Where I’ve been hiding

My blogging-to-actual-work ratio has tipped decidedly to the things-I-get-paid-for side over the last few weeks, as a number of projects have commanded a lot more of my time. So I thought it only fair to explain what’s pulled me out of my beloved bent-brad bunker.

Here’s an update on my previous post, about my current projects.

★ ACTIVE ★

Ops
This one-hour drama pilot about private military contractors has suddenly roared back to life, with Fox giving the go-ahead to start casting. We’re out to directors, and — knock wood — should be able to shoot early in the year. For various reasons, the episode we’d planned to start with might now become number three in the season, so that means a whole new script to write (with co-creator Jordan Mechner). But TV scripts are short. And it will be nice to get back into that world.

Casting a TV show takes forever. We’ll have a big pow-wow with the network and the studio, going over their lists of who they have deals with, and who they’ve always liked. Then we’ll meet with those actors. The less-established actors will be fine coming in for an audition, but the bigger names will only “meet.” Which often means coffee. Which often takes a hell of a lot longer.

Eventually, we’ll have big casting sessions, where we’ll audition 15 or more actors in an afternoon, one after the other. On the other two TV shows, I’ve always been in the room for those sessions, but given the newborn and the other projects on this list, I’ll probably be watching videotape for more of these casting sessions.

Untitled Broadway Musical
I’ve had work sessions with the composer this week. We’re now up to seven songs, plus a fair amount of connective tissue (“the book,” which is my job). It’s strange working with someone who can hear something once and immediately play it back on the piano, with elaborations, in a different key. I don’t sell myself short — I’m good at what I do — but I’d love to have that kind of gift.

My basic strategy for working with a composer is to offer effusive praise at anything that sounds right, and to feign musical ignorance when it’s clear what’s not working. “There’s something about that part of the song where it goes — what’s the word when it’s not happy, but — yes, minor. Maybe if it were the opposite of that, it could work, maybe?”

I will ultimately pay a horrible price for this passive-agressive behavior. But for now, the songs sure are pretty.

Father Knows Less
Just yesterday, I saw that Charles Shyer signed on to direct this Dustin Hoffman comedy at New Line. I’d rewritten Aline Brosh McKenna’s script, and now another writer is working with Shyer. Which is fine. The original director, Shawn Levy, fell off a few months ago over budget issues. Since then, I’ve talked to several director acquaintances who’d recently read the script. So it’s good to know that New Line was serious about making the movie.

Tim Burton’s movie
I hope to sit down with Tim in the next few weeks to talk over a few things that are in the planning stages. As busy as I get, I hope to always be able to write Tim’s next movie.

★ LIMBO ★

Prince of Persia
I’m executive producing this adaptation of Jordan Mechner’s videogame for Disney. What does an executive producer do? Here’s my analogy: Imagine you’re in the cockpit of a 747. You know how to fly it; you know where to go. But you’re not allowed to touch the controls.

If that sounds frustrating, it is. There are decisions to be made, and I’m not the one making them. But I’m hoping the right decisions get made regardless, because Prince of Persia deserves to be a giant summer tentpole movie.

The Eye
This Hideo Nakata-directed horror remake is supposed to star Renee Zellweger, but I haven’t heard anything new since I turned in my rewrite months ago. It’s still floating out there. I doubt I’ll need to pick up my pen again, though.

Tarzan
After visiting the two motion-capture film currently in production at Sony, I got thinking more about doing Tarzan that way. It would certainly be a big help in addressing two major issues with filming it: creating a mythical Africa, and humanely handling the apes.

★ FINISHED ★

How to Eat Fried Worms
This project was the very first script I was paid to write, way back in 1996 or so. And now it’s an actual movie. But I can safely say it’s not my movie.

When a film completes production, the WGA sends the final shooting script to all the screenwriters who worked on it, which in this case was only two: me and Bob Dolman, who directed it. I read the script, and had the option to arbitrate for screenwriting credit. I passed. Dolman really did his own thing, and beyond one basic part of the setup (Billy and his family have just moved to a new town), there’s nothing I’d really claim as my own.

Regardless, it’s kind of comforting to have one dangling thread tied up.


Four quadrants of screenwriting style

I’ve gotten a few questions from readers who’ve gone through the scripts in the Downloads section, many of them asking about my use of “we,” as in…

We hear SCRAPING as something behind the door moves closer.

Who is “we?”

I use this “we” all the time, and I’ve never really thought about it much. I guess it means either “you and I” (the reader and the writer) or “we the audience.” But which one?

Sort of both. The example above feels like it’s from the audience’s point-of-view. But in many cases, I’m using it more as the creator, such as…

As the pickup ROARS away, we reveal...

TWO BURNING SCARECROWS.

I love “we.” To me, it helps include the reader, giving the sensation of watching a movie, rather than just reading words on a page. But you should know that a fair number of screenwriters loathe this use of “we,” arguing that it’s always possible to write the same moment without it…

The pickup ROARS away, revealing...

TWO BURNING SCARECROWS.

In the end, there is no right or wrong. It’s just a matter of preference.

This got me thinking back to college, when I first had to take a Myers-Briggs personality type test. If you haven’t taken one, it’s definitely worth the twenty minutes, because it has an interesting way of breaking down personality along four basic axes. (Note: plural of “axis,” not synonym of “hatchets.”)

Even with different sets of questions, I come out pretty reliably — if not always strongly — as an ENTJ. It’s worth pointing out that Myers-Briggs-style assessments aren’t trying to say “who you are” as much as what your preferences tend to be.

I think the same characteristics can be found in screenwriting style. Different screenwriters have different preferences, some more strongly rooted than others.

The following is pretty top-of-my-head, so please chime in if you can think of better descriptors for what I’m talking about.

→ Literalist versus Impressionist

The Literalist believes that screenplays should only include what can be seen or heard, since that’s the only information which makes it up on the screen. The Impressionist is willing to bend or break the audio-visual barrier. He may write about things which cannot be filmed, or which reference things outside the world of the movie. (Such as, “Mendoza’s Ferrari is almost as hot as the one I’m going to buy when I sell this script for a million fucking dollars.”)

Personally, I’m pretty much a Literalist, although I’ll generally allow myself one sentence of unshootable information upon introducing a new character.

→ Completer versus Fragmenter

The Completer writes in complete sentences, like this one, with a subject and a verb. The Fragmenter? Nope. Won’t. Not his thing.

I’m a Completer. While you’ll occasionally find a fragment in my action sequences, I’m generally not a fan of rapid-fire word shrapnel. My aversion to fragments makes it very hard to do surgical rewrites of certain screenwriters’ work. I either have to adapt to their style — or more likely — rewrite every sentence of action.

→ Filmist versus Readerist

The Filmist writes screenplays that are intended for filmmakers, using specific film terminology (such as camera movement) and a minimum of fluff. The Filmist makes no concession to the non-professional. The Readerist writes for a more general audience, attempting to convey the feeling of cinematic devices without explicitly mentioning them, sometimes abstracting them to a literary “we see” and “we hear.”

I’m clearly a Readerist. I avoid mentioning the camera, and will even throw a “we” before a “CUT TO:” just so it reads a little better. But it’s worth noting that the classic screenplays, the ones that became the movies you loved, are almost all Filmist.

→ Show-er versus Teller

The Show-er attempts to include every important action in the story, while the Teller would rather forego some detail to convey the overall gist of a scene or sequence. Taken to the extreme, the Show-er would list every punch in a fight, while the Teller would leave it as: “They fight. Maddox wins.”

I’m a Show-er. For me, an action sequence is collection of a dozen smaller moments, and to breeze over them with a sentence or two is disrespectful. With a script, I’m trying evoke the feeling of having watched a movie, and that includes the action.

However, many of the top writers do compress action sequences, arguing that the only thing more boring than writing a long action sequence is reading one.

So, by my own system, I’d come out an LCPS LCRS. You?

Without their scripts in front of me, I’d put James Cameron down as an LCFS. Shane Black is probably an IFRT, but it’s been a while since I’ve read his stuff.

And again, this is all very work-in-progress. (I’ve already changed terms, messing up acronyms.) If you can think of better criteria for looking at screenwriting style (other than “good” and “hack”), please share.


Songs and production companies

questionmarkI’m pretty sure I saw you at The Groundlings on Saturday night. My girlfriend’s on a new TV show, Fox’s “The War At Home” and I attended the event with some of her costars.

I wanted to introduce myself and ask you a quick question, but then realized that a) I didn’t want to be annoying and b) you’ve set up a wonderful format for questions and answers.

Basically, is it stupid to include music cues in spec scripts? I realize the legality of it, and you don’t have full license for the song or any permission for that matter, but sometimes I feel like it really helps paint what you’re trying to convey.

Also, do you have a production company? I don’t think you do. Just curious.

– Chris
Los Angeles

You should have introduced yourself — because that wasn’t me, and it would have been awkward. Awkward stories are terrific fodder for the screenwriter.

For those who don’t know, The Groundlings is a comedy cult institution that for years has been a stepping stone for the performers you see on Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. My good pal Melissa McCarthy is a member of Groundlings; I try to catch shows whenever I can.

But Saturday night was not one of them.

On Saturday night I was buying vodka at the Mayfair Market on Franklin, just behind Kiefer Sutherland, who was buying cigarettes. The vodka was for a birthday party at Joey Lauren Adam’s house.

See, I can name-drop! I don’t even disguise them, unlike certain other people. Ahem.

Now, to your question. In my opinion, it’s okay to include a specific song if it’s really crucial to understanding the tone-slash-intent of the scene. But you can only do it once per script. More than that, and you’re writing liner notes.

Question #2: I don’t have a production company per se.

Like most screenwriters of a certain level, I have a loan-out company. I am an employee of that company, as is my assistant, Chad. But it’s not a true production company with financing and a slate of pictures in development. I probably could pull a production company deal at a specific studio, but to me, it’s not really worth it. I’d rather work with all the studios.


Comments are working again

newsApologies to any readers who found that their comments over the last few days fell into a black hole. The culprit was a new comment-spam filter which proved to be 100% effective.

It blocked everything. Sigh.

Everything should be fixed now. You’ll also notice that any new comments from John now show up with a little box around them.


I am a white male of European descent

Gene MapMy last normal job — the 9-to-5 kind — was as an assistant at Oliver Stone’s production company. At the time, he was in post-production on Natural Born Killers, and developing future projects, one of which was a remake of Planet of the Apes.

Any version of Apes must tackle the basic question of, “How does the hero get stuck on a planet full of goddamn apes?” Screenwriter Terry Hayes’s adaptation forewent rockets and crash-landings, and instead had our hero (or heroes, it’s been a while) traveling backwards in time through mitochondrial DNA. The device itself didn’t make a lick of sense, but it all felt very Michael Crichton: with enough jargon, almost anything sounds plausible.

The Terry Hayes/Oliver Stone version never got made, but it was my first introduction to mitochondria, which are fascinating relics we all carry with us. Essentially, they’re like little power plants inside our cells that are only vaguely related to us. We inherit them only from our mothers, which means geneticists can use mitochondrial mutations to track back lineage, determining who is related to whom, in a very broad sense.

So it was with my Planet of the Apes memory that I was intrigued by a post on Kevin Kelly’s very geeky Cool Tools feed about National Geographic’s Genographic Project. It’s an attempt to learn more about how humanity spread out around the globe by doing genetic testing on indigenous populations. The timing has become somewhat urgent, because people don’t stay put the way they used to, and they don’t always marry within their ethnic/tribal groups. In a generation or two, it may be very difficult to say exactly whose genes are whose.

National Geographic’s program is actually a kit you can order, which includes swabs for taking samples from the inside of your cheek. You mail the samples in, and a lab processes them. A few weeks later, you can enter your special code number on their website, and pull up a history of where you came from, genetically. For women, they track mitochondria. For men, they track the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son.

The home-test version is pretty rudimentary, and is really intended mostly to fund the larger project of testing indigenous groups. But it ended being pretty fascinating anyway.

The test revealed that I am a white male of European descent.

No shocker, there. My family is largely German, with a little English and Scottish thrown in. This translates to Haplogroup R1B (M343). I’d venture that most white guys reading this would be similar, if not exactly the same. But what’s more interesting than the result is the journey, which National Geographic charts really well. The report generates a map which shows where your genetic line branched out, in my case charting the journey from Africa (M168), through Central Asia (M9), and finally to Europe, where they kicked the shit out of those Neandertals.

pamirFor instance, my ancestors travelled through the Pamir Knot, which I’d never heard of. But looking at the picture, you realize that somewhere back in history, some relative lived there. Hunted there. Died there. It was 40,000 years ago, but it’s still in my blood.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s a shared history with pretty much anyone in the Northern Hemisphere — the Eurasian Clan, which includes Native Americans.

All of this got me thinking more about my long-gestating (or perhaps dead; it’s hard to say) adaptation of Tarzan at Warner Bros. One of the fundamental challenges with Tarzan is finding a way to handle race and ethnicity; having a bunch of white people fight over Africa brings back unwelcome memories of colonialism. My answer was to build the Mother Africa meme deeply into the story. No matter where you come from, no matter what color your skin, you’re related to exactly one African man who lived 31,000 to 79,000 years ago.

To me, that’s the Joseph Campbell/Star Wars-y aspect of Tarzan. Africa is destiny.

My little genographic field trip won’t advance science much, nor will it move Tarzan out of development limbo. But it made for a nice diversion. For $107.50, it’s a nice family project, particularly if your kids are old enough to understand why you’re scraping the inside of their cheeks. It’s a nice way of demonstrating the connectedness of things, and helping break down common assumptions of “us” and “them.”


Good Night, and Good Luck. And Good Job.

murrowOver the weekend, I went to see Good Night, and Good Luck at The Arclight. I liked it a lot, not only for its strong performances, but also its complete disregard for anything approaching traditional narrative structure.

The screenplay, by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, is full of good dialogue — much of it apparently drawn from transcripts. What it doesn’t have are other Syd Field essentials, such as character arcs, reversals, and clear motivations.

Stripped of such niceties as backstory and personal lives, the characters are left only with The Issue: challenging Joseph McCarthy and his destructive campaign against supposed Communists. Much like The Crucible can be read as an allegory about McCarthyism, Clooney’s movie draws parallels with the current between the media and the government (replace “Communist” with “terrorist” et voil√†¬°). But to the script’s credit, it works without this “meta” aspect. Execution matters, and it in this case, it’s executed terrifically well.

In its thematic austerity, it feels more like a play than a movie — and the fact that it’s entirely interiors adds to that sense. Some people may not like the film for that reason, and that’s valid. But the claustrophobia worked for me. Had it gone outside, I think I would have applied more “movie” expectations to it. By keeping it close and focussed, I never worried about what I was missing.