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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

It's Sly-fficial

Rambo IV. Sly, gevalt!


Screenplay Review: Prime

And now for another review of a script I read for work that is just coming out as a film: Ben Younger's Prime.

Before I go any further, one slight note. I have met Ben Younger a few times. We grew up in the same circles and had many mutual friends. This is not to say I'm a friend of his, and I don't even know if he would have any idea who I am. But I think it is fair that I mention that in advance.

On a different side note, it is interesting that I received his script to read. Over the years that I have been a script reader, I have received scripts by authors that I knew personally on at least 4 different occasions, perhaps more. I always tell the company this before I read the script, on the chance that they would prefer someone else read it. But they are usually fine with it, as long as I'm honest, which I believe I always am. Perhaps I'll make a separate post about this strange phenomenon a different time, but it is odd and mildly amusing nonetheless.

Anyway, on to Prime...

Significant Spoiler Warning!

The script I read was presumably an early draft, dated 11/12/02, just a few days before I did my coverage on it. So decent amounts may have been altered between then and now, though based on a review I read, one of my primary objections appears not to have been rectified.

Regardless, I thought generally highly of the script, though I had some significant reservations. While I thought it was a generally mature and realistic romance, it dipped a bit too frequently into clichés of the genre. Such clichés worked poorly in their own right, and even more so due to their incongruousness in the context of a more realistic film overall. Still, I felt that Younger's script made some very wise structural decisions that a lesser screenwriter might not have made.

Ultimately, I felt the script was worth further consideration, though the issues needed to be addressed. I summarized my comments as such:

Generally surprising romance, that unfortunately sways into hackneyed territory a bit too often. Still, with rewrites to excise those elements, this could be a very fresh and realistic romance, though its ending is not as happy as some people would like. This can be both a good and bad thing, but should probably not be changed.

Here are my overall comments:

To say that Prime is somewhat formulaic and unoriginal at times would not be an understatement, but it would be a relatively irrelevant one, since romances rarely are anything but formulaic. What differentiates the good from the bad are the original elements the author brings to the formula, and the ways in which he surprises us. On this front, Prime offers mixed, though generally positive results. Though many scenes are entirely hackneyed, the main storyline offers some originality of concept, and also some true surprises, a rarity for a film of this nature.

Certainly, the greatest surprise here occurs as the first major turning point. When we see that Dave's mom is Rafi's therapist, there will be few people who have imagined this or figured it out. And it works brilliantly, by increasing the size of the obstacles in the way of their relationship. There already are the age and religious differences, but this huge obstacle just tops them both. And it also works well to create dramatic tension. Younger makes other good structural choices from there forward, not waiting too long until Lisa discovers the true nature of their relationship. A poorer screenplay would have left the main drama at "when will Lisa discover her son and patient are dating?" Younger recognizes the inevitability of this revelation, and moves into it quickly, allowing the tension to move into, "how long will Lisa keep this knowledge from Rafi and David?" This is a much more dramatic issue. Another pleasing surprise comes at the end, when we see that Rafi and David do not end up together, yet in some way, the final smile makes this a happy ending despite the fact that it ends in a way we don't expect.

Still, the little scenes along the way are not original enough, playing instead like a highlight reel of previous romantic films. The "secret" garden, the dinner at Travelart aided by the guard, the painting that Dave does of Rafi, and Tony's help in getting them together again (surprise -- he finally smiles!), just to name a few, are all romance movie clichés. The film would benefit tremendously if all of these trite elements were entirely removed and replaced with more original scenes during rewrites. They seem totally artificial when placed up against the realistic nature of Dave and Rafi's relationship, his family relationships, and the obstacles they face.

Also solid in this script is the humor, both situationally and in terms of dialogue. Overall, this is balanced with drama as well, though, making this into a stronger film. Thus, Younger has created a solid romance that is at once believable and surprising. But he also seems to have missed his mark by a bit, in that he has distracted us by including many clichéd elements, rather than remaining as original throughout. And the ending could also detract somewhat from the potential of this film.

By the way, I find the advertising campaign that Universal has given the movie poor and counterproductive, to a certain degree. The major reversal that I mentioned is revealed, and in fact highlighted, in the advertising, removing any surprise from anyone who sees the advertising. I liked this reversal when I read the script, as it was deftly handled and truly worked surprisingly. More significantly, the ad campaign makes it seem as if this is what the entire film is about, while at least in the script that I read, this was only the first act.

You'll also note my comment about the ending. I recognized that some might find the ending less than typically happy, and this could potentially hurt the audience draw. But I still felt it wise to keep the ending, as it works artistically. A more "happy ending" in which Dave and Rafi somehow work through their differences would feel trite in comparison to the realistic style of the film overall. It is just too bad that Ben did not also (as it seems from the reviews -- I have yet to see the film) cut out some of the more hackneyed trappings along the way. Without them, this film might have instead played like a New York Jewish version of Before Sunrise.

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Roll Your Own...

...screenwriting blog search, that is.

Good ol' Moses, from The Rabbit Trail has set up a special "scribosphere search" at rollyo.com

Rollyo, of course, is short for Roll Your Own, and allows you to customize a search across a selected group of websites. Moses set up one with 25 different blogs across the screenwriting neighborhood of the blogosphere, aka the scribosphere. I am honored that he considered me one of the top 25, and I assume it had something to do with my sticking to only screenwriting and film related topics, rather than throwing in personal stuff as well.

You can check it out by scrolling down my sidebar to find the search box, highlight "scribosphere" in the drop down menu, and type in a search. Not quite sure how the search algorithm works and ranks posts, but I guess if you type "enneagram" into the search box, my posts are likely to come up big! ;-)

And while we're at it, in the context of building a scribosphere community, Moses also set up a frappr! (short for Friend Mapper) page for members of the scribosphere, which is a mashup with google maps. In it, you can add yourself, and see where other members of the scribosphere live too! Check out the scribosphere frappr map and add yourself!

Thanks, Moses!

Hat tip: Warren

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Scribosphere Group Script

Okay, so I knocked out my few pages for Warren's "Scribosphere Group Script Project."

For those of you who have not been following this project, about 20 or so screenwriting bloggers have been contributing 2-3 pages each to a collaborative screenplay. We have not discussed it with each other, and have no idea where it is going. If you read the whole thing, you'll find that it has definitely taken some odd twists and turns along the way. Somewhere after the first few contributors, the story shifted from what appeared to be some sort of spy/action movie to a wacky Sci-Fi thriller.

Admittedly, this is not really my genre, so I decided to use my turn to accomplish a few things. A) I tried to inject a bit of humor into the script. B) I wanted to tie up a few of the dropped loose ends from earlier, and/or bring back a few overlooked characters and subtle plot points/comments. C) I tried to move the story along a bit at the same time.

I ended up writing just over 3 pages for this, and if you haven't read the earlier stuff, these pages will mean virtually nothing to you. So either go read it first, or ignore these!

I'm also testing to see if I successfully added John August's CSS code for screenplay pages on the blog template. Let's see how it goes!

  • The audience buzzes in anticipation as “The Dr. Phil Show” is about to begin.
  • Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of Dr. Phil! Today, the good doc explores the topic of love...
  • An audience member turns to his girlfriend...
  • What else is new?
  • ...in the workplace. One woman reveals a crush on a coworker, and may be in for a bit of a surprise!

  • Dr. Phil/The King waits to come on stage. After a moment, we see Sylvia flit past him in the background.

  • The Venerathian guards hustle a struggling Marqua inside the studio. As they pull him through the doors...
  • WHAM! Sylvia is on one, literally ripping his head from his shoulders. The other drops Marqua and pulls out a gun of sorts. From atop the first, she agilely kicks the gun from the second guard’s hands.
  • Freaked out, the guard decides it would be wise to run for it. Sylvia waits for a moment, gathering her strength.
  • Taking a deep breath, she clamps her hands on the sides of Marqua’s head, and lets loose an ear-splitting SHRIEK. Or in this case, a head splitting one. The second guard’s head EXPLODES from the sound. Sylvia uncovers Marqua’s ears.
  • Don’t worry boys. They’ll grow back in six months or so.
  • Sylvia takes Marqua’s hand, and pulls him down the hall.

  • Will heads for the highway exit.
  • WILL
  • Can’t run without her. Or... Hez.
  • About that, Will. He’s not who you think he is.
  • WILL
  • Funny, he said the same about you.
  • Coates pauses, considering something. Then...
  • Maybe I’m not.
  • He pulls an alien weapon from his pocket. Will notices.
  • WILL
  • You’re an Anogarabe?!
  • The ring. Now.

  • Tucked away behind some hanging cables, we find Sylvia and Marqua. She has him backed into a dark corner.
  • Are you alright? You seem injured.
  • She reaches a hand up and gently strokes his cheek.
  • Or is that what happens to Venerath skin when you get excited? Goldeth knows, Will never let me see it.
  • What are you doing?
  • The eclipse nears. I can’t wait.
  • Her ovipositor extends from her abdomen.

  • The more you get in the mood, the less it will hurt. Just relax... your liver.

  • Dr. Phil talks to his guest, who we only see from behind.
  • DR. PHIL
  • You know the old saying, sweetheart. “A real cowboy knows to keep his longhorns separate from his sheep.” So what makes you think this relationship can work?
  • The REVERSE ANGLE reveals his guest is none other than Alexa.
  • I can tell he likes me. He just needs to know how I feel. But I’m too shy.
  • DR. PHIL
  • Well, honey, here’s your chance!
  • A P.A. leads Nathan onto the stage.
  • (to the P.A.)
  • Are you sure this is the right way?
  • The audience applauds, bringing Nathan to attention. He spots Alexa.
  • Oh! There you are. I--
  • You?!
  • She jumps to her feet, but in doing so, knocks over the coffee table in front of her, spilling a water mug.
  • DR. PHIL
  • What’s wrong, Alexa?
  • It’s not Nathan I love, it’s Will!
  • DR. PHIL
  • Will? My s--?

  • She goes to run from the stage, but slips on the water, and knocks into a heartbroken Nathan. He flies backwards into the flimsy rear wall, and crashes through.
  • It comes crashing down to reveal Sylvia straddling Marqua’s stomach, her ovipositor buried in his chest. Her head is thrown back in ecstasy, as she lets out a moan of pleasure. Marqua responds in kind, his eyes rolling back in rapture.
  • The TV Cameraman follows Dr. Phil as he rushes to them.
  • (to the still-headed Marqua)
  • You!
  • (eyes shifting to Sylvia)
  • And you!

Okay! So there you have it. A real work of art, eh? I must admit I didn't do much revision there. Just kind of knocked it out, so it ain't that great. But I like a few of the ideas and lines I threw in there. Hope everyone else does too!

UPDATE: Looks like the CSS script didn't really work, but I'll fix it when I figure it out!

UPDATE THE SECOND: I have partially figured out the formatting issue, by removing some other bit of code from my template, but it is not my ideal solution. Hopefully I will find a more elegant solution down the road (and I've got a question out to someone who might be able to help). But at least this resembles a screenplay page a bit more, so it's all good for now.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Around the Scribosphere

Two good posts I'd like to highlight, from around the Scribosphere...

Alex over at Complications Ensue has this important advice about telling your story as a way to recognize story flaws. While we all tell stories all the time, many of us throw these skills out the window when we begin putting our screenplays to paper (or monitor).

And Billy Mernit who is Living the Romantic Comedy tells the truth about script readers, reminding you all that we come in peace, and we are really not your enemies! If you are intrigued by his comments, I'd recommend you check out his seminars at Expo 4, and also will mention that my Expo 4 seminar, "Writing to be Read," picks up where Billy's post leaves off.

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FFFJ: Prison Song

Prison Song is what I would term an ambitious failure. You've probably never seen it, and with good reason -- it was pretty bad. But when I read this script for Tribeca Productions, back in May of 2000, I was duly impressed with it.

Directed by Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That), and co-written by Martin and the film's star, rapper/actor Q-Tip, Prison Song was the first (that I know of) attempt to film a rap/hip hop musical. But what I felt really made the script stand out was its realistic, gritty portrayal of urban life. Unlike such supposedly realistic, but actually melodramatic exaggerations such as the superior Boyz N the Hood, and its many poor rip-offs, Prison Song dramatized the true struggles of inner city life, without demonizing other individuals. Some of the obstacle characters, such as a white public school teacher (played by Elvis Costello), cops, and prison guards are the "villains" in this film. The real villain here is the system itself, and the script brings this out deftly.

Similarly, many of the central characters (including another played by Mary J. Blige) are genuine and multi-dimensional. They are not overly heroic, nor particularly "evil." They are individuals facing difficult choices, which reveal character flaws despite often positive intentions.

One of the more intriguing and ambitious aspects of the script was the manner in which the rap songs were incorporated into the script. They not only pushed the envelope in terms of the so-called "urban drama," but also attempted to advance a new form of movie musical as well. Rather than developing into larger scale production numbers, the musical numbers in Prison Song act as intimate soliloquies, opening a window into the characters' inner emotions. This method also fits nicely with the lyrical style of rap songs in general.

Still, in my coverage I noted some flaws, and also warned where the script could go wrong in its transition to the screen. While the dialogue was fresh and believable, it also left little to the imagination, including very little subtext. I think this ultimately exacerbated the biggest weakness of the eventual film that this script became: poor acting. The acting in Prison Song was sub-par to begin with, but when the actors also have to speak spot-on dialogue, their poor acting was merely drawn to the fore. Also, the climax of the script seemed tacked on, which in a serious drama becomes a fatal flaw. When a film of this nature is sketched to reach a tragic conclusion, any hint of cheesiness will short-circuit that ending.

Ultimately, however, I think the main weakness of Prison Song as a film is in its execution. Bottom line, Martin did a poor job of directing this film. It may have partially resulted from too low a budget, or the rumored market-research-spewed recutting to eliminate many of the musical numbers. But in the end, Martin failed to coax believable performances from her actors, and let them wallow in cheap production values that remove much of the realism and "grit" from the film and what it could have ultimately become. In the close of my comments on Prison Song I warned that:

it could easily lose much of its believability if it became too stylized. What makes this film realistic is the understated balance between the inner goodness and outer struggles of its characters. Were it to lose this balance, the film could easily become laughable.
Unfortunately, I think that is actually what happened with this film. Still, I have a lot of respect for the filmmakers here. They showed a lot of courage to undertake this ambitious project, and though extremely flawed, I feel the film is worth watching as an instructional tool. See if you can find it on DVD. If not, I have a copy in my collection!

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Hodgepodge (Updates, Follow-ups, etc.)

A bunch of stuff here. First of all, I wanted to follow-up on my last post. Thank you all so much for your feedback on laptops. It was all very helpful. In truth, money trumped all other concerns, and I settled on the cheap crapshoot choice of buying a refurbished quasi-no-name laptop on eBay. But in all honesty, I feel pretty comfortable with what I got, and the price was definitely right, so I believe I got a good deal. And though it didn't come into play that much, I definitely took all of your thoughts into consideration, so thanks.

The bottom line? I got a refurbished NCS Dell-Inspiron-5000-lookalike, Pentium III, 850 MHz, 256 MB RAM, 20 GB hard drive, 14.1" monitor, Windows XP Pro, CD-RW, WiFi. Price after shipping? $334.96 So I'd say that as long as it lasts me and does the job for a few years, which I honestly suspect it will, I definitely got myself a good enough deal. The only thing I might've wanted that it doesn't have is a DVD, but that's cool. And I can expand the RAM at some point, if I need.

Next, I wanted to update y'all abut the Writer's Arc fellowship. I spoke with Amy Kane yesterday, and she clarified the change that took place. Following their initial 10-week pilot program, they determined that the participants felt they could definitely benefit from a few more weeks in the program, but certainly didn't need a program that was twice as long. So they decided to shorten it from 20 weeks to 16, and made the equivalent reduction in the award money from $10,000 to $7500. Makes sense to me! But I wanted to fill y'all in.

I also wanted to welcome the simians to our midst! John Rogers over at the Kung Fu Monkey recently linked to me, and immediately became my top referrer for the last few days. My monkey's Kung Fu may not be that strong, but I hope it ain't nothin' to spit at either. And please remember one of my favorite comic axioms:

Monkeys are funny. They just are. Period.

I hope you all will stick around and become regular readers.

Lastly, a preview. So Warren over at The Screenwriting Life started something cool about a month and a half ago. "The Scribosphere Group Script Project." A number of screenwriting bloggers have been rotating, adding two pages or so at a time to a collaborative script, with no advance direction. We're just seeing where it takes us. I'm up next, and once I post, I'll try to throw my pages up on here as well. But if you want to read the strange twists and turns the script has gone through so far, check it out HERE.

Okay, I think that sums it up for now. Have a good weekend everyone! :-)

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Where Does Your Lap Go When You Stand Up?

This has always been a favorite question my Dad asks little kids, and I think it's pretty funny too. Ask a 4-year old and see what kind of reaction you get!

Which brings me to the topic du jour: laptops.

I've been a desktop computer writer for a long time. Never bought a laptop, primarily because I never had the money for one. But they've gotten really inexpensive, and though I'm not sure I can afford one this second, I can probably buy one soon. So...

What kind of laptops do y'all have? What do you like or dislike? What would you say is a necessary feature, or an unnecessary one? How do you feel about buying extended warranties? Necessary? Anyone got any good deals they know about? (I saw a pretty good deal on the Dell website, but maybe there are others.) Does anyone out there have a PC desktop, but a Mac laptop? I'd love to hear from you guys too. I know Macs are somewhat more expensive (at least on the low end), but there may be some good benefits to it. Thoughts there?

I'm relatively certain there will be almost as many opinions as there are readers of this site, but I'd love to hear y'all chime in. I believe that with a laptop, I'll hopefully get a lot more writing done, because I can go somewhere else to write, and not be distracted by all the other things in my house. So I think it will be worth the investment of money.

And to add a bit more screenwriting content that is related to this post, I just saw an ad on Craig's List about a new writer's cafe, the Creative City Cafe, that has just opened in West Hollywood. Sounds like a cool place. They say they are:

a coffee shop that caters to local writers. At the cafe, writers can purchase a cup of Java, eat, hang out, connect to the Internet (for free), write, purchase supplies, and even print their material. The cafe is located at 7310 Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood with plenty of free parking.

They also say they will have writer events there,and are open to writing groups meeting there, and the like. They've started up a Yahoo group. Cool stuff!

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Hey, Yo Rambo!

So, amid the recent news that the nearing-60 Sly is planning both Rocky VI and Rambo IV, I started thinking about this a bit. What is the difference between these two announcements?

To me, a 60-year-old Rocky is much less likely to work than a 60-year-old Rambo. Why? Rocky was built on a premise of realism, whereas Rambo was always hyperreal to begin with. Why else? A guy of any age can pick up a gun and kill somebody, but to be in good enough shape to step into a boxing ring? Not the same thing.

Believe me, I am not suggesting that either film seems likely to succeed, in my book. But I do think there is a difference between them, and not just two examples of an old guy chasing his youthful successes. Just my $.02

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Beginning Your Writing Arc

I've been meaning to post this for about a week now and kept forgetting. The Writer's Arc fellowship has opened round 1 of its contest. The deadline for applications and 1st round material is just over a week away: October 24th, with a late entry deadline of 10/31. So get on it!

I do not intend to enter, since I don't have any completed scripts (for Round 2) that I feel is in good enough shape. But I think this is an awesome fellowship, and you all should consider applying. I'll have a brief article in the upcoming issue of scr(i)pt about the new fellowship on the block, so look for that. But regardless, check out the site, click on "Contest" for info about entering, and get those pages written! And if you win, consider giving me a few of those $7500 (or is it $10,000, as originally planned?) as a sign of your gratitude for pointing the fellowship out to you!

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Friday, October 14, 2005

New Feature: FFFJ (Mondo Beyondo)

Originally my plan was to write a post highlighting some of the scripts I've read over the years that I really liked, but that have not (yet, hopefully) come out. But then I thought, "Why not make it into a recurring feature, where I highlight specific properties I've covered in the past?" The idea would be to take something I've read (might be a book or something, as well, not just a script) and talk about it for some reason. Not just the good ones. Maybe it will be a bad one that is illustrative of why I passed on it. Maybe it will be something that actually came out in the past, and what my comments were. Hence the birth of "From the Files of Fun Joel" or FFFJ!

Today's selection will be a script that's been popping up in my conversation of late, on more than one occasion. It's an example of one of those scripts that I wish came out, and still has not. It was a wacky, off-the-wall comedy that I read a few years back, and had some attachments, but I have no idea what happened to it since then. Perhaps someone else out there in the biz has some idea and can fill us all in.

The script was called Mondo Beyondo, and was written by David Guion and Michael Handelman. A quick IMDB search reveals that this team has at least two other potential upcoming projects, one in pre-production and one in development (I found other scripts mentioned via Google searches). I actually read two different drafts of Mondo Beyondo, one dated 2/9/01 and one that I covered in December '02. I liked both versions, though I definitely felt the second draft made some excellent improvements on the first. It is somewhat rare, but always fun and interesting for me to read two different drafts of the same project, and if you ever have the chance, I'd highly recommend it.

By the time the second draft rolled into my hands, it had some attachments listed. Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, and Terry Gilliam were all listed as stars (Gilliam to act again?!), and it was to be produced by This is That, the company founded by ex-Good Machine execs Anthony Bregman and Ted Hope, and Anne Carey. They've produced such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Thumbsucker. Bottom line, this suggests to me that there is either a chance still that this will be produced, or more likely the project was shelved (especially, since This is That is producing one of the team's other projects, Fast Track, and since one of the team's other upcoming film projects is not that different from Beyondo). But I would still love to see it produced and released.

Anyway, MB was a post-apocalyptic road comedy. Basically, the film focuses on DAVE THE WAVE and MARMADUKE, two lovable losers who are attending their high school reunion when the world is essentially destroyed. The earlier draft began with an awesomely hilarious line: Everything was relatively normal, until the nuclear holocaust. The two guys are miraculously saved, and travel cross country along with SAMANTHA, the girl Dave has loved for 10 years. Eventually, they find other survivors along the way, and take on THE OVERLORD and his robot army to save the world, in a silly spoof of post-apocalyptic movies.

The screenplay was truly hilarious, in a mindlessly escapist kind of way, that thankfully never took itself too seriously. My comments on the earlier draft included such lines as "Mondo Beyondo is a ridiculously silly story, combining elements of various popular genres. And that'’s a good thing." I described the draft as Dude, Where's my Car meets The Road Warrior, with a healthy dose of Battlebots thrown in to the mix. But most importantly, the mindless and irreverent humor was the key to the film's charm.

By the time I got to the second draft, here's what I had to say. I called it "an excellent example of totally bizarre humor, which might even have some minor franchise potential." I compared the tone and style of the comedy to that of the Austin Powers films. While in the first draft I felt that despite the solid comedy, there were still "quite a few down stretches," the second draft tightened the script, adding in more madcap comedic elements that come in out of left field. Significantly, a number of bizarre elements that seem one-off gags early on, end up as clever plot devices later in the film. And the sub-plots and minor characters are more thoroughly unified here, along with greater development of characters and storylines. Whereas in the first draft I suggested that "rewrites will certainly be necessary," I felt that most of this had been rectified in the later draft. I still felt it could benefit from a bit of trimming, perhaps in the neighborhood of 10-15 minutes, but I also mentioned that "No particular scenes stick out as excisable, but rather just little bits here and there to make things move more quickly."

So, anyone out there know what happened to Mondo Beyondo? Let us know! And keep your eyes open for more future entries, From the Files of Fun Joel!

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Speaking Without Talking

There hast been much ink spilled, and many an hour wiled away dwelling on the merits of original, evocative, clever, and memorable dialogue in film. And the time may come when I too add my cents two, should I sense that my words may ring true. Alas, now instead I shall write of speaking with nary a word, communicating in images, or with but the slightest of actions.

This has been a lot of silly and flowery words, especially since I am writing about not using them at all. But I was vaguely inspired to write in such archaicisms because of the impetus for this post. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. There were two moments over the course of the film in which an actor's slight glance or facial expression added some nice subtext to Shakespeare's text. Or perhaps I should say "revealed" some nice subtext.

My guess is that there's at least an even chance that ol' Bill had these things in mind when he wrote the words, and I'm relatively certain that Luhrmann (via his co-written screenplay and/or his direction) is not the first to uncover such subtext. In fact, they may have even not been written into the script itself, or might have originated from the minds of the skilled actors involved. But they still highlight how information can be transmitted wordlessly, and in fact more elegantly and effectively than if they were spelled out with dialogue.

The first was in Juliet's famous "wherefore art thou Romeo" speech. As the line is written, it reads:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;--—
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.

But in the film, the lovely, honest, and innocent Claire Danes, as Juliet, pauses just before she says those last few words. A girlishly mischievous look momentarily crosses her face, and then she utters the phrase, "nor any other part/Belonging to a man." There's little question what is on her teenaged mind.

Similarly, in the very next scene, Romeo goes to see his friend Friar Lawrence, and tells of his change of heart. He is no longer interested in (the never seen on stage) Rosaline, as he's pledged his heart to fair Juliet. Lawrence responds:

Holy Saint Francis! what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.

In this case, however, Pete Postlethwaite as Lawrence has the visual subtext moment. He scornfully glances down at Romeo/Leo DiCaprio's nether regions just before he says "eyes," suggesting clearly that "eyes" here is little more than a euphemism.

The point here is that so much was communicated through a mere facial expression in each of these scenes. And they were each just a momentary flicker, not even a second each. These are the kinds of moments we need to include in our screenplays. Go through your script and find those lines of dialogue that you've just heard way too many times. The lines that could pop up in any other film. It might be something as simple as "I love you." Or just something that is a bit too spot on, saying exactly what a character is thinking or feeling, but not the type of thing that anyone would actually say in real life.

So find those lines, and then think of and replace them with simple actions that communicate the same thing more eloquently and wordlessly.

And I'm talking here more about the visual moments within a regular scene, not the larger scale, fully-visual scenes, such as battles, physical comedy, action sequences, or sex scenes. These are topics I'll cover in my Screenwriting Expo seminar, "Verbalizing the Visual." Here I'm just talking about translating lines of dialogue into subtle actions that can communicate at least as much or more in a more economical space.

I can't remember it too distinctly, but I do remember seeing a great moment of this sort in a film once, but since I can't remember the details, I'll just make it up somewhat. Imagine you have a married couple that is having some issues. She wants a baby and he doesn't. They are fighting a lot. He doesn't even admit that he doesn't want a child, or maybe he really does, and uses not wanting one as an excuse to avoid the real issues. Anyway, let's say that the wife becomes pregnant. Maybe she stopped taking the pill, or maybe the birth control failed, or whatever. She doesn't know whether to tell him about it or not. She decides to break it to him somewhere where he can't freak out too much. Some public place. A theater as a play is about to start. His reaction is inscrutable, his face betraying little emotion as various thoughts go through his head. Now let's say he's made up his mind to put their troubles behind them, and he wants to become a father, now that the option is actually presenting itself. Here's where our moment occurs.

We could have him turn to his wife and tell her how sorry he is. How much he truly loves her and wants to have this baby too. There could be tears and kissing, some real melodramatic romance. Or we could go more subtle and elegant. As the play begins and the man begins to watch, his face still an uninterpreted mask, he reaches his hand across and simply rests it on his wife's stomach. How much does that simple act communicate? And how much more than all the words we could have written. His wife's smile and a joyful tear from her eye could elegantly show her emotions as well.

I've heard many people suggest watching the old silent movies to get a feel for how much can actually be communicated without words (or with just a few, on intertitle cards). Still, while excellent teaching tools, they also feel as dated as they actually are, and won't necessarily work for a contemporary screenplay.

Thus, in addition to the excellent silent films of the past, I highly recommend watching The Wall by Pink Floyd (Roger Waters, specifically) and Alan Parker. Though I've seen the film a number of times, and even own the DVD, it was only recently that I saw it for the first time on a full-sized theater screen. Wow! I don't know if it was that experience of seeing it on the big screen, the process of reviewing a film I'd seen previously, where I am in my life right now, or the fact that I was watching it now with more of a screenwriter's eye, but I saw so much more in the subtle moments of the film. Simple shots that communicated so much subtext or backstory with just an image. They are too many to list or mention, but I strongly urge you all to watch this film, or watch it again. And I mean sober, for those of you that watched it previously in an altered state!

Seriously, though the music has lyrics that the film picks up on, it is not like a traditional musical in that the words aren't necessarily as literal. Ultimately the film is really very much like a modern silent film, or a silent film melded with the music videos it primarily predated. But however you care to classify it, there is so much story information delivered via purely visual imagery that it is well worth watching for this purpose alone.

Bottom line though? Learn to speak without using words, and your scripts will come alive in a truly professional and elegant manner.

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On Second Thought, Who Needs Script Readers?

Just finished reading an article in Creative Screenwriting magazine about Stand by Me, 19 years later (what, they couldn't wait one more year?). In it, co-screenwriter Ray Gideon tells this amusing story about the coverage Stephen King's novella "The Body" (on which the film is based) got:

The first coverage [from Embassy Pictures] was terrible. It said that no one would ever go to see a movie like this -- who cares about four teenaged boys on a railroad track looking for a dead body? Marty [Shafer, who would later start Castle Rock with Andrew Scheinman] promptly tore up that coverage and took it to the next reader in the department, who hated the book even more. So Marty went to the last reader on the staff and said, "Listen, I'm going to be president of this company some day because Norman Lear has promised me this. [At the time, Embassy was owned by television mogul Norman Lear.] If you don't give good coverage to this book, you're going to be the first person I fire." So the reader said, "What do you want me to write?" [laughs]. Marty put him on the phone with us [Gideon and Bruce Evans], we dictated to him the coverage we wanted, and all of a sudden everyone at Embassy thought that this could be an interesting movie. So they hired us to write the screenplay.

So, moral of the story? If you want to get good coverage for your script, just get someone powerful in your corner, and then dictate the coverage yourself. Easy enough!

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Friday, October 07, 2005

On Script Reading, Part II (What I've Learned)

In the comments to my recent post, "On Script Reading," Mark asked:

How has being a reader helped your own writing?

A particularly apt question, particularly after I mentioned how script reading is an excellent training ground for anyone who wants to do anything in the film biz. So let me spend a few minutes discussing what script reading has taught me, and how it has made me a better screenwriter overall.

First off, there is a relatively prevalent myth that I'd like to debunk. We're always hearing (oddly, even from those who should know better) of a script reader throwing away a script after reading a mere 5-10 pages. While I'm sure this can and does happen at many agencies, or smaller production companies, it simply cannot at the bulk of studios and larger ProdCos. As I mentioned, one of the major components of any coverage I do is the synopsis. Note, that is a synopsis of the entire screenplay, not just the first 10 pages. So without reading the whole script, I can't write it! A summary of the first 10 pages, followed by "the rest was trash, and that's where it ended up" simply won't fly. So I pretty much have to read the whole thing, no matter how bad it is.

That being said, I must take a moment to say this does not mean you don't need to pay attention to such "unimportant" things as formatting or other presentation and technical issues. While I can't take a garbage script and simply toss it away, as much as I'd like to, I will still be pretty perturbed by them. And if I have to push my way through the entire thing, you can bet you're going to get a pretty poor review. And in fact, that bad coverage could have an even more negative impact on your reputation than if your crappy script ends up residing in the circular file.

Anyway, that being said, the fact that I have to also write up 1-2 pages of comments on each script, I need to do more than just say if something is good or bad. Though I admittedly do occasionally stretch my comments a bit, it is still to make "it sucks" last for a page or more. So I really need to pick a script apart, and discuss all the different things that work or don't work, as well as what is a fixable problem, and what is a more significant issue.

Some of the things I consider, in no particular order, include concept (both in terms of its originality, and its commercial promise); plot structure; character development, originality, and believability; tonal continuity; cleverness, economy, uniqueness, genuineness, and freshness of dialogue; commercial viability (primarily the balance of likely market draw versus budget); and whether the film is right for the company for whom I'm reading it (based on subject matter, genre, and overall budget).

So while I was certainly conscious of all of these things before, once I started reading professionally, I honed and developed my awareness of all of these issues. And it helped me develop the awareness of weaknesses on all these fronts in my own writing. Essentially, I learned to see my own scripts as a reader would see it, allowing me to fix the problems in advance. This is truly the greatest thing I've gained from my work as a reader.

In fact, it is just such things that I'll be discussing in greater detail at my seminar, "Writing to be Read," at next month's Screenwriting Expo. While all 500 tips you might find in Jennifer Lerch's book are actually very solid things to remember, I believe they focus more on how not to piss a reader off (excuse my language). I want you to learn more about what a reader thinks about while he reads your script, or what things she considers. By keeping these things in mind as you write, you will have a better chance of making your script the type that a script reader will actually... you guessed it... like!

That is the main benefit to working as a script reader. But there is one more, that you simply can't even get from my seminar, or from any book or magazine article. Since I've been a professional script reader for so many companies over so many years, I've built up a great network of contacts who know me personally. And these are the people that you want to have access to if you're a developing script writer. When the time is right, I can submit scripts to them. I can also actually read the studio coverage they will get (a luxury, painful as it can be, that most writers don't get), and even if these companies don't want to buy my scripts, the executives will hopefully like my writing enough to give me an intro to some agents or managers. And most importantly, since I know the types of scripts each of the companies that I work for is looking for, I know which companies are better for which of my scripts.

So yeah, there are some serious benefits to becoming a script reader. Some of them are things you might be able to develop and learn on your own (with some work), while others can only come with building a professional relationship.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Writing in the Coffee Shop

Just a brief post, pre-Rosh Hashana break, to tide y'all over while I'm gone! ;-)

One of the more enduring stereotypes is the screenwriter typing away on his or her laptop in a coffee shop somewhere. Well, guess what? That's going to be the only true screenwriting content of this post. I know a lot of you work in coffee shops, so I figured I'd give y'all a quick tip.

All Peet's Coffee locations in Southern California (I think, or at least in LA) are offering FREE coffee and tea ALL MONTH LONG, between 1 and 3 PM M-F, and I think all day on Saturday. Awesome deal, eh?! I got my free cuppa Joe earlier today! It's no joke and there's no catch. Go on in and grab a cup!

And with that, I sign off, not to be heard from again for the next coupla days. But I'll have a cup or two of coffee on my own, while y'all get some free ones in the store.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

A New Perspective

This little clip will show you the importance of editing (and music), and how it can affect perception. Find yourself a new shine, okay?

Major hat tip to Alex!

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On Script Reading

Again, I must apologize for the lack of posting lately. Things have been really hectic and busy, and I will endeavor to post more frequently moving forward. Though with all the Jewish holidays coming up, who knows how successful I'll be at that. For any of my Jewish readers out there, Happy New Year!

That being said, I've been wanting to post on this topic for at least a week now, so figured this would be a good one to get started with. Probably the most frequent question I receive is about how to become a professional script reader. Specifically, Hollywood Grunt recently sent me the following email:

Just curious on how you got started as a reader. After talking with Scott the Reader, I think I'm going to try and see if I can't break into this racket. I have grown sick of the personal assistant routine, plus back in 2002-2003 I used to do coverage for several friends at CAA/ICM in exchange for all the free scripts I wanted.

Any helpful info would be much appreciated. For right now I'm grabbing 5 recent spec sales and doing coverage on them as samples.

He also posed a similar question (as he mentioned) to Scott the Reader. I suggest you first read Scott's response (and the ensuing comments), as I don't plan to repeat too many of his thoughts. Rather, I want to add a few things that might raise some other issues or supply some good tips to those of you considering trying your hand at this kind of work.

In no particular order, I'd like to discuss a few things, from how I became a reader, to some tips or suggestions.

First off, I've been a professional freelance script reader for a number of years now. The first thing I did was write up a sample coverage on a script I had lying around my apartment, so that I would have something to show people. In order to do this, I got a few examples of coverage from a friend of mine already employed in the job, so I could see the format of what these things looked like, and how they were written. As you may have seen from some of my screenplay reviews, there is a specific style of writing that goes into such reports. And the overall format, though varied from company to company, still has a number of basic elements in common.

Next, I started by cold-calling a bunch of production companies, big and small, around New York City (where I lived at the time). I asked to speak with someone in development, or in the story department. If I got to that person I spoke to them, if not I just spoke with whomever I could, and asked if they were hiring script readers. Many told me they read scripts in-house (which didn't work for me, since I wanted to freelance), and others told me they didn't pay readers (also not good for me, since I had already done free work in the past while working my way into the business in the first place). Others told me they didn't need anyone right then, but to send a resume and sample coverage in. I did.

Then I was politely persistent in checking in periodically to see if they had a use for me. "Hey, it's Joel Haber. We spoke previously about script reading work. I was wondering if you guys had any use for me at the current time." If not, not. Eventually, someone over at New Line said, "Why don't you come in and cover a script we have, and we'll go from there." So they first gave me a script that they were already familiar with to cover. This way they could see if my comments were more or less in line with what they already thought about it. I was willing to do this for free (though I can't recall if it actually was for free) as it was a one-time thing as a test. They liked what I had to say, and started bringing me in to pick stuff up periodically. As time went on, I gained more employers of various ilks. This came through word of mouth from my employers (they were good enough to pass my name along, even though I worked for them too), people I met via networking, or just by my contacting other people. Also, as time went on, people that knew me left and moved to other companies, which opened up other potential employers for me.

One of the things that helped me a lot was that people apparently felt I "wrote good coverage." At first, I found this kind of odd, since when I wrote coverage it was done so quickly, with almost no editing. So I never really thought of it as quality "writing." But I guess what I've come to realize over the years was that it was not necessarily how I said things that was good (though hopefully it was that too, since I think I'm a pretty good writer, in general), as what I said that was good. One of the small joys I would get was when a script I had read would be released as a film (often I had read it as a sample, and it was coming out for a different company than the one for whom I'd read it), my comments were usually pretty on the money. For example, I remember seeing The Mothman Prophecies come out. I had liked certain aspects of it, but had a number of problems with the script as written. The film, though probably profitable, was less than a stellar success. And when I read reviews of the completed film, many of the complaints that critics mentioned were the exact issues I had raised.

What else? Let's see... I've always worked as a freelance reader, part time. How part time it was has depended on what else was going on in my life. There were times when I read a lot, for many different companies, and there were times (such as now) when I only read a few properties a week. Overall, though, I really like the part time aspect of it for one major reason. I've met a number of people who used to read scripts at one time or another, and many of them told me about how they got "burnt out" on the reading in a year or less. But since I worked at it part time, and have always done other things at the same time (writing, teaching, etc), I have less of a tendency to get burnt out, since my mind is also occupied with other types of work. I highly recommend this.

What about the types of companies I've read for? I've read for larger production companies/studios (e.g. New Line), smaller, more specialized companies (e.g. Walden Media), artist-centric companies (e.g. Tribeca -- DeNiro), agencies (e.g. William Morris Agency), indie production houses (e.g. Shooting Gallery), foreign financing companies (e.g. Constantin), and festival screenplay competitions (e.g. Nantucket Film Festival). And of course, I also read on my own for writers, to give them specific feedback and suggestions on their work. It is worth noting that the job is somewhat different for each of these. For example, at an agency you will probably read more garbage, since less has been "weeded out" before it gets there. At least in theory, when a script comes to a production company, it has already gone through one round of weeding out at the agency level. For a screenplay competition, you will probably spend much less time on the "coverage" as it were, since you will not do a synopsis, and only the briefest of comments, in most cases. Accordingly, you will also be paid significantly less.

The synopsis often takes a lot more time and effort than the comments do. The comments have been in your head while you've been reading the script. They've been gestating and developing all along. But the synopsis takes time because you have to go back and make sure you hit the most important beats along the way. One thing I do sometimes, which saves a bit of time and effort, is to write my synopsis as I'm reading the script. Read a portion of the script, then stop to synopsize it, then move on to the next piece. That's something some of you thinking of going into this business should keep in mind.

Also be aware that this is not a high-paying job. My experiences are not much different from Scott's. Most companies pay $50-85 per script, with the average falling around $60, I'd say. You will get more money for an "overnight." Generally, whenever I pick up a script to read, no matter what time of day, the coverage is due 2 days later by 10 AM. So if I pick it up any time on Monday, it needs to be in on Wednesday at 10 AM. However, if the company tells me they want it by Tuesday AM, I get more money for it. Also, you will not only get scripts to read. I actually prefer books sometimes. You get paid more for them, generally speaking. The pay range here varies much more, but on average, Scott's figures are pretty accurate. I also prefer them because if I read a bad script, it is usually just bad. If I read a book however, even if it is not good to become a movie, at least it is usually a decent book, so I feel as if I didn't waste my time as much! I've also done coverage on many other types of work. I've covered TV movies for remake, comic books and graphic novels (fun!), magazine articles, stage plays, teleplays, manuscripts of unpublished books (both complete and works in progress), and treatments/proposals. What they all had in common, however, was that I was always considering these properties for their film potential, not was it a good book or article.

A few different experiences I've had from Scott... Firstly, I do get scripts emailed not infrequently. Though I live in LA now, I still read for the NY office of New Line (though I've met and done a bit of work for the LA office as well). They email scripts when they want me to cover them. But the bulk is still in hard copy. Also, in only a few rare cases have I done coverage for people I've never met. I'd say 2-3 of the companies I've worked for over the years. Usually, I meet the people, and generally I'm picking scripts up from them, not having them messengered to me. I'd say the only time this has happened to me regularly was with a very small company I worked for, where it wouldn't pay to make people come in to pick up one script a week or something.

Just a few more things. Firstly, I'd highly recommend doing your sample coverage(s) on scripts that are unpublished, and preferably unproduced or even unbought. This is because the bulk of your coverages will be PASSes, and also so that you can read the script with a clear and open mind, not biased by the fact that it has been purchased already. So Grunt, to you in particular (based on your email) I'd suggest not using the "recent spec sales" and instead getting your hands on a few that people give you. This does not mean they must be PASSes. In fact, I've often had people ask me for specific types of coverage. Either they want a specific genre or budget level, or they want both a PASS and a CONSIDER or even a RECOMMEND. So it is good to have a few around, if possible.

Also, I highly recommend the only book (that I know of) written specifically about doing this job. I read it before I started, and I always recommend it to anyone asking me about the job. It is called Reading for a Living and is by T.L. Katahn. It offers a great primer to the things to look for when covering a script, as well as some basics of coverage format.

I think that's about it for now. I hope this has been a helpful post for those of you thinking about joining the ranks of script reading. Overall, I highly recommend the job for anyone who wants to do anything in the film business. It really makes you think critically about films, and you don't just give things a thumbs up or thumbs down, but rather learn to pick scripts apart and really figure out what works and what doesn't. Feel free to post any follow-up questions!

And I'll try to get back to more frequent posts as well!