Back in my days as a development exec in LA, I nearly worked with both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I was working for an Israeli producer out of his house in Tarzana; we were trying to make co-productions, to pick up enough money from this country and that to patch together a budget. Shatner signed on to be the star of our action movie, Warriors. We met him up at his house in the hills, and he had some really excellent points about his character's motivation. I went off and rewrote the script, and it was a lot better, and then foreign buyers nixed Shatner as the lead -- we literally could not finance a $2M movie with Shatner in the lead. So we had to apologize to Captain Kirk and cast Gary Busey.
That was before Free Enterprise, in which Shatner discovered that he could play a pompous buffoonish version of himself to great hilarity, which gave him Denny Crane, his brilliant Boston Legal character, and he became a star again.
The Gary Busey movie did not turn out brilliantly. I am not 100% sure Busey ever actually read the script. I'd guess he did not read it before we started shooting. But that's another story. (Actually Gary Busey is a whole flock of my stories.)
Later, we had a movie about the Israeli air strike on the nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Saddam was about to get the bomb in 1981 and the Israelis flew a bunch of F-16's across Jordan and Iraq and blew it up. They did such a good job of flying literally under the radar that the Iraqis thought it had to be the Iranians, until the Israelis admitted it.
Hollywood Pictures, a Disney film label, optioned the project. Soon, Leonard Nimoy wanted to direct it. So we had a lovely breakfast up at the Bel Air Hotel in Stone Canyon -- it's a series of bungalows nestled among trees -- and it was the first time that I'd realized that Leonard Nimoy was an old Jewish guy. He had smart things to say. He grokked the project. He liked my rewrite of the script.
And then Hollywood Pictures got excited about Jan de Bont, a Dutch cinematographer who wanted to direct, and they jettisoned Nimoy. I never felt that de Bont had any particular emotional attachment to the project, like Nimoy did; he just wanted to direct and here a studio was offering him a movie. Two years and $600,000 in rewrites later, Hollywood Pictures pulled the plug on the project. We had various conspiracy theories about why the only film label in town with no Jewish execs would do a movie about the Israeli Air Force; we found it interesting that they pulled the plug shortly after Disney successfully bid for Israel's second (or fourth, or something) broadcast TV channel.
So we never got to work with Kirk or Spock. Damn it.
It's interesting that in all the mourning for Mr. Nimoy, I don't hear the name of the guy who invented Spock, Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy so thoroughly inhabited the role over the years that we forget that Roddenberry invented Spock and the whole Vulcan species. It was Nimoy, though, who invented the Vulcan salute. It's a rabbinical gesture; the hand forms a "shin," the W-shaped Hebrew letter which stands for "El Shaddai," the Almighty: may God be with you.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory," was Leonard Nimoy's last tweet, and it is true, and profound. And it made me think of Roy Batty dying on the rooftop of the Bradbury building, saying words that David Peoples wrote and Rutger Hauer rewrote: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I've seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."
I have something in my eye.
I wish there was a Vulcan "rest in peace."
May God be with you on the next step in your journey.
Q. ... although the Avengers did have killer dialogue, my problem with the plot was that all the action felt contrived - some really flimsy excuses for the heroes turning against each other, all the bad guys dying after they took out the controller, and so on.
Well, the heroes turning against each other was the answer to generations of fanboys' "do you think Hulk could beat Thor?"-type argument, so it was brilliant to have those entirely concocted fights in the movie.
The movie was an entertainment, eh? Audiences come to movies for multiple reasons. One is story, sure. But the other is spectacle. The pod racing in Star Trek I was gratuitous and sort of pointless, but the intended audience (kids who buy branded merchandise) ate it up.
Yeah, all the bad guys dying was convenient, but I think a the audience can figure out that without the controller, the aliens would eventually have been hunted down and destroyed like the orcs after Sauron's demise. No one wants to see a mop-up operation. Much, much better to end the movie with the superheroes getting shawarma.
I mean, a movie is a movie. I know you can't hack a computer or a network the way they do in movies, but it would be really super boring to watch real hacking, so I don't care.
I think a good rule is you can do something convenient in order to avoid something boring.
Q. I'm an aspiring author working on a novel, and have been doing so for some time. Recently a mass-market summer blockbuster was announced with several plot and thematic elements - and even one of the main character's names! - virtually identical to those in my drafts. What should I do? Should I scrap it immediately?
My immediate reaction is that if your story is so close to a recent blockbuster that you are thinking of scrapping it, you may not be leveraging the medium. A novel can have more going on than a movie. It can expand and contract time. It can get into the characters' heads. It can have a cast of thousands. It can talk about society.
Q. Alter it to be less like the movie? Wait for the film to come out and get a consensus of some kind? If so, is it better if it's a classic, a bomb, or decent and forgotten?
Well, a bomb, certainly, has less of a footprint. Our last game was known for its "shadow physics." There had actually been an unsuccessful game called, I think, Shadow Physics. But it didn't work well, I gather, so there was room for ours.
However, I'd consider writing something else that's fresher. If your novel is too similar to a summer blockbuster, that suggests to me that your plot is not spectacularly fresh, "a very ancient and fish-like smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest Poor John," as Shakespeare had it. Very few summer blockbusters have clever plots.
To get attention in a crowded market, you really need to do something that no one else has done well recently. For example, George R. R. Martin took the Tolkien tropes, took out most of the magic, and added outlandish sexual misbehavior.
As I keep stressing: your movie or novel or game has to be clever and original. Just because there are hugely successful unoriginal movies/novels/games out there doesn't mean you'll get rich writing one. Those things are commissioned by people with lots of money, and they have marketing budgets.
Q. I have read from multiple sources that producers and such are more interested in reading pilots over specs of existing shows in the past few years. Do you know if the paradigm has shifted this way?
This has been the case for a while now. Showrunners often want to see a spec script (to prove you can write their show) and a spec pilot (to prove you have an imagination and a voice).
Q. When writing a pilot, is it okay to use curse words, even if you're planning on showing the script to execs for more "family-friendly" networks like NBC, Fox, etc.? Or should I avoid cursing to make my script more accessible?
You should ideally have a different version for each network, to take advantage of their mandate. So if you're submitting to a broadcast network, your script should not contain the F word, and if you're submitting to HBO, it has to.
Walter White, you are ... despicable!
But it goes far beyond that. If you're submitting to broadcast, your main characters must be fundamentally good. (They can be good but irascible, à la House. They can also be selfish if it's a comedy.) Your villains must be fundamentally bad.
If you're submitting to HBO or AMC, then your main character should be despicable either visibly (Tony Soprano, Walter White) or internally (Don Draper).
If you're submitting to Lifetime, then your main character must be a woman.
If you're submitting to FX, your main character probably should be a man.
I forget which kid's network it was, but there was a time when you could not have too much slime.
Gone are the days where you wrote one pilot. Every network is looking for something particular. They often don't know what it is, and it changes all the time, but you can't submit your HBO pilot to ABC Family and get much traction, or vice versa.
However, the spec pilot you write to get hired on someone else's show can be more outré than the network. An HBO-style pilot can get you hired on an FX show. The goal of a spec pilot to get you hired is to be memorable and outstanding. The goal of a spec pilot to get set up at a studio is to be memorable and outstanding, and fit a network's mandate closely.
We watched JENNIFER'S BODY last night. Starring allegedly superhot Megan Fox and the radiant Amanda Seyfriend, this movie was marketed to the male horror film audience, and flopped.
It's actually a really intelligent, alarming movie. It adds nifty lore to the horror canon, and it is an insightful movie about a relationship. But the one thing it is not is a movie for young male horror fans who think Megan Fox is superhot.
JENNIFER'S BODY is a movie about frenemies. Amanda Seyfried is "Needy," the dorky childhood BFF of high school boy magnet Jennifer. (You can tell Needy is dorky, because she wears glasses. Only in Hollywood is the dorky girl played by Amanda Seyfried.) Then something happens to Jennifer, and Jennifer starts behaving, well, evil.
But they're still best friends, right? And Needy can't just give up her best friend forever, right? It is an insightful, brilliantly observed portrayal of a relationship. Sure, Jennifer may be evil, and super scary. But she still loves Needy. And Needy still loves Jennifer, to the point where people accuse them of being lovers. (They aren't. No wonder this flopped.) Which means there is a strong character/relationship reason why Needy can't Just Go to the Police.
(Every horror movie needs a good reason why the hero/ine can't just go to the police, whether it is Because She Is In a Cave, or Because There's Only One Way Out of the Valley, or Because They Are In a Simulation, or Because She Is A Wanted Criminal etc. Hopefully it is not Because the Police Don't Believe Him/Her, cuz that is boring and lame.)
You could consider this a movie about what happens when girls' urges for boys get in the way of their friendships. In a way, it's a horror take on Mean Girls. I think the best horror movies take something true about people's relationships and make it graphic and scary. They take something that would require a delicate novel to convey, and turn it into something you can watch in two hours and get it.
The movie also has fun inventing horror lore. Jennifer is not a vampire, and she's not a succubus in spite of the poster. She's something else.
In retrospect, it's easy to figure that boys were not going to recommend a chick movie about two childhood girlfriends torn apart by their attractions to boys. And girls were never going to go see a movie that claimed to be about Megan Fox being a sex demon.
A lot of beginning screenwriters figure that they can come up with something that mixes genres and get the audience for both genres. The reality is closer to only getting the intersection of the two genres: in this case, female horror fans. The genres are there for a reason.
The flip side is that, if you are marketing a movie that mixes genres, be up front about it. THE DESCENT did all right because it never suggested it was about anything but a bunch of women trapped in a cave system with some nasty critters. Based on the marketing, critics and viewers thought JENNIFER'S BODY was a terrible movie. Roger Ebert said it was "Twilight for Boys," entirely missing (I feel) the main thrust of the movie. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 42%.
Also, if you are making a movie that might confuse audiences, budget accordingly. The makers of THE DESCENT did not cast name actors. So the movie cost less to make, so "success" had a much lower threshold. JENNIFER'S BODY actually grossed $16M in the domestic box office ($31M worldwide); but for a studio film, that's a horrible flop. THE DESCENT grossed $26M domestic, but for an indie film, that's a huge hit.