The Theory of Chaos

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sometimes I really do need to be reminded I work in the movie business

For those of you trying to keep track, I'll distinguish MSK - the abbreviation for the script I'm currently writing a first draft of - from The Vegas Project, the script I finished the first draft of over New Years' which my producer friend is presently humping around Hollywood in search of patrons. Today I got an update on The Vegas Project.

This is a script that my agent, my producer friend, and myself all agree is not right for the spec market. "Spec", for those of you who don't know, is short for "speculative". It's a blanket term for scripts that are not written on assignment, but on a writer's own uncompensated initiative. Most writers, really any writer without a secure position on a studio's approved list of go-to pencils, does a lot of work on spec. When I get a new idea, I can take it out as a "pitch" - hoping through a thrillingly witty sales presentation to get someone excited enough about it to "pay" me before I actually have to "write" it. Or I can "spec" it, so the script itself can convey my intentions.

There are people out there who've made steaming piles of cash because they can pitch the hell out of a story (known as "Great in a Room"), even though they absolutely fail at making a good script out of it. They thrive because studios can always hire someone to re-write them. Whatever I might think about the efficiency of that system, I have accepted one thing - I am not "Great in a Room". I'm terrible at pitching, so I
have to be good at the writing.

I've already written The Vegas Project on spec, but when it comes time to get a script out into the industry for consideration, "spec" takes on a different meaning. To an agent, to "spec" something means to ship it out simultaneously to as many clout-wielding moneybags as they can get on the phone, banking that in the general confusion and clock's-ticking excitement, enough people will fear losing the project to someone faster that their reasoning will be scrambled and they'll be more likely to buy first and ask questions later.
Queen Lara made some small noise with this technique, it probably contributed to it being purchased rather than optioned. Fast-reading scripts with marketable high concepts and glitzy attachments thrive in this atmosphere. Moody, character-dense pieces like The Vegas Project do not.

My agent, my producer friend and I have thus settled on a more deliberate approach. We're seeking attachments - the clinical term for additional people-assets that will sex-up the project for potential buyers. This most often takes the form of directors or actors who pledge to work on the eventual film, thus making it easier for executives (who cannot admit they're never quite sure they can tell from reading the script) to pull the trigger. This isn't easy - agents don't like committing their clients to work that isn't fully-funded yet, but you hope to end-run around them and ignite someone's passion with it so they'll take the risk. You seek directors and actors with their own production companies - they've taken a more entrepreneurial interest in their career, and are thus more approachable with potentially non-blockbuster "prestige" material. They have the chance to get in on the ground floor of a project that will feed their creative urge. That's what we're presenting The Vegas Project as.

So my producer friend has good friends at two production companies run by actors who are right for the lead role in my script and can command the big letters on the multiplex marquee. To get in the orbit of either of them would defibrilate my whole damn career. One has yet to respond - his boss has a movie opening imminently and is thus rather occupied. The other called to respond today...

As I suspected, he passed. The star he vets material for already has A Vegas Project where he would play a very similar character to my script. That one has a director and financing, and a bird in the hand with money behind it sure as hell beats what I'm offering. This happens very often - in Hollywood there's a rotating group of about twelve actors who can make your movie go by their mere presence. Take out the unavailable ones, the ones you can't access, the ones who have "something similar" already cooking, and the ones who just plain don't like what you're shoveling, and it's a wonder anything ever gets done around here.

Still, the feedback was positive, and didn't sound too heavily cut with Executive Folderol. We'll turn the pressure up on the other one for a response, and in the meantime my producer friend is making a new submission to a friend who represents some up-and-coming directors, one of whom I'm familiar with and very interested in.

This is sort of how the rocks tumble around here. You learn not to get star-struck or carried away. It's like Vegas - you go in assuming you're going to lose every time. Then, maybe, one time you won't, and that will be a pretty sweet day.

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MSK - The Killer 10

So I took the weekend off. I don't think too much guilt is called for.

But today, so far, has produced only two pages, plus I cut another 1/3 of a page from what I have so far. I'm now on page 10, and still not out of that first party. This is a hurdle - I have a rough list in my mind of every bit of information that needs to be established for the audience's sake, and just about all of it needs to be done in this party. And yet the party must also be quick, and funny, and flow naturally enough that it doesn't feel like straight and obnoxious exposition.

This may explain why I'm getting stuck in the mud. Everything I add just makes the party, well, longer, and I know I need to make cuts and condense bits to accommodate it, even when there's more left still to add. So perhaps the next day or two will produce less pages of progress. But any guru will tell you that the first 10 pages are the most important in the entire script, and I'm sure I'll be revisiting them many times both in this draft and re-writes.

In terms of audience impact, these pages are when you have the most latitude with them. You can get away with just about anything in these pages, because the audience accepts the convention that you're laying the ground rules for the story and feeding them what they need to know to understand what's to come. Think back on the first 10 minutes of
The Matrix, and what it did to introduce us to the world we were going to be in for the next two hours. Think about those vital first ten minutes of The Lord of the Rings, how it had to convey theme and mood and the history of an entire made-up world, while simultaneously introducing key locations and characters and teasing us with some epic battle action. Just because, at this point, you have the audience's attention without even trying doesn't mean you get to slack off. You must take maximum advantage of that patience and willingness to stay with the story; because the further in you get, the more they will peel away if you haven't grabbed them solidly.

There's a colder purpose to having a killer first 10 pages - in many cases, it's all any of Hollywood's gatekeepers are going to read. Different companies have different standards for how much scrutiny a script is going to get, and much depends on the writer's reputation, his relationship with the company, and the individual work ethic of the executive whose desk it lands on. But if you're a struggling writer, the burden is on you to make it IMPOSSIBLE for a reader to stop after those first 10 pages. There are many methods of trying this, almost all of them boil down to the same thing -
promise to take us somewhere interesting.

You may have noticed a number of movies in the last ten years or so that open with a fantastic piece of explosive violence. It then freezes, and we flash back to what got us there (e.g.
Swordfish). This is a direct consequence of writers knowing they have to front-load their stories just in case no one ever reaches that amazing action sequence they wrote on page 70. It's still there, we just now get a supermarket-sample bite to tease us up front. Many of the common problems with Hollywood movies is that they're not written to film well, they're written to make them more exciting for executives to read. I still remember one of my favorite stage directions of all time. It read:

Suddenly the most almighty motherfucking cocksucker of a firework fellates the entire sky."

The script never got made, but notice how I never forgot that description?

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Friday, April 20, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Blades of Glory

Full review behind the jump

Blades of Glory

: Josh Gordon and Will Speck
: Story by Jeff Cox & Craig Cox and Busy Philipps, Screenplay by Jeff Cox & Craig Cox and John Altschuler & David Krinsky
Producers: Stuart Cornfeld, John Jacobs, Ben Stiller
: Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer, William Fichtner, Craig T. Nelson, Romany Malco, Nick Swardson

The idea of Will Ferrell as a figure skater is funny, both because of his gift for playing deluded egomaniacs and his inappropriately lumpy physique. The idea of two straight male figure skaters competing in couples’ skating, with its lifts and embraces and romantic routines, is also funny, because it forces all kinds of squidgy palpitations within the jock’s comfort zone. And amping up the testosterone in such an inherently frilly and precious sport – that’s a funny idea, too.

Blades of Glory
unfolds like a multi-car pile-up of these promising ideas, serving none by trying to accommodate all. It’s a lot to ask for us to laugh at Ferrell’s love handles, and then somehow believe that by digitally pasting his face on a skating double’s body, we can re-suspend our disbelief and buy him as the best in his sport. That kind of maneuver would put anybody out of joint.

If nothing else, it’s a vital demonstration of just how difficult it is to do Will Ferrell’s trademark comedy well – unlike
Anchorman and Talladega Nights he and long-time collaborator Adam McKay did not participate in the scripting process of this picture, and the result sounds exactly like what it is: a roomful of people whose movie is getting made because they have Will Ferrell in it, trying to supply him with “Ferrell-esque” dialogue. They fail to realize that the more they try and cater to his strengths (and with spotty success at that), the more they undercut their own premise. It’s not to say I didn’t laugh; but for all the gags that worked, just as many, if not more, glided by without impact, unsure of their destination.

Ferrell plays Chazz Michael Michaels, rock-and-roll rebel of the figure skating world – commentators breathlessly describe him as “An ice-devouring sex tornado!” That gets us off on the right foot. But the intensity of his rivalry with Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) – a blond waif of such excruciating optimism his voice-mail message actually says “If you can dream it, you can do it!” – causes an incident that gets both of them banned for life from competitive skating.

MacElroy’s story contains all sorts of juicy inspiration – an orphan skating prodigy, he was adopted by the casually-sociopathic Darren McElroy (William Fichtner), a racehorse breeder who decides to start acquiring orphans to train into superstar athletes. There’s a whole movie to be had there, but Blades of Glory just leaves this whole plotline by the roadside and lazily settles for herding buddy picture clichés into the sports movie cattle fencing.

Via the same old rulebook chicanery that lets movie dogs play basketball and mules kick field goals, the rivals scheme their way back into competition by becoming a team. MacElroy’s old Coach (Craig T. Nelson), becomes the Dad figure to their sibling-like squabbles as they go through the requisite training montages, and marvels at the opportunities presented by two muscular men performing maneuvers no mixed-gender couple would attempt.

You need to create an alchemical reaction to both mock something while simultaneously investing us in it. Blades of Glory knows that sports movies have a built-in advantage, both in their structure leading up to The Big Match, and in the natural thrill of competition. We want to see our heroes achieve. But the strange excesses of figure skating itself loom before the filmmakers like a fat piñata. They score some fat thwacks at it, but at what cost to the rest of our relationship with what’s unfolding?

The movie just keeps changing its mind about what it’s hitching its wagon to. It is fun to hear the nonsense eloquence of a spat between Ferrell and Heder when the movie decides to be about that. I can’t make up my mind whether Heder is actually a solid comedic actor, or simply an earnest presence with the singular ability to make crinkly disdain sound both musical and air-headed. The screenplay plays to that strength. He may coast for awhile longer on the immortal aura of Napoleon Dynamite; I’ll be interested to see what happens when he’s finally outside of his comfort zone.

But just when we could be exploring the warped territory the partnership of Michaels and MacElroy is moving towards, we also have a rivalry with the snippy brother-sister duo of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), frequent champions determined to see their turf remain unencroached. This leads to scheming and cackling. And then there’s the younger Van Waldenberg sister, Katie (Jenna Fischer) – she and MacElroy make gooey faces at each other and their courtship gets sucked into the vortex of plots as well.

I won’t say this stuff can’t all be forced into cohesion – just look at the way Ferrell’s own Anchorman managed to mock, satirize, and plain goof off without ever puncturing its rainbow bubble of weirdness. But freshman feature directing team Josh Gordon and Will Speck cannot assert their own voice within Blades of Glory, they are content to let everyone try their hardest and hope it all sorts itself out. There’s a movie that makes you laugh a few times, and there’s a good comedy. This is in the first category.

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MSK - Day Two

Party scenes are a lot of fun to write. You can drop in oodles of quick-hit gags, there's lots of action to help your audience learn more about your characters, and the producers can put in hip music and hot women, which makes them feel like they've helped.

The first Act of my script is basically the story of three parties, and how they bring our main characters to the Problem which will drive the Second and Third Act. Since my goal is a 105-page first draft, conventional thinking would tell me my First Act should be 22-25 pages at most - the industry puts more and more pressure on first acts to make them shorter. I've always swam against that trend, and have a tendency to write longer first acts, the better to lay in stuff that will pay off later. So I'm trying to envision this Act around 30 pages, which works nicely out to about 10 pages per party, less the little in-between business that needs to get done.

This butts up against the primary danger of writing party scenes - that they're too
much fun. It's very easy, once you've got all your pretty characters drinking and cavorting and bantering, to just go and go and go, and before you know it you've used up a substantial chunk of movie without advancing the story very much. This is especially dangerous when, as I've set out to do here, you've got multiple party scenes - there will be still another one in Act Two. What else are college stories for?

On my second day of writing, I'm now on Page 8, and I'm still in that first party. I already cut 1/3 of a page from what I wrote yesterday, but I think this party will have to condense further still, since I need at least another page to get out of it and a page or two for a breather before the next one. But it's always better to overwrite in the first draft, it's easier and more satisfying to cut back than it is to pad, or have to dream up new material and cram it into the narrative.

And you can't spend too much time looking back during this long dash to FADE OUT. It can easily blunt your momentum. Save the fine-tuning for after you've got that first draft in hand.

Two days - eight pages. So far, so good.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

It begins...

An hour ago, I opened up Final Draft, stared at the blank page before me, and wrote the two most daunting words in the screenwriter's trade:


Yesterday I finished the revision on my latest treatment, and while I intended to wait to hear back from my agent about whether or not to proceed, I've been in a mood to put a project in gear and I don't see much possibility of her saying "
No, Nick, don't finally start that commercial script I've been waiting forever for you to write! Please, put it on the back burner again for another moody genre piece!"

If there's plot landmines lurking in the treatment, I'm sure she'll point them out in due time. But you know my goal - at least one new, original screenplay every calendar year. I
fell behind by a month a couple years ago and only made it by my chinny-chin-chin this last year, but otherwise I've been consistent with this since I graduated college. But here it is, mid-April, and I haven't even begun anything new. There's a strange sci-fi epic I started ages ago that I might someday finish - I blasted all the way to page 56 on sheer inspiration and haven't had the first clue about what happens next since then. Still don't.

So other than that - no real candidate to meet this year's deadline. Until now.

For your sake and mine, I'll refer to this new script as
MSK. It's an overtly-commercial idea for another teen comedy, one that will be less satirical and nasty than Queen Lara but still (hopefully) clever and sexy. I came up with the idea a year ago after meeting with this hustler. It's far past the expiration date for me to renew contact with him to have him shop it; and I don't mind that, since his whole plan for my career boiled down to:

Step 1) He sits around waiting for me to write something that's worth lots of money.

Step 2) After my agent sells it, he takes ten percent of that money and tells everyone what a great manager he is.

But since my last screenplay was really about creative satisfaction, not to mention all the time I put into
Century Club, it's about time I served the bottom line. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think the story was going to allow me to have some fun.

MSK is officially underway. I'm now at the bottom of page 4. I'm shooting for a first draft of 105 pages. This treatment is 5,000 words long, by far the most detail I've ever had written down in advance of starting a draft. Hopefully this will make the writing process go more swiftly; I can easily see being done with this thing before June 1st. Having six months free of my deadline to write whatever the hell I want would be pretty sweet.

I think, Jimmy, I'm going to try and keep you abreast of this whole drafting process in more detail than I have in the past. I also considered just pulling the blogging needle from my vein for a month to force myself to work, but that's never panned out any of the times I've tried it. Writing one thing seems to stimulate writing another. So, if all goes according to plan, expect regular updates on where I'm at, and what particular writing problems I'm facing along the way.

If you don't hear me talking much about it, you can assume things aren't going well.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007


Full review behind the jump

The TV Set

: Jake Kasdan
: Jake Kasdan
: Aaron Ryder, Jake Kasdan
: David Duchovny, Sigourney Weaver, Ioan Gruffudd, Judy Greer, Fran Kranz, Lindsay Sloane, Justine Bateman, Lucy Davis

The defining emotion of
The TV Set is agony. That’s not to say it isn’t funny, but it’s the sort of funny you get when the coyote looks overhead and sees the giant boulder about to crush him. Mike’s life is like a series of boulders, because he is trying to be creative in the television business.

The TV Set
stars David Duchovny as Mike, a TV writer and on-screen surrogate for writer/director Jake Kasdan. Kasdan made an indecently-clever feature debut at only 23 with 1998’s The Zero Effect but, heeding the advice all young writers hear in Hollywood, focused on TV instead, where writers are reputed to enjoy far more control and compensation. Forget the movies, with their meddling executives and tyrant directors – on the small screen, the rumor goes, the Writer is King!

But after working on one beloved-and-cancelled series after another (like
Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), Kasdan is now, with wounded and wicked accuracy, able to portray television in a much different light; as a place where overpaid and emotionally-arrested executives emit gaseous clouds of narcissism and throw swell parties, and from which programs regularly emerge as a kind of side effect. Like Sisyphus and like that coyote, the TV writer’s fate inevitably involves a boulder.

Duchovny, ditching the lean dark suits of Agent Mulder and wearing a shaggy beard, pot belly, wrinkled shirt, and an expression of mounting suffering, plays an intelligent man who vaguely remembers the English language. He remembers loving it and speaking it, and wanting to use it to move audiences, but now he’s in a town where the word “concerns” has multiple and inevitably ominous meanings, and people use sentences like this: “We have the research…suicide is depressing to like 82 percent of everybody.” He’s no longer sure he’s in the right place, but as he glances at his very pregnant wife (Justine Bateman), he realizes that a course correction is no longer as easy as it used to be.

He’s written a “pilot”, the first episode for a proposed television series. Networks shoot dozens of pilots each year, only a handful of which will ever air and have additional episodes ordered. The TV Set, with the inevitability of planetary motion, shows how Mike’s very personal and touching light drama The Wexler Chronicles gets “developed” into a wiggling-booties-and-fart-jokes travesty called…well, I won’t spoil it, but the new title is devilishly plausible. In their efforts to guarantee a hit, networks manage to market-test every aspect of a show except what it’s actually like to watch and understand it. It reminds me of the Zucker brothers’ story about how their comedy series Police Squad! was cancelled after only six episodes because the jokes required people to pay attention to the screen. Mike, who is becoming increasingly decrepit from chronic back pain, looks in every scene like someone holding back the obvious question – why did they buy his script if they wanted to make a completely different show?

A variation of the same question is occurring to Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd), a transplant from the BBC who has followed Hollywood money and the promise that he will be able to bring class and risk-taking to the schedule. But both his intentions and Mike’s yearnings run smack into Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), master of the Network.

Lenny is a swaggering, vacuous maniac who treats primetime as an outlet for her personal whims and values the reactions of her 14-year-old daughter over any professional. But she also has a hit show on the air, the reality-competition Slut Wars, which makes her untouchable. She has the inborn ability to simply forget any creative discussion that didn’t end the way she wanted it to, which allows her to keep bringing up the same bad ideas until her underlings, terrified, will it into being for her. The truth is that hiring “acclaimed” writers like Mike and “bold” executives like Richard are simply a way for Lenny to congratulate herself on her vision and generosity, after which she can proceed to roll over them. Weaver’s conviction in the performance is shudderingly convincing.

First there’s the casting. Mike’s personal choice, the sincere and talented TJ Goldman (Simon Helberg) is thrown out for his subtlety, his beard, and his air of being “too hip for the room” – Mike suspects this is code for “Jewish”. Instead the executives foist Zach Harper (Fran Kranz), a mugging idiot who develops a passive-aggressive fixation on Mike’s advice that he be a little less “big”. But at least he gets the charming Laurel Simon (Lindsay Sloane) to play the female lead, because as Lenny declares: “Her cuteness doesn’t get in the way of her hotness, and I find that very special.”

It’s always about give-and-take. It’s always about Mike forcing himself to believe that maybe, just maybe, he can write and shepherd the show well enough to survive all these suggestions. A key element of the plot is that the lead character is re-examining his life after his brother’s suicide. Watch as Lenny suggests, with twenty minutes left to shoot the funeral scene, that maybe they should consider whether the brother really has to die.

The movie’s thin budget makes it look pale and raggedy on the big screen, ironically it’s destined to play better in our living rooms. Occasionally it becomes too slapstick, and it can’t find a grip on any poignancy – the brother’s suicide in Wexler is drawn from Mike’s own life, and we don’t really see what it means to him that they’re taking that away from him. Ditto the collapse of Richard’s family life, we just don’t feel it as viscerally as we do his collision with this violently stupid business he hoped to do something meaningful in. He and Mike speak with each other like illicit lovers who understand each others’ wants, and how they don’t amount to a hill of beans.

The TV Set works best as an impassioned and witty pamphlet condemning the tyrants and fools. Movies about the entertainment industry tend to be conspicuous for how much they get wrong, because they are made by people who either don’t realize they have lost their perspective, or are afraid to be too honest, because they have to keep working with these people. Kasdan musters up enough strength to really break out and gaze at this bizarre place he’s chosen to make his living. The tragedy is that we know from this movie that neither he, nor Mike, are going to let the boulders stop them.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My expensive chart says your expensive chart is full of shit

Full post behind the jump

When you decide to come to LA to fulfill your moviemaking dream, there is a vast and seductive mechanism in place to take your money from you and make you feel good about it. There are casting workshops, storytelling seminars, pitch festivals, boot camps and so many, many other bite-sized promises of instant success.

I standing in line with a girl I was dating for a casting workshop she wanted to attend.
From the start I didn’t buy into it, but even while waiting in line, the poor dreamers were being hustled – in the parking lot, other struggling actors were trying to sell them envelopes with plastic windows on one side, so the casting director can see your headshot without even opening it up. The thinking is – if you buy these envelopes, which, you know, everybody is doing nowadays, you have a marginally better chance of having your face in front of that gate keeper for possibly a half-second longer. And that’s all it will take, really, because you’re special. Your face has that magic – all you need is for someone to see it, and tomorrow will be what you fantasized. All you need are these special envelopes, which really aren’t all that expensive when you think about it!

Many of these hucksters came out with their own dreams, and then figured out how to hit the price point. How to charge just little enough money to defuse peoples’ suspicions, so they think –
well, maybe it’s a scam, but the casting director from this show will definitely be there, and it’s worth it just to meet them! When I was a development executive I participated in some pitch festivals, where I’d get paid $50 (it was called a “travel stipend” to skirt some laws) and a buffet dinner to listen to writers pitch for two hours. And not only did I never hear a worthwhile story, not only did I start recognizing some of the same sad misfits at every event, not only would I get stalked on my way to the bathroom, I realized that any executive of genuine importance had long ago given up and sent their intern instead.

But every year the bus pulls into town with another 50,000 aspirants on board, so there’s always enough of the wide-eyed and self-doubting to refresh the cycle. Undoubtedly one of the most successful practitioners of this whole sick voodoo is Robert McKee, the self-styled screenwriting guru and author of
Story, a book which I rank right up there with Dianetics in terms of its ability to make simple, common-sense ideas seem absurdly complex, mystic, and requiring a genius to translate for us at a hefty fee.

McKee, some of you might remember or realize, appeared in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufmann film
Adaptation, played by Brian Cox. Having met McKee, I can tell you the only flaw in Cox’s performance was that the real McKee is not nearly so kind and generous. But I’ll get to my encounter with him later.

I thought about him today on realizing it’s perversely appropriate that he stick his nose in this whole sorry waste of time and money. Here’s the background for those of you who don’t know:

Philip Anschutz is a billionaire many times over, who owns thousands of movie theatres, the odd sports team, that sort of thing. A few years ago he decided to get into film financing, and because he has the quirk some rich people have that after a certain point they can do things that aren’t about making as much extra money as possible, he decided that he would only make movies that were morally uplifting and/or based on books. He wanted to make movies that would encourage more people to read. Counter-intuitive as that sounds my hat’s off to him for being willing to invest in it. Since he co-financed The Chronicles of Narnia, which made, at last count, eighty zillion dollars, it’s safe to say he’s fulfilling his mission and keeping his movie interests in a profitable way for now. But there’s a huge black eye he and many others in Hollywood are still sore over, and that’s Sahara.

Clive Cussler is a very successful asshole who has sold a gajillion books about globe-trotting adventurer Dirk Pitt, who Cussler wants everyone to know has blond hair and blue eyes, and must have blond hair and blue eyes, not that there’s anything wrong with his fixation on that. One of those books, Raise the Titanic, was adapted into an amazingly stupid movie in 1980, and Cussler swore off the town.

That is, until Anschutz called and offered him an obscenely rich deal that not only included a way above-market fee for the rights to Dirk Pitt, but gave Cussler rare creative control. They set to work on an adaptation of Sahara, hiring Oscar-winning writer David S. Ward (The Sting) to pen a script that Cussler immediately deemed garbage. The studio hired many other writers, all A-List-ers, at terrible expense, none of which satisfied Cussler. He was happy, though, that they cast Matthew McConaughey, and spoke admiringly of his blond hair and blue eyes.

Eventually the director quit, Cussler kept trying to write drafts on his own and insert them into the process, and the project (with a budget in excess of $100M) was handed to Breck Eisner, a young director who had never done a feature film, only a pilot for The Sci-Fi Channel and an episode of the miniseries Taken, and whose ability to leapfrog beyond his talent and experience in the business had absolutely, positively nothing to do with his being Michael Eisner’s son.

Mysteriously, the movie bombed.

Now the saying goes that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, and this was never more true than in Hollywood. But for some reason, the production of Sahara was so rank with bitterness, and its subsequent failure so thorough and spectacular, that just orphaning the thing wasn’t enough. People wanted a blood sacrifice.

Cussler and Anschutz are now embroiled in a lawsuit over who is “responsible” for the movie’s failure. Anschutz alleges that Cussler meddled beyond the dictates of his contract and then garbage-mouthed the movie in the press before release when he didn’t get his way. Cussler alleges…well, I’m not sure, but the gist of it is that the movie would have been a blockbuster and an Oscar-winner if they’d only listened to him.

I have to admit I relate to this agony, having been through production on movies I really hoped would be good, only to see them going awry and writing long, Cassandra-like editing memos about it. But let’s just say I have my doubts in this case.

Here’s where McKee comes in, as an “expert witness” denouncing Cussler’s work. The article states that, at his generous “consulting rate” of $500 an hour, he has raked in over $60,000 as an “expert witness” in this case. That amounts to over 120 hours of work; or, to go by Hollywood averages, an hour for every page of a screenplay.

Now, not to tarnish Mr. McKee’s credentials, but it usually took me, at most, about 60-90 minutes to tell if a script was clearly crap – you know, the amount of time it takes to read it. Amazingly, McKee’s opinion has turned out to be exactly in line with the guy who paid him $60,000 – he has declared, under oath, that Cussler’s screenplay is riddled with flaws.

Now, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it’s true, but I am very familiar with this windbag. He charges over $500 for a three-day “seminar”, at which he barks and howls about story structure and conflict and, well, the same stuff every screenwriting book and class out there talks about. Several celebrities have attended his seminars and he quite prominently advertises their names, because clearly John Cleese and Peter Jackson were fumbling retards before he showed them a couple of graphs.

He doesn’t, not to put to fine a point on it, have any produced screenplays of his own, although he did write an unknown number of episodes of Mrs. Columbo in the 70’s, and a TV movie in the 90’s about Abraham, which was nominated for Emmys for hairstyling and makeup. I don’t make it a habit to discount people on this basis, because I do believe there are people who can be very effective teachers without necessarily being world-class practitioners. But that doesn’t convince me I owe $500 to a guy who will tell anyone in earshot that he thinks Citizen Kane is worthless.

What he is very talented at is, a) marketing, and b) confidence. Like David Koresh or Rush Limbaugh, he excels at vacuum-sealing you inside his environment and then blasting you with his own Care Bare Stare of absolute certitude. You believe, and you pay, because of the innate willingness many people have to defer to the strongest will in the room.

It’s a handy arrangement, because he’s preached to thousands upon thousands of students, and, strangely, almost none of them have ever achieved anything. And yet they will never blame him for this. This is how the guru game works – it is always your own fault for failing to understand and implement their wisdom properly. It is always your own weakness to blame. The message is perfect, you are the flawed instrument.

There’s a place for these books and seminars, I want to be clear about it. But it’s more like a tonic, a cleansing experience for you to refresh your awareness of things you basically understood already. There are books by David Mamet and Linda Seger that I happily read multiple times, because they keep me on the right track. McKee doesn’t want to be your study buddy, though, his self-image is far more Messianic.

Back in 1999, before I really knew his angle, my parents paid for me to go to a lunch he was speaking at in Fountain Valley. I was fresh out of college and had just moved back home after the immolation of a 6+ year relationship. I think they wanted to get me excited about writing again, and his credentials certainly seemed impressive.

So I went, and his spiel was compelling. He reminded us to think in terms of choices and obstacles, to amp up conflicts because of the feelings underneath them, not by artificially inflating the circumstances. Good stuff. At one point someone raised their hand and he practically screamed “there’s NO questions during the lecture!”, but you forgive that. After all, the man only had an hour to tell us what’s usually so brilliant as to require three days.

There was a movie in theatres at the time that he wanted us all to see. A movie that, he thought, represented everything that could be good about screenwriting. A movie whose genius was so subtle, so beyond the perception of mere mortals, that he declared that the Motion Picture Academy would never, ever have the grace or insight to give it an Oscar.

The movie was American Beauty. Oops.

I was fortunate enough to be seated at his table during the meal break, and there were two questions I wanted very much to ask him. First, he had taken a tangent into stage work, and had stated with no exceptions that there’s no such thing as a good two-act play. Not that it has structural difficulties, simply that there’s no such thing. This bothered me, because I had just finished a play that I thought was the best thing I’d ever written, and it was two acts long. It was over-stylized sentimentalist pap, but hey, I was 22, and at the time it was one of the best things I had written.

So I asked him it was true, making sure to preface it with a mention of the play I had just finished. I never even said the title, the genre, or anything about the plot. He looked me square in the eye and said there was no way it could be good. And that if it was any good; then it wasn’t actually a two-act play, I’d just put the wrong number of act breaks in.

I’d thought of holding back on my second question, because it seemed potentially impolite, but in the face of that the civility threshold had clearly been lowered, and not by me. So I went to question number two – McKee had spoken about the inciting incident; the action which smashes the old order and sets the drama in motion. He declared, as usual with no doubts or exceptions, that in any good script the inciting incident always happens in the first scene.

Very well, I asked, but what about Hamlet? Isn’t the inciting incident in Hamlet the murder of the King, which happens off-stage well before the action of the play begins?

McKee gave me a look that could tunnel through a mountain, and then revealed his trump card. The murder of the King, he insisted, is not the inciting incident in Hamlet. It’s the appearance of the ghost. Realizing that this was a trap, that there’s no reason for the ghost to appear without the murder, he elaborated, saying that Hamlet is a murder mystery, and that the rule about murder mysteries is that the inciting incident comes in two parts – the crime and the discovery of the crime.

And that’s the moment, the moment where he dismissed the greatest drama in the English language as the structural equivalent of a Law & Order episode, that I really understood Robert McKee. It became clear the mountain he shouted from was really just a balloon heated to inflation by his own ego. It’s a rhetorical trick – he was applying his own rule backwards, picking something that happened in the first scene and declaring it the incident by its placement there, not looking at the story for the true incident and seeing where it occurred. It’s when I realized that it was possible to obey every one of his rules and still write a terrible script, or to break his rules and write Hamlet.

Robert McKee will always have a fresh crop of willing acolytes, who will give him $500 they could have spent renting 100 of the greatest movies ever made, which would have been much better for them. I believe that, deep down, he knows he’s full of crap, but believes, like so many do, that if he can bluster enough people into not seeing it, it will make it not so. He and this idiotic lawsuit deserve each other, because they all buy in to the two false premises that doom you in Hollywood every time. 1) That you can capture artistic merit on a chart, and 2) That said merit has anything to do with financial success or failure in the movie business.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Meet the Robinsons

Full review behind the jump

Meet the Robinsons

: Stephen J. Anderson
: Screenplay by John Bernstein, Michelle Spitz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurian Redson, Joe Mateo, and Stephen J. Anderson, based on the book A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce
: Dorothy McKim
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry, Wesley Singerman, Stephen J. Anderson, Ethan Sandler, Harland Williams, Nicole Sullivan, Laurie Metcalf, Adam West, Don Hall, Matthew Josten, Aurian Redson

One of the joys of the toy box growing up is that all the toys go in together. This mingling can inspire a child to repurpose them in ways far beyond their design. Meet the Robinsons, the first computer-animated release from Walt Disney Studios under the new regime headed by John Lasseter (whose own experience with toy boxes surely paved the way to the gig), remembers this, and thus treats us to such absurd explosions of child logic as a Tyrannosaurus Rex running along the top of a train. There are some of you out there who will not need explained to them why this is fantastic. This movie is meant for you.

The movie also remembers, truly remembers, the legacy of Walt Disney Studios, and as such effectively repudiates and buries the pandering “new era” Lasseter’s predecessors attempted to launch with the cheap and minor Chicken Little. While Disney’s computer-animation is still technologically a few years behind the curve set by Lasseter’s own Pixar Studios, it is catching up, the movie has a unified look and personality that is both bright and cheerful.

And as it crunches more digits, it’s also looking back to its forbearers. Before the feature, there’s a short. Not a new short, a vintage Disney cartoon from 1938 called Boat Builders, starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, with a cameo from Minnie. There’s no re-dubbing, no modern editing tricks, the soundtrack even has that warbling quality I remember. At first, the audience I was in seemed confused, thinking this was a set-up.

But as the short progressed, and Mickey struggled to follow the blueprints for his uncooperative boat, and Donald had an unfortunate encounter with a rudder, and Goofy fell deliriously in love with a mermaid figurehead, something sort of lovely happened. The kids started laughing. The adults followed not long after. Compared with Chicken Little, where I recall seeing a young child tune out of the movie and start staring at the wall behind him, this nearly seventy-year-old, hand-drawn short still has the power to charm. You just have to put it there and trust that Walt Disney’s original animators knew what they were doing.

There’s a quote from Walt himself featured prominently in Meet the Robinsons, which is on the frantic side, especially contrasted against the gentle pace of Boat Builders. But the essential elements that made Disney Studios a brand name were emotion and invention; and this movie remembers that enough to make for a pleasant time.

Our hero is Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a present-day orphan who keeps mistaking his adoption interviews for sales pitches at which he can demonstrate his latest contraption; such as a squirt gun which mixes peanut butter and jelly in sandwich-proper proportions. None of his inventions (or adoption interviews) go as planned, but it seems he is fated to one day get something right, because two visitors from the future are showing a keen interest in his school’s science fair.

One is the dastardly Bowler Hat Guy (co-writer/director Stephen J. Anderson), who has all the slinky steps and flagrant gesticulations of a classic melodrama villain, but in the brains department comes in a distant second to his hat. I felt a giggly delight seeing robotic spider legs unfold out of the hat so it could scuttle around causing mischief, Meet the Robinsons earns a lot of good will from such “why not?” juxtapositions.

The other visitor is Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), a 13-year-old who has stolen the family time machine and uses it to whisk Lewis into the future so they can figure out what has gone wrong and how to set it right before Wilbur’s dad gets home. The future is Utopia on Pixie Sticks – people fly around in personal bubbles, “Insta-Buildings” come swirling up out of the ground, and everyone seems happy and empowered to pursue their eccentric whims. Wilbur’s Mom Frannie (Nicole Sullivan), for example, is “enhancing” frogs into big band musicians, complete with Rat Pack attitudes.

This techo-paradise is the creation of Wilbur’s father Cornelius Robinson, but now that future seems to be at risk because of Lewis’s science fair. He built a memory scanning device in the hopes of unearthing images in his brain of the mother who abandoned him – but Bowler Hat Guy wants to pass off the invention as his own and make a fortune. Only he doesn’t know how to make it work, so he pursues Lewis with whatever tools he can think might be useful – like the aforementioned T-Rex.

The Robinson family, an extended brood of inventors, eccentrics, robots, puppets, and an octopus butler, are like The Addams Family by way of Futurama, or the infectious anarchists of the Sycamore brood from You Can’t Take it With You thrust into Tomorrowland. There’s so many of them that the middle section of the movie, after patiently feeding us the loneliness of Lewis’ life, now ramps up to such a frenzied tap-dance pace of gags that I was left wanting more of the things I’d glimpsed that I really liked, like a pizza delivery man (Adam West) who goes about his duties like a superhero might, or a helper robot (Harland Williams), whose cheery voice belies a dreadfully low self-esteem. At one point, Bowler Hat Guy’s hat (whom he calls Doris), performs a feat which is as precious as it is alarming in its technological implications, and he stares, gape-jawed: “I didn’t even know you could DO that!” Much of the movie carries this quality, which is a double-edged sword, really.

Children should like the movie for its uninhibited silliness and the characters brought to life by a cast refreshingly non-glutted by movie stars. A brief sequence in a nightmare alternate future may be a bit much for them, combining as it does elements of both The Matrix and Night of the Living Dead. It certainly shows of the darker side of director Anderson and his animators’ imaginations, but even so it’s mounted with a certain zip that’s of a piece with the movie’s theme.

The theme is that you should keep moving forward and not dwell on failure. And yet Meet the Robinsons sometimes carries it to such an extreme that there’s an unintended ache indicated by its heedlessness. The future can be cause for hope and ambition, and this movie gives me hope and ambition for the new-new Disney Animation Studios. But moving forward can also be stubborn, used to suppress and disregard pain we don’t want to process. Sometimes I wondered if The Robinsons – with their perpetual dances, foodfights, and new wonders emerging from Dad’s lab – were really as happy as all that.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Lookout

Full review behind the jump

The Lookout

: Scott Frank
: Scott Frank
: Walter F. Parkes, Laurence Mark, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum
: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson, Alex Borstein, Sergio Di Zio, David Huband

Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks like someone concentrating on doing it properly. He doesn’t go many places on his daily routine, because he wouldn’t want to forget how he got there. He keeps a spare key inside his shoe, because every day he locks his key inside his car. He carries around little cards to give people, warning them that he may pass out, fly into a rage, or say something uncontrollably vulgar without warning.

As he walks around his snowy small town, trying to keep his rituals in focus, you also see a troubled aspect – he’s aware that he wasn’t always like this. Though a tragic car accident – scarring for him, fatal for some friends – left him unable to filter some impulses, there’s guilt and anger still locked deep inside. It is what spurs him to action in
The Lookout, a small character-based thriller that amounts to a successful test lap for a veteran screenwriter sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.

Scott Frank has been writing crime stories of both the psychological (
Dead Again, Minority Report) and just plain fun (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) variety for almost two decades, but The Lookout is his directing debut, and it may be he wanted to keep things simple. The climactic sequences feel particularly truncated. But on his self-selected terms he succeeds – providing atmosphere, a few nice shots to remember, and loyalty to his main character’s terms of existence. Working harmoniously with a mature, focused performance from former child actor Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun), it’s a polished B-picture in the best sense of the term.

Pratt was a high school star for his looks, brains, and hockey prowess – until the night of the double date on the dark highway. Now it’s like part of his brain’s been scooped out. He carries a little notebook in which he writes narrative reminders of actions we’d do without thinking: “I wake up. I take a shower – with soap.” The campus hero now buffs the floors at the local bank at night.

That job puts him in the sights of Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) – who went to school with the old Chris Pratt and looks at the new Chris Pratt with a mixture of sympathy and veiled contempt. Spargo knows that, for one day in the near future, the bank will be housing an enormous amount of cash for local farmers cashing their subsidy checks. He wants that cash, and all he needs to get it is to convince Pratt to let them in and keep an eye out for the Deputy (Sergio Di Zio) who swings by each night with a box of dounts.

I rarely find movies interesting where every choice is morally black-or-white, and the “bad” characters always choose black while the “good” characters always choose white. We can tell that, even in Pratt’s state of mental static, he can sense it’s unusual for Spargo and his cool older friends to show such an interest in him. He can tell that there’s something a little too eager in the advances of the girl (Isla Fisher), whose name, “Luvlee”, ought to be a further tip-off. And yet, even before Spargo has unveiled his plan, Pratt is willing to taste what’s offered him, because he has a whipsawing relationship with his own self-pity and entitlement, and because he’s sick of the way his rich parents (Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson) drip out just enough financial support to offset any appearance that they consider him a lost cause. He’s sick of his menial job, the patronization of others, and Lewis, the blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) who’s his only friend.

We do root for him to make the right choice; and we do hope that, even with his drastically-reduced capacity, he’ll find some way to fight back as the plan goes into deadly motion. This is a tribute both to Frank’s creation of the character, and the innately-sympathetic Gordon-Levitt, who in his grown-up frame looks like a more soulful and grave Keanu Reeves. He plays well next to the shaggy and ingratiating Daniels, who has consciously embraced their co-dependence and handles his end of it with patience and unspoken devotion.

Frank has an attentive ear for self-delusion, and the choices of language people can use to conceal unpleasant thoughts that, without exception, make them all the more clear. Listen to the way that Lewis, on meeting Luvlee, dismantles all the careful lies she’s told herself in order to participate in this scheme.

Most Hollywood movies succumb to the pressure to make everything bigger – bigger amounts of money, bigger body counts, bigger cities, even bigger biographies for its characters. The Lookout goes the opposite route – its characters aren’t ever likely to make any splash bigger than this town they live in, and most of the violence is implied in the face of the dark and inscrutable Bone (Greg Dunham), Spargo’s heavy man with the appropriately-skeletal features. There’s nothing new or unusual about how they intend to rob the bank, and nothing particularly complex about Pratt’s attempts to escape their intentions towards him, which results in the aforementioned brief climax. But The Lookout is under the direction of a storyteller that doesn’t have any of the usually-genetic disdain Hollywood shows for small towns and small dreams – notice how “Deputy Donut” turns out to be a very capable policeman underneath his shrugging geniality – and who is smart enough to remember that his hero couldn’t plan anything more complicated anyway.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Antoine Fuqua
: Jonathan Lemkin, based on the novel Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter
: Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Ric Kidney
: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Peña, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, Elias Koteas, Rhona Mitra, Rade Serbedzija, Ned Beatty

They say that if you go far enough right on the political spectrum, you meet up with the far left. Extremism has a way of finding common cause with itself no matter the genesis.
Shooter, the adaptation of Pulitzer-winning author and critic Stephen Hunter’s page-turner Point of Impact, acts as the marriage-at-the-end-of-a-rifle-barrel for a couple of radically-disparate cultures. By pitting the long-time bogeyman of the left – shadowy petro-grabbing-military-industrialists – against a lone-wolf beers-and-bullets libertarian hero so fetishized you’d expect the late President Reagan to try campaigning with him, it’s like the hippies pacting with the NRA, the post-Watergate conspiracy cranks allying with the groups who used to send those catalogs to my father about How To Bury Your Weapons So The Government Won’t Find Them.

It also marries
The Fugitive with Blow-Out, which is a fine and sturdy recipe. Crisply-mounted and anchored by a lead performance from Mark Wahlberg, an actor growing increasingly comfortable with how to provide interest within the confines of big movie stardom, it provides a couple hours’ worth of escapist thrills; not to mention a jarring, sometimes appalling, mish-mash of tonal impulses that show American culture at a seriously self-examining crossroads. It’s like a cry of grief over the evil we were suckered into by people who exploit how we think things that blow up are cool, wrapped inside a movie that reminds us that things that blow up are cool.

Wahlberg plays the impeccably-named Bob Lee Swagger, a world-ranked sniper who has given in to disillusionment ever since he was abandoned for dead on a classified mission in Africa. He’s exiled himself to a mountaintop cabin, where he shoots at things and surfs the Internet for the latest government lies. It is a sign of Wahlberg’s star charisma that he makes this look like a sexy lifestyle.

But Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) knows something about people who were once true believers – they’re always willing to believe once more if you give them the chance. He seeks out Swagger for a unique mission – there’s a rumor an assassination attempt will be made on the President, and that the shot will come from beyond a mile. Swagger would know how to make a shot like that, which makes him the best man to scout ahead and design security to prevent it.

It’s all a ruse, of course – Swagger is being set up to take the blame as the assassin, but he survives their initial attempt to give him the Oswald/parking garage treatment and goes on the run. In the modern media age, taking a shot at the President doesn’t give you a lot of room to stay alive very long, much less the resources to figure out who framed you, how, and why; but Swagger is nothing if not a finisher.

This is what we go for, of course, to revel in seemingly-impossible marksmanship, learn how to get bomb-making materials at the home improvement store, and finally know the survivalist benefit of doing Whip-Its. Jonathan Lemkin’s screenplay dials Swagger’s resourcefulness up to larger-than-life levels, like Jack Bauer in one of the good seasons of 24, without crossing over into the ludicrously superhuman, like Jack Bauer in one of the bad seasons of 24. There’s little gadgetry, the spycraft is based on believable technology. When a lowly FBI agent (Michael Peña) tugs at a nagging thread in the official story and wants to learn more about rifle technology, he goes to an Internet café and logs into a chat room.

This agent, Nick Memphis, is essentially a co-lead in the picture, in a unique position to doubt the official story, not to mention the suspicious speed and perfection of the evidence convicting Swagger. Peña is a handsome, earnest actor who earned his stripes in Crash and alongside Nicolas Cage in the rubble of World Trade Center, and he brings a vital presence to what could have been a program role. We can see how these questions nag at him, even as he questions whether pride and professional embarrassment are biasing him.

Swagger also enlists the aid of Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), sister to his late partner. Mara adds both comeliness and spunk to the picture, although convention inflates her role beyond the natural room in the narrative for her, and she’s eventually part of an unnecessarily squirmy bit of brutality. A couple of the movie’s plot impulses have the odor of post test-screening meddling to them, especially an absurd final scene that abandons strategy for block-headed slaughter – it’s like suddenly swapping out a chess game for Hungry Hungry Hippoes.

Director Antoine Fuqua has shown two trademarks since elevating into the upper-tier of action filmmakers with 2001’s Training Day. He emphasizes colorful, generous widescreen images, allowing the actors to exist within the space rather than hog real estate with their expensive faces. Filmed by Peter Menzies, Jr. (The General’s Daughter, Four Brothers. Shooter is never dull to look at. He also doesn’t skimp on supporting roles, seeking out gifted character actors who know how to find that extra layer within limited screen time. The busy Ned Beatty plays a comfortably corrupted Senator who keeps appearing at the periphery, and the always-dependable Elias Koteas finds the glimmer of authentic sadism in his role as one of Colonel Johnson’s posse. Even Levon Helm, former drummer for The Band, puts in a few devilish minutes as the backwoods equivalent to Ian McKellen’s paranoid hobbyist in The Da Vinci Code.

I think, if this is your cup of genre tea, that you’ll enjoy Shooter, though you may occasionally experience a kind of whiplash at the juncture points of the intrigue and violence. If movies can hold a cracked mirror up to society, you may find yourself reflecting on what this sort of story says about the times we’re living in. A movie that can both do that and get us giddy over homebrewed tear gas, in the final analysis, is worth consideration.

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