inciting, but you don't really feel it. We move through these events because this was Stelios's life, an extraordinary life for sure, but his life nonetheless, and life does not always follow a special format. This was a man with dreams, the relationships he fostered along the way, the overwhelming struggles and pain he endured, and then in the end, instead of choosing bitterness, this was about Stelios's choice to use his abilities to help his fellow man because he knew he could do it. That's powerful.

Scene Shifter:

I've always had love/hate feelings for British stories. I'm drawn to them for their great imagination and I so love the spirited, powerful writing but... I've been burned one too many times by bad endings. It never fails. I will grab a book I want to read and in the back of my mind, a little voice always tells me, "Beware of British stories. They screw you in the end." How, you ask? Let's say a protagonist will be trapped in a dungeon with a killer, all seems lost, the antagonist moves in for the kill, and then suddenly out of nowhere, British forces BURST into the room, save our hero, handcuff the mad killer, and start talking about how they've been "monitoring" this guy for months. WHAT? Are you bloody kidding me? Nobody ever mentioned anything about the government in the 400 plus pages I sat through before I got to the ending! You can't be serious! How was I supposed to guess it was going to end this way? Why couldn't the hero save the day, or at least do something clever to outwit and outplay the antagonist, something I could've had a chance to guess at than to be blindsided by something no one could have possibly predicted.

Sapna’s Gift:

Not only am I a notorious Hollywood insider, a brilliant writer with cunning instincts, BUT I was also once... a renowned physicist. That's right. I'm expecting a Nobel any day now. Physics is as much a creative art as it is deep thought. Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, Bohr, Heisenberg, Galileo, Feynman, Dirac, etc, etc - all deep, creative thinkers. And when Edward began teaching Jaime that "We're in all places at once," I thought, "Ah ha! I got you, Ted! You're attempting to impress upon us Susskind's 'String Theory,' the 'theory of everything' in physics, the idea that there are many consistent laws of physics, not just the ones we happen to observe, and also that it is possible within modern inflationary cosmology to have a 'multiverse' where all these possibilities actually exist in different universes." What? Come on. How do you explain the Higgs Field? How do you justify in terms of the topology of Calabi-Yau manifolds why there are so many possible incarnations of particle physics? How do you explain most of cosmology for that matter - how we know there is vacuum energy, why inflation was invented as a theory of initial conditions and how inflation allows for an ensemble of universes? But then I also thought, "I wonder if Frothingham read 'Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension' in which renowned physicist Michio Kaku advocated a 'superstring theory,' a universe where space exists in 10 dimensions, where one can travel through time into the past, where holes in the fabric of space and time pop up and serve as shortcuts to other parts of the universe, and where the visible universe may be only one of myriad mini-universes that coexist like so many soap bubbles in a cosmic froth." What? Come on. This guy's just a Trekkie with a degree, right? How do you explain...

It does not matter. It's all debatable. The beauty or ugliness we perceive in the laws of physics or in a spiritual world beyond tells us as much about the human aesthetic response to life as it does about the fundamental design of the universe.

In other words, screenplays are a venue for the heart.

When Love is the Burden:

My mother's health is deteriorating, and this made me think of my father who faithfully stays by her side and never complains. This made me think of a friend of the family, Jerry, who's wife was once bright and beautiful and then she got sick and was never the same. Now she's incoherent, looks strange, behaves erratically, does embarrassing things in social situations, and I swear, it's a full-time job keeping her contained, but yet Jerry is still with her after all these years and has no plans of ever leaving her. This made me think of Michael who had five kids with his wife. She died of cancer. Now he's a single dad with five kids. He had to sell his house, give up his high-paying job, and redesign his entire life. This made me think a little of Christopher Reeve and his wife, Dana. This made me think of a roommate I had who's wheelchair-bound and has an assistant come to help 3 times day for, I think, about $350 a week. This also made me think of something John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're planning something else."

This also touched upon one of my favorite ideas to explore in a story, the idea of loving someone who may not be capable of loving you back. It's a high road to take. It's a painful road. It's also, short of giving up your life for that person, the pinnacle expression of love. There is an emotional toll involved. You will be admired, but you will be lonely. Your needs will not be met anymore. And yet, you PROMISED in front of God and everyone that you would love her no matter what. By marrying you, she put her life, her happiness, her well-being into your capable hands. She is still your responsibility. And it just seems to me that people are so selfish nowadays. In most cases, I would imagine Fiona would be cut loose and forgotten. Hey, he's not getting anything in return out of this marriage anymore, so why bother, right? Most people will love someone else only if they're getting something out of it. Or they will only love if that person shows them love first. Or they will love you only as much as you show love to them. So that, if one day, they might slip up, and you only show 95% of love that day, then they will show you 80% of their love until you start giving them 100% again. And then the great spiral begins until the inevitable breakup. I have not gotten married yet. I'm still looking for "the one." I'm sure she's out there, and I'm sure I'll know it when I meet her. I'll feel so connected to her and be so in love with her that I wouldn't even think twice about giving up my life to care for her in the way Brian took care of Fiona, or the way Dana Reeve took care of Christopher, or the way my father continually takes care of my mother.

But of course, my long-time (and now very popular) writing friend would differ with me. We used to have discussions about reciprocating love over beers and zingers, oddly enough. He'd tell me that you can't just love blindly when someone else isn't loving you back. That's the way to get your heart broken. You have to protect yourself. And I would tell him, how is there to be any love if nobody steps up and starts doing the loving? What's wrong with being a loving person? That's the sign of a healthy life, is it not? If you're loving someone and that person isn't loving you back - BIG DEAL. You can't control other people. So just be a man about it. If your love is not being reciprocated, you're a better man by not letting it get to you. Tis better to give then receive, right? But what if she becomes a vegetable? She doesn't even KNOW you're loving her. But you love her and that's what you do when you truly love somebody. It doesn't make sense, but that's what you do 'til death. That's true love. How can we solve our own petty little problems in our relationship if we aren't shown examples of great love in movies? I'm sure Dana Reeve would be saying the same thing, would she not? How do you think she would feel about this? She'd approve, I'm sure.

I digressed. I'm SO sorry.

The fact that I felt compelled to write about reciprocating love speaks to this story's power to evoke thought and emotion…

Friday, September 15, 2006


In less than a week, Feast will assault our senses, a movie that will likely be Project Greenlight’s third and final strike at granting starry-eyed amateurs their chance at a movie-making career. For fun, I was going to post a script review of Feast but what’s the point of reading it again when you know that so much of the script has changed?

However, Justin Clark, over Ugo Screenwriter’s Voice posted
an excellent review:

“…considering how thousands upon thousands of scripts were submitted, and Feast is the best script that came out of it all, there are only two acceptable theories: Either the guys at the production level just plain chose the wrong script, or the basements of America aren't so wizened as to the nature of fear as one might think, and this really *is* the best script of the bunch. Both theories sadden me. But the former one makes more sense.

To say Feast is derivative is an understatement… [It] doesn't have an original bone in its 116-page body. When the sentiment while reading goes from "that's kinda like..." to "this is a LOT like..." to "yup, it's ripping off...", you know something's wrong. And in this case, there isn't a single thing here that Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight didn't pull off first, with a hell of a lot more style, wit and energy…

James Cameron once said, in reference to his work on Aliens, that gore isn't fear. It's disgust, a totally different emotion. No matter how gory your film is if there isn't anything more to it than that, it's no different than watching people drink sperm-tainted beer in American Pie. It's getting to the point now where the true art of dread, of terror, of watching people, characters and things be threatened by a truly frightening menace has taken a back seat to "safe" thrills…”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’m sorry to say that, as a script, Feast is a sad little exercise in banality. And
the trailer just screams “AWFUL,” doesn’t it? One boy yells, “S.O.S! S.O.S!” Others say, “Get down!” “They’re gonna eat us!” A girl (presumably “Heroine”) says, “There’s something… out there.” And of course, Henri Rollins’ line, “Of all the bars to get stuck in.”

Ho hum. Pardon me while I yawn

If Feast somehow avoids a spectacular belly-flop at the box-office, you will actually have to thank director John Gulager for that miracle, certainly not the writers.

And while you gotta love and appreciate Ben and Matt and Chris on their well-intentioned Project Greenlight endeavor, I think that this contest / reality-series did more to keep newbie writers OUT of Hollywood than anything else. I mean, come on, thousands and thousands of scripts submitted, 3 finished films, and what have we discovered?

That amateurs write shit.


That the Hollywood system is so hopelessly FUBAR, it is incapable of actually discovering the truly talented new writers.

None of us should feel the least bit envious of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, the two writers who won the contest. Just because their movie got made does not mean that this will advance their screenwriting careers. In fact, it’s very possible that this may keep them from getting another writing gig. Tell me, what happened to Erica Beeney after The Battle of Shaker Heights? Nothing. What happened to Pete Jones of Stolen Summer? Nothing. Well, a $700,000 movie he made called Outing Riley, which got screened at the 2004 Chicago International Film Festival. It never got picked up. By all accounts, Outing Riley was a total disaster. (You can read a review
here.) Pete cast himself in the lead role as a gay man and TALKED TO THE AUDIENCE.

What’s the point? Before you step into the spotlight on the world stage with your screenplays, you had better a) possess a God-like knowledge of every facet of screenwriting b) already be a master craftsman, and c) have awesomely executed scripts under your belt that will stun the world and have them begging for more. Period. You have to be THAT good. And, in this day and age, you’re only as good as your last script, which means that you have to deliver something incredible every time you’re at bat.

If there’s any truly scary monster in this film, it is Project Greenlight itself, and we can only hope that this beast is finally dead.