Sunday, February 27, 2011

The problem with the A Team

Remember the show The A-Team? Remember what it was about? It was about a unit of men who helped people even though every time they helped someone it put them at risk of being discovered by the government that wants to put them back in prison.

So what was the movie about? Some dudes who coincidentally met in the desert and blow a lot of shit up while trying to find some plates that will prove... what, exactly? That they didn't steal them? How does finding them prove they didn't steal them?

So let's look at that difference. The show was about helping people at great risk to themselves. In this movie they help ONLY themselves. The show was about life after the prison break. In the movie the prison break - if you can call it a prison break - happens almost halfway through the film.

This is, I think, where the problems with this film started. The A-Team's mission statement is completely wrong.

It feels like someone made a list of cool sounding explosions and ways to defy physics and strung them together loosely with some poorly-thought out plot.

Piloting a tank through the sky? Really? And here's the thing. While they're piloting this tank they're having the time of their lives. Whoa, cool! We're piloting a tank! Except only Murdoch should be acting like that because he's crazy. Everyone else should be having a fucking panic attack. They should be arguing about what to do. B.A grumbles, but he's tied up so it's not really an issue.

Or Face. He's a womanizer, never wants to settle down. It's what he's known for. But when he finally comes into contact with the woman who changed all that, he's already long since fallen for her. We don't even get to watch him change or struggle against that change. It's like every single opportunity for genuine conflict was sucked right out of the story and replaced with a goddamn flying tank.

This movie is never about being a unit, because there's never any question about whether or not they are one. It takes conflict to bring out theme.

So, Emily, put your money where your mouth is. How would you have done it?

Here's how. Start with the prison break. They're trying to run from the law, but they end up running into some people who need their help. One member of the group wants to help, but everybody else thinks it's not their problem. After coming to blows, they end up helping these people. They almost get caught, but get away at the last minute, whatever means they had to clear their names destroyed forever. That would have been my take. And I would not have flown anyone through the sky in a fucking tank.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I had the best cat ever

RIP Cyrano aka "Butters"


I miss you already.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Talent vs hard work

Seems like every other day somebody dredges up the old argument about talent vs hard work. Here's my take.

My mom always said "Being gifted and fifty cents buys you a cup of coffee." Obviously you can no longer buy a cup of coffee for fifty cents, but the point remains. No matter how talented or smart you are, if you are unwilling to do any work it's all for naught. We all like to think we're talented, but it doesn't matter how much natural ability you have if you're a lazy ass.

I've seen students with third grade reading levels learn to tell great stories because they try and listen and learn. I've seen brilliant kids drop out of high school and end up in prison because they thought their brains would do all the heavy lifting without any effort from their bodies.

Did you know Kurosawa's teachers thought he was slow? They never thought he'd amount to anything, and of course he amounted to Kurosawa. Know how? He studied, listened, learned. He worked every job available on set and paid attention to the rules of the trade. He wasn't a prodigy, but he did turn out to be one of the best directors ever to work in the business.

Talent can grow if you're not lazy, but you'll never get anywhere if you don't make the effort.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dead Island

In case you haven't already seen what many have deemed the best game trailer ever, check out the trailer for Dead Island. The movie rights to the game have already sold,. Doesn't take a genius to figure out why.

Just when you think you know all there is about zombies and zombie fighting games, somebody does something beautiful. I've watched this trailer three times already and am still completely moved. Everybody I've shown it to is blown away.

If only we could all make our screenplays have this kind of emotional impact.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A weird scene

Today in a workshop the instructor gave us an assignment to make a dialogue where an inanimate object testified before a Congressional hearing about slavery. Weird, you say? Very weird.

I misunderstood the instructions - I was not the only one - so while most people just had the "character" give a testimony, I made up an entire scene. I had no idea where the fuck I was going with this thing, and by the time I was done I'm pretty sure I had what Ianesco would have written if he worked on Law and Order.

I finally appear to have scrippets working. I'm going to throw a party.

Anyway, here is possibly the weirdest thing I have ever written:



Yep. It's a field of cotton. Dirty, off-white, scratchy cotton. It's a hot day, like batwings hot. A couple of white GENTLEMEN in black suits they really should consider removing in light of the heat, stand like stone statues among the plants.

A black man, FURNEY, 30s, torn pants and no shirt, points to the nearest COTTON plant.


You tell him, Cotton. You tell him what you told me. Don't you lie, now.


Well now, I don't know if I feel like talking anymore.


Come on, man. You know what you saw.


Tell us or die.

Gentleman holds up a blowtorch and turns it on. Cotton screams. All the other cotton plants around him take up the wail. It echoes across the field until it drowns out the sound of the crickets and whooperwhils.



Gentleman #2 reaches over and turns off the blow torch.


Okay, I'll talk! Just don't burn me, man!


You behave. You tell the nice man what the old slave driver did to me.


Well, now you should know this was last season, so my memory's a little shady.

Gentleman #1 goes for the blowtorch. The other cotton plants commence wailing.


I'm talking, okay! Put that thing down. Look Furney here was just bending over to pick me up - now it was a really hot day, mind you, hotter than this one here - and he falls right on over on top of me - 'bout crushed me beyond recognition - and here comes Brody the slave driver. "Get yer ass up," he yells. But Furney dun passed right out.


Heat stroke it was.


Mm hm. Heat stroke. I seen it before. So Brody takes out his whip and starts cracking it - WHAM! - and Furney starts screaming-


I wasn't screaming.


Yes you were.


I'm a man. Man don't scream. Man shouts.


Fine. You were shouting. Furney was shouting-

The other Cotton plants all start shouting.


Shut up!

He turns on the blow torch. The screams get louder.


I don't think that's working.

Gentleman #2 turns off the blow torch.


Look by the end of the day I'm setting something on fire.


Not me please.


He won't burn you if you finish the story. Finish the damn story.


So Furney starts shouting and Brody - he just keeps whipping and whipping. I got blood on me now, you see? You see the blood? Well, maybe you can't see it no more.

Cotton turns and twists to show the stain. Gentleman #2 makes a note of it on a clipboard.


Anyways, it's a miracle Furney is alive. His folks had to drag him out of here, left a trail of blood behind.


Blood on the cotton.


Yes sir.


Thank you, gentlemen. This will help tremendously in our procedings.

Gentleman #1 sets the field on fire.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I'm about to branch out with Nice Girls. I've workshopped it in writers group through three drafts now, so it's time for me to see how it plays with a friend of mine who helped me create the original treatment.

But first, I have to knock this puppy down from its current 119 page length.

This is my pattern. I write the first draft, coming in somewhere around 85 pages. Then I get notes and rewrite like crazy, bringing my draft to maybe 95. Then I get more notes, and eventually it creeps its way up to 120 pages.

Of course, we can reasonably turn in scripts of 120 pages, but I don't want to be the longest script in the pile when I can tell the same story with fewer trees.

On the first draft I write whatever I feel like. My mission is to crank through the script in torpedo-like fashion, writing the story with no concern for verbosity. So by the time I get to 120 pages I have long clever passages that sound pretty cool but take up way too much space. Now I have to go through and kick it back to 117, maybe 116.

So it's a word here, a sentence there. If I take two sentences to describe a person, can I cut it to one? Does my character REALLY need to make a big speech here, or can a determined look do the trick? And as I look for these little bits and pieces to trim down, I can also check for typos.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lessons Armored could learn from Tropic Thunder

Saturday night The Beefcake and I made big plans to stay in and watch movies. We started with Armored, then moved on to Tropic Thunder, and finished things up with a little Die Hard.

And that is how I realized why Tropic Thunder is a much better movie than Armored.

But Emily, you may say, Tropic Thunder is an action movie parody film filled with silliness and Robert Downey Jr in blackface, while Armored is a serious contained thriller. How can you possibly compare two films that have nothing in common besides their complete lack of female characters? Well I shall tell you.

Tropic Thunder is supposed to be a silly movie while Armored is supposed to be this serious character piece, but that ridiculous parody film has way more heart.
I have not read the screenplay; this is based only on seeing the film.

Spoilers for both films to follow.

I now present to you Two Reasons why Tropic Thunder is a Better Film than Armored, by Emily Blake

1) All the actors have something to do.

In Armored, almost every line worth having went to Matt Dillon. A few of them went to Columbus Short who played the guard trapped in the truck, and every now and then they threw a bone to Milo Ventimiglia as he lay on the floor bleeding to death. Laurence Fishburne sneered, Skeet Urich whimpered, Amaury Nolasco tried to look Muslim, and Jean Reno did.... um.... stood around..... made faces? Is that what he did? You honestly could have removed his entire character from the story and it would have made no difference at all to the film. With the exception of Jean Reno, every character got a five minute scene to do some acting, I guess to make up for the fact that they spent the rest of the movie watching Matt Dillon talk. Why bother getting good actors if you're going to make them stand around and say nothing the whole movie?

Now let's look at Tropic Thunder. What's Jack Black's story? He's a heroin addict, and by the end of the film he has faced his addiction and attempted to conquer it. Brandon Jackson has to admit that under all that bravado was a gay man who likes to sew. Robert Downey Jr has to acknowledge that he's a white Australian man who may have to drop character in order to find himself. Ben Stiller has to stop worrying about whether or not he is an "actor" and do the job at hand. Each of these characters needs to admit the truth about the world they live in, and they all get an opportunity to explore that theme. Heck, even Danny McBryde's character gets to deal with the fact that his hero let him down. Everybody has something cool to do.

2) A character struggles with betrayal

Matt Dillon's character in Armored practically helped raise Columbus Short's character. He got him into the armored car business and considers himself a mentor to the kid because Short's dad mentored him back in the day. The film spends a lot of time making sure we know this through on-the-nose dialogue. But when the new guy locks himself in the armored car and refuses to go along with the con now that it's gone off the rails, it takes Dillon's character about three seconds to decide they should force him out and shoot him. There's absolutely no conflict there. Don't you think he would have tried to find another solution? Let's imagine it's Fishburne's character who wants to kill the kid. Dillon would be opposed to that, and they'd argue, so not only do we get more conflict but we give Fishburne something to do, which addresses problem number 1. And Skeet. Poor Skeet Ulrich. We've never even seen these two characters talk before, and all the sudden we're expected to believe that Skeet is going to go against Dillon the bully to save this new guy. It's conflict slapped onto a scene, not drawn out of the natural reactions of the characters.

And somehow in that final confrontation we get this meaningful look between two guys who used to be friends. Why? They stopped being friends a long time ago as soon as Matt Dillon decided he wasn't conflicted about murder. That deep look between men moment means nothing now.

So now let's look at Tropic Thunder. Matthew McConaughey's character, Peck, LOVES Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman. Like, LOVE loves. We know this because he has a Scorcher VI poster HUGE on the wall behind him, and because when Tugg calls, his phone plays "Sometimes When We Touch." Now that ring tone is played for a laugh, but it's also very telling about the way Peck feels about his client. So when Tom Cruise offers him the opportunity to forget about Tugg in exchange for a jet. And for a second you don't know what he's going to do. The look on his face says he's considering betraying his friend. Then, when he decides to fight for Tugg, he does everything within his power to convince the studio mogul to change his mind. It creates great conflict, and again - it gives the character something cool to do other than watch one guy make decisions.

I've heard the screenplay for Armored was amazing, so I assume this is a result of an unfortunate trip through the production machine, but whatever the cause, it failed to engage me as much as Ben Stiller's comic masterpiece.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How to take notes

In the past few months I've gotten a lot more requests than usual to give notes. In the beginning I was so glad to be asked that I did notes for anybody, but as time has gone by I can't keep up with the requests, and I've gotten some really negative responses to my notes so I just don't want to do it anymore. The people who can't take notes properly have turned me off from giving them. Why should I waste my time if you're going to be a dick about it?

I know that when I first started getting notes from people I wanted to defend my choices just like everybody else, but as time has gone by I've realized that you can either listen and address the note or ignore it if you don't like it. No need for an argument.

With that in mind, Derek Haas wrote up this set of etiquette rules for receiving notes, and I felt like it bears reposting:

1. If the person says "no," we don't get mad.

2. If the person says "yes," and then never gets back to us, we don't get mad. In fact, we should swallow our pride and expectations, and never bring up the script again.

3. If the person agrees to read it, we shouldn't say, "don't forget that it is registered with the guild."

4. If the person finally gives us notes, we shouldn't argue on why his or her notes are wrong.

5. If the person tells us to work on something, we shouldn't keep on defending the choice that we made. We should try to understand the thinking behind the note and try to come at what we wrote from a different angle.

6. If we disagree with the note, instead of arguing, we can always just choose to ignore the note.

7. If the person gives us a few non-specific critiques, we can probably guess that he or she didn't like the script and just didn't want to get into specifics. So we shouldn't ask them to be more specific unless we are willing to get the hell beat out of us. And REALLY willing not just partially willing.

8. If the script is more than 120 pages, we shouldn't expect the reader to read them all unless he or she really wants to... because at 120+ pages, there is definitely some fat that we should have trimmed.

9. If the person is not a professional screenwriter, reader, producer, agent, agent's assistent, studio exec, or someone in the business, we should know that the notes we are receiving may not be any better than if we had gotten them from our friends or loved ones. And yet, if we hear the same notes over and over and over, even from the biggest beginner, we should probably realize that there is a major problem in that part of the script.

10. If the person says "yes," actually reads the script, and gives us thoughtful, carefully considered notes... we should thank that person profusely.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Talk to me. I will recommend you something.

One of the great joys of my job is introducing kids to new stories. The major assignment for my juniors this semester was to read a novel of their choosing by an American author and write an essay then do a presentation about a book by that author.

One of my kids really really wanted I Am Legend but another kid got to it first. He was all pouty about it, so I had to quickly come up with another book he would love even more. I thought and decided to recommend Ender's Game.

At first he was all "I don't like sci-fi. This book looks stupid." Then he read the first chapter. He was still kind of grumpy. Then a day later he started telling me how much he enjoyed reading about Ender beating the crap out of his bully. We talked about how Ender's experience has some similarities to the way Einstein's theory of relativity led to the atomic bomb and he jumped on that. He was fascinated by the idea of that, as if he'd never realized books could be compared to real life issues.

But when he was done with Ender's Game he read I Am Legend for fun. Then he got so used to reading every day that he went back to the library and checked out something else. He's a total book worm now, always asking me if I've read whatever book he's into now. The other day he got all mad because there is not yet a sequel to the last book he enjoyed.

Every now and then I'll talk about a book or a movie and kids will ask me to write the title down. I look around and there are kids copying it so they can go get it somewhere. These kids NEVER take notes, so I'm just glad they heard something I said and cared enough to copy it. That's how I introduced these kids to films with subtitles.

I consider that whole recommendation thing a key part of my job. It's up to me to convince some of these kids they like to read when they think they don't. "You need a book, eh? Well let's see. What do you like?" Then I have to figure out how to give them a book they love so much they'll want to try reading something else when they're done.

It's pretty cool.

Monday, February 07, 2011

I know what the problem is

A few weeks ago while I worked on the third draft of my current script I thought about how I didn't really have a solid goal for my protagonist. Sure enough, big note at the writers group meeting - what's the goal?
So I did a rewrite this weekend, an all day writing marathon on Saturday where I blocked out everything else and just went from beginning to end, adding in my protag's goal. And I hated my pages.

I kept thinking all night last night that now I've given my protag a goal, but it comes on page 50. I know that's too late in the story. Part of me thought maybe I can just send this to the group and....

Yeah but I know that won't work.  The thing is, I have a good group. If I see it, they'll see it. If I don't know my character they notice. If I have a vague idea of the events in this story they'll notice. And if my protag doesn't know what her objective is for half the screenplay, they'll notice. I know what I need to do. If I want to stop getting macro notes I need to do it.

So I said to myself, Self, this event that gives your protag an objective needs to be moved up.

But it's hard. Moving this event up means I'll have to change things I thought were set in stone. It's a domino that isn't so easily fixed. So I can either ignore the problem and get a new set of notes telling me to fix it and have to do it anyway, or I can sit down with this damn thing, put aside all distractions AGAIN, and fix it now.

Time to get to work.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Minor characters and Die Hard

Die Hard is indeed one of the finest action films ever made.

Script Shadow wrote an excellent post this week about what made it so fantastic and the lessons we can learn from it about how to write action films. I encourage everyone to read it.

One of the other reasons I love Die Hard that he didn't really bring up is how each individual character gets his own backstory. The terrorists argue with each other about petty shit. That Asian dude wants a candy bar in the middle of a gun fight. The black dude is one cocky son of a bitch - probably made enemies of everyone he went to high school with. And that one Johnson really annoys the shit out of the other Johnson.

Each of these people gets a small amount of screen time but I know something about them besides that they are terrorists or FBI agents. It's usually the part they cut out of the movie when they show it on FX, but it's the very thing I love most about the film. Everybody gets their moment.

Thanks to that film, I always remember to have my "I was in junior high, dickhead!" moment. You know, the scene where the Johnsons are in the helicopter and the older Johnson is all excited and shouts about how it's just like Saigon and the younger Johnsons says "I was in junior high, dickhead!" and right then, right before the unfortunate explosion that pounded them both into bits of dust, you know these guys.

So as I'm working a screenplay, I always try to keep that scene in the back of my head. How can I give this minor character his moment in the helicopter? He's got five seconds; what can he do in that time that will demonstrate his true personality?

I don't know if anybody really cares whether my henchman is a coffee nut or not, but it makes me happy when I give him that little bit of extra love.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What's next

I think one of the most important things I've learned over the years - and I didn't realize I'd learn it until just now - is knowing when to let an idea go.

When I first started writing screenplays I'd get an idea and immediately set about putting it together. I'd do my little outline and when I came to a scene I was unsure about, I'd just assume I'd figure it out when I got there because I knew the beginning and I knew the end, so how hard could the middle be?

And that's why most of my early scripts just didn't work.

But these days I come up with an idea and toss it around and then often put it away, maybe for later. As I wind down work on Nice Girls Don't Kill, I keep flipping through ideas I could work on next. I started working on a period piece that I still plan to write some day, but realized it's not a good career move at the moment so I put it on the back burner.

I came up with a script about a lovesick guy searching for his guitar and - just like in the old days - I knew the beginning and end, but not a huge chunk of the middle. I still love the idea, but I think I need time to figure out more story.

I came up with a super hero piece, big budget and kind of nifty, but it involves some serious world creation and I can't decide where I want to go with it yet. Besides, comic book like hero movies are a tough sell for a new writer so it's best if I set it aside.

Each of these ideas goes on an index card on the bulletin board for future pitch meetings. And the search for my next idea continued.

I had an idea today that I like. The best part is that it's a modern take on a Shakespeare play so I don't have to struggle to fill act 2, but the down side is that I'm not the first to attempt reimagining this particular play so it's not the most original idea. It does seem like a lot of fun though. Still, you never truly know if something will work until you start writing.

Who knows, maybe by tomorrow I'll have written it down on an index card and let it go, onto something else. If I can't do a full treatment for the idea that makes the most out of its possibilities, I should keep looking for the next big concept.

The point is, as time goes by, I find myself thinking more carefully about how I spend my writing time. I'm past the point where I need any learning experiences. I want only material I can market.