Chicago: The Musical. No, not that one.

I spent a few days in Chicago1 to see the premiere of my friends’ new musical Asphalt Beach, which is workshopping at Northwestern University. The show was terrific, and vindication for my decade of belief in my friends’ talent.

I took advantage of being away from L.A. to start writing something brand new. That’s my modus operandi; I generally barricade myself in a hotel room for a few days to crank through pages when starting a new project. I write longhand and quickly — first a scribble draft of a scene, then a more legible (but still handwritten) version. I fax pages back to Los Angeles and don’t let myself edit.

Since a writer can only stare at the same four walls for so long, I try to pick someplace interesting for my sequestration. Vegas is a good choice. When one doesn’t drink or gamble, it’s basically a giant, noisy food court. That’s where I started both Charlie’s Angels scripts and The Movie. I wrote Fury in San Diego, and Tarzan on a 23-hour train ride from Los Angeles to Seattle. I wrote Fantasy Island and Jurassic Park III in Hawaii, though the latter was more “forced labor” than a writing vacation.

It’s been six months since I’ve written something new, which is my longest hiatus by far. So I was happy to find that I could still string words together in a non-blog environment. After months of dealing with actors and vehicles and visual effects, it’s liberating to deal with only words.

This time, I wrote a play. An honest-to-Baal, curtain-comes-up stage play. The story sort of demanded it: it’s necessarily talky, less about What Happens as much as What It’s About. The lack of easy CUT TO:’s is more than made up for by the luxury of scene length. In a stage play, you can do things that are unwieldy in films:

TOM: Let me make Point One.
MARY: Sure, we’ll talk about Point One.
TOM: Now let me tie that in to Point Two.
MARY: Really? Well, here’s Point Three.
(Steve ENTERS)
STEVE: What are we talking about?
MARY: Point Three.
STEVE: That sounds a lot like Point Four, which Tom and I were talking about in the previous scene, only from the opposite perspective.
TOM: Unlike a movie, we don’t have to simplify arguments down to postage-stamp sized thought nuggets. Ambiguity and uncertainty are a-okay.
MARY: We can also assume a much higher level of audience sophistication, since only rich, educated people bother seeing plays.
STEVE: And no unnecessary car chases!

On the downside, stage play formatting seriously blows. Dialogue stretches from margin to margin, and stage directions are surrounded by completely unnecessary parentheses. But one can’t have everything.

  1. Technically, Evanston, which is north of Chicago. Apparently, confusing the two is annoying to actual Chicagoans, on par with saying “Los Angeles” when one means “Orange County.” My apologies to anyone offended.

On floating jets

I arrived in Chicago yesterday for a few days’ work on the next thing I’m writing.

In the cab leaving the airport, I saw a giant jet landing. Something about our relative speeds and angles created the illusion that the plane wasn’t moving forward at all. Rather, it was gracefully floating straight down.

It was levitating, basically. I pictured Magneto with his gloved hand stretched out, fingers bent, a look of weary concentration in his eyes.

Anyway. It was cool enough that it needed to be noted.

Depression on film

Steve Peterson points out you rarely see clinical depression in movies and TV. Which is odd, considering it’s much more common in real life than, say, retrograde amnesia.

What makes clinical depression un-cinematic is that it’s a negative affect: it’s characterized by a lack of motivation, a lack of action. Great writing can only do so much when you have a protagonist who doesn’t want to protagonate.

Shortbus has a clinically depressed character who goes off his meds — a decision that is as frustrating in a movie as it is in real life. While the character explains himself fairly well, he’s kind of a drag to be around. Again, realistic, but not particularly cinematic.

Movies look nothing like reality

While at Austin, I caught a screening of Susannah Grant’s new movie CATCH AND RELEASE. Since I sorta-know and definitely admire half the people in it (Jennifer Garner, Tim Olyphant, Kevin Smith), not to mention producer Jenno Topping, I’m hardly an unbiased viewer. So I’ll leave the reviews to more neutral eyes.

But what I do feel justified discussing is the movie’s setting: Boulder, Colorado. My home town.

My very first script was set in Boulder, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how it would look on film. Watching CATCH AND RELEASE, I saw many of my chosen locations (The Hill, the Pearl Street Mall, various Flatirons) yet felt almost no recognition that this was actually Boulder.

It’s not the film’s fault. It’s just that movies look nothing like reality.

For instance, a scene set at the Pearl Street Mall is shot in mostly mediums and close-ups. Without a big wide establishing shot, you don’t get a sense of a street that’s been converted to a pedestrian mall. Of course, the movie doesn’t need the wide shot. The scene would probably be worse for its inclusion. It’s only Boulderites who miss the sense of geography.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. The movie is a postcard and valentine for Boulder, and its brand of earnest happiness and liberal optimism. Characters attend the opening of a “peace garden” without a trace of snarkiness to be found — and this in a movie featuring Kevin Smith.

Yes, much of the movie was shot on soundstages and locations far from Boulder. But it wasn’t the geographic differences that hurt the verisimilitude; it was the movie magic. In real life, the sun doesn’t dapple, clutter isn’t charming, and a wall painted “Tampax blue” wouldn’t merit discussion.

I have first-hand experience with the disorienting effects of movie magic, since a portion of The Movie I just directed was shot at my own house. For the last four months, I’ve been staring at footage of my kitchen, yet I barely connect it as being the same place I eat breakfast every morning.

Light, film and lenses change the colors and geometry of the room. The camera watches from places a human wouldn’t, constant and undistracted.

After a friends-and-family of The Movie, I got word back from a friend who lamented that her own house seemed less grown-up after seeing mine on film. She’s overlooking the fact we packed up all the baby toys, the dog beds, the stacks of unread mail, and the dishes in the sink. My house looks grown-up the same way houses in magazine shoots look: perfect, because no one has to live there.

In every scene, in every shot, there are lights and flags and twenty crew members just off the edge of frame, all working really hard to make it look nothing like reality.

What if my movie is too much like another?

questionmarkI have been working on a spec that has a great premise. Not long ago, a Big Hollywood Movie came out with a very similar premise, and touched on similar themes as my script. Now, I’m NOT asking, “Can I sue?”, or any of the other similar questions I have found asked by others in this situation.

My story has a different angle, and of course, I think it’s better than this other movie. What I want to know is this: when this thing is ready to send out (looking for agent, mainly, but as evidenced by Big Hollywood Movie, it might sell), should I mention its similarity to the Big Hollywood Movie? Would doing so help or hinder my cause? I can foresee the situation where I mention up front that my script is like Big Hollywood Movie, not wanting to look like a copycat, but I end up looking like more of a copycat. On the other hand, I can foresee coming off as a copycat if I don’t mention it. Sacrificing brevity for clarity, I again ask:

When this thing is ready to send out, should I mention its similarity to the Big Hollywood Movie?

— Luke
Washington, DC

Without knowing the specific details of your plot, it’s impossible to say. But here’s the issue I think you’re overlooking: is your script really that similar?

You think so, because you’ve been staring at your script for months, cursing your dumb luck to have written something so much like Big Dumb Hollywood Movie. But to an outside observer, it might not seem that way.

Years ago, when I was working on my Untitled Zombie Western, I read in Variety about two different “cowboy and aliens” projects rushing though development. I was certain my project was doomed — no way would anyone want to do my genre-crossing hybrid now. I refused to listen to friends’ reasonable advice: aliens are not zombies; my setting was distinct; most movies never make it out of development.

My friends were right on all three counts, and neither of the cowboys-and-aliens movies have shot. (Neither has my zombie western, so my schadenfreude offers limited satisfaction.)

You say that your script has a similar premise and theme, but neither of those speak to plot. X-MEN and SKY HIGH have similar premises, but if you’d written the latter, you wouldn’t automatically draw the comparison to the former.

Here’s probably the best test for whether you need to acknowledge the similarity to Big Hollywood Movie: write a three-sentence description of your script. If it sounds a lot like the other movie, you should probably call it out. But if it’s clear how it differs, then leave it alone.

Ultimately, the similarities between your script and the other movie might be enough to keep it from progressing. But remember that the goal of this script is to get people to notice how good your writing is. Execution is what matters.

Using overheard dialogue

(?)Let’s say I’m at work and I overhear some great dialogue. Can I use it, or should I worry about my co-workers suing me when they hear it in my movie?

— Kobe
via imdb

Use it. Just as a photographer freely captures the visible world with a lens, a writer needs to record not just what people say, but how they say it. Ninety-nine percent of the spoken word is lost forever, which mean you have the liberty, nay, the obligation to poach dialogue from real life.

Just don’t be a dick about it. There’s a moral equivalent of the “fair use” law: don’t take whole speeches, and don’t leave in details that would reveal who the real-life speaker was. Also, keep in mind that certain co-workers might be writers themselves. If Witty Writer says something clever, there’s a good chance she’s going to want to keep it for herself. And she should.