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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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Safari Picture Update #5

So, not that much new to report, but I did want to throw up a quick update here.

I leave L.A. tomorrow morning, on an 11 AM flight, beginning my journey of the next month or so. Last night I celebrated by going out with lots of people for a karaoke night at my regular karaoke haunt. Tomorrow night I will be reuniting with many friends in NYC at another of my old haunts (so if you are around NYC and want to meet up for drinks, let me know today and I'll get you details). I'll be around there for a few days, and then the real adventure begins!

I should have sporadic Internet access during the trip, so I hope to check in periodically, if possible. But if not, I hope to get some good posts up upon my return.

So what else? I find it really interesting the way this script has evolved over the various drafts of the treatment. The first draft was basically a lot of researched stuff all packed in together, with little real connection. I talked things over with the producers, and set on a new direction. The second draft grew into more of an ensemble piece, as a partial means of organization, plus it also had more of a progression of events.

Now, with the new spine, it has morphed into something else. It is largely a different story than it started out as. Sure it still has the same main characters, and the same point, achieved in largely the same way. But the story itself is more singular and focused, and brings in a slightly deeper substance. It has more heart.

So hopefully, while I'm down there, I'll come up with lots of great color for the script, will thrash out some of the details with the producers, and will get a better feel for the general logistics of things there. At least that's the plan!

On another note, I've moved forward with mentoring/helping the less experienced writer of another project the producers have going. It has been an interesting process for me, and fun. It really gets me back to thinking about the basics of screenwriting, trying to get him to focus on the most important stuff, and to not get ahead of himself. So that's kind of cool for me.

Anyway, that's all for now. As I said, I'll try to post more from the road and check in. But if not, I hope to "see" you all upon my return. Perhaps, for many of you, at Expo!


Friday, September 21, 2007

Following Up on Framing Stories

I was going to respond in the comments section to the last post, but instead decided it would be more in depth and I should post separately.

So first to respond to some of the specific commenters:

Amitbe -- I had thought about The Usual Suspects. I need to rewatch/revisit to determine exactly where that falls in the scope of the flashback/framing story device. But I think it definitely relates to one of the traditional uses of the Framing Story, which I will discuss a drop later on.

Steve -- I haven't seen The Never-Ending Story, but sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out.

Joshua -- Not a traditional framing story, but I want to discuss those kind of tales as well. I'm referring to the ones where the film opens with an event at the end or late in the film, moves back to the start, and then catches up to the opening scene again. Definitely an example of that here, and there are many other as well.

Lucy -- Haven't seen that film either. Will check it out.

Okay. So as I thought more about framing stories as a device, I went to one of my favorite research tools, Wikipedia. The entry they have on Framing Stories gave me good food for thought. So I thought I'd mention a few of the points.

First of all, it mentioned a book, the film of which definitely makes effective use of the device. So much so I can't believe no one jumped out and said it immediately. Wizard of Oz! Classic usage!

Now beyond that, I realized that many of the same reasons one might use a framing story in a book might also apply in films, though not all of them, and the device doesn't have to be overly clever or effective to achieve its goals. It might just be a subtle device that adds a bit.

First of all, though much rarer in films, there is the example in which a framing device is used to collect a number of disparate tales. The first film examples that spring to mind for me are Four Rooms and the recent film The Ten. I forget (and have to revisit), but I think The Adventures of Baron Munchausen might work the same way.

I think that often in literature, a framing device helps to add a certain amount of verisimilitude. If a character tells it over to another character, for some reason it seems a bit more like it really happened to someone. Perhaps because it is one more step removed from what we are reading on the page. If I read a novel, it is words describing an event that theoretically could have taken place. If I read a framed story in a novel, it is words describing another person's recounting of an event that theoretically could have taken place.

This purpose, however, seems less necessary in film. Film, by its nature, is such a realistic medium. (I often discuss the way our mind relates movies to potential reality because we are so used to seeing news and other videographic documents of actual events, that there is no physical distinction between what we see as a fictional film and what we see as documentary footage.) Thus, I don;t think the framing device adds any aspect of realism that didn't exist already.

Another usage of the framing device in literature is to raise questions about the narrator's objectivity or reliability. This is certainly useful in film as well, and perhaps might relate to the frame and narration in a film such as Sunset Boulevard, or another similarly structured film, Double Indemnity. This was also the purpose I referred to above regarding The Usual Suspects.

Next, a framing story may be used to position the specific angle from which the viewers experience the story. Theoretically, this could be the purpose of the framing device in Titanic, creating a certain emotional depth to the story. In my opinion, this failed here, and was in fact unnecessary; there was a lot more emotional depth in the historic tale itself than in the contemporary framing tale. Still, the device can be useful for this purpose, and I'll have to think about a potentially effective use of the device in this fashion.

Frame stories can also be used when the central story is a dream vision of sorts. Obviously, this is what took place in Wizard of Oz.

I think there is also a distinction to be made between film in which the framing story is told by a completely distinct narrator and those in which the narrator is a character in the central story. Princess Bride is a prime example of the former. The Ten, in part, is an example of the latter, since Paul Rudd's character does appear in one of the other ten stories.

So, that's more on frame stories. Any other thoughts you all have, I'd love to hear them.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Frame Stories (not Flashbacks)

I was recently reviewing the comments on this old post. In the end, I never ended up writing the article I referenced there, but the thoughts have grown into one of my new seminars at this year's Expo.

So the comments got me thinking. One or two people mentioned framing stories, differentiating them (correctly) from flashbacks. So I began to think of various films that have used real framing stories, such as Titanic. And for the life of me, I could not think of a film with a framing story that would not have been better off without one. Not that the frame ruined the film entirely, but just that they were unnecessary.

Can any of you think of a film that used a framing story specifically (not flashbacks) to good use. Okay, actually I just now thought of one -- The Princess Bride. Anyone have another?

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

FFFJ: Gossip Girl

It has been quite a while since my last FFFJ post, so I should probably start by reviewing the concept for those who may be new to the blog. The idea is, over the years I have been given many properties to cover for various production companies, agencies, etc. Many of those have gone on to be produced, either for the companies I read them for, or for others. I keep all my coverage reports on my computer (hence the name, From the Files of Fun Joel, or FFFJ), so I thought it might be worthwhile and interesting to highlight the comments I gave these scripts, and to discuss the types of strengths and weaknesses that were evident. Also, sometimes I would talk about unproduced scripts from which we could learn, or which I felt should be produced.

Over time, for some reason, I stopped exclusively calling these FFFJ posts, and for the produced projects I started calling them simply "Screenplay Reviews," but they really are the same thing. If you have any interest, here are a list of the past FFFJ posts:

Mondo Beyondo
Prison Song
The Watch
Venus Kincaid
Code Name: The Cleaner

And Screenplay Reviews:

The Island
Pretty Persuasion
The Constant Gardener
Aeon Flux
The Hills Have Eyes (remake)

Okay, now that being said, why am I reinaugurating this feature now? Firstly, because I really like it, I know some others do too, and it has been too long since I've done one of these posts. But also because I now have the unique (for me) opportunity to do an FFFJ post on a TV program.

I rarely read any TV material. I think I've probably read less than 5 specs, professionally. This is due to the combined facts that I work for film production companies, not TV networks, and that I don't really know TV. I rarely watch much TV, and the proof I always give about how little I understand TV (since I don't watch it much) is that I was convinced that CSI would bomb. Yeah. How many years and spinoffs later now are we? So anyway...

That being said, I did receive a TV series proposal to read a number of years back, when I was working as a reader at a major agency in NYC. Interestingly, this was just that -- a proposal. No pilot script, no real episode breakdown (that I can recall). Really just a very brief outline of characters, concept, and maybe the pilot episode's outline. 8 pages in total (which I liked, because I still got paid the full script price for reading and covering it).

And yet, all this time later, the show (Gossip Girl) is finally about to air, beginning tomorrow night on The CW network. (By the way, does anyone know what that network's name stands for, if anything? I know it was a combo of The WB and UPN, but what does it mean?)

Now, I should start by saying that in the intervening years, the concept became a series of (apparently) popular books aimed at teen girls. But I read this proposal in November of 2000, and the first book came out in 2002, at least according to Wikipedia. I have no idea if the book series was already in the works when I got the proposal.

Regardless, my comments were essentially that the concept had promise but it was too difficult to make a determination based on such a small proposal. But on to the coverage!

Spoiler Alert (but I think this has all been covered in the book series already)

When I covered this on 11/8/00, I was not supplied the writer's name. This happens sometimes for any number of reasons, by the way. But I just wanted to mention it, since I usually credit the writer of a script.

I summarized the series concept as:

A perfect-in-nearly-every-way, rich, New York teen returns to her local prep school, after being expelled from an upper crust boarding school, and tries to regain her former glory.
Since the books have already come out (and it might be interesting to see how things changed, or didn't, from this initial concept), here is my brief 3-paragraph Summary (I also did a longer Synopsis, but this should do fine for now):

SERENA VAN DER WOODSEN, a near-perfect, rich girl from New York City’s Upper East Side, returns to The Spence School (all girls) in her Junior year. She had previously been away at Taft, a boarding school, but got expelled, though no one knows exactly why. Rumors swirl, but the bottom line is that she’s coming home, regardless of why. Though she had been famously popular before she left for Taft, when she returns she is faced with subtle resentment from the other girls. It isn't outright hostility – after all, she is still Serena van der Woodsen. However, her popularity has been knocked down a very noticeable notch.

Serena decides to increase her extracurricular activities, at first looking into the theater. She assumes that it can’t be that difficult, and also thinks it will be a great way to meet boys. But when she can’t secure a leading role, she looks to an alternative drama production – an avant garde theater piece being put on by VANESSA WIENER, a strange, punkish girl. Vanessa dreams of getting DANIEL HUMPHREY, a dark and quiet West Side boy, to star in her show. She’s in love with him. When Serena realizes she won’t have a lead role in Vanessa’s play either, she decides to mount her own production – a film to trump the two plays. She also goes after Daniel, assuming he must be talented if Vanessa wants him so badly. She gets him easily, as he has been in love with her since seventh grade, unbeknownst to her. His younger sister, JENNY also idolizes Serena and begins to imitate her. Serena thinks she’s cute, and is particularly pleased with her because Jenny is rather handy with a camera.

In all this, an anonymous column appears on the Spence website. It is a thinly veiled fictionalized account of Serena’s travails upon her return to Spence. It is written as the old-time society gossip columns were. We are unsure who writes the column, signed "Gossip Girl," and it could be any of the main characters. The column, as it continues, becomes wildly popular, first across NYC, then eventually all through America. Everyone is fascinated by the lives of these lucky rich girls from the Upper East Side. But most of all, everyone wants to know who the real Gossip Girl is.
Okay, and now finally, my comments (TV-ignorance, warts and all):

Gossip Girl focuses on a setting that has certainly shown some promise recently. With the success of TV shows set in the world of upper class teens (starting with Beverly Hills 90210 and moving up through Dawson’s Creek), as well as the resurgent growth of the teen film market (particularly in a film like Cruel Intentions, which focused on the same NYC world), a TV series of this sort is certainly worth some consideration.

One thing, however, that might supply some reservations to this series’ hopes is the city in which it is set. For some reason, show types that work in other settings, sometimes fail in a New York setting. For example, one might look at CPW, the failed NYC version of Melrose Place. Part of the appeal of some of the other successful teen shows is the locale in which they are set. Whether or not an audience would enjoy a teen show set in the Upper Crust world of the Upper East Side is at least debatable.

Another reason that Gossip Girl isn't assured success, based on this treatment, is that it supplies very little towards the manner in which the story will progress. Much of the treatment focuses on the back-story of what Serena was like before the main story starts – presumably background that would not be directly addressed in the series itself. Thus, the story itself, presented here, supplies little more than a pilot’s worth of material. While this material is somewhat promising, it would be hard to determine its long-term potential without an idea of the direction in which the story might progress.

A final point that speaks in favor of considering Gossip Girl is the potential market itself. It is no secret that today’s teens have more disposable income than any other generation previously. Which, of course, explains the growth of entertainment aimed at this market of late. True, there have been at least as many failures within this genre as there have been successes. But the potential is still there.

In short, Gossip Girl is certainly worth consideration, based solely on its setting and audience. However, without a more in-depth presentation of the proposed series, it is really impossible to determine the overall commercial potential for this series.

So if any of you watch this show (I'm pretty sure I won't), let me know how it compares!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

6 Years

In Memorium

"On 9-11-01"
by G. Love (and Special Sauce?)

Flags flown at half mast
To remember all the lives past and gone,
Before their time had come.
From a hijacker's crash,
A terrible blast,
A building collapses
And falls to the ground.

Who would have known?

So long and hard to make.
So easy to break.
Foundations quake
To rock your world.

Planes exploding in the sky.
No one knows the reasons why.
Make me wanna cry.

How hard it is
To protect yourself
From hatred
You cant understand
Dedication to destruction
Is their unholy plan.
No corporate scenes.
They move in a mist.
Try to shake their hands
While they're slicing your wrists.
Killers beyond comprehensions of our minds.
How cowards could burn up blood in the skies.
Blood in our eyes.
On 9-11-01.

Planes exploding in the sky.
No one knows the reasons why.
Hold my little baby tight.
Make me wanna cry
And find a way
To carry on.

New York City on lock down.
The whole east coast on lock down.
Hold your family close on lock down.

Our country mourns the day.
So many bright lights,
Young lives,
Were taken away,
Forever and ever,
And no one can replace,
And how can I forget this day.

Planes exploding in the sky.
No one knows the reasons why.
Hold my little baby tight.
Make me wanna cry.

Planes exploding in the sky,
On 9-11-01.
The day the devils died,
To kill our loved ones.
Hold my little baby tight,
On 9-11-01.
Make me wanna cry,
And find a way
To carry on.

Movie Review: 3:10 to Yuma

I went to see 3:10 to Yuma last night, and I'll admit it -- I was disappointed. Yes, I know it finished number 1 in the box office (though it didn't do gangbusters business), and I had high hopes for it. But ultimately I felt the movie failed because it was simply unbelievable, even within its own context. I've previously discussed two other westerns that I really like -- Unforgiven and The Proposition. In my book, 3:10 to Yuma doesn't even hold a candle to those.

Spoiler Alert!

Truth is, there were some good moments in Yuma, and it wasn't like the film sucked or anything. A number of good action scenes, some decent acting (with at least one very good performance), and a few good reversals in the plot. I'm not a huge fan of either Christian Bale or Russell Crowe in general. I don't hate either of them, but both are the kind of actors that I can take or leave. In this case, I actually felt both were perfectly serviceable in their roles (I didn't think either was great, both no problems there, from my perspective). And I thought Ben Foster's performance as Crowe's right hand man was quite a unique take on a role that could have been cliched.

To me, the main problem lies in the film's script (by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, from a short story by Elmore Leonard). In it I see two main weaknesses, one of which removes the film from the category of great, and the other which lowers it to the category of flawed.

In general, the Western film is a genre of parable. More than many other genres, films in this genre typically are deeply steeped in material that is used to deliver a subtle message of sorts. In order to effectively achieve this, you need a strong theme that ties everything together. Yuma definitely had some elements of theme, but I felt the various pieces were not tied together cohesively enough, in that not everything was tied to theme, or at least not effectively enough. We have some bits that deal with earning respect, maintaining a sense of honor, saving face, good and evil, pragmatism vs. right, etc.

Still, these bits are not so disconnected from each other as to make for a truly muddled film. It is just disparate enough to say that Yuma would probably not be considered among the great films of the western genre. It is the other script weakness that I feel is more problematic. (And here's where the serious spoilers come in). The climax is simply not believable in my book. The fact that Wade (Crowe) would help Evans (Bale) get him to the train is difficult to believe, but acceptable. Hell, Evans could just kill him if he had to. But to then believe that Wade would kill his own men after they shoot Evans, and that he would then willfully get onto the train taking him to prison at Yuma is silly. To go a step further, and say that he would stop choking Evans and have his transformative moment when Evans tells him how he couldn't bear to tell his son the embarrassing truth about how he lost his leg? Now we're bordering on the patently ridiculous.

I mentioned this to my friend who I saw the movie with, and he said I was "overanalyzing things." And I thought about that comment, but disagree. I went into the film wanting to like it. That means that I was starting from a status quo on the positive side of the opinion scale. For me to feel that way coming out means that they did something specific that lost me. I was not watching the films with critiquing eyes. Only after I began to feel gypped did I start to think about why I was feeling that way.

Then I discussed it with my roommate, who had seen it on Saturday night and loved it. His take on it was that Wade wanted money, so he needed to lead a gang of assholes. In order to lead this gang, he needed to be ruthless, though he actually was not a ruthless person. At least, he wasn't someone who wanted to be ruthless. So now that he has the money, he's able to kill the gang because he doesn't need them anymore and he won't be able to drop that way of life without them gone. And he gets on the train because he knows he can escape Yuma prison again, as he did twice before.

I hear that as a plausible take on the ending, but not particularly viable either. As I see it, that is a way of forcing some potentially logical explanation on the plot. To me, the main reason for this lack of believability, whichever take on the ending you want to take, is a lack of establishment. Sure, the film takes pains to show Wade as a somewhat cultured man, and one with a deeper soul than that of a purely ruthless killer. But little in the film prior to the end suggests anything about either his regrets over leading a life of ruthless killing (per my roommate's explanation of the film) or of his "heart of gold" good side that would lead to a redemptive moment of killing his men and turning himself in (even if he knew he could later escape).

So bottom line, to me I think the film focused a bit too much on style and action and too little on building character, relying instead on a bit of shorthand to explain character. Without that character development, the ending became laughable to me, thus hurting the film overall.

Anyone else see it? Agree? Disagree? Liked it? Disliked it? Chime in!

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Just a brief follow-up to my last post.

Spoke with the producers on Sunday. They really liked the animal bios/research. They also agreed to my new take on the spine of the film. All is good, and we have officially booked my trip.

For those who care about the details (and I share them because it is exciting):
9/25 I fly LA to NYC, and spend a few days there seeing friends and family. 9/30 I leave for South Africa, via Istanbul. I have an 11+ hour layover there, so I'm hoping to be able to head into Istanbul for a few hours and see some stuff. I arrive in Johannesburg on the morning of 10/2. Spend a few days around Jo'burg, and then head up to Botswana around the 6th. We are not going to do 2 safaris in Botswana as originally planned. I was originally going to visit both the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. Instead I'll only be going to Okavango, and instead returning to SA and going to Kruger National Park during the second week. Many of you may be familiar with Kruger as the scene of this well-viewed, amazing YouTube video, Battle at Kruger:

Finally, I'll spend a few more days wrapping up in Johannesburg. I leave to fly back on Sunday 10/21, fly to London, transfer, and fly back to LA. Just to give an idea of how far away I'm going, the flight from Jo'burg to London is 11 hours and 5 minutes, and the flight from London to LAX is 11 hours and 15 minutes. It's like I'm going halfway around the world twice! I land on Monday 10/22, and then have the Expo starting on 10/24, with my first seminars on 10/25.

Whew! Quite the journey, but an exciting one.

Additionally, the producers have also asked me to work on something else for them. They have another writer working on a different project. He has written a number of short stories and plays, and he knows the subject matter of his piece quite well, but he has never written a screenplay. So they'd like me to meet with him and try to get him to understand the form a bit more. So that could be an interesting second little gig.

So, now that I have the trip planned, and I realize that I'll be away for almost a full month, I have to maximize the next few weeks before I leave, while also working around the Jewish holidays. So, I'm going to schedule my time, and basically hit four goals: write a new (shorter) draft of the treatment, work with this other writer a bit to teach him screenplay format/style/structure, prep for my Expo seminars, and try to make some money (since I won't be doing much freelancing work while I'm out of town).

Forgive me in advance if posting is a little more sparse, but I'll try to get regular posts up.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Safari Picture Update #4

In my last update, I mentioned two main things. One was that I was starting to do some more in-depth research on various safari animals in order to write "character bios" for the animals, and the other was that my actual trip to Botswana had been pushed back. I'm here now to update you on both of those items.

As of Friday, I have turned in the animal character bios. What I did for these, basically, was research seven different animals, learn as much as I could about them, and then write up in paragraph form a description of what these animals' lives are really like. What do they do during the day, and what at night? What do they eat? How do they kill or acquire their food? What are their mating habits? What kind of social structure? Etc.

For each of them, I tried to come up with one to two sentences that summed up the overall character of these creatures. So for example, in addressing the lion, I mentioned that it has earned the moniker "King of the Jungle" (or in our case, savanna), but explained that the title applies due to more than just the lion's place at the top of the African food chain. It also has to do with the lion's attitude, mannerisms and social habits.

By doing this, I aimed to not just list a bunch of facts about these creatures, but also to open a window onto their species' personalities. The animals I covered are those that are known as the Big Five -- lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros -- as well as the hyena and hippopotamus.

To give an idea about how detailed these sketches were, my initial treatment, which included character bios for 8 characters and a detailed outline of plot, came in at 16 1/3 pages. The second draft was just over 17 pages. This document with animal character descriptions for seven animal species came in at 19 1/2 pages! So, if any of you need to know anything about any of those seven animals, let me know. I'm no expert, but I certainly know a lot more than I ever did before!

Additionally, in doing the research I read a fascinating article that supplied me with something that I think I can use as a good spine to tie the various animal-human encounters together. It would mean a slight shift to the story from what I had originally outlined, but I think it will be worth it, and tie things together nicely and cohesively. So I emailed a brief sketch of that to the producers as well, for them to look over and think about. So now they have the animal bios and a brief proposal on how I want to "connect the dots" from the previous treatment draft.

Which brings me to the other point to update. After much logistical wrangling, the producers were finally able to work out a tentative schedule for my trip to Africa. But it is also a rather expensive trip, more so than they had originally expected. So they really want to make sure they like the way things are standing with the treatment, etc, before they finalize booking. So I'm hoping that they like the work I've done here, and if so, we can set everything in place.

But if all goes according to the current tentative plan, I will be gone from L.A. for almost a month, though I will only be in safari for about 2 weeks of that time. Transit itself (both ways) eats up 3-5 days, plus I'll be spending a few days in a few places along the way. I'd return to L.A. about 3 days before the start of the Screenwriting Expo.

So yeah, that the excitement in my world. Waiting to speak to the producers in the next couple of days to discuss the animal bios, the new spine idea, and the trip.

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