Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I've been dipping into Saul Austerlitz's new book ANOTHER FINE MESS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN FILM COMEDY. It isn't really a history in the sense of illuminating the underlying trends of film comedy. It's more a chronological appreciation of the great comedy filmmakers, from Buster Keaton to Judd Apatow. I'm enjoying it because I haven't seen all the comedies of Buster Keaton, and the book goes a long way to filling in the blanks. Austerlitz certainly has seen a lot of movies, and he gives you a good sense of them. Worth the visit, if not the detour.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

We had a lovely chat with a Quebecois producer who's interested in our military families drama GONE TO SOLDIERS. Trying to explain the title, I went looking up "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" which I used to sing at summer camp. I discovered that, first of all, Joan Baez doesn't sing "Gone to soldiers every one," she sings "They're all in uniform." But more importantly, I found that that Pete Seegar only wrote the first three verses of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Joe Hickerson wrote the last two, which bring it round and make it circular. And that's what made it into a classic that chokes me up every time I hear or play it.

It's the simplest of songs. But it's not the harsh lyrics that get you. It's the soft ones. It's not the overloaded lyric, "Where have all the soldiers gone? / Gone to graveyards every one." It's the next verse, "Where have all the graveyards gone? / Gone to flowers every one," that makes you realize how it's all going round and round and round, and when will they ever learn?

Bless you, Joe Hickerson.

Sometimes it's not the first creator. Solomon Linda came up with a great riff for "Mbube," the lion song, and had a small hit in Africa. Pete Seeger (him again) turned it into "Wimowe" and had another hit. But it's not until the songwriters George David Weiss, Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti added the simple but somehow haunting lyrics, that the song caught fire and became a classic: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight."

Not much in the way of lyrics, but somehow they are perfect, and they make me choke up when I hear them. (It is good that the lion is sleeping. No one will come to any harm.)

Writers, particularly writers unions, have a prejudice that the first writer should take the screenplay all the way. And some screenplays are perfect as written (BASIC INSTINCT and UNFORGIVEN were shot as written).

But sometimes you need a few people to add all the heart and soul that's needed to take it where it needs to go.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's been a long time coming, but Netflix finally launched a Canadian service. They don't seem to be mailing DVDs out. They're focusing on video on demand: all you can eat for $8 a month, downloaded to your videogame console.

Need I say that could potentially rock the world of television? You have to watch Hulu on your computer screen, which is fine for college students but not so great for families. But if I can watch my TV on demand -- why the hell do I need to pay $80 a month for cable? Plus $25 a month for Zip.ca to mail me DVD's?

As a consumer -- yay! As a content creator -- yikes!

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A friend of mine posted the above on Facebook, and I thought it was interesting. I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with a production executive friend of mine, talking about a serial drama I was pitching. Canadian networks are notorious for not wanting serial dramas, and I knew that -- this was just something I felt was too close to my muse not to pitch anyway. She informed me that US networks are now even more chary of serial dramas than Canadian ones. They don't want DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. They don't want LOST, to name two hit series.

(Needless to say, they're not looking for MAD MEN, either, which in spite of its critical success gets tiny numbers on a cable channel.)

This is depressing for those of us who love to write serial dramas. But you see the danger in mounting a serial drama. Most new TV series get cancelled. So as a viewer, if you have to choose between a new episodic drama and a new serial drama, why not choose the episodic one? At least you'll get an hour of satisfying mac'n'cheese television. If you give your heart to a serial drama and it's dumped after six episodes, there's six hours of your life gone, or so it feels.

I tend to suspect that part of the problem is that a lot of serial dramas are so watered down by network execs wary of mythology and complex story lines. If you're going to mount a serial drama, you can't try too hard to make it episodic. You're going after the audience that's willing to give their heart to some characters and their arcs. You have to give them the serial goodies. GOSSIP GIRL is all nothing but soap opera, and it seems to do okay.

It does seem to me that network television is driving itself into a rut. CBS doesn't want to hear any pitches that don't include a cop solving crimes, or so I'm told. You'd think in a 500 channel universe there'd be more room for story telling, not less; and story telling, after all, is one of the cheapest special effects you can buy. But that's not where the networks live these days.

I guess that's why, while I am pitching a bunch of episodic shows this year, all my current go projects seem to be features...

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Monday, September 20, 2010

I came home from the Toronto International Film Festival with the most amazing cough, which has hammered me for a whole week.

But that's not why I didn't see any films. I go to festivals like TIFF to see people in the biz. I rarely catch films at festivals, unless someone I know made one. You see films at festivals to find out what's new and who's hot; to see films with fellow fanatics; and to see pokey offbeat gems from strange places that may not get distribution. If you just want to see a film you'll like, your odds are better waiting for the reviews to come in. And almost everything gets at least a DVD release.

But how do you wade through the thousands of films that get released on DVD every year?

Lifehacker recommends five websites. Netflix you surely know about: it's the DVD rental service (and now Video on Demand service) that puts your own movie ratings into a complicated algorithm that spits out new recommendations. They offered a million dollar prize for the best improvement to their algorithm. Darn them for not serving Canada; I have to make do with Zip.ca, which has lots of movies but no special fancy recommendation heuristc.

I didn't know about the other systems: Jinni, Movielens and Criticker, which all let you put in recommendations; plus RottenTomatoes, which just gives you a wad of movie reviews. Criticker sounds much like Netflix:
Criticker uses an algorithm called The Probable Score Indicator to pick movies for you. They index the top 1000 users with the most similar tastes to yours out of the millions of Criticker accounts and ratings, then use that to compute the probability of a match. When you browse movies, the PSI score is displayed beside the movie listing. You're not just told that you'd like a movie, you're shown that it's 95% probably that you'd like it.
MovieLens sounds more interesting:
Movielens includes an interesting search feature known as Movie Tuner. Using Movie Tuner you can tweak the search results to find, for example, a movie like Pulp Fiction but with more action and more non-linear movement—or any other number of factors related to the movie.
And Jinni has some bells and whistles:
Unlike many other movie recommendation services, you can also explore movies by mood, plot, genre, time period, place, audience (e.g., kid-friendly, "girl's night out", and more), and by buzz surrounding the movie (such as controversy, critical praise, popularity, award winning, cult status, and more).
Has anyone used these sites, and how do they stack up?

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Q. I imagine myself writing a screenplay that turns out to be oppressively overwritten but a story has been kicking around inside of me since the summer of 90. [Describes story elements.] There are some things that intertwine the two stories but- I lack the skill to do it myself.

How does one negotiate with a ghost writer or even find one worth negotiating with?
The term ghost writer describes someone who writes a book that someone else (richer or more famous) takes credit for. The idea is that people will buy the book -- usually an autobiography but sometimes a science fiction novel -- because of whose name is on the cover. The ghost writer is someone who needs the money and doesn't care about the glory.

These days there is so little shame for celebrities in hiring a ghost that the ghost writer often does get an "as told to Casper McGhostwriter" or "with C. McG" or similar credit, which means they're the person who came to the house and listened while Sarah Palin soliloquized.

The Writers Guilds of America and Canada both ban ghost writing. If a writer writes a screenplay, they should get their name on the movie or TV show. In the bad old days before the WGA, producers, directors, actors, and studio executives' nieces regularly grabbed credit from writers. The WGA came into existence as much to give writers the credit they deserve as to set minimum payments for writing services.

If you have a story kicking around your head that you can't write, then you can still be a producer. You can hire a writer, tell them your story, and guide them as they shape your story into your movie. Because you paid for the script, you own it. You can rewrite it yourself, or hire the same writer again, or hire someone else to refashion it. It's still your project, and you can sell it to a production company or studio with the requirement that you get an Executive Producer credit on the movie. You get all the creative involvement you can handle, but you give credit where it is due.

Some of the top creative producers don't write. Darryl Zanuck didn't write. Irving Thalberg didn't write. Joel Silver doesn't write.

You can also hire someone to co-write with you, although not every writer will agree to co-write when they're doing the heavy lifting.

If you don't have the money to pay scale, you can call UCLA or NYU or another film school, and ask a screenwriting teacher to hook you up with a talented student who hasn't yet joined a Guild. Generally good writers don't get very far before they join a Guild, but a few people elect to stay in the non-union side of the industry. As a WGC delegate myself, I'm not going to hook you up with these poor benighted souls, but you can find'em if you look.

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The London Screenwriters’ Festival have teamed up with Circalit to offer screenwriters a chance to get representation. Screenwriters are encouraged to enter the free competition at www.circalit.com. The winning writer will meet with a top London agent, get £100 and free tickets to the London Screenwriters’ Festival! The competition will be judged by the executive team at the London Screenwriters’ Festival and is free to enter. The deadline for submissions is October 15th.
Normally I don't promote screenwriting competitions, because they're expensive lotteries. But at least this one is a free lottery.

Does anyone know anything about Circalit?

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Q. I've written all my specs for U.S. shows primarily because it's easy to find sample scripts on the web, but I would really like to try a Canadian spec next. Any idea where I can get my hands on scripts for Canadian T.V. shows that are currently on the air? Particularly Rookie Blue?
In general it's not a good idea to spec shows in their first season. They are particularly likely to get cancelled (though as GH points out below, ROOKIE BLUE has been renewed). They also may still be finding their legs, and the tone may change between the shows you've seen and the time your spec is polished.

I'm also not sure how many Canadian showrunners and producers watch Canadian TV shows, even the ones that also air in the US. I hear a lot of talk about MAD MEN. Lots of people watch FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Everyone seems to be a big fan of THE WIRE and BREAKING BAD. But I don't know how many employers could tell whether you'd written a great ROOKIE BLUE script or a so-so one. If they do, they don't seem to mention it.

It's a peculiar thing, the big gap between what the industry watches and what the average guy watches. Most TV is mac'n'cheese TV like LAW & ORDER. You know more or less exactly what's going to happen. You know what the characters are going to do. Most members of the audience seem to want that. They're coming home from a hard day at work and they want to relax. They want the bad guys to wear a black hat and the law man to wear a white hat.

People in the biz want TV to challenge them. They want complex story telling. They want characters that are good and bad. They're open to experimentation in narrative.

If I had to guess the most popular show in the TV industry right now, based on, say, Facebook posts, I would guess it's MAD MEN. And Christina Hendricks is on every magazine cover. In real life, MAD MEN is a critically acclaimed cable show with a pretty small audience. In real life, Snookie kicks Joan's ass.

For scripts, you can contact the production office and see if they're willing to help a writer out. Or try tracking down some of the writers on the show. They may have a strict policy about letting scripts out, they may not.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

"I'm coming perilously close to acting."
"I know, me too!"
I just watched Roman Polanski's tedious pseudo-
thriller THE GHOST WRITER. It fails in several elements of its story.

SPOILERS, obviously.

[Update: and by SPOILERS, I mean I am going to recount the entire story, k? But if you haven't seen it already, this will save you two hours of your life.]

The idea is that Ewan MacGregor ("Ghost" because we never know his name) is hired to rewrite the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. The previous ghost writer, Lang's right hand aide, Mike McAra, was found up washed up on the beach, presumed drowned by falling off the ferry his car was found on. Meanwhile Lang is under pressure because he's been indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for being involved in the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects, and is in danger of being extradited.

So first of all, I'm having trouble believing the movie, because I don't believe Britain would turn over any former PM to the Hague for the crime of giving orders, and I don't even believe that Polanski believes that either, given that the US failed to extradite him from Switzerland for drugging and raping a 13-year-old, and one extends rather more courtesy to political leaders than to artists.

Ghost suspects that McAra was murdered, because the currents were wrong for his body to wash up on the beach, and a local saw flashlights on the beach -- a local who since has fallen down the steps and gone into a coma.

Ghost immediately tells Lang's wife, Ruth, who gets upset and then sleeps with him.

Ghost discovers odd bits of evidence that McAra knew something. That something turns out to be that, while a student actor at Cambridge, Lang hung out with another student who is now a professor whom a random web page on the internet accuses of being a spy for the CIA. So the obvious conclusion is that the former Prime Minister of Britain is a CIA stooge.

Now being followed by guys in a mysterious car, Ghost ditches his own car on the ferry to lose the guys, sneaks back onto the mainland, and gets a room at the ferry terminal, I guess because that's the last place you'd look for a guy who just ditched his car on the ferry.

Ghost finally does something sensible, and calls Lang's nemesis, the British foreign secretary who's just had Lang indicted, Richard Rycart. Rycart meets him, reveals that McAra had leaked him documents to implicate Lang, and asks Ghost to go back and confront Lang with a tape recorder, I guess in the hopes that Lang will break down and admit everything on tape that he has previously murdered people in order to hide.

But Lang is shot dead by a peace protestor. (Heh.) Ghost writes up his book. It's a big hit. But then he realizes that if you put together the first words of all the chapters, it reads "Lang's wife Ruth was recruited into the CIA by professor Paul Emmett."

So, naturally, he writes this up on a page, folds it up, and has it passed to Ruth. Then he runs off, and is hit by a car.


This movie is a great example of how an impressive director can make an utterly preposterous story seem half good. The movie is full of atmospherics -- cars driving in heavy rain, beaches in the dark, that sort of the thing. The performances are lovely. The music keeps encouraging us to believe that this is all very scary and important.

And yet it is utterly preposterous. And the story is crap.

A story is (a) a compelling character (b) who has an opportunity, problem or goal (c) who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist (d) who faces jeopardy (e) and can win stakes.

(a) Ewan MacGregor's character is a bland hack known for writing celebrity autobiographies. He doesn't necessarily want the job, but $250,000 is interesting to him. There's no reason we should care about him. He's not particularly interested in the truth. He's interested in finding personable details to flesh out Lang's banal memoirs.

(b) Ghost's opportunity is to make $250,000 by rewriting a 600-page memoir inside of 2 weeks. He quickly drops this goal, because inside of a day or two he is roaming around the island in the rain talking to random people about Mike McAra's death.

So that's obviously not the driving force of the story. It must be his problem: that Mike McAra, a man he never knew, may have been murdered.

But if he really believed that, what is it in his character that makes him dig more? A desire to be killed as well? A devotion to the truth? Pathological curiosity? Any of these would be interesting, but neither is his character. If he actually had a character, that could explain it. But he doesn't have one.

(c) Obstacles / antagonists: never really defined. Mysterious people who drive around in cars.

(d) Jeopardy: presumably, that he will be killed if he finds out the thing that got McAra killed. But he never takes this very seriously, because tells Lang's wife he thinks someone had McAra murdered, then tells Lang's wife he thinks she's a spy. He also drives around asking people about McAra's death, and confronts Lang's old professor buddy, who he has every reason to believe is part of the conspiracy.

Man, if I thought someone I was working for was CIA, or Mossad, or Mafia, or KGB, I would do my job, keep my head down, and get out. And if I was the sort of person who couldn't resist snooping, I wouldn't talk to anyone.

Of course it's all very cinematic to have Ghost running around asking questions and telling people what he knows. But it is the job of the screenwriter (and the director who's guiding him) to give him legitimate motivations for being so bloody stupid, or coming up with a clever way to do it safely.

And incidentally, if after all that, Ruth was really CIA, and murdered McAra, then Ruth's behavior after Ghost tells her he thinks McAra was murdered is inexplicable, since she makes absolutely no effort to find out exactly how much he knows, or to prevent him from learning anything else.

(e) Stakes: er, what, exactly? If he is successful, he can expose the former Prime Minister of Britain as a murderous CIA stooge. This will embarrass a lot of people, but I'm not clear how it helps anyone, since he is no longer Prime Minister, and is already being indicted for war crimes.

Later, it's that if he is successful, he can expose the former PM's wife to be a murderous CIA stooge. Except he doesn't really want to expose her, he just wants her to know that he knows. Because ... why? I don't know. Polanski makes a big deal of that little slip of paper being passed from person to person until it reaches Ruth Lang... but so what? Ghost has no actual evidence. He has no credibility as a journalist -- he's a ghost writer. And he has signed a confidentiality agreement. So if he talks, Lang's wife will bankrupt him.

Moreover, on a slightly abstract level: Lang has been in government all along. If any PM became a US poodle -- whether because he was CIA or his wife was, or because he just couldn't get a decent cheeseburger any other way -- everyone would sooner or later know it. The voters could turf him out. His party could turf him out. His party could refuse to go along with him. The PM can do very little without the consent of his party. So if the British people, and Lang's party, kept him on as PM, then they obviously wanted him to be a US poodle. And then where's the conspiracy?


Of course, the elements of story aren't everything. In a genre movie, you have to deliver the genre goods. A great horror story with no horror fails; and there are some horror movies that succeed with very little story, because they deliver a lot of horror. But THE GHOST WRITER fails to deliver here either. It's a thriller with very little suspense. No oh my god will he be caught. The lamest of slow-motion car chases. Much of the movie is moody scenes of rain and fog.

Ah, yes, the rain and fog. There is a great deal of this. It seems to rain nonstop, and everyone either walks or drives around in it.

There is also some lovely acting. Ewan MacGregor has almost nothing to work with, but Pierce Brosnan does some really fine work as a politician behind the scenes. Kim Cattrall makes you completely forget a certain sexhound publicist she has been known to play. And Olivia Williams is spectacular as the wife.

Yes, the acting and the camerawork is lovely. But the story is a mess. The main character has no character. He does things that no reasonable person would do, without any real motivation to do them other than he's in a Roman Polanski movie. The movie betrays its own jeopardy, and the stakes are muddy.

In other words, it's a director's movie.

Is this another failure of the auteur system, where a director with a big enough name no longer has to answer to anybody, and winds up with ridiculous plotholes in his movies? (See Lucas, George.) What was the presumed audience for this?

And for bonus points, class: if they handed you the script to this turkey, told you they weren't sure about it, and asked you how you'd rewrite it, what would you tell them?

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Q. I have a bit of a silly question for you. If I ended up working an entry level job in 'the industry' what dress code should I anticipate? Do I need business casual clothes and, if so, whether it's just for the odd event or a full wardrobe.

No shoes, no shirt, no service.

Heh. 

The first time I showed up for a p.a. job interview, I wore a suit. I did not get the job. I don't know what has become of that suit. I own several ties, because of bar mitzvahs, but I think the last time I wore a tie to a business occasion, it was a black bow tie, and I was nominated for a Jutra. 

My typical business meeting attire is: my "good" jeans, my "good" sneakers, and a Hawai'ian shirt (in summer) or a black pullover (winter). And sometimes an Australian hat. 

When it's cool enough, I sometimes throw on a brown cashmere blazer, and then an overcoat. But then it gets too cold for anything but a parka and I ditch the blazer.

A writer friend of mine tends to wear sexy dresses and cowboy hats, but that's part of her legend. Or her brand.

Of course, writers are expected to dress down. For a while there in LA, the "writer uniform" was: jeans, spectacularly white sneakers, white button shirt. And as Josh Friedman explained, the "A-list writer" uniform was : track suit, Rolex.


Still, most of the industry is a jeans business. Producers sometimes wear blazers, and some older producers wear ties. 

Successful agents in LA wear very nice suits. It's an agent thing. If you're working at an agency where people wear suits, dress accordingly. 

If you're coming in for an entry level job, you might want to dress up a bit from jeans, at least till you get the job. But my feeling is wear what you would wear to a cocktail party. Something that expresses your personality. (Or the personality of someone cooler than you.)

Readers in the biz: care to weigh in?

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