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



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Monday, July 30, 2012

Here is an odd thing I have noticed about performers. I have had comics over to dinner. I have gone to a karaoke party with singers. I have been at a wrap party with the FAME dancers.

Performers won't do their thing for fun. The least fun dancers at the FAME wrap party were the FAME dancers. The people least likely to crack a joke at dinner are the comics. Actors and singers won't get onstage and karaoke.

I guess the jeopardy is higher for them. I wouldn't do a poetry slam, come to think of it. I also wouldn't enter one of those contests where you write and shoot something in three days. I wouldn't be sure I could do a decent job.

Be that as it may. Next time I go to karaoke, I'm taking a bunch of people from the Accounts Payable department. Those guys really know how to get down.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

I was kindly invited to Etan Cohen's "Master Class" at the JFL, presented by the CFC and the Greenberg Fund. Etan Cohen, of course, is the screenwriter of, among other things, TROPIC THUNDER (with Ben Stiller), MEN IN BLACK 3, and a whole slew of BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD episodes.

A few random takeaways from Etan's conversation with critic Richard Crouse:

- Etan sold his first script to Beavis & Butthead while he was at the Harvard Lampoon. So, if possible, go to Harvard and get on the Lampoon.

- The Lampoon's style, Etan says, is sort of "anti-humor." If someone's laughing, you've sold out. He says that putting Robert Downey, Jr.'s character in blackface in TROPIC THUNDER was sort of the "platonically perfectly offensive" concept that the Lampoon would have appreciated; it came out of the question, "What is the most deeply wrong thing someone could do to win an Oscar"?

- It's a lot of fun to write with the actual actors in mind. If you don't have actors already cast, consider writing for someone in particular anyway. [As I've noted elsewhere recently, this is dangerous if your lines don't read as distinctively as they would if the actor were reading them. Make sure you've really recreated the voice of Will Smith, etc.]

- When there are a lot of stakeholders (as there are with a big budget movie like MIB3), check in with all of them to make sure they're all on board with the movie you're writing. Otherwise you'll wind up having to do it all over again.

[On smaller budget movies, I think you have two choices, I think. Either write for the person who hired you, so they'll hire you again; or write for the director. On most movies, the director is going to keep developing the script until he likes it. If you want to be the last guy writing, and you do, then make the director happy.]

- On MIB3, he was working from 6 am to 4 am some days. He did not explain how this is possible without really good vitamins.

- They had a writing room on MIB3, 'cause it's much harder to write comedy solo. "It helps to have someone laughing."

- On MIB3, he watched a lot of Clint Eastwood movies as inspiration. On a movie like MIB3 or TROPIC THUNDER, the plot is a straight procedural. The comedy comes out of the main characters' reactions to the awkward situations. Everyone else is playing it straight.

- The hardest part of writing MIB3 was the middle. They had the ending and the beginning all along. They wound up taking a three month hiatus while the middle part was reworked -- re-engineered, in fact, from the ending.

Tragically, he did not have an opportunity to explain how he came to be a Yiddish major, and how that could have influenced his comedy stylings.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Apparently someone has remembered this important but often forgotten fact. This picture says it all. (That's Cate Blanchett in the red dress being dragged across the floor.)



In other news, Franz Kafka used to have his friends over and read his stuff to them. They'd get drunk and laugh.

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I've been going to the Just for Laughs Comedy Conference the past few days. I dropped in on an interesting little panel discussion called "Are YouTube Celebs The Future of Comedy?" They had EpicLLOYD of "Epic Rap Battles of History," which my stepson adores; Grace Helbig of Daily Grace; Shane Dawson, and the head of programming for YouTube, Ben Relles.

It immediately struck me how young some of these cats are. Shane Dawson is 24; he got picked up as a YouTube partner at 18. Grace Helbig is 27. If I wrote my notes down correctly, he had been making videos for a while before that. Wikipedia says "Dawson's career began when he and several friends would turn in videos instead of homework in high school. Dawson's first videos on YouTube were old assignments that he turned in during high school."

The point here is that there is a whole generation of kids coming up for whom video making is as natural as writing. Steven Spielberg made a lot of 8mm movies when he was a kid, but that was pretty rare. 8mm was a horrible pain in the ass to edit (the film is literally 8mm wide), and building a soundtrack is -- well, I don't even know how you would do that. These days everyone is making videos. My stepson had a couple of high school assignments where he was required to make a video. Because obviously everyone has a video camera and an editing program on their computer.

The old barriers to entry for video have dropped off the map. Anyone can shoot video on your phone, edit on your computer and throw it up on YouTube.

The new barrier to entry is just that YouTubers apparently upload as much content every 72 hours as has appeared on all the networks, ever. But it's hard to imagine a more merit-based world. Every video has a chance to go viral.

One takeaway I have is that if you are just starting out, you must get out there with your camera and shoot a bunch of videos. I think more and more, people are going to get hired based on what they shot rather than what they wrote. I am not a fan of the auteur theory. (I don't actually know any professional writers who are.) I think the collaboration between producer, director and writer can take a creation far beyond what any one of them could create. But this is what is happening now.

I was struck by a conversation I had last night with a sound designer friend of mine. We were talking about the Quebec student protests, and their failure to communicate what they want. There are a few videos of marches, and lots of videos of cops misbehaving. But where is the equivalent of the hilarious Culture in Peril spot from the last election. Where are the clever, viral spots that will convince people who don't already agree with them that education should be free?

I struggle a bit with this model. I'm used to a bigger production. We made my own viral teen vampire sex comedy, YOU ARE SO UNDEAD, with a $20,000 budget and a RED camera; my amazing producers at Cirrus, Anton Cozzolino and Melissa Pietracupa, probably brought in another $80,000 in favors. We had three days of color correct for the effect where Mary Margaret drains Jo of blood and she turns pale. I probably wouldn't consider shooting something without union actors unless I was drunk.

But that means I'm making one short a year, and fighting to put together a feature, and these guys are making one a week.

I don't know if YouTube celebs are the future of comedy. They are certainly a growing part of the present of comedy. They will tend to squeeze out some of the long-form higher-budget comedies, but probably only the really crappy ones. There will always, I think, be room for another BRIDESMAIDS. There are just too many stories that demand extras and things that go "boom."

But there's a lot of room for viral videos. Maybe some of them will be yours!

UPDATE: Incidentally, YouTube has a lot of information on how to make a good video.

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Q. My friend and I were kicking around ideas for a video game. Is this Baldwin Game Design Template still valid?
From what I understand, it is all but impossible to sell a game concept to a game company with a paper document these days. You need a playable demo. That's a much bigger barrier to entry, but game companies need to see your game idea actually functioning to know if it's worth pursuing or not.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I saw RESOLUTION at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. It's an effective little slow-build movie that does nearly everything right for a low budget suspense horror movie.

The core of the movie is a relationship: an everyman, Michael, tries to get his meth-head best friend from grade school, Chris, straightened out by handcuffing him to the wall of his cabin in the woods. The biggest part of the movie is just the two of them talking: Michael trying to talk his friend into coming out of his addiction, Chris trying to convince Michael to let him "die on my own terms."

It's no accident the two are so good together. Writer-director Justin Benson wrote the parts for them. Then he and his co-director, Aaron Moorhead, rehearsed them for three solid months.

The result, as Stanislavski could tell you, of months of rehearsals, is a performance that feels like no one's acting, they're just real people going through stuff.

Of course it wouldn't be a cabin in the woods if they weren't going to scare you. Some of the scares are human. But then Michael starts finding all sorts of recordings in various media suggesting terrible things that may have happened in the environs.

Complications ensue.

I spent much of the movie really tense and worried, waiting for the monster to jump out and scare me. The co-directors neatly make their world intently creepy without hammering you with music or obvious creepshow moments; I don't think there even.was a score. (No one seems to be credited with one.) There was always just enough to give me a sense of dread.

For my taste, the ending was a bit post-modern and clever; less emotionally satisfying than I would have preferred. It felt a bit shaggy-dog at the end. But the two guys who made this movie with their savings have come out with a very impressive debut.

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According to a recent WGA survey:

– One-in-four screenwriters reported leaving prepared materials behind as part of their pitch

– Three-quarters were asked to revise those pitch materials for the major studios, while requests at the smaller studios happened half of the time

– Producers were more likely to ask for revisions, but three-in-ten reported major studio representatives requested revisions to pitch materials

– A majority were asked by the major studios to work before being paid for commencement

– Most screenwriters received only 1 or 2 guaranteed steps in their deals from the studios

– Optional steps were common in these deals

– Nearly two-thirds say the major studios and over half say the smaller studios never exercised any optional steps in their deals

– Almost half were asked to do uncompensated rewrites at a major studio, with four-in-ten saying the studio representative made the request

– Smaller studios were somewhat less likely to ask for uncompensated rewrites, but a greater share of the requests came from studio representatives

– A majority of those working at major studios did the uncompensated rewrites because they felt it necessary to keep their current job or get hired in the future

– Nearly a quarter believe they were paid late by the major studios in 2011


I think most screenwriters will continue to work on a draft till they feel they've brought it to a certain point. Where it gets sticky is when your contract calls for, say, two drafts, and the client wants to call your second draft a "first draft revised." In that situation, you might never get paid for the second draft. I usually insist on getting paid for all my drafts before I start with the free polishes.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE'S MOOD

You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
I would add that tracking the audience can be liberating. You don't have to resolve every logic problem. Only the ones the audience cares about.

Also, if you know what the audience is thinking, you can mess with them.

The other nine are chez Danny Stack, from a treeware article by Catherine Bray.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

According to Deadline Hollywood,
The percentage of broadcast commercials skipped by DVR users dropped to 46.7% in the 2011/2012 season from 58.8% in 2007/2008. For cable, 50.4% of the ads were skipped this past season vs. 52.8% in 2007/2008.


So not only are half of us watching ads we could easily skip, about ten percent of us have stopped bothering to skip.

Slate theorizes that it has something to do with all those commercials that look like the show you're watching.

This is good news for the business model of broadcast TV and free cable, which depend on viewers "agreeing" to watch ads in return for getting shows for free.

In the long run, I 'spect everything will wind up on something like Netflix or something like iTunes -- either a subscription fee for unlimited streamed content, or an à la carte menu for streamed content. But it doesn't look like we're anywhere near a tipping point.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

At the end of SHAMPOO, which is about a guy who pathologically cannot choose between women, the credits music is "Wouldn't it Be Nice" by the Beach Boys, which is about the joys of growing up and settling down.

At the end of THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES, the credits music is "I'm Looking Through You," by the Beatles.

Other ironic credits music? Go:

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Q. If I write a screenplay with an actor in mind, can I put down what actor I want to play the part?
No.

First of all, the actor you're writing for may be ungettable. If you say "Brad Pitt," then a reader is likely to say, "Well, you won't get him, so why am I reading this?" It comes off a bit amateurish.

Second, what if you've actually written a pretty good part for Johnny Depp? Someone might read your script and think "Johnny Depp!" But not if you've written "Brad Pitt."

It's even more dangerous when you're in the land of great deadpan stars like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood. If you were actually writing for Clint Eastwood, you would underwrite the dialogue a lot, knowing how much he can do with a few words. But if it's not Clint Eastwood -- say you have a standard-issue B-movie tough guy actor -- the lines may just come off as flat.

It's a bit of a cheat. You're expecting the reader to imbue your lines with Brad Pitt's quirky star delivery. But your job is to imbue the lines with star quality yourself. Ideally, you should create a character so compelling and fun that someone reads the script and thinks, "You know who'd be great in this? Brad Pitt."

It's better to overwrite the character a bit until you have a star, knowing that you can take it back down later if a star comes on board. In a selling script, you have to do all the work. In a shooting script, you can leave more air for the star to fill in.

That said, it's not a bad idea to consider a star when you're writing. I just rewrote a movie for a director. We agreed that the main character should be written for a certain quirky actress / ukelele player. Not that we're likely to get her. But keeping her in mind defines the sort of things that character would and would not do -- a sort of "strike zone." This character is not written for Milla Jovovich. There will be no cartwheels while wielding dual machine pistols.

But then my job is to write each line of dialog so that it is practically a star vehicle for this actress. It's the old criterion that competent dialog is writing only things the character would say, but great dialog is writing things that only that character would say.

Then, when we go to cast, another actor with similar qualities will bring her own charisma and stardom to the lines, and make the character unforgettably hers.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A fella in Texas has put together a handy website resource about how to format your script, in particular the weird issues like foreign language subtitles, freeze frames and what not.

I don't hold with all of his rules. (For example, I like to put foreign language dialog in parentheses so that the reader is graphically reminded that the dialog is not in English. I stole that from Garry Trudeau.) But he has a consistent, well thought out approach, and he may be able to solve some of your problems. Feel free to check out the site.

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Q. I want to write a screenplay about a character from a series of movies.
You can't sell a screenplay that uses a character owned by someone else. For example, you can't sell a screenplay in which Gandalf the Grey shows up, or Travis Bickle, or Jason Bourne, or Benjamin Braddock.

You could steal a characterization. You could write a character who is much like how you imagine Benjamin Braddock would be all grown up, or Jason Bourne after he's retired, or Travis Bickle when he was in the Marines. You couldn't use the character's original name -- you couldn't ride for free on the character's notoriety. So you would have to work very hard to make your Bickle-esque grunt as compelling as the one who showed up in TAXI DRIVER.

Of course, this only works when the character is interesting beyond his context. Would Ben Braddock be interesting to watch outside his existential post-Graduate crisis? Is Jason Bourne a great character, or just an ordinary spy superhero in a slightly fresh and superbly crafted situation? Gandalf outside of LOTR becomes a cliché wizard.

But why mimic someone else's character? Instead, steal the character, but then invest him with your own ideas. Don't just poach Travis Bickle and put him into the Marines. Create your own crazy vet, based on your own real-life experiences and research. Steal from that boyfriend who always seemed like he was going to explode, and use that street corner you were never comfortable going around. Use Travis Bickle, sure, but use him as a springboard into your own invention.

Steal as much as you like, but don't just steal. Make the character your own, and you're in good shape.

Note: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

When you let an inflated balloon loose before you tie it off, it flies around madly. You call that a __________ balloon?

"Loose" feels like a balloon that's floating away. This is one that shooting away wildly.

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As you all know, show business is all about contacts. You may be the most talented person in the world, but if no one knows you, they will hire someone else that they do know.

So, you need to be passed along to them.

When someone recommends you contact someone they know, they are putting themselves on the line for you. Not a lot. But they are vouching for you. How you come off reflects on them -- at a minimum, on their judgment of people.

They also have probably picked you from a flock of other people they possibly could help.

When I hook up someone just starting out and someone who's established, sometimes the just-starting-out person jumps on the contact. Sometimes the just-starting-out person drops the ball. They figure they'll put the established person on their list of chores, and they'll get to it when they get to it.

Guess which ones I continue to recommend?

UPDATE: By the way, I am often impressed how willing people are to help someone break in. I asked two producers to talk to someone. One said, "I'm in prep, but tell her to call, I'll set up a time." The other said, "I'm shooting, but tell her to call my assistant, we'll set something up." Showbiz can be tough, but everyone remembers when they needed a break.

What you do with it, of course, is what makes the difference.

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Friday, July 06, 2012

I occasionally do screenplay critiques, but I charge quite a bit. I also recommend my veteran development exec friend Victoria Lucas. She charges a lot less, and she's quite good.

I want to add one more name to the mix. Tommy Gushue is a young guy who gives really excellent notes, and he charges $150 for a feature. You would not know it to look at his credits, but when I've asked him to read my own stuff, he's repeatedly put his finger on structural issues that I hadn't noticed. Someone should hire him as their development guy, but in the mean time his services on the open market. He will also put his voluminous knowledge of TV at your disposal.

So if you need script analysis, but you don't have a lot of money to spend, go see Tommy G. He can save you quite a lot of time and frustration, and help you bring your material to another level.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012



Loren Kantor makes woodcuts out of old movie icons. I kinda love the combination of modern images with old tech. Neat.

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Monday, July 02, 2012



Lisa and I watched THE IDES OF MARCH. We were a bit puzzled. Fromt the trailer, I thought it was the story of a brilliant political operative who discovers that his boss has done something bad and needs to confront him.

/* not actual spoilers but some discussion of the plot */

To us, it seemed like the story of someone who had an almost total lack of political awareness, such as the need for loyalty, or the possibility that people might be willing to do backhanded things to win elections. It seemed like the story of a self-righteous guy who leaves a path of destruction in his wake, while feeling terribly wronged by everyone. To us, it seemed like almost every step he took was a misstep; that a political wunderkind wouldn't do any of those things.

What was odd about it was that we had a feeling we were supposed to root for the guy; that his victory was supposed to be some kind of victory for righteousness. By the end of it, I was rooting for him to get assassinated.

Did anyone see the movie and feel he was a legitimate hero?

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Sunday, July 01, 2012


Having knocked off a bunch of screenplays I owed, I finally let myself have a bash at Civilization 5. And by "have a bash," of course I mean I disappeared into the game for two 8 hour stretches, barely moving from my desk, to the point where everything kinda hurt. One of them started at 11 pm.

I find the Civ games unbelievably addictive. I have trouble getting away from the game, and when I do, I'm thinking about it. The only way I can stop playing a game once I've started it is either to finish it, or to delete all my saved games off my computer so I have no way to pick it up where I left off. I think I like the decision making. And I like to make things grow. (I also have a garden.)

So every few years they come out with a new version, and I binge, and disappear for a few days. At least this time I was able to stop at the point where it was clear I was going to conquer the world, without having to actually do it, which would have been probably another 8-12 hours.

Happy Canada Day, everyone, and I understand there is some sort of festival going on in Montreal where they play music ... I must get out to that.

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