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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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

More on Character Names

I was just reading a capsule summary for a new movie and it mentioned one character with the last name "St. John" or something like that. It got me thinking...

Do any of you know anyone with the last name St. anything? No, not "St. Anything!" I'm 99.9% sure none of you know anyone like that. But St. anything, as in St. John, St. James, St. Swithin, whatever. I'm sure they are out there, but they seem to be much more popular as pseudonyms, or character names in bad novels or soft-core porn. I've been thinking, and I don't know any that I can come up with, and as my parents can confirm, I know a lot of people!

So, any of you out there know a St. something? And I'm not talking about people you've heard of, or people who have changed their names. I mean people that you actually know and who had that name since birth. Chime in!

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Brief and Late

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I just wanted to give thanks to all y'all for reading my blog! Even when I've been a bit slow in posting.

Thanks! :-)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Movie Review: Casino Royale

Just got back from seeing it. A simple review, in twenty words:

"Take the final twenty-five minutes and make them five or fewer, and you have a near-perfect Bond film."

Still, go see it. :-)

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction

I went to another free screening on Thursday night, this time of the new film Stranger than Fiction. And as a special treat, Will Ferrell came out after the screening and interviewed screenwriter Zach Helm. I'll talk a bit about that, but before I do, a review.

Minor Spoiler Warning!

I liked the movie a lot. It was not the broad comedy that I expected from such a high concept idea, and with a lead like Ferrell. This is no Liar, Liar. In style and substance, it is a lot closer to an Adaptation type of film (a film which I loved, by the way).

Ferrell gave the most understated performance I've ever seen from him. He was touching and dramatic, without sacrificing the comedy. One of the central questions the film touches on relates to the similarities and differences between comedies and tragedies, and thus the film is neither a pure comedy, nor a pure drama. It walks a fine line between the two, and does a nice job of balancing them.

The other performances were fabulous as well. Emma Thompson was stellar, in a painful role to watch. Dustin Hoffman was Dustin Hoffman. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a pistol, and a fun, endearing character who she invests with humanity. And she looks great too. Queen Latifah's character was a minor part, but one that was entertaining, juicy, and well-acted. The characters also had a nice, well-rounded completeness, with the realistic details I was referring to in my last post.

The biggest flaw I saw (and I don't think it destroyed the film entirely, just made it somewhat less effective) was that there was too little emphasis on Emma's character. As I saw it, the comedy (and obviously the high concept) stems from Will's character, which is clearly why he got the bulk of the screentime. But thematically, I felt Emma's character was the more important one. And yet, there was a large stretch in the middle of the film where she is entirely off screen and even disappears in her plot-significant voiceover.

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting the theme. Or perhaps it became easier for me to misinterpret that theme because there wasn't a single unifying theme. You see, one of the things that they discussed in the Q&A after the film was the way Helm had written a script that really balanced a lot of distinct stories and things. And while Ferrell congratulated Helm for being able to successfully keep a lot of balls in the air, I don't think he did as good a job of it as he could have. Believe me, I think he did a good job, just not a great or perfect one. I think the specific balance he struck was a bit off.

You see, there was the storyline of Will's character trying to figure out what was going on in his life, Emma's character's struggles to complete her book, and the relationship that grows between Will and Maggie's characters. Those are a lot of different stories, and they don't really seem to have a single theme in common. Not the end of the world when it works (which I think it does here, overall), but also problematic to a certain degree. And it is for that reason that I felt that Emma's character deserved more screentime. Her storyline seemed to be more intricately connected with the overall concept of the film, and thus felt like a more central thematic story.

During the Q&A, I actually asked Helm about it. I asked if there was ever a draft of the script that had more stress on Emma's character, and he said no. And so I felt that was one weakness of the script. Still, I did really like the film.

Furthermore, I didn't completely buy Maggie and Will's relationship. It seemed a bit too convenient, but at the same time, it was a minor enough storyline that I was able to simple accept it, and smile at its quaintness.

So bottom line, I liked the film a lot, and I felt that it even had some important points to make. It had touching moments, and plenty of good laughs. So while it was a drop all over the place, that might have been part of the film's point.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Making a Personal Connection

Last night I went to a free screening of The History Boys. I may write up a review later, or tomorrow, but I want to write about something that came to me while I was watching it. But first, a 3-second review.

Good, not great. Very good acting and interesting characters, but too "stagey" and unfocused.

That being said, there was one scene that really moved me. In it, an older teacher and one of his students are meeting independently. Both are gay, and have encountered obstacles and problems to varying degrees because of this, weighing them both down with a real sadness.

In there scene, they are discussing a poem (I think by Hardy, if I remember correctly). The acting performances, in particular, made this a particularly moving scene, due to the intensely sad subtext and emotion that ran beneath the entire scene -- both characters trying to keep their sadness suppressed and put on a public "happy face." And yet, both characters knew exactly what was going on in the scene.

The teacher then mentioned something about how amazing it is when you read a piece of literature that you feel connects so perfectly with you that it almost feels as if it was written about you. And then you realize that it was written by someone who never knew you, and perhaps even died years or centuries before you came into existence. How odd that can feel.

What went through my mind at that point was a memory of seeing a movie on TV a couple of years ago. Don't ask me what it was called, because I have no concrete memories of it. In fact, it was a pretty crappy (and clearly forgettable) film. But due to a number of aspects in the storyline, I intensely associated with the main character, and his sadness. There were just a number of specific things in his life at the time that felt as if they were ripped from my life at the time. And the film nearly moved me to tears. I felt kind of silly at the time, not because I was (Heavens to Betsy...) tearing up in a movie. Rather it was because it was such a bad movie that did it to me!

Now, however, I think about the power that movies (and any art, really) have to connect with people. That gives us a tremendous responsibility, in addition to opportunity. But most importantly it makes me wonder how best to harness that power.

What is it that we can put into our screenplays that will connect with an audience on a personal level? How was it that the Hardy poem moved those characters in The History Boys? Why did that crappy anonymous movie affect me so strongly?

Of course, part of the answer stems from realism. But I think a good portion of it also has to do with specificity and details -- something I'm sure I've written about before, and which actually creates the verisimilitude we seek to create. One of the things the teacher in that movie scene pointed out was the way the poet gave the subject (a dead soldier) a name, making him into an individual, a person. Detail.

In my class at the Expo about writing active sequences I point out another similar example of this in the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan. During the opening Battle of Normandy sequence, we meet a young soldier who interacts with Tom Hanks' character. The script identifies him as "Delancey." By the end of the scene, Delancey is dead. No character in the film ever addresses him by name, but by giving him a name in the screenplay, screenwriter Robert Rodat makes the reader feel his death that much more emotionally. He isn't just some anonymous soldier who loses his life. He is Delancey. A human being, with a name and identity.

Another example. In the current issue of scr(i)pt magazine there is an interview with Pedro Almodovar. In it, he discusses his screenwriting process specifically, rather than his directing (for which he has been more examined and recognized). The interviewer asks him about a small line in All About My Mother where a character mentions something in passing about forging Chagalls. A small detail that Almodovar took (and altered a bit) from an actual experience he had. And it makes the character (and the film) a bit more real.

I'm sure there's more that helps a film form a personal connection with an audience, but genuine details are always a great starting point!

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Care For a Little Mood Music?

My apologies in advance for this post that has only marginally-screenwriting-related information, but it is still about film in general, so I consider it relevant. And for you writer-director types out there, this is worth considering.

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I've been thinking a lot lately about music in film, and how it can often be used in interesting ways because of the associations we all have, and make. First there was my anger/frustration with what I considered an intentionally deceptive use of music (among other things) in a movie's radio commercial. Then came Halloween time, and with it the annual presentation of wall-to-wall horror films on TV. If you're a fan of the genre (like this guy, for instance, who also deserves H'ween movie-related congrats), this has got to be one of your favorite times of year.

I was plopped in front of the TV, when my roommate flipped over to the classic Kubrick version of The Shining. At first, I thought of the hilarious spoof trailer last year that recast the film in a new light. My roommate and I both thought the funniest bit was when "Salisbury Hill" kicks in, again underscoring the power of music to set mood.

So I keep watching The Shining, and I noticed something really interesting that Kubrick did with it. As the tension begins to build, nearly every single sequence has the traditionally advancing, scary and intense mood music in the background. I hadn't seen the film in a long time, so picking it up in the middle and hearing that music made me expect it was building to a horrific zinger. But in fact, it just built to the end of a scene in which nothing truly scary happened at all! I thought to myself, "Hmm, that's interesting and odd." Then the same thing happened in the next sequence.

And suddenly I realized what Kubrick was doing here. Since music so powerfully alters our mood, he was using the soundtrack to build a pervasive feeling of tension and fear, even when nothing specifically scary was taking place. And he was doing something else as well. In less talented hands, "scary" music can sometimes work against a film by alerting or warning the audience to expect something scary. But by making the music a standard throughout, Kubrick through the audience off guard and made them less aware of when the really scary stuff was going to go down.

A very interesting choice.

I remember watching Deliverance a long time ago. When I first watched it, I had no idea what it was about or what to expect. And I was amazed at the way Boorman created an overwhelming mood of tension from the very opening frame of the film, when in reality, nothing really bad starts happening until the beginning of the second act. I'd like to go back now and see how much music played a role in that.

My bottom line here is that music can be used in interesting ways to create mood, but usually if we apply it in unexpected fashion. Some time ago, I thought about opening a horror or serial killer film in similar fashion. I wanted to set the discovery of the killer's first gruesomely horrific murder against a backdrop of purposely happy and upbeat music. The idea being that it could play as even more shocking in that scenario than it would be if it were set against the traditionally scary music.

As a writer, we don't (unfortunately) have the option to say much in relation to the music in a film. We can sometimes mention it in the most circumspect fashion, but we don't have much of a say. And that's a shame. But at least be aware of it, and find ways to indicate it subtly at times. And if you're a writer-director, think a lot about it!

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