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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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Just a Reminder...

Brick opens in Los Angeles and New York City this weekend! (HERE is my review of the screenplay.) In LA, it will be at the beautiful ArcLight, and in NYC at the arthouse to end all arthouses, the Angelika. Then it widens to other cities the following week.

By the way, there is a Friday night showing with writer-director Rian Johnson Q&A at the ArcLight. I won't be able to make that, but am considering hitting the midnight screening on Thursday night/Friday morning. Anyone interested in going to that as well? Let me know.

Also by the way, I want to make clear that I have no connection with this movie, and am not getting anything in return for promoting it. It is just one of the first films in a while that I've been really excited to see!

So, if you are in LA or NYC, just go see it. Okay? That is all.

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Medium-term Goals

I have generally refrained from posting specific goals on here. I resisted the trend towards throwing progress bars up, and I have not mentioned too many of my specific writing deadlines. While I do set them for myself, and also post them periodically to my writing group's email list, that's where they've remained.

However, my screenwriting has been virtually non-existent for the past few months (though I've still done my share of other writing), and I feel that now is an opportune time to post some goals up here, to help me transition back into it. I've begun to get a few other areas of my life in order, and now seems like time to re-kickstart the scripts. These are not immediate term (and probably won't even get started for another week-and-a-half to two weeks anyway), and are also not my long-term career goals. Not even my goals for the year. They're medium-term goals, for the next few months.

One important general goal for me is to get back to writing on a schedule. I don't think that I'm going to return to the 5 AM wake-up-and-work schedule that I maintained for a little while. But at the same time, I need a more regimented writing timetable, in order to avoid prevalent wasting of time.

More specifically, the first draft of Hell on Wheels has been about 15 pages from done for way too long. I'm aiming to get it completed by mid-April, which I think is a fair and completely achievable goal (probably a too small one, in fact), so that I can start gathering feedback on it and think about the changes I want to make (I already have some ideas). I want all that done by the beginning of May, because of the next goal.

In May, I hope to apply for the next round of the Writer's Arc fellowship. Parameters for Round 1 will be announced on May 1st. My hope is that should I get to Round 2, I will have the next draft of HoW done by then (and hopefully also have my D2DVD-type horror script revised as well). Ideally, by then, I'll also be ready to start taking my scripts out and looking for representation. And I can get into planning my next script idea (even if HoW will still need another revision) -- a high concept wedding comedy (my highest concept script, to date), in the vein of My Best Friend's Wedding and Monster-in-Law.

By the way, if any current participants in the Writer's Arc happen to be reading this, I'd love to hear from you.

Okay, so those are my goals for the next 2-3 months. Just putting them out here helps put a drop more pressure on me. Feel free to check in with me periodically to see if I'm sticking to them!

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Let's Play Connect the Dots!

Noticed a bit of a spike in readers of the blog today. Wondered why. Studied the stats. Turns out that the Scribosphere Meme is still going! And it just made its way onto the blog of Hollywood Reporter columnist Anne Thompson. From there, it somehow also appeared as a link on a news page of the WGA East. Cool!

So first of all, I'd like to welcome all the new visitors, and invite you to return down the road in the future. We have a nice warm place here full of screenwriting and film-centric info, even if I did most recently digress into rocking out. Secondly, thanks to Ms. Thompson for participating and spreading the word. Now, let me do a little connect the dots to show some of the odd coincidences of this.

-- Ms. Thompson's column and blog is named Risky Business. That movie's main character was, of course, named Joel.

-- Thompson's post went up on her blog on March 26th, a nice present to receive just one day after my birthday!

-- The post that immediately preceded mine on her blog was about Phil Anschutz. Among other companies, he owns Walden Media, the company for whom I do the bulk of my freelance reading work.

-- I have an old friend who is also a reporter for THR, but he covers TV, not film, and to the best of my knowledge had nothing to do with the meme/questionnaire making its way to Thompson.

-- The story moved over to WGA East, of which I would have been more likely to become a member had I not made the move westward, two years ago. (Okay, that one is pushing it.)

What do all these coincidences mean? Not a whole hell of a lot, I'm sure, but it was fun to think of them!

Okay, so back to blogging in earnest tomorrow probably. Welcome new visitors, and please come back.

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Rocking On

You all know that I try to keep this blog screenwriting and film centric, and that whenever I post something that is somewhat "off topic" I always try to force the post into meeting my mission statement. So I will do nothing different here!

As you know, Saturday was my birthday. I had a bigass karaoke birthday party at the cool Boardwalk 11, and among the numerous guests were a few notable Scribospherians (though too many others were sadly absent). Thanks to all of you who did make it out, and you others were definitely missed! So that in itself ties it to the Scribosphere. Beyond that, however, life experience is such a part of writing, and with each passing year, I (presumably) gain more of it.

Lastly, however, I have a mini movie for y'all. It was shot by the rather-fun-herself Shawna (repeated Scribosphere connection), and is of me rocking out on a rendition of my Garden State homeboys Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Indeed, I have seen a million faces, and I've rocked them all.

What else? Oh, some of my improvisatory asides you might not have been able to hear:

The karaoke screen at the beginning showed a picture of some guy sitting on horseback atop a cliff. So I mentioned that I loved that picture, and that it made me "feel like more of a man." :-) I also commented on the "spooky" sounding guitar towards the beginning. And of course there was the "beer break" that brought a laugh from Shawna.

By the way, as an added bit of film connection, I intend to post soon about sites like YouTube (where the vid is posted), and how viral vids are changing things for us all. So if any of you have significant experiences, I'd love to hear about them!

Oh, and thanks to both Shawna and Kristen for singing. Chris -- we'll have to get you up there next time!

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Friday, March 24, 2006


Posting has been light of late. Sorry. Lots of other writing deadlines.

Not sure when I'll get to the next post. Tomorrow I'll be celebrating my birthday (I'm turning 35) with a bigass karaoke party! But I shall return. Hopefully you'll still be here when I do.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Good vs. Great?

It seems that I've been saying quite frequently lately that I like a movie, but don't love it. It's been seeming like though I've seen movies I enjoy, I haven't seen anything quite great.

On a similar note, I heard a decent amount of grumbling from people about the recent Oscar nominees. Some (like Chris, for example) felt that there were simply no great movies last year, and I'm generally inclined to agree.

So it got me thinking: What is it that makes a great movie? I guess one starting point would be to list some of the movies that I consider great (not just my favorites, but really great). Here are a few:

Annie Hall
Diabolique (original, of course)
The Princess Bride
Wings of Desire
The Godfather

Okay, so what do these movies have in common? Well, for one thing, they are all over 18 years old. Does this mean there have been no movies that I consider great from the interceding years? No, but I think that one of the marks of greatness is that the film stands the test of time, and to at least a significant degree doesn't even look dated when watched much later. Of course Vertigo looks like a film from the 1950s, but if you remove the trappings, such as fashions and styles of speech, it could have been made this year and would be just as affecting. More importantly, such films as Chinatown, The Princess Bride, or Wings of Desire barely even look as dated as Vertigo does. So I think that a certain timelessness is a key factor of a "great" film.

But just so you don't think I'm biased, let me also list a few more recent films that I think have the potential to be considered great. I'll have to think about them more, and see how I feel about them down the road. But how about:

The Shawshank Redemption
L.A. Confidential
Pulp Fiction
There's Something About Mary
Silence of the Lambs

The Big Lebowski
Big Fish

Still, since I'm not convinced I'll consider these "great," I'm going to focus on the first list. (Please also note that neither of these lists is meant to be anything close to exhaustive.)

I think the most important aspect that all those films have in common is a cohesive and strongly stated style and tone. Some would call this a "voice." Theme also plays into this. And I am certainly referring to more than just a visual style, as this is a screenwriting blog, not a directing one. If you examine the screenplays of the movies I listed as "great," they all display this element. I'm referring to a sharp focus that filters out any extraneous material, be it character, plot point, dialogue, or anything else. Look at those films, and you'll see how sharply sketched they each are. And I believe that it is the expertly crafted screenplays that led their talented directors to maintain that focus in the films themselves. Thus, a cohesive focus of voice is another key element.

Lastly -- and this is connected to my second point -- a great film doesn't have to be flawless (though it would obviously be preferable, should such a thing be possible). But I believe that a great film will make us more willing to overlook the flaws we know exist, or perhaps even distract us from such flaws so we don't even notice them.

I think a great example of this (though not on the list I put above) is Casablanca. I know many will disagree with me, but hopefully some of you will agree, that the flashback to Paris sequence is a major flaw in this film. I find it overly long, relatively unnecessary, and somewhat distracting. Yet still, everything else about this film is simply so great that I don't even care that much. I still love the film, and I simply ignore this major flaw whenever I watch it. I'd say the original version of The Manchurian Candidate is another solid example of this. The film's groundbreaking originality of story far outweighed the purely extraneous addition of the Janet Leigh character, for starters.

An example of the opposite -- a good film that I believe is not great enough to overcome its significant flaw and become truly "great" -- is The Birds. Clearly there are some truly great aspects to this film (such as some extremely memorable and haunting images), but I feel that its weak storyline and lack of motivating force ultimately remove the film from the "great" category.

Of course, this aspect I'm listing is more an element that plays in when we evaluate a film as good or great. But it is difficult to use this last element as a means of guidance to writing a great film. Nonetheless, I think that a final important element must be the ability of the film's positive traits to greatly overshadow any flaws the film may display.

So, how about you guys? What do you think makes a film great? Any movies that you'd consider great that don't meet these criteria? How about examples of films that highlight these points?

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Movie Review: V for Vendetta

It seems I'm doing a lot of reviews lately. A couple of screenplays last week, and now a movie. Well, I guess they can be as instructive as craft articles, no? Or at least somewhat instructive!

So V for Vendetta opened this weekend. I wasn't super interested in seeing it, but then I heard some relatively good reviews, and decided to go when a friend asked me to join him.

To quote a recent book's title, I liked it, didn't love it. I mean, sure it looked cool. Nice and artful selective use of the CGI effects -- not flashy, as in The Matrix, and generally supportive of story and design. But the story kept holding me at arm's length. After I got home, I read some more of the reviews, and I was struck by something interesting.

Both the more positive reviews and those that were somewhat more negative picked up on the same aspects of the film, and they were the same things that I noticed. Though generally an action movie, V for Vendetta is more ambitious than the typical. Unfortunately, I think they failed somewhat in meeting the goals they were shooting for.

Clearly, the Wachowskis (who wrote and produced V, adapted from Alan Moore's graphic novel) were attempting to recast the story as a critique of our current societal situation. The problem, as I see it, is that their message was muddled on the one hand, and somewhat trite or overstated during its moments of clarity. The positive reviews I read after I saw the film mentioned that the film deserves credit for being more ambitious than the typical actioner, and the negative ones criticized it for being unclear in its message(s). So I guess the bottom line is, how willing are you to put up with that sort of situation?

On more than one occasion during the film, V makes a statement or speech that is clearly meant to be substantive on a thematic level, and Natalie Portman's character responds with, "I understand," or something of that nature. All I could find myself thinking was, "You do?!" Maybe I'm just stupid, or too literal a viewer. Maybe I'm just a lazy American who wants everything spoonfed to him. I don't think so, but I'll accept that critique, if some of you think the Wachowskis' statement was clear and well-stated. Call me dumb. I don't mind, and won't take it personally. But I won't agree, and will stand by my claims.

What I'm getting at is that I'm pretty sure I'd understand the film more, were I to rewatch it. But it wasn't entertaining, interesting, or exciting enough to make have much desire to give it that second viewing. Maybe I'll revisit it on DVD or cable, but I'm certainly not interested in seeing it on the big screen again.

Okay, I see they're saying American policy, particularly in its foreign wars, is wrong and/or dangerous. Not a very bold or new statement, whether or not you agree. If they are warning of the outcomes of an encroachment on personal liberties in defense against terrorism, I find their statement somewhat valid, but highly overstated. To say that we are veering towards fascism, I find the claim outrageous.

More importantly, I find the defense of terrorism in any form a dangerous one to make. Yes, I've heard the claim that "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." While this may be a valid point, I still find it a very dangerous one to make. Because many so-called freedom fighters are indeed terrorists who deserve no sympathy. Every terrorist thinks their points are valid. Does that make their actions valid and defensible?

Of course this raises the question of whose causes are defensible, and who is to be the final arbiter? There is, of course, no way to accurately answer this question. There is no absolute right or wrong answer. But I do believe it is a valid claim to make that many (and probably most, if not all) acts of terror are invalid. Thus, a defense thereof is a dangerous statement to make, in my mind.

Still, the more important critique of this film, as I see it, is that whether one agrees with the filmmakers' message(s), such messages are only hazily stated, and feel somewhat extraneous or overstated at times in V for Vendetta. Ambitious? Yes. Successful? Much less so. In my not so humble opinion.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Seminar Update

Okay, so I received contact from a few interested readers about hearing me re-present my Expo 4 seminars. But at this point, I'd say the interest was not great enough for me to organize something.

That being said, I'll make one last announcement now. If this is something that interests you (no firm commitment necessary yet), please email me to let me know. Otherwise, I'll pull this idea off the table and continue with everything else!



Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Screenplay Review: The Hills Have Eyes

I know I should have gotten this review out before the film opened this past weekend, but with over $15 million (not great, but also not bad for a relatively low budget horror film) at the box office this weekend, The Hills Have Eyes will likely stay in theaters for a few more weeks, at least. Thus, the screenplay review.

I read this script (draft dated 2/14/05) almost exactly a year ago, at the end of March '05. I was reading it for a foreign film financing company, so I don't know if they actually got involved or not. But I tend to think not.

Spoilers below (though it is a pretty straight remake, and thus nothing is really a spoiler!)

A film like this is made more for the strength of the property, than f the script, so I'd say it is more up to the writers to just not screw it up too badly. The script was co-written by director Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur (who have worked together before), based on the original 1977 film's script, by producer Wes Craven. I don't think they added that much to the original, but the few changes they did make, seemed to have worked in the film's favor.

First, for the uninitiated amongst you, the logline:

A family faces off with mutant cannibals after their car breaks down in the New Mexico desert.

My brief:

A highly popular property, with a serviceable, though not outstanding screenplay. The low budget and popular appeal suggest potential commercial success.

And my full comments:

Even without much else in its favor, the idea of remaking as classic a horror film as The Hills Have eyes would be promising in itself. This script, however, goes further, suggesting strong potential for the film. This version of the script sticks relatively closely to the original story, but makes enough subtle changes to update it somewhat for contemporary audiences. Most of them are beneficial changes, and those that are not could easily be altered in rewrites.

The market for remakes of classic horror films has been booming in the last few years, and there appears no sign of it abating anytime soon, with many other similar projects in various stages of development. And when the property is The Hills Have Eyes, it gains a bit more promise as well. Along with Evil Dead, this was clearly one of the seminal films of the genre back in the late '70s, and is well beloved. Furthermore, the subject is a bit more unique than most horror films. At the same time, the original film's low budget and poor production values have always been seen as weaknesses, suggesting strong potential for a remake with better production values that remains true to the original's style and substance. So as a property in itself, a remake of this Craven classic seems well worth consideration.

As far as this script itself goes, in general the authors do a good job of adapting the original property and updating it somewhat. They stick relatively closely to the original storyline, tweaking and adjusting here and there for effect. In general, they've been able to avoid a dated feel in the script, which is a positive thing. The characters seem slightly more developed than in the original, another vague improvement. The expanded locations also work well. Though the mine seems a bit useless and extraneous, the abandoned town is spooky and adds in more of the nuke testing element nicely.

At the same time, not all the changes work well. The dialogue is generally weak, and this is particularly so in the dialogue of the Hill People. They seem to talk a good deal more in this film than in the original, and while not only removing some of the monstrous mystery that surrounded them in the original, this change also makes them seem weaker via the specifics of what they say. A few times they have rambling speeches that seem to make them into preachy devices rather than menacing monsters. Similarly, the Gas Station Attendant's suicide seems abrupt and unmotivated, occurring arbitrarily when the screenwriters want it to.

Overall, however, the budget remains relatively low, and the property has solid audience appeal. The script itself, though not flawless, is certainly a good start. Thus the property is worthy of some serious consideration.

Ultimately, the film should prove highly profitable, particularly after ancillary markets come into play. But I think the few changes I mentioned (I'm guessing, due to the timing between when I read it and when it was released that they were not made) could have turned this into an even stronger grossing film. Plus, I wasn't particularly fond of the marketing campaign. It raised awareness, but didn't really create buzz or interest in the film.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Screenplay Review: Brick

First of all, I must again apologize for neglecting you all, via this blog. I had some stuff going on in various areas of my life over the past week, and things were kind of heavy for a while. But things look like they are shaping up for good things moving forwards, so that's good.

Now on to the post. One of the film's I am most anticipating for this year (and in fact one of my most anticipated in a long time) is opening in two short weeks. Brick was one of the first scripts that I read professionally that I actually gave a RECOMMEND. The company didn't end up picking it up (and I'll discuss that, a bit, later in the post), and neither did any other studio, apparently. In the end, writer-director Rian Johnson had to make the film independently. It showed at last year's Sundance Festival, where it received a special award for originality of vision, and Focus picked it up for distribution after that.

I read it way back in early August 2001, and I've been keeping my eyes open for this film for a very long time. I still have not seen the movie at any advance screenings, but everyone I know who has seen it so far has loved it. Hopefully I'll catch it during the opening weekend (3/31 in limited release). And if anyone wants to come with, and have a late birthday celebration with me (I turn 35 on Saturday 3/25), let me know!


First of all, I just want to say how happy I am that this film is finally being released. But it also shows just how hard it can sometimes be to get a good film made. As I said, I read this script over 4 1/2 years ago. Then, it took a few years to get made and get onto the festival circuit. And even after it was picked up, it still took over a year until it was released! So I implore any of you who are into this kind of movie, and who think they might be interested in seeing it, to get out and support it early, to make sure it gets the extended theatrical release it so deserves.

That being said, let me give you a bit of info about the film. Brick is a dark and hip film noir set in the world of a contemporary high school. The story is solid, but more important (as is typical in films noir) is the overwhelmingly pervasive sense of tone and style that Johnson brings to his script.

After the company for whom I read it passed on buying Brick, I asked my boss there why they didn't. He agreed with me that it was a very well-written script, but said that they didn't want to make a film with such edgy subject matter. The film presents generally realistic portrayals of teen murder and drug use/abuse.

I understood their point (though I lamented the decision), but I wonder how much the popularity of a teen noir show like Veronica Mars might have changed their decision (and/or influenced Focus'). That being said, while fans of Veronica Mars should also enjoy Brick, they are a far cry from each other. Brick is much darker, edgier, and realistic, making Veronica look like The Gilmore Girls in comparison.

Bottom line, you'll like this film if you like edgy teen films, film noir, solid crime films, and the like. It isn't for everyone, but I think the audience is out there, and I really hope the film gets all the success it deserves.

Now onto the details. First, my logline:

A teenager infiltrates a suburban drug underworld to avenge the death of his ex-girlfriend.

The "Brief" of my comments:

A well-written and stylish noir thriller aimed at an audience XXXXX is eager to tap. There are few weaknesses in this script, and those that exist pale when overpowered by the script's strengths.

Finally, my general comments (it was early in my "reading career" so these aren't the best-written notes, but they'll do):

Brick is a solidly stylish noir thriller. What sets it apart, however, is that it is set in high school, but is totally believable. It avoids melodrama, creates a twisty plot with good reversals, and populates its setting with solid characters. brick has the potential to be a breakout success, with some juicy roles for hot teen actors, and is aimed squarely at the audience XXXXX wants to hit. It should have no problem drawing them in.

Johnson's script benefits most from its clever setting and style. His characters' dialogue is full of slang terms, but terms that seem natural, full of the abbreviated speech that teens frequently use. Even though you may not be familiar with the specific slang, context is enough to make things clear, in the same way that dialogue worked in A Clockwork Orange, though this slang is admittedly less complex. The world Johnson has created for his setting is almost entirely populated by teens, and they are not innocent at all. Among other clever stylistic touches is the fact that Kara is always in the theater, day or night. Anyone who knew drama people in school know this is accurate. Kara spends every moment of her life in the theater.

More importantly, however, Johnson's plot is equally pleasing. While twisting through various reversals, and revelations of criminal activities, Brick remains totally believable. Think of Kids as a starting point for our characters, then let them loose on a straight story of crime and intrigue. This script feel like Cruel Intentions without the melodrama, but with all the style. At its heart, however, Brick is a film noir, updated for today's generation. Laura is a perfect femme fatale. The dialogue has the familiar snap of a film like The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. At the same time, however, the story doesn't feel dated at all. There are a few minor weaknesses in the plot, but these are overpowered by the style and thrust of this script. For example, why does Brendan try to stop the battle between Tug and The Pin? If he wants revenge, what better way than to have them kill each other? But things like this pass unnoticed simply due to the story's strengths.

Johnson's characters are also enjoyable to watch. Brendan is an interesting hero. He is a sort of empty vessel, not really fitting into any specific type. He is the prototypical outsider, not even well-known enough to be considered a loser. He isn't a loser, but he also isn't a member of any other clique. He's simply a loner on a mission. Laura is crafty, and Kara, though a bit less substantive, could be a fun role for a budding actress. Tug begins as a mere hooligan, but gains some depth later on. And all these characters offer solid roles for up-and-coming, or already established hot teen properties.

What makes this script most appealing, however, is that in addition to being a well-written and stylish script, it is aimed squarely at the market that is hot. Teen films have been performing well. Adding to Brick's potential for success is the fact that it can be made without major expenditure. This film should have little trouble recouping its costs, and could easily become a popular favorite in ancillary markets as well.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: This film should become a commercial success. It is aimed at an audience that has been loyal to its favorite actors for quite a few years now. Its style should draw in bigger audiences, and its well written plot could keep them coming back for a second viewing.

(Yes, I did start by saying the setting and style were "most" beneficial, and then said it was "more important" that the plot worked. And yes, I did end by saying the way it aims at and hits the teen market was "most appealing." As I said, this was not that well-written!)

Anyway, this was a really good script, and I can't wait to see it come to life on the big screen!

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My Obligatory Oscar Post

Seems like an Oscar recap post is the thing to do, and I don't want to feel left out or anything. So here's mine.

So the news articles I saw called Crash's defeat of Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture one of the greatest upsets in Academy Awards history. What?! Come on. Though true that most people recently expected Brokeback to pull it off, it isn't like Crash was way out of the running or anything. I mean, it had been considered a favorite earlier on (as in, before the Golden Globes), so this shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

Why/how did it happen? Well, I think we can look at two things. Firstly, anyone who felt "obligated" to vote with their social conscience (and unlike Scott, I do believe that there is often more at play than simply what voters liked, though I agree the homophobia argument is farfetched), had no problems voting for Crash. They could still feel they were showing their support for important social issues by supporting a film that allegedly made some major social statement.

More importantly, however, people seem to be forgetting the PR campaign that Lion's Gate waged for Crash. My understanding was that they sent out a much larger number of screener DVDs than is typical. Let's not underestimate the effect that has on voters. It both made it easier for more voters to see the film, and engendered good will.

Regardless, there were many things I didn't like about Crash, and since I have yet to see Brokeback, I can't adequately compare them. But I have no real problem with it winning. There were certain aspects of the film that I thought were wonderful and masterfully executed, and other aspects that I disliked. Overall, though I didn't love it, I generally liked it. And while that is not a resounding endorsement of a Best Picture, I'll agree with Chris that this may have been a year without any "best" picture.

I must say, I kind of like an Oscar year in which many different films split the major awards, instead of one film sweeping away with 8 Oscars or something. That's happened too often in the past decade or so (I blame the highly overrated Titanic for that phenomenon). I love the fact that we had six films splitting the Oscars of the "top 8" categories (Best Picture, Director, Original and Adapted Screenplays, and 4 acting awards). Something to be said for parity, and spreading the wealth.

What else? My boy Jon Stewart. He's gotten mixed reviews. I liked him, overall. Yes, he was somewhat sedate, and I felt his opening monologue could have been a drop longer and more varied. But overall, some great zingers. I also dug the fake campaign ads, and the gay cowboy montage was absolutely hilarious.

Assorted other thoughts:
I'm glad The Constant Gardener did not win for Adapted Screenplay... You all know my opinion of that script already... Jessica Alba was absolutely stunning -- even more than usual. Clooney is a consummate star... Good to see Lauren Bacall out there, with that classic voice, despite the teleprompter trouble she had. (By the way, discussing her with a friend made me bring up a great website some of you may appreciate: Dead or Alive?)... I felt bad for Jennifer Garner tripping, but she swung with it great... No way the Mafia deserved that best song. None of the songs were awesome, but the one from Crash was the only decent one. I think people only voted for "Hard to be a Pimp..." because it made them feel cool.

Alright, I guess that's enough. Overall, I liked the show. Oh, and I totally agree with Lis about the ridiculous choice to play music over people's acceptance speeches. One less montage (Stewart again had a good line about that) and more time for speeches!

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reality Bits

You all may recall that my friend Mark was a finalist in last year's reality TV show Situation: Comedy. Well, it seems that I must have some fatalistic connection with the world of "reality" TV.

Remember Adam Mesh, the "Average Joe" who viewers liked so much that he got his own season of the reality show? Well, I used to work with him. We weren't friends, per se, but I definitely recognized him as soon as I saw him and knew him by name.

Then there is my friend Linda T, who you should remember is up to be America's Next Scream Queen (remember to vote for #93). Not reality TV exactly, but definitely building on the genre.

Clearly, I have some connection to that "reality TV force" in the world. Some innate bond of which I'm clearly unaware, and seemingly oblivious. At least until this newest connection waved its flag in my face.

An old college friend of mine (we were in the dramatics society together) is currently on an even bigger reality show: The Apprentice. Dan is even someone with whom I've done a small amount of collaborating. I rewrote a short that he wrote, a few years back. Never made it into production, and for me it was kind of an exercise, in that it was the first time I had ever done any writing work in any kind of collaborative manner. And we've been in touch on and off since.

So now I'm blatantly aware of my obvious soul-connection to reality TV. It is clearly my density destiny to appear on one of these shows, or at least collect more and more tangential connections thereto! I shall not sleep until I've uncovered the significance of this bond (or until I climb into bed tonight, whichever comes first).

I don't watch much TV, so I'm not sure, but I don't think there is any chance for viewers to vote in The Apprentice. So I'll just ask those of you who do watch it to at least send some good vibes out, and root for Dan. And if any of you are prescient, let me know the next reality show I will have a connection to, so maybe I can adjust my wardrobe, or at least start watching it so I'm not clueless when it rolls around!

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Q & A: Act Breaks

I received a question the other day from Vince DC. I know that he sent it to a few people, so if you see this addressed elsewhere, sorry for the duplication! Or maybe it will be interesting to see if there is consensus.

On the subject of structure, I've just finished the first draft of a feature screenplay and I'm struggling with act structure: when the act should end as concerns page count. This draft runs 130 pages -- yes, too long.

Lew Hunter is a stickler for precise act breaks: Act 1 should end on page 17, etc. Other script gurus take a more organic approach, saying the story should dictate the structure as long as there is rising action and it grips the audience.

My Act 1 runs 35 pages and I'm really trying to avoid "killing my babies" because what happens there is crucial to the rest of the story -- bet you've heard that one before. I can blame trying to make the script vertical for adding 5 or so pages to that act. The rest I can blame on me not being able to find a more succinct way to set up my protagonist's journey into Act 2.

I know there are certain screenplay conventions I have to follow. I also know that there are writers out there such as Charlie Kaufman, Paul Haggis and Christopher Nolan who push the envelope. I'm just trying to tell a linear story but I am concerned that I may be blurring the rules.

What are your thoughts on this and how do you deal with it?
Okay. I don't think I've ever written about this directly before. But one thing I have written about is that I'm not someone who believes in arbitrary rules of screenwriting. When I read a screenplay, I'm only occasionally even conscious of the page number I'm on, so I certainly wouldn't be checking to see if your Act break took place on a specific page or not. In fact, if I'm reading for a company (as opposed to when I read to give feedback to a writer), I don't even usually take note of the Act breaks themselves.

But at the same time, I feel all of these things intuitively. If an Act break comes in too late, the script will feel like it "takes a long time to get started." If it comes too early (and I'm actually somewhat surprised that Hunter says page 17, because that actually seems early to me), the film will often feel like it needs more development, or more likely (in weaker scripts) will bog down in the second act.

How do you know if your Act break comes too late? Either read it with an open mind, or get others to read it for you. Don't be concerned with whether they mention your Act breaks or not. Instead pay attention to any other comments they make about pacing, and translate those comments yourself to relate to Act breaks.

Also, be aware that page numbers as points for act breaks are somewhat artificial in their own right. They are set in relation to a 120-page script, but some of that will need to be adjusted when your script is another length. I typically find 120-page scripts that I read to have been forced into that length. In fact, I feel the ideal length for a spec submission is somewhere between 101 and 115 pages, depending on the genre. 90 feels too short and skimpy. 120 feels too "by the book." 120-130 is acceptable, though there had better be a good reason. Anything over 130 and it better be one kick-ass perfect screenplay at that length.

So, in terms of your own screenplay, page 35 does sound a bit late. Typically, I'd say anything in the 20-30 range can work well, if done properly. And that is the key phrase. It is more important whether it works in your screenplay than if it matches a specific page number. I'm sure there are some script readers out there who check page numbers incessantly. We call them anal retentive. They are unlikely to be in the majority, and probably are also less experienced with the job.

Don't worry about a specific page number, but use it as a guide. The page numbers for Act breaks are there because they work there. And if you stray too far, it will probably be noticed. One thing you might consider trying, if you don't want to "kill your babies" too much (though you'll probably have to kill some to shorten the script overall) is consider pushing some of your Act I info into Act II. Do we need to know all of this up front, or could we (and perhaps would we be better off) with some of that info held back for a later part of the film?


Friday, March 03, 2006

Want to Hear me Talk?

As most of you know, I presented two seminars this past November at the Screenwriting Expo. One of the things I've been trying to do is increase the amount of screenwriting teaching I do. I've been meaning to (but have yet to) look into teaching at a Community College. I've had contact with a few different institutions and websites about doing stuff through them as well, but nothing has yet come to fruition.

So I was thinking today, maybe I should do a private seminar. I know it is something that Philip Morton is about to do, and something that Chris Soth does regularly as well. Of course I don't have the experience of those guys (both of whom I recommend, by the way), and my seminars would probably be shorter and more focused. Thus, I'd also charge significantly less as well.

Still, I thought there might be some interest, so consider this me testing the waters. The most logical place for me to start would be with the two seminars I presented at the Expo. I know a few of you were there, but many others weren't. So I'm wondering, would any of you be interested in hearing me present one or both of those seminars again?

"Writing to be Read" is about teaching you how to get into the mind of a script reader, and think like one as you write. I review a number of screenplays that I rejected over the years, and discuss the reasons I rejected them. Not just the ones that suck, because those won't teach you anything. But more the ones that had some promise, but remained fatally flawed for some reason.

"Verbalizing the Visual" is about writing visual sequences: action, physical comedy, sex, battles, etc. I use excerpts of a number of excellent visual sequences from produced films and show how the writers translated these dialogue-less scenes to the page.

If you think you might be interested in seeing one or both of these (in the LA area, for now), please let me know, either in the comments or via email. Don't worry, this will not be a commitment from you, just an indication of potential interest. And then I'll follow up with you afterwards.

I may also consider other topics, now or in the future. Perhaps a seminar on using the Enneagram for character development? But more likely that one would be down the road somewhat.

Thanks for considering! If you're not interested, no worries. But as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I'm venturing!


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Good and The Bad

...it can all be ugly at times, so I'll leave that one out!

Anyway, this past Saturday, after synagogue, I went to lunch at the house of a family with whom I'm friendly. The husband is a screenwriter with some credits to his name (2 films produced by major studios, and many others optioned). I didn't ask him for permission to post on this, so I'm keeping things somewhat vague and generic in my descriptions. Sorry. Also at the table were myself, a documentary filmmaker, and assorted other people, among whom were a couple of lawyers.

One of the lawyers commented that he usually is at tables where there are more lawyers, and less film people, so he welcomed the opportunity to be in the minority. (I find that odd, within Los Angeles, but maybe it's just the people he hangs out with!) Inevitably, the conversation at one point turned towards film (thankfully late in the meal, since we are more as people than just our jobs).

The not-usually-in-the-minority lawyer asked a question that I get all the time. If there are so many screenplays out there, how come the movies that come out are so bad? I was somewhat glib in my (typical) response, but I still stand by it. There are two things worth mentioning. Firstly, if the movies that come out are bad, you should see the ones that don't come out. They're typically much worse.

But I also mentioned that there are many ways to make a bad movie out of a good script, while it is very hard (though not impossible) to make a good movie out of a bad script. On this note, my host spoke of his two produced films. The first was a pretty successful film, while the second did not do very well, despite some major attachments in actors and director. My host (predictably) felt that the script for the second was also a good one, but mentioned problems with the studio. He also mentioned a tendency of the actors to improvise a lot on set, and the director not quite reigning them in. The film was a comedy, and my host pointed out something interesting. He said they had a tendency to go with things that were funny on set, though they might not have worked for the film overall.

I had asked him earlier if he is typically on set during filming, and he said he had been for those films. But that his presence on the second set (the less successful one with the improvising) was less active. He was there, but he didn't do much. They didn't ask for his input or opinions much. So I take this all as a great example (albeit a vague and nameless one) of how a good script can be ruined. (I just realized, I should ask him to get me copy of the script so I can judge for myself.) The idea is, we as screenwriters are just the first step, and we all know how little respect the writer typically gets as the film moves forward.

What can we do about it? I don't know. But spread the word when a bad film comes out, it may not be the writer's fault. And if we think a film misfired, try to get your hands on an early script draft to see if the problems occurred via studio noted, poor directing, or acting gone awry.


On another note, I've finally gotten around to updating things around here. You may have already noticed the new picture up on top. While the old one was fun, this one is more recognizable as me. I thought it was funny when I mentioned my blog to someone who knew me, and he responded, "You're Fun Joel?!" Obviously, I was unrecognizable. So the new one is still fun and in my personality, but it also looks like me.

I've also updated the sidebar. Please note the new "Scribosphere Community" category. I've also removed inactive on unworking links, and added a number of links to blogs I read, though there are still plenty not on there.

Please don't get angry if I didn't link to you. I try to keep my links list more focused, as I think that more information ends up diluting the power of any individual pieces. But I do encourage everyone to check out the 150+ links in the Scribosphere Community link on my sidebar. David did a great (and presumably time consuming) job of setting that up for us. (Thanks, Dave!) And if you'd like me to consider adding your link for the future, email me the blog (if you think I don't already know it), and maybe I'll add it in the future. I'm not trying to be exclusive or anything. I'm just trying to make the blog as useful as possible.

There will be a few more changes popping up over the next few days, so keep poking around to see if anything interests you.