Drive-by tagging

I got tagged to write up my answers to Fun Joel’s scribosphere meme thing. So here goes.

ONE (1) earliest film-related memory:

I went to see The Muppet Movie with my Mom. It was just the two of us, so my Dad and brother were gone somewhere. It might have been an Indian Guides camp-out, or my Grandfather’s funeral. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?”

The Muppet Movie is oddly meta if you go back and watch it as an adult. For instance, The Sunshine Band Electric Mayhem decides to join Kermit on his quest only because they pick up the script and read ahead.

TWO (2) favorite lines from movies:

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
– Ripley, Aliens (James Cameron)

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
– Margo Channing, All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

THREE (3) jobs you’d do if you could not work in the “biz”:

  • Chef
  • Graphic Designer
  • Web Monkey

FOUR (4) jobs you actually have held outside the industry:

  • Graphic Designer
  • Bank Temp (I set off the silent alarm)
  • Campus Tour Guide
  • Handkerchief Ironer

THREE (3) book authors you like:

  • David Sedaris
  • Augusten Burroughs
  • Steven Pinker

TWO (2) movies you’d like to remake or properties you’d like to adapt:

  • Tarzan
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Charlie’s Angels
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Forbidden Planet
  • Pride and Prejudice (as if we need another one)

ONE (1) screenwriter you think is underrated:

Alejandro Amenábar.

THREE (3) people I’m tagging to answer this meme next:

Josh Friedman, Craig Mazin, and American McGee.

Because not all screenwriters live in Wisconsin

I recently did an e-mail interview with the good folks at the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum, only to realize that a significant percentage of my readership base (aspiring screenwriters, confused Christians, web-surfing office drones) lives outside of our 30th state, and therefore might not receive the newsletter.

So with WSF’s kind permission, I’m reprinting it here.

Could you tell me a little about the process you went through from the time you decided you wanted to write screenplays, to the time you wrote GO?

I wrote my first script in graduate school. It was a romantic tragedy set in Colorado. Reading it now, I don’t think it’s all that good, but the writing showed enough promise to get me some meetings, and ultimately an agent. By that time, I had already written the first part of Go, designed to be a short film. It was only several scripts later (after How to Eat Fried Worms and A Wrinkle in Time) that I went back and wrote the full version of Go.

I pretty much always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know anything about screenwriting until I got to Los Angeles. Like all new screenwriters, it took a while to get used to the format.

How did GO make its way from an idea in your mind to your first produced feature film?

Go came from a bunch of little incidents I’d collected over the years, some true, some not. A lot of people focus on the structure of it, but I think what makes it work is that moment-by-moment, you’re not sure where the hell it’s going. That’s very much the experience of being twenty.

What process do you adhere to, if any, when approaching an adaptation?

Adaptations are really no different than originals. You’re looking for what’s inherently the “movie idea.” Sometimes that’s obvious (Jurassic Park) and sometimes that’s more work to uncover (Big Fish). But in both cases, you’re best off building the movie from the ground up, rather than trying to force the original material into a cinematic shape.

What are some of the smartest things you’ve done in regards to your career? Things you feel have helped bring you to your current level of success.

I was never a big networker. I didn’t keep up relationships on the off chance that someday I’d work with a certain person. But I learned how to be good in meetings, which means knowing when to talk and when to listen. When people would give me stupid notes, I wouldn’t reject them outright, but would rather try to intuit what they actually wanted, even if they couldn’t articulate it. And I’ve always tried to be the guy who comes up with solutions, rather than pointing out problems.

Have you made any mistakes along the way, in regards to your screenwriting career, which others could potentially learn from?

Especially early in my career, I’d fall in love with a given scene and do anything to keep it in the script, even if in my heart I knew it wasn’t working for the story. Now, I’m a lot more ruthless. There will always be other great scenes. What’s important is that the piece as a whole is working.

How do you approach writing that snappy dialogue you’ve become popular for?

Dialogue is just the way people would talk if they had a few extra seconds to think about what they were going to say. It’s not exactly natural; it’s more compressed and streamlined. I think it’s a lot like how illustrators do animation, flipping pages back and forth to see how it moves. I’m constantly reading from line to line, making sure the rhythm works.

What are some of your favorite movies? Screenplays? Books?

My favorite movie is Aliens, which is probably my favorite screenplay as well. I don’t know that I have one favorite book. I don’t tend to re-read books the way I’ll re-watch movies, so I don’t have the same kind of familiarity with any one work. But in general, I love the dysfunctional family genre, such as Augusten Burrough’s RUNNING WITH SCISSORS or David Sedaris’ NAKED.

What piece of advice could you have used back when you were an aspiring screenwriter?

To worry less about the format and more about the words. Honestly, if a script has terrific writing, no one will give a rat’s ass about the margins and sluglines. There’s far too much emphasis on doing things right, and not enough on doing things brilliantly. When you read a great script, the paper disappears and you feel like you’re watching a movie. That has nothing to do with 12 pt. Courier. It’s artful writing, and that’s the only crucial element

What’s with all the remakes?

questionmarkMy question has to do with the recent trend in adapting books and old movies.

Is it that screenwriters have run out of good scripts, or that producers are too scared to produce anything that hasn’t already been in the public eye?

What is left for the writers who have original stories to tell?

– Ryan Scott Fitzgerald
via imdb

Books have been adapted into movies pretty much since the beginning of cinema. So it’s a mistake to conflate literary adaptations with remakes, or at least to label it a recent trend.

But you’re right to notice that a diminishing percentage of the movies coming out of Hollywood originated with the screenwriter. I don’t think the trend represents any failure on the part of America’s screenwriters. They’re still writing great original scripts. You’re just not seeing them, because these scripts aren’t getting made into movies.

I have two theories why.

The first is fear. We tend to think of studios as faceless corporations, but in reality, the decision to make a given movie rests with a very small number of people. At some studios, a single studio chief has the power to greenlight a movie. At others, it’s a committee of maybe four or five. Either way, it’s their call.

Let’s pretend you, Ryan, are a studio chief.

If you pick the right movie, and it’s a giant hit, you’re a hero. You get millions of dollars in bonuses. You move up a few notches on the “Power 100″ list.

If you pick the wrong movie, and it’s a bomb, you get fired. Maybe you can get by with a few bombs. But eventually, you will get canned.

Which movies will you choose to make? Probably the ones you know you can market. The ones which, even if they’re not blockbusters, probably won’t be disasters either.

Basically, you make Spider-Man, King Kong or The Dukes of Hazzard.

Because as much as you love movies, you’re afraid of making a bomb. You’re afraid of getting fired. And if one of your sure-fire hits ends up tanking (c.f. Bewitched), you can at least defend why you tried to make it. Had you spent the same amount of money on a riskier project, you’d be in a worse situation career-wise.

My second theory for why fewer movies are coming from original scripts: control. Producers and studios want to drive the process. They don’t want to be beholden to a screenwriter’s vision. They’d rather buy the rights to a book, then hire a screenwriter to adapt it. (Or better, look through the vault for a film they can remake.)

For the producer or studio executive, there’s something comfortingly abstract about the rights to, say, Knight Rider. Properties like Knight Rider are very much like pieces of real estate. The studio owns them, and wants to build something incredible on them. Never mind that it would make a lot more sense — and be a lot less expensive — to build somewhere else. I often compare screenwriting to architecture, and this is another example. People hire Frank Gehry to build them a house on swampland.

An Academy Award-winning writer could pitch the most kick-ass movie imaginable, and the studio would still say, “How about Knight Rider? We just got the rights! We’re thinking Kevin Spacey for K.I.T.T.”


But while Hollywood isn’t making as many original movies as it used to, one really has to consider independent film, which didn’t exist to nearly the same degree a decade or two ago. Taken as a whole, the film industry still has plenty of room for original voices. But you won’t get paid as much, unless you incorporate a talking robotic car.

Turn to page 17 for a sex joke

questionmarkI’ve heard a rumor that in the “industry” it’s an inside joke to have some sort of nudity or sex on page 17. Specifically 17. First, is that actually funny? And second, is it a shoe-in in terms of a scriptreader reading further?

– Zeb
via imdb

I’ve never heard this, but I love it.

True, it’s not “actually” funny. Something so meta is almost never actually funny, because it relies on knowing something outside the world of the story. At best, it’s funny in the way a Charlie Kaufman movie is funny: it makes you feel clever for a moment, but you’re not going to wet your shorts with laughter.

I just checked, and the script I’m currently writing does not have a sex joke or nudity on page 17. Which is surprising, because the first act is seriously stuffed with sex jokes. And implied nudity, if that counts.

Matt gets millions to make a movie

questionmarkI’ve received a couple million dollars to write and direct my own picture. I am in doubt as to whether or not I have the talent to pull it off.

I hear writers always talking about horrible writers and great writers. Does that actually exist? If so, what is it that makes great writers great and bad writers bad?

Also do you feel that in order to write an amazing screenplay your knowledge of grammar and your size of vocabulary are important factors? I feel that vocabulary and grammar are my weaknesses. However, I continue to think what Ron Howard once said that, “Your screenplay should make sense to an eight year old.”

In stating that, what is the most important thing for me to work on? My lack of grammar knowledge? Or my lack of vocabulary? Or do these two factors have any relevance at all to a screenplay? To sum up, what should I be focusing on?

– Matt
via imdb

You should focus on being very careful as you cross the street, because I suspect there are several hundred aspiring writer-directors reading this right now who might “accidentally” run you over. That’s why I’m not printing your last name.

Seriously, Matt. “I’ve received a couple million dollars to write and direct my own picture.” Did you win the lottery? Rob a bank? Blackmail some rich old guy?

I ask because you clearly didn’t get it by any ordinary means. See, most people don’t get to write and direct a multi-million dollar film out of the gate. Rather, they write a few scripts. Direct a charming short film. They do something that proves to the People With Millions to Spend that this young writer-director is worth the investment.

No offense, but that doesn’t sound like you, Matt.

The only reasonable scenario I could envision is if you’re actually tremendously talented in one of the other filmmaking crafts, and are now getting to direct for the first time. Maybe you’re a terrific production designer like Bo Welch, or an acclaimed cinematographer like Jack Green. Could be.

Or maybe you’re just really effing lucky.

Regardless, if someone is giving you several million to direct your own picture, make sure you don’t let them see this self-doubt. More than anything, the money people want confidence.

As to your actual question: Does grammar or vocabulary have any relevance to a screenplay? Um, yeah. A fair amount. It’s easy to get a smart person to help with your grammar. Vocabulary is tougher. I’d advise against a thesaurus, however. In my experience, they’re helpful in finding exactly the wrong word for the situation.

If you’re really in doubt, the best idea might be to spend some fraction of those several million dollars on a screenwriter with a strong grasp of grammar and vocabulary. (Along with character, dialogue, structure, pacing, atmosphere, tone and theme. Those help, too.)

For what it’s worth, good luck. I really don’t begrudge anyone getting to make their movie.