Back from the Charlie press junket

Bahamas PlaneThis weekend, I travelled to The Bahamas for the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory press junket. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a press junket is a two or three day period during which the stars and filmmakers of a movie meet with the press (both domestic and international) to answer questions about the film. Since most of the U.S. media is based in New York or Los Angeles, press junkets are usually in one of these two cities.

Which begs the question, why the hell was the press junket in The Bahamas?

Answer: Johnny Depp. He’s currently shooting the sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean down there, and since he’s The Guy on the Poster, Warner Bros. decided to fly everyone to The Bahamas so he could participate.

The event itself was at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island. I’d never been to the Caribbean, but I’ve been to Vegas plenty of times, so here’s my best analogy. Take The Luxor, exchange the Egyptian theme for a vaguely Mayan one, add in Mandalay Bay‘s shark tanks, and put the whole thing on a pretty beach. It’s only an hour-and-a-half from Florida, so that’s your target audience.

I ended up spending a whopping 20 hours in the country, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on anything about The Bahamas beyond the fact that everyone I met was friendly.

As for the press junket itself, my job was to sit next to producer Richard Zanuck and answer questions from three different groups of journalists, all of whom had just seen the movie at a special screening. Then I did an on-camera interview for a VH-1 special.

In all, I travelled about 18 hours for less than three hours of actual work. Was it worth it?

Hard to say. I honestly don’t know if a single quote of mine will appear in any of the stories about Charlie. I try to say honest and witty things, but given a choice between me and Mr. Depp, a reporter will always use his quotes. I knew that going in. And for most of the longer stories about the movie, I do in-person or phone interviews, which are most easily done from Los Angeles.

However, I think it’s important that the screenwriter show up for junkets. My being there hopefully reminds journalists that the movie was written before it was shot. Far too often in the entertainment press, the only mention of the screenwriter is to lambaste a (supposedly) dreadful script; in success, we’re invisible. At least for a few sweaty hours in The Bahamas, I was part of the story.


Deciding which parents get to visit the factory

Charlie Tour GroupI have a question about your upcoming film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What made you decide to have each child bring only one guardian to Wonka’s factory, and how did you choose which one would go?

–Michael
Daphne, Alabama

In Roald Dahl’s book, each of the four rotten kids (Veruca, Violet, Augustus and Mike) brings both of their parents on the tour of the factory. Charlie only bring Grandpa Joe, for reasons that are never entirely clear. According to the rules on the Golden Ticket, he’s allowed to bring two parents, but he doesn’t.

When Tim Burton and I first sat down to talk about how we were going to adapt Dahl’s book for the screen, the two-parent issue was one of my first questions. In addition to being a little unfair to Charlie, having each of the rotten kids bring both parents presented a lot of problems.

With a book, the reader can conveniently forget that Mrs. Teavee hasn’t said anything for a long time. In a movie, however, that character is always going to be on-screen. Which means she needs to be doing something, saying something. She has to interact with all the other characters in the scene, who in turn have to interact with each other, which steals focus from Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the rotten kids.

Basically, twice the parents means everyone gets half as much to say and do.

So we quickly decided that the rule on the Golden Ticket would be that every kid gets to bring one parent or guardian. No fuss, no muss.

Then the question becomes, which parent goes with which kid?

In my mind, piggy Augustus got that way because he had a mother who equated food with love. So Mrs. Gloop would be the first parent. We don’t learn much about her except that she and her husband own a sausage shop in Germany.

Violet Beauregarde claimed to be the world record-holder in chewing gum, so we decided to make her hyper-competitive, her ego stoked by sports mom Ms. Beauregarde, herself a former baton champion. We never say anything about Violet’s father.

Veruca Salt is a daddy’s girl gone wicked, manipulative and bossy. So it only made sense for her to bring her father, a British nut baron.

Finally, there’s Mike Teavee. In Dahl’s book, he’s obsessed with TV westerns and shoot-em-up cop shows. Updating it a bit, we gave him violent videogames and a well-meaning but completely over-his-head father, who is literally bullied by his son.

Even with just these four characters, it took work to find enough for everyone to do and say. In the Chocolate Room, for instance, we have to keep track of Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, Augustus, Mrs. Gloop, Violet, Ms. Beauregarde, Veruca, Mr. Salt, Mike and Mr. Teavee. That’s eleven characters, not counting the Oompa-Loompas. If we’d added four more parents to the scene, we’d probably still be shooting it.


Organizing reality

Yesterday, the WGA announced plans to begin organizing writers working on reality television shows. Unlike writers working on traditional dramas or sitcoms, these writers haven’t been covered by the guild, which means they receive no health insurance, no residuals, and no set pay minimums.

As WGAw president Daniel Petrie put it in the press release:

The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.

Most readers of this site are familiar with one kind of writing when it comes to film and television. It happens on three-holed paper, with uppercase scene headers and neatly indented blocks for dialogue and parentheticals. But the truth is that much of the work a professional writer does in Hollywood takes on other formats: treatments and beat sheets, outlines and season patterns. Even in non-reality shows, a lot of the writing takes place before you type “FADE IN:”. So it’s a mistake to confuse “unscripted” with “unwritten.”

Many of the people who the WGA would like to organize are currently called producers — which is the norm in television. Be it The Simpsons or The Sopranos, many of the writers in television are called producers of some stripe: Executive Producer, Co-EP, Supervising Producer. Despite the title, there’s no doubt they’re writing. Every episode says “written by” or “teleplay by.”

In reality TV, there’s usually no “written by” credit. But it would be a mistake to think there’s no writing.

In addition to the obviously-scripted moments (someone has to tell Jeff Probst what to say), every episode needs writers to figure out what the hell the story is. Yes, video crews will capture the action, and a team of editors at Avids will ultimately cut the footage together, but the decisions about what actually happens in a given episode fall upon the writers, who have to tease plot, character development, comedy and tension out of hundreds of hours of “real life” taking place.

These people are, in fact, organizing reality. Which is why they deserve to be able to organize under the WGA umbrella. You can read more about the situation here.

UPDATE: After reading a note left in the comments section, I don’t want to understate the role editors often have shaping the “what happens” in reality TV. They’re often performing functions that would normally be the purview of writers; the question is, why aren’t they being compensated for it?

Formatting a reality show proposal


Writing loglines for a comedy

questionmarkSo now I have 120 pages of the funniest damn stuff you’ve never seen and I have to describe it in three or four sentences. How do you convey the witty dialogue, the clever visual gags, the essence of the humor in a logline?

Whenever I write one it ends up sounding like it’s describing an action movie or drama. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

– Jeff in Maplewood

You aren’t going to be able to summarize the visual gags, puns and one-liners in a logline, so don’t try. Rather, you want to distill what’s funny about the idea of your movie. The best practice is to take existing movies and figure out how you’d boil them down if you had to write a logline.

None of these would classify as John’s Best Effort, but they get the point across:

  • Groundhog Day — Bill Murray gets stuck repeating the same day, again and again. Every day, he tries to do something different, but the next morning everything resets to the way it was.

  • Shrek — A grumpy ogre and his hyperactive donkey have to save a princess. The world is made up of all the different fairy tale characters, like the Three Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man.

  • Clueless — An airheaded but ultimately well-meaning Beverly Hills teenager tries to “makeover her soul” in a riff on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Accept the fact that some movies aren’t so easily summarized. For instance, we never did come up with a logline for Go which sounded actually funny.

Note: Looking up the IMDb summaries for these examples proves that anonymous posters can do better than the pros. For Shrek:

A reclusive ogre and a chatterbox donkey go on a quest to rescue a princess for a tyrannical midget lord.

Damn. It’s the “tyrannical midget lord” that makes it funny.


Hey look! err..Listen! John’s on NPR. Briefly.

podcastAfter meeting a friend-of-a-friend at a birthday party over the weekend, I ended up getting pressed into service for a story on NPR’s Day to Day.

Reporter Mike Pesca wanted to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s challenges converting his action-movie persona into a consensus-building governor, and wanted to talk to a screenwriter about it. So I happily made with the quotes.

Here’s what I learned. Somehow, the experience of talking into a microphone makes constructing a coherent thought 300% more difficult. I sat down ready to talk about things like California’s abysmal Proposition 13, and found myself speaking non-words like “governenceship.” Bah. Fortunately, the snippets that made it in to the report are at least English.

You can hear the results here.

(For the record, I’m pretty neutral on Schwarzenegger. He’s honestly been a lot better than I was expecting, but that’s sort of damning with faint praise.)


Formatting the one-sided phone conversation

questionmarkI’m curious about your format for writing a one-sided phone conversation.

I’ve seen it done in so many different ways now, that I have no idea if there is a more uniform way of doing it, or a preferred way.

I’ve seen…

KEVIN

(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…I can’t make it…Look, that’s not my problem.

or…

KEVIN

(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…

(listens)

I can’t make it.

(listens)

Look, that’s not my problem.

Then, I’ve seen some similar to above, but filled with (beat) instead.

Is there one correct way to do it?

– Kris
New York City

There’s no one “right” way, but I tend to choose the first option, since space is always at a premium. The only time to break out the parentheticals is if something really is changing on Kevin’s side of the conversation: the tone, the intent or the direction of the conversation.

You’ll also need a parenthetical (or a separate action line) if Kevin is speaking to someone on-screen and on the phone at the same time.

For instance, here’s an exchange from Go:

GAINES

(on phone)

It’s called Mary Xmas. Mary like a chick…Like her name is Mary, not like you marry her. You fucking moron…I dunno, some warehouse shit.

(to Claire)

Is this gonna be cool?

CLAIRE

Yeah, I guess.

GAINES

(on phone)

My friend Claire here says it’s going to be a kick-ass-fucking-time…What, you know her?

(to Claire)

It’s your buddy Simon. He’s in Vegas.

CLAIRE

I know.

GAINES

She knows…Hell, I dunno…

(looks at Claire)

Maybe…Yeah, well save a load for me big boy…Whatever.