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.


How to format lyrics in scripts

I was quite curious as to how one would write a scene with characters singing a song, musical style. Do we just include “singing” as an action within the handy parentheses? Or is there some other formatting we must use? And how much mention are we supposed to give to the music itself?

— Adam Scott
Perth, Australia

For movies and television, the convention is to put the lyrics in italics. It’s probably helpful to include a “(singing)” parenthetical the first time you do it, because some readers may not catch it otherwise. And yes, dialogue in italics can also be used for foreign languages, so you’ll need to make sure it’s clear in context.

Here’s where the former graphic designer in me resurfaces. Screenplays are written in 12-pt. Courier, which is not the most attractive typeface in the world, but certainly sturdy and readable. There’s an italic form of Courier that’s rounded and a little more like handwriting, which would be quite suitable for lyrics.

However, the “italic” form of Courier you find on most computers is really just normal Courier with a slant effect applied (called “oblique”), and it seriously blows. It’s ugly on screen. It’s ugly printed.

It’s impossible to write beautiful lyrics in such an ugly typeface.

So, having written lyrics in many of my scripts, I’ve come to use a different typeface altogether for the songs. For Big Fish, I used 11 pt. Stone Sans Italic. For Charlie and Corpse Bride, I switched to 11 pt. Verdana Italic, because I needed to send those scripts in as .pdf files, and you can safely count on just about any computer having Verdana installed.

Why 11 pt., when the main text is set at 12 pt.? That’s because Verdana looks much bigger than Courier when set at the same point size. You’re also more likely to get a full lyric line in without a break at that size. (Although I feel no guilt cheating a margin slightly to avoid a break in any event.)

Some scripts I’ve read will include a slash “/” at the end of each sung line. I don’t find that helpful, so I never use it.

In terms of talking about the music, your best bet is to describe the general style and tone, such as “bright, Sousa-like march” or “melancholy dirge.” You can give an example if it’s particularly apt, but I’d avoid a reference that makes the reader stop and think, “Hmm, how does that go?”

Note that the convention for songs in stage musicals is completely different. For those, lyrics are placed in uppercase along the left margin. You can see examples of the format in the templates for Final Draft or Screenwriter.

Write-up of my recent WGA Foundation Q&A

Screenblogger Devon DeLapp was generous enough to type up his notes of my recent Q&A at the Writers Guild Foundation. He did a good job keeping up with a rambling conversation. I only have a few real corrections/clarificatons:

  • Go really didn’t change that much from the first draft.
  • Charlie’s Angels was a positive experience, but not “a total love fest.” [clears throat]
  • My dad died several years before I read Big Fish.
  • For Thief of Always, I was fired for a very specific reason: the director and novelist hated my script.
  • Drew Barrymore’s relative star power wasn’t the deciding factor on Barbarella; there were complicated studio politics at work.
  • “I can beat myself with the best of them.” Well, I probably said that, but it sounds kind of naughty out of context.
  • Although I write longhand (a scribble version, followed by a readable one), what my assistant types up is exactly the script, not notes. I’ll try to scan some of these scenes so people can see what I mean.
  • “Get job as a writer on TV” — as if it’s that easy. But I really do think that every screenwriter should look at TV as just another screen, and pursue it if at all interested.

You can read the whole shebang here. Thanks again to Devon for putting it up.

Does the editor even read the script?

Does the editor read the script and use it as a framework when the screenwriter is not involved in editing? How else does she make sense of all the footage the director has shot to cut into a cohesive whole? Also, do you see the editor’s role as bringing to screen the vision of the screenwriter?

— dabba
via imdb

The editor almost certainly reads the script at least once, before she signs on for the job. After that, it’s hard to say.

Pretty much everyone who’s ever taken an editing class has had some variation of this common assignment: given a bag of random footage (or a folder, in the digital age), you’re told to assemble it into a meaningful sequence.

And the thing is, you can. So even if editors never cracked the script open, they could still do their job. Every scene has a scene number associated with it, which comes from the script, so there’s not even a question of, “Does the car chase come first, or the bank robbery?”

Is it the editor’s job to bring the screenwriter’s vision to the screen? Nope. The editor’s job is to make the best movie possible given the footage shot, which is often a source of potential conflict between the screenwriter and editor. The screenwriter says, “This scene is about Kyle forgiving Mary!” The editor replies, “No, it’s about Mary looking for her keys. That’s what was shot. I can’t make it something it’s not.”

While I’ve had good relationships with most of the editors on the films I’ve written, there’s no question that the editor works primarily for the director. To the degree I’ve been able to help out in post-production, it’s been providing thoughtful notes that not only point out problems but offer solutions.

I always write up my notes so the whole team can read them, and agree or disagree. On a first cut, that might mean 12 pages of notes. But so far, at least, it’s proved to be a help. Editors, like screenwriters, are generally bombarded by the opinions of people who think they know best. So I make sure the tone is respectful.

For example, from the first Charlie’s Angels:

The outside tables
We should flop the order of business in this scene, starting with Vivian Wood looking though the file and trying to get them to hand over full access to the computer. Only after she’s denied does Knox ask them to go out.

Here’s the big change: the subtitled Finnish is completely different. The angels are still in work mode, talking about how Knox could still be in danger, this may not all be over, et cetera. We exit on a look between Dylan and Knox, setting up that there may be potential ahead.

My notes are always addressed to the director, but they’re ultimately for the use of the editor, who can implement whatever seems workable.

When the editor and screenwriter respect each other, I think it can be a very fruitful relationship. The screenwriter generally has more distance from the production, and can look with fresher eyes than the editor, who know where all the bodies (and bad takes) are buried.

If a trade paper has a blog, is it still a trade?

Question: Would The Hollywood Reporter sneak into Sony Pictures late at night, grab the director’s rough cut of a new movie, then publish a review of it the next morning?

No. They’d lose all credibility and respect of the filmmakers and studio folks who constitute their readership. There would be outrage.

Instead, The Hollywood Reporter (like its fellow “trade” newspaper, Variety) waits to review movies in their finished form — or at least, in a public screening, such as a film festival. The reviews aren’t always positive, but the circumstances surrounding the review are fair.

Would The Hollywood Reporter run a review of a script in production?

Highly doubtful. To my knowledge, they’ve never done so. Likely, that’s because they recognize what a disservice that is to the filmmakers. Movies change significantly over the course of production. Reviewing the screenplay while the movie’s in production would be (in my opinion) worse than reviewing a rough cut, because it’s not acknowledging the role the director, actors and other departments play.

So I was concerned to see this entry in the Hollywood Reporter’s blog:

Thanks to Stax, IGN FilmForce’s resident Bond maven, for this link to a description of the new James Bond script. If you don’t want to read the spoilers, don’t go there!

If you followed the link to IGN, you’d see it’s actually another link to Latino Review, which has the actual article. To be clear: The Hollywood Reporter blog didn’t publish a review of the script. They published a link, which in turn led to another link.

Still, this seemed pretty unusual for The Hollywood Reporter. So I called Anne Thompson, the deputy editor whose picture runs alongside the text on the blog. We had a good conversation about her decision to include the piece, and the challenging distinction between capital-J journalism and what happens on the internet. She was thoughtful and forthright, and ultimately revised the piece to remove the link — one of the real benefits of the digital age.

I consider that specific issue resolved, and thank Anne for attending to it so quickly.

Part of the reason the issue resonated for me is that I’m in the middle (okay, beginning) of writing a public lecture that I’m giving in a few weeks as Trinity University. I had to announce my lecture title months ago, so I picked: “Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur.” And this is certainly a good example.

It is easy to empathize with the frustrations of a professional journalist who gets “scooped” by film geeks still in high school. Writing under a pseudonym at Ain’t It Cool News, YoMamasBeeeotch can spill all the dirt on an upcoming James Cameron project, without the burdens of truth, accuracy or grammar. When criticized, these writers generally fall back on the defense of, “I’m not a professional journalist! I’m just a fan who wants great movies!”

The central question of my lecture — for which I don’t currently have a meaningful answer — is what does it mean to be a professional writer? It can’t just be getting paid, because in the age of AdSense, the blogger can out-earn the reporter. It’s not the size of the readership, because many blogs attract more eyeballs than traditional papers do.

My hunch is that the distinction between professional and amateur lies in the implied contract between writer and reader. The professional writer is promising a certain level of accuracy, consistency and forthrightness.

That’s why I chafed at seeing that link in The Hollywood Reporter, when I wouldn’t have blinked an eye if it were in CHUD. But these are murky times.