Why is Charlie so passive?

questionmarkIn Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, why is Charlie so passive in the movie?

As the main character I would think he would do something during the big adventure in the factory but he does nothing. He faces no challenges. He is not tested in any way. He doesn’t even have the opportunity to make a single mistake.

He is simply the blandest and most uninteresting character in the entire group. He doesn’t even merit a song. I just don’t get it.

–Gilbert

Congratulations, Gilbert. You are now a studio executive.

The one consistent note Tim and I got from Warner Bros. about the script was, “Shouldn’t Charlie be trying harder?” To which we answered, “No.” And because Tim Burton is Tim Burton, they eventually stopped asking.

The world is full of movies where scrappy young heroes succeed by trying really hard, by being clever and saying witty things. But that’s not Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket at all. We didn’t want a classic Disney protagonist, so we left Charlie the way he was: a good kid.

Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago about this issue:

However, Charlie is not a classic Protagonist. Charlie doesn’t grow or change over the course of the story. He doesn’t need to. He starts out a really nice kid, and ends up a really nice kid.

In terms of Classical Dramatic Structure, that leaves us one Protagonist short, which leads to the biggest change in the screenplay versus the book (or the 1971 film). In our movie, Willy Wonka is the protagonist. He grows and changes. We see his rise and fall, along with his nervous breakdown during the tour. Charlie’s the one who’s always asking – ever so politely, in the Freddie Highmore Whisperâ„¢ – the questions that lead to Wonka’s flashbacks upon his rotten childhood. (In Classic Dramatic terms, that makes Charlie an Antagonist. Not to be confused with a Villain. Are you sure you don’t want to read about some squirrels?)

As I pitched it to Tim: Charlie gets a factory, and Willy Wonka gets a family. It’s the whole want-versus-need thing. Charlie doesn’t need a factory. Wonka really needs a family. Otherwise, he’s going to die a giggling misanthropic weirdo.

Charlie “wins” because he’s genuinely good, in a quiet, unassuming way. He doesn’t get a song because the Oompa-Loompas only sing about rotten children.

I’m sorry that doesn’t float your boat, Gilbert, but I think the real issue may be how much you’re preconditioned by all the movies you’ve seen with plucky kids who outthink the adults. If you hurry, you can probably catch one at the multiplex.

Deciding which parents get to visit the factory


Should I fudge the date on the cover?

questionmarkI have a question with regard to whether or not you should date scripts when sending them out.

Would it put someone off from looking at a script if they saw a date on the cover page that was one or two years old, (or more!) and therefore subconsciously make them think the idea is no longer “current”?

– Danni
Los Angeles

Yes, put the date on the cover. And as much as possible, try to keep it accurate and consistent. That way, when you’re talking with someone about your script, you can be assured you’re both talking about the same draft. More than once, I’ve sat down at a meeting and glanced at their script, only to realize they were looking at an old version.

That said, if you’re giving the script to someone new and important, and it’s been six months since your last revision, change the date. I don’t know about most readers, but I always tend to notice the year on the cover. Given the choice between a 2003 script and a 2005, I’ll always choose the more recent vintage. It’s a psychological thing.

And while we’re on the topic, there’s no need to put “First Draft” or “Second Revision” on the title page. The date is plenty.

Inevitably, a few days after a major revision, I’ll notice a bunch of typos. If it’s really just simple misspellings, fix them and keep the old date. If making the corrections changes page breaks and whatnot, use the new date.


My NY Times profile, Rashomon-style

This past May, the New York Times had a very nice profile piece on me in the Arts and Leisure section, written by Bob Baker. I liked it. Many people called to say they’d seen it. And that was that.

It was only as I was sifting through the referrer logs on Friday that I noticed Bob Baker has his own website, and that he’d written a detailed explanation of all the editing that went into that story, complete with three different versions of the article. It’s sort of like a DVD extra, print-style.

My undergraduate degree was in journalism, so I’m used to stories being heavily rewritten. But as the subject of the article, it’s weird to see a lot of the quotes that got dropped. I remember saying them, but since they didn’t show up in the “official” article, they don’t feel quite real. They never made it to ink.

You can see all the versions of the article here.


Corpse Bride has risen

Corpse Bride /> </a><a href=Corpse Bride is in theaters starting today — if you live in Los Angeles, New York or Toronto. For the rest of North America, and other parts of the world, you can begin seeing it next week, September 23rd.

Last night, I spoke at USC’s 466 class, which screens a different film each week. At the Q & A afterwards, host Leonard Maltin talks with someone involved with the picture, often an alumni. I used to be in the class, so it’s bewildering to realize this was my sixth 466 (after Go, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

In many ways, this was the easiest of all the classes I’ve spoken at, because with this film I don’t have as much of that please-please like it I beg you instinct. I feel much less ownership of Corpse Bride than the others. Don’t get me wrong — I’m proud of it — but working in animation is inherently much more collaborative in terms of story. For starters, I was the third writer to work on it, after Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler. Then there’s a whole department called “Story,” whose job it is to figure out how to convert the screenplay into storyboards, and along the way, a lot gets changed and rearranged. Altogether, it’s much less “my” movie than the others.

But it was a lot of work.

Often, I’d get storyboards from London for scenes that were about to shoot, and would have a day or less to tweak the dialogue before an actor would record the needed lines. Whenever I visited the stages outside London, most of my time was spent watching the scenes already shot, and discussing with the rest of the team how to handle this moment or that. At absolutely no point could I get precious about things needing to stick closer to how they were written. I was there to help, so I helped where I could. I felt like a craftsman rather than artist, and that’s fine.

Reviews so far have been really good, so here’s hoping it gets a good reception. A lot of people ask me, “Isn’t it too scary for kids?” Not really. If your kids like Halloween, they’ll be fine. It’s never gory, and the Land of the Dead stuff is pretty light and breezy.

Corpse Bride article in Script magazine
New, longer Corpse Bride trailer up


Someone actually wants to read my script

questionmarkI am an aspiring writer/director who works for a major studio in LA — nothing too exciting, just an entry level position. But, the job allows me to run into people who might be able to help me along the way.

Just tonight, I struck up a conversation with a woman who just so happens to represent the writer of the TV show at which I was working. I said that I was a writer. She then handed me her card and said that she’d like to read my scripts. I can imagine that she probably hands out her card to many aspiring actors, but I figure since she did tell me to send her myself, I might as well. How should I go about that? What should I include in the letter that I attach to the script?

– Ryan
Los Angeles (originally from Michigan)

That sound you hear is the collective gasp of one thousand readers wishing they had your luck.

Pick your best script, the one that everyone likes. Write a short letter that says basically, “I really enjoyed meeting you yesterday at WHATEVER SHOW. I promised I’d send you my script, and I’m a man of my word. Attached is TITLE OF MY SCRIPT, a GENRE set in LOCATION that a lot of people seem to like. Here’s hoping you do, too.” And be sure to include your phone number or email, both on the letter and the script (in case she loses the letter).

Hurry, man! Run! Don’t waste a day and risk her forgetting who you are.

And let us know what happens.


On friends, colleagues and jealousy

questionmarkWhen you were first getting started as a writer, did you meet other hopeful screenwriters? And, if so, did you grow, over time, to absolutely despise them?

Because I’m feeling this. When I first moved to LA a few years ago, I met a whole bunch of disreputable screenwriter wannabes. I made friends with them. We helped and encouraged each other. But in the last year or so, I began to grow weary of their company and their lame-ass superficial ideas. I wrote a script that landed me a fairly prestigious agent and have since gone on to have meet and greets and do all the things that other screenwriters do who haven’t yet sold a break-through script. I’ve pitched for assignments. I’ve duly submitted new scripts that haven’t yet tweaked the fancy of some mid-level studio exec. I’ve met with producers. I’ve played the whole game. I feel like I’m on the cusp.

But I’m still sort of in that netherworld between WGA-sanctioned writer and struggling wannabe. The thing is, all the struggling screenwriters I’ve grown to know in the last few years… well, truth be told, they irritate the fuck out of me now. I have no patience for them anymore. And they seem to have no patience for me. They’ve grown really demanding. It seems like for every new door that opens for me, they feel like I owe them the passcode. The secret handshake. The “in.”

What I want to know is, did you go through this? Did you, at some point, have to sort of leave your fellow strugglers behind? I don’t want to lose my friends, but at the same time, I feel like it’s really important for me to separate myself from them right now. I also feel like, if the shoe were on the other foot, they wouldn’t think twice about blowing me (and all my scripts) off. I mean, they’re calling me and asking me if I’ll send their latest script to my agents… who have only hip-pocketed me and who I can barely get on the phone as it is.

Hollywood is such a weird place. I feel like I’m still learning all the ins and outs of the politics that go with it. How have you dealt with fellow screenwriter friends who haven’t yet crossed that line, but who still count you as a friend, with all the benefits that come with that friendship? Does that make sense?

I’d really appreciate some advice.

–Jay
Los Angeles

Your letter pretty well encapsulates a lot of what I have felt, and to some degree continue to feel, about Los Angeles and the film industry.

To a surprising degree, screenwriting can be a meritocracy, where good writing (and savvy) leads to a fulfilling career. Talent and hard work are rewarded; laziness is punished. The lag between cause and effect can be frustratingly long, but there’s reason to have faith.

From your letter, it really does sound like you’re off to a good start. Congratulations. Work your ass off, land an assignment, and write the hell out of it. Then do it again, and again, and again. You’ll know you’re doing well if you’re too tired to go out drinking with your old screenwriting buddies.

Yes, I’m saying to let ‘em go. Not all of them, necessarily. But it’s time to thin the herd.

I think there’s an important distinction between friends and colleagues. Here’s the single most important question to ask yourself: Who is happy for you? A true friend is glad you’re finding success, without any ulterior motive for himself. Be smart: hold onto your friends. I have honest-to-goodness friends who I met the second day I arrived in Los Angeles, who will be my friends until I die.

But I also have colleagues, mostly other screenwriters, who are important to me even though they’re not really friends. With colleagues, it’s okay to feel some jealousy. Even small twinges of schadenfreude. Particularly at the beginning of my career, I was constantly comparing my success to their success, and it made me work that much harder. Yes, we helped each other out when we could, but the biggest help by far was by continually raising the bar, not just in the quality of our writing, but what we were able to achieve career-wise.

Most of your so-called screenwriter friends are probably fall into the “colleague” category. Some of them are definitely worth keeping in your life. Ask yourself which ones you think are actually good writers. Here’s the test: whose scripts are you genuinely excited to read? If you dread cracking open Jim’s scripts, and dread giving him notes, then you really don’t believe in him as a writer. You’re not doing him or yourself any favors keeping up the charade.

You don’t have to tell him, “Jim, buddy, I think your writing sucks.” Just be too busy to read the next draft. Say it’s too much like something you’re working on. (And remember that trading scripts works both ways. It’s not fair to ask for his notes if you’re not willing to do the same.)

Jim may think you’re an asshole. That’s his right. But the process of adding and dropping friends and colleagues isn’t unique to this business. I’m guessing you’re in your 20’s. With certainty, I could say you’d be going through the same thing no matter where you lived, or what you were doing. Things change. People move on.

What’s different about this business is the musical chairs aspect. Hollywood only “needs” a very small number of screenwriters. Maybe it’s a hundred. Maybe it’s three hundred. Whatever the figure, it’s a very small number compared to the vast legion of wannabe screenwriters in Los Angeles.

The cliche is that every waiter in LA is an actor. The truth is that every non-waiter is probably working on a screenplay. So when these aspiring screenwriters see you climbing those first few rungs of the ladder, it’s no surprise there’s some jealousy and resentment. After all, just a few months ago, you were exactly where they were.

In some ways, it’s easier to begrudge a person a little success than a lot of success. There’s a relatability, a why-not-me factor. It sucks for them. It sucks for you. Accept that and move on.

If it’s any consolation, look around at all the aspiring actors in your midst. They’re going through the exact same winnowing process, but at least you’re being judged on your words. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to succeed or fail based on the whims of a casting director who liked your look, or felt you could stand to lose 10 pounds.