Who’s that mumbling screenwriter on NPR?

Barring some sort of Actual News Event, I’ll be one of the guests on Airtalk this Tuesday, July 11th at 11:30 a.m. (At least, that’s the time for Los Angeles listeners.)

Host Judy Muller will be talking with Chris Brancato and me about the book Doing It for Money: The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood, in which I have an essay. (And which I recently blogged about.) The book’s editor, Daryl G. Nickens, will also be on hand.

So, tune in and witness how inarticulate I am when I don’t have a keyboard in front of me.

Because really, he should drive a Chrysler LeBaron

questionmarkMy question concerns referencing branded objects in a screenplay. I’ve read that including name-brand references should be avoided in screenplays because you would need legal clearance in order to feature them.

That being said, what if my character drives a Chrysler LeBaron? Can’t I say he drives a beat-up Chrysler LeBaron? And not just as a description, but if it was mentioned in the dialogue as well.

Understandably, name brand references wouldn’t make or break my script, but I feel it adds a nice level of depth and detail to my characters if you know they like Gucci shoes and not fancy Italian boots.

I guess my question is, what are the do’s and don’ts of brand name references?

— Aaron Murphy

In a screenplay, you can do anything. You can have Ronald McDonald shank Elmo with a sharpened Barbie over a pack of Marlboros.

The trouble comes when you’re moving from the printed word to the projected image. The corporations who hold these trademarks and copyrights don’t look kindly on other people profiting off them, even if the usage is not necessarily disparaging.

So, when you set out to make a movie, someone is generally assigned the chore of getting permission to use other people’s copyrights and trademarks. These “permission slips” are called clearances. During the summer of 1993, while I was interning at Universal, this was my job. I helped do clearances for The War and Reality Bites, mostly working on props and set decoration.

How do you get permission? You ask.

A large part of the job is figuring out who to ask. In 1993, the Internet didn’t exist in anything approximating its current form, so my fingers got very fast at dialing New York information (212-555-1212) to track down corporate offices.

Once you get the right person on the phone (or email), you explain what the movie is, why you’re asking, and if they could sign and fax back the attached clearance form. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Nolo Press’s book Getting Permission has templates for clearance forms, and a lot of information about how to handle everything from artwork to music. You can also see a generic version of what we used for The Movie here: .pdf or .doc.

My assistant Chad handled the majority of the clearances for The Movie, mostly artwork and books featured as props. It’s tedious work, but not particularly brain-draining. (In fact, I wrote my first screenplay while doing clearances.)

How do you know what needs to be cleared, and what you can just get away with using/saying?

I fall back on my standard advice: as a writer, just do what’s best for the script. If that’s Gucci shoes and Chrysler LeBarons, knock yourself out. Don’t worry about phantom problems. Rather, focus on writing the best screenplay you can.

Down the road, when your great script gets ready to become a great movie, there will be producers and other clever people to help you stress out over clearances.

Location scouting

One of the first tasks in getting The Movie on its feet was picking locations. We spent about three weeks scouting — almost as long as we shot.

I didn’t think I’d written a very location-driven movie, but it ended up being a bit of a monster. Part of that was budget — if we’d had serious money, we could have spent our way out of some problems. But the bigger issue was the schedule. The movie is broken into three parts, and for reasons I won’t divulge, we had to shoot the parts in a very specific order. We couldn’t swap Day 4 for Day 9. Which meant we had to have a given location available on exactly the right day.

Complicating matters, we needed dense forest close enough to Los Angeles that we wouldn’t have to put up crew overnight. In Vancouver, you’ve got forest everywhere. In Los Angeles, we have Angeles Crest, but the parts that looked right were way too far from the main roads. Logistically, it would have been impossible.

Fortunately, we found great stuff in Topanga and Malibu. The rest of our locations had to fit in around them.

The movie was shot almost entirely on practical locations (that is, real places rather than sets). The exception was one day shot at the Hearst Building in Downtown LA, an old newspaper plant that’s been converted into standing sets for film and television. It’s a super-creepy building made even stranger by the sets. Walk around a corner and you’re in a hospital. Open a door, and it’s the filthiest motel room you’ve ever seen. It’s hard to tell where movie-squalor ends and actual squalor begins.

I’ve put together a two-minute reel of the locations we ended up using. When the movie’s done, you’ll be able to see how we used them. The last clip is the hotel we shot in New York City.

(Because you’ll ask: The music is by Alex Wurman, our composer.)

I want a cheap, slutty DVD player

Here’s the thing: I don’t need anything fancy. I don’t use-slash-need many advanced features, like super slo-mo or bookmarking. I just want a DVD player to play whatever disc I put in it, no matter where it’s from, without complaining.

I don’t want a princess. I want a whore.

I’m not even talking about multi-region or unlocked players. I just want one that can consistently play a DVD-RW of dailies burned on some random PA’s computer without bitching. I don’t know if that means a more advanced player, or a lamer one, but I’m officially sick of trying a disc in three different players before finally getting it to work on my MacBook.

I suspect my ideal DVD player is a no-name made in Guangzhou which can play drink coasters. If anyone can point me towards it, thanks in advance.

I choose flight

Let’s face it: there are no bad superpowers. But given the choice of only one, I’d pick flight.

Yes, plain old boring flight, common to so many superheroes that it hardly ranks as special. However, when you look at the so-called alternatives, you find that there’s really no competing with the classic.

Great, fine, love it. Stop a train, move a mountain. You’re strong, we get it. But strength is only useful if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Consider this: You’re the world’s strongest man in the middle of the Sahara desert. Not so fuggin’ helpful, is it?

My hunch is that after a few weeks of being pervy, you’d realize that invisibility is pretty much exactly like ordinary life. That is, no one really cares if you’re there or not. True story: I used to work in Oliver Stone’s office. The assistant who previously sat at my desk was a hot young woman. Oliver always ogled her when he walked by. Because I am not a hot young woman, Oliver did not ogle me. (And thank god.) The joke was that I was invisible. If need be, I could walk into his office and just grab something off his desk — he’d merely see it floating away. So don’t think of invisibility as a superpower. It’s more of a trait, like having good abs, or leprosy.

Running really fast would be cool. But do you know what would be even cooler? Flying. And it’s hard to run to the moon, hotshot.

Size control
The ability to get really big or really small seems great until you realize that the world is pretty much built for normal-sized people. I’ve had the pleasure of working with both a little person (Deep Roy) and a giant (the late Matthew McGrory). Great folks. Wouldn’t trade places with them. And I have a strong suspicion that as you slide further up or down the logarithmic scale, life doesn’t get better.

Power ring
Don’t insult me. Green Lantern has no superpowers. He has a prop.

Yeah, that would be pretty awesome. But I’ve watched Star Trek. Something always goes wrong, and you end up inside a wall, or a Vulcan. Pass.

I can already read minds, and let me tell you, people are so much sicker than you can imagine. It’s like listening to an internet sex chat room through earphones. Plus, I already know that I’m bald. I don’t really need to go around hearing, “Hey, that guy is bald” all day.

It would be handy to move things with one’s mind. But I don’t really need this power, because I have production assistants. Witness: “Linde, would you get me a Diet Coke with Splenda, please?” And it arrives, as if by magic. (As a general rule, any superpower that can be closely approximated by paying someone minimum wage is not really a superpower.)

I’m going to leave out the truly lame superpowers like weather control, because you know the so-called heroes who have these abilities are secretly ashamed. They’re the synchronized swimmers of the superhero Olympics: sure, you get to compete, but don’t pretend it’s the same. You’re embarrassing all of us.

Which leaves flight as the only valid superpower choice. And for the record, I’m not talking flying-with-wings like Angel in X3. I want good old-fashioned two-hands-aimed-at-the-sky.

Call me old school, but to me, that’s the only way to fly.