Copyright: The Comic Book

comic bookIt seems every fourth question I get has the word “rights” in it: “Do I need the rights to…”, “How do I get the rights to…”, “Im not a gud speller I like to rights…”

Reader Chris Little wrote in to point out this terrific comic book — Tales from the Public Domain: BOUND BY LAW? It’s prepared by Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Not only does it describe situations where you have to be careful, it points out the absurdities of modern copyright law, where a cell phone ringing in the background can cost you $10,000.

A lot of the information skews toward documentary filmmaking, but it’s useful for anyone interested in portraying reality, and the near-impossibility of doing it as long as everything is protected by copyright.

You can read it all (for free!) here.

Why the Matrix trilogy ultimately blows

Following a link from digg, I just finished reading a lengthy explanation of the Matrix trilogy, written by an engineer, who attempts to deconstruct the films on a purely logical level. That is, he looks at what The Architect and The Oracle are trying to do, and how Neo fits into the plan, without any philosophical or pseudo-religious explanations.

I was originally just going to put a link to this in the Off-Topic list, but figured that might be construed as a tacit endorsement of incoherent blockbusters.

Thus, this short rant.

I should preface this by saying the engineer’s last name isn’t Wachowski, so there’s no way of knowing how his speculation fits with the writers’ original intention. But reading his essay, one thing becomes crystal clear: narratively speaking, those movies are a clusterfuck.

I remember going into a pitch meeting with Lorenzo Di Bonaventura at Warner Bros. shortly before Go came out. Before getting down to business, he played me the Matrix trailer. “This movie’s going to blow yours away,” he said. (I’m just barely paraphrasing. The point is, he was kind of a dick about it, and was absolutely right.)

I saw The Matrix in the theater, then bought the DVD, like every third person in America. And loved it.

Sure, there were nits to pick. For one, the idea of “humans as batteries” feels very first-draft. But even beyond the special effects, there was a really interesting, compelling story. I especially liked the two worlds of it: scary, but you kind of wanted to be there. I even bought the animated Matrix mini-movie DVD, which was enjoyable (if uneven).

So I was psyched to see The Matrix Reloaded. And then disappointed. It felt sluggish and indulgent, with slo-mo dance orgies that didn’t feel like part of the world. But I was more than willing to accept one slow movie to build up for the exciting conclusion that would no doubt be The Matrix Revolutions.

And here’s how I knew that the final movie — and thus the trilogy — didn’t work: When it was over, I had no idea what had happened. Worse, I had no idea how to feel. Hopeful? Despondent? Unsettled? The Oracle and The Architect were having a conversation, and I couldn’t even process it.

Lord knows, I’m not pining for simplicity or tidy answers. I’m happy with some ambiguity. But “incomprehensible” is not a synonym for “clever.”

My friend Rawson has a good phrase for it: “Playing obscurity for depth.” It’s the tendency of a screenplay — or an actor — to make weird choices that the audience won’t understand. The audience, fearing that they just didn’t “get it,” will label the writing or performance brilliant.

But it’s a trap. Once you get away with it, you inevitably do it again. It leads to laziness, which ultimately leads to bad movies. The time, money and energy spent shooting those two movies back-to-back could have been vastly better channeled if the Wachowskis had buckled down and done a few more drafts.

However well-intentioned, I think the second and third Matrix movies were playing obscurity for depth. For whatever reason, I’ve been reluctant to call bullshit on them. Well, bullshit.

Prince of Persia retrospective

prince of persiaJordan Mechner forwarded me this Ubisoft-created look back at the Prince of Persia series. It’s in sucky .wmv format, but does a nice job showing the evolution of the franchise from its humble PC roots.

Anticipating your inevitable questions:

  1. No, I don’t know when the movie will come out.
  2. No, we haven’t cast anyone.
  3. Yes, the movie is based on “The Sands of Time,” the first game in the series, which is lighter and more swashbuckling than the later games.
  4. Yes, we’re aware of the fact that Babylon (games two and three) doesn’t have anything to do with Persia.
  5. No, we don’t have a director yet.
  6. Yes, I think it would be great to find a (relatively) unknown Persian actor to play the prince. It’s not my decision, though. Just my opinion.
  7. No, don’t send headshots. Or links. I’ll delete them.
  8. I’m serious. Stop.

Who am I kidding? I’ll end up having to close comments anyway. But in the meantime, you can see the promo here.

Geek Help Wanted: The missing sidebar

Being a Mac user, I’m spoiled with Safari and Firefox, and happily assume that the rest of the world has it so good.

A kind reader wrote in to let me know that the sidebar isn’t showing up on Internet Explorer 6 or 7 for Windows. This means readers stuck with IE (at work, for example), aren’t seeing the search box, or any of the sections.

I’ve been willing to accept that the brad logo looks shitty on Windows (a .png issue). But lack of navigation?

This will not do.

I’ve poked around a bit, and tried the usual “make-it-validate” tricks, but haven’t cracked it. And I wouldn’t know if I did, since I don’t have a PC to test it on.

So if you’re a web-geeky reader with access to IE and some free time, and feel like pulling the source of this page to figure out why IE isn’t handling it as expected, I’d love to know. You’ll get a big shout-out from me, and good karma to boot.

UPDATE: A big thanks to Matthew Pennell and Andy for their suggestions. If you’re reading this on IE, please let me know if the changes so far have fixed the situation.

UPDATE #2: Here’s where we stand. Apparently, the sidebar now loads properly on IE 6 and 7 beta. I’ve set it so the brad logo doesn’t even show up on IE 6 (it was part of the problem), but appears normally on IE 7 beta.

Please let me know if this is not the case. And thanks to all of you for your help.

The answer is…Bob: The Musical

When I spoke to classes at Trinity University last week, a frequent question was, “What are you going to write next?”

It was a well-timed question, because I wasn’t entirely sure. There were two projects on the radar screen, both of them rewrites. I had a week to decide whether to do either.

The first was a difficult-but-potentially-great bio-pic about a major figure of the 1970’s. Everyone and their brother had tried to make the movie, but it had never gotten to the starting line. But there seemed to be new traction, along with a new (and high-profile) director who seemed up for the challenge.

The other was a high-concept comedy about a guy who hates musicals, who wakes up one day to find himself trapped inside one. It too had a well-chosen director, along with a studio that was very eager to make it.

I described both projects to various classes and listened for their reaction. For the bio-pic, I got respectful nods.

For “Bob: The Musical,” I got a laugh-and-or-chuckle, almost every time.

I think that’s because it’s really easy to see why the movie would be funny. In five seconds, you can visualize the trailer, the TV spots, and the one-sheet. You can hear what the star would say on Leno: “It’s a movie for people who love musicals, and especially for people who hate them.”

But the fact that Bob is obviously a movie doesn’t mean it’s obviously the movie I should write next. Here was my decision making process:

1. Which movie is more likely to get made?
Remember, as the screenwriter, I don’t get to decide which of the movies I write actually gets made. For that, I’m beholden to a hundred other factors, most of them out of my control. So if I’m going to dedicate months of my time to a project, it makes sense to pick one that will get made. So for that, I’d say Bob. It’s easy to make, easy to market. The bio-pic, on the other hand, has been in development for more than a decade. My script could be just one more sitting on the shelf.

2. Which movie will be better for my career-slash-reputation?
Tougher call. If I wrote a kick-ass version of the bio-pic, and if the director did a great job, and if the film got a terrific critical response, then I think that would be the winner. Notice: that’s a lot of “ifs.” But by the same token, if the film didn’t work (a “noble failure” in industry parlance), I’m not sure it would hurt me that much.

Even if I wrote the superlative version of Bob: The Musical, I wouldn’t clear any space on the mantel for awards. It’s just not that kind of movie. And in disaster, I’m not sure the movie would do me much harm either.

3. Which is the more challenging?
The bio-pic, no question. I’d be working out of my comfort zone, most notably in the time period. I was born in 1970, so trying to write about the adults of that era is difficult. In many ways, I’d feel more comfortable writing about cavemen, because at least that way I’d know that no former hippie was going to come up to me and say, “Man, you totally missed what it felt like to be there.”

By the way: challenging is good. All things being equal, I’d rather work on the challenging project than the one I could write easily. But challenging work takes longer, and forces me to ask the question…

4. Which do I have time to do?
This was really the deciding factor. Because of prior commitments, I have a limited window in which to do this next project. So whichever rewrite I choose, when I’m done with it, I need to be able to walk away. That was looking unlikely with the bio-pic, given the director’s schedule and work history. Also, knowing myself, I would probably choose to stay much more involved with something I’d struggled harder to write.

So, after meeting with the director, producer and studio folks, I signed on yesterday to rewrite Bob: The Musical. The original screenplay was written by Mike Bender, who is now adapting a Spanish film series over at New Line. Considering that his brother is one of the producers on Bob, I suspect he’s okay with getting rewritten.

I’m eager to get to work. Obviously, with Charlie and Corpse Bride, I’ve written musicals before, but this is the first time I’ll be able to incorporate songs into something approximating the real world. It’s also a chance to riff on musical cliches and conventions. Marc Shaiman (South Park, Hairspray) has signed on to write the songs, who seems ideally suited for the task. So here’s hoping.

One irony is that the director is Mark Waters, who’s made a good career for himself despite having turned down Go when it was offered to him. An unwritten rule of Hollywood is that eventually you work with everyone, so it’s nice to see that coming true.

Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur

Last night, I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture at Trinity University in San Antonio. While I speak at various screenwriter-oriented functions fairly often, this was unusual in that the event was university-wide, and the focus wasn’t specifically on film.

Part of the deal was that I had to announce the title of my speech months in advance. I picked, “Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur,” figuring that in the intervening months I would think of inspiring examples of how the World of Tomorrow was going to be a wonderland of possibility for the undergraduates in the audience.

But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to talk about the future. Instead, I wanted to focus on one of the biggest challenges of today: in our celebration of the amateur, we kind of forget what it means to be professional.

As I spoke with various classes before the big presentation, I promised I’d post the whole speech on the site for those students who had night classes. And, of course, for anyone else who might be interested.

Let me warn you: this is long. My speech lasted 45 minutes, and that was without a lot of riffing. So if you’d rather read the whole thing as a .pdf, you can find it here.

. . .

It’s a pleasure to be here talking with you tonight. Over the last two days, I’ve been visiting a lot of classes, talking about screenwriting and movies, and well, basically talking about myself. Which I’m really good at. But when I agreed to give a formal public lecture, one of the requirements was that the presentation actually have a title. By which I mean a topic, a thesis. A point.

It all feels very academic, and I love that. I miss that. None of you will believe me now, but some day you’ll look back on your college careers and be wistful. Nostalgic. Because there’s something comforting about having to write a fifteen page paper on the use of floral imagery in “Pride and Prejudice.”

I think what it is, is that even if you’re completely wrong, it just doesn’t matter that much. For the rest of your life, you’re going to get called on bullshitting. In college, you’re graded on it.


I decided I wanted my lecture tonight to be not strictly about screenwriting, but about writing in general. Because everyone in this room is a writer. You might write screenplays; you might write research papers. You definitely write emails. Every one of you is, and will be, a professional writer in some field.

So I wanted to talk about what that means.