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.


Back from Austin

Two flights, three panels and five beers later, I can say I had a good time at the Austin Film Festival. It was certainly the best time I’ve had in Austin, largely because I got off my ass and went to the parties and screenings. (Although some of the credit for that has to go to the amazing new Google Maps for Treo, which made up for the notable lack of a map in the festival catalog.)

The strangest thing about a screenwriter-centric event is that for a few days I feel like a minor celebrity. Strangers recognize me, which almost never happens in Los Angeles. But in exchange for anonymity, I got lots of nice comments and even a t-shirt with my silhouette. Which kind of freaks me out, frankly. I don’t know that I’d wear it myself, and I’d be unnerved if I saw someone else wearing one.

Mike Curtis from HD for Indies wrote up what I talked about in my solo presentation yesterday, so props to him for the live-blogging. And best regards to all the panelists, organizers and attendees at the festival these next few days.


When characters have multiple names

questionmarkIn screenwriting classes they say not to introduce a character by one name only to switch it later on. For example, introducing a character as BARTENDER only to change it to BOB two pages later for no reason. However this feels like a different situation than my problem.

In my script there is a character that, for the sake of an important reveal later on, lies about his identity to the protagonist. In the script right now, the character introduction has his real name, while in the dialog he is referred to by his fake name. This ruins the important reveal later for someone reading the script.

The best example from a movie I can think of is the movie Charade. In Charade, Cary Grant’s character goes through at least three or four names.

How is this handled format-wise?

— J. Jovel
via imdb

In general, treat your reader like an audience member. As much as possible, you want to give readers the same information on the page that they would get on the screen. So if the character is introducing himself as “Mr. Truefake,” that’s what you should call him in the script.

In the third act, when it’s revealed that his real name is actually Ichabod Donnweather, it’s up to you whether you want to change his name in the scene description. If he’s only going to be sticking around for a page or two, you might consider using both names, like Truefake/Donnweather.

Another option is a quick explanatory note: “For clarity, we’ll continue to refer to him as Truefake.”

Either way, I’d advise you to keep using the original name in some form. Readers often lose track of characters, and changing up the names will generally make the situation worse.


Final Draft buys Script magazine

Today’s Variety reports that the makers of Final Draft have bought Script magazine and some related assets from Forum Publishing.

The deal probably makes sense for Final Draft. Rather than buy a big ad every month, why not just buy the whole magazine? Plus, Final Draft probably has a huge mailing list from its software registrations, which can help boost the circulation numbers.

Final Draft boss Marc Madnick is planning to redesign and relaunch Script in January. Given his company’s past record of upgrades — Final Draft 7.0, anyone? — here’s what I’d expect:

  • It will actually ship in 2008.
  • The staples will be in the wrong place.
  • An errant font will crash the magazine.
  • When you flip a page, the text will get jaggy.
  • Each issue can only be “installed” three times.

Can’t wait. Also…

Madnick said Final Draft is on track to sell about 35,000 software licenses this year.

That’s a lot of aspiring screenwriters. It also makes me wonder about the economics of screenwriting applications.

Final Draft’s list price is $229, but you can get it from Amazon for $169. Since we don’t know what percentage of their sales come from their own site and elsewhere, I’m going to pick $150 as their per-copy profit. That’s an arbitrary number, but it’s round, and we’re only looking for ballpark figures here.

35,000 x $150 = $5,250,000

Suffice to say, Microsoft won’t be going into the screenwriting software business. But for a lot of smaller software makers, that’s probably good money. Final Draft charges for tech support, so that’s not a big cost, and with online distribution, inventory costs are minimal. There’s certainly room for competing products.

But you won’t be reading about them in Script magazine.