Yo-ho-ho and a really good point

Here I go linking to John August again. I was planning to comment myself on the not-exactly-upside but not-entirely-downside of Hollywood's rush to develop non-narrative property titles, be they board games, toys or theme park rides.

A title is not the most binding straitjacket around. A title might specify a genre or setting, but the story remains wide open.
A movie based on a toy might seem silly, but it will only BE silly if the creators make it so.

For a master class on how not to make silly movies, listen to the writers' commentary track on the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl DVD. The final pair of writers explain their process in great detail and one understands why the movie turned out so well – and how it could have gone wrong so easily.

Even if you aren't interested in why it was the superior choice to make Commodore Norrington a priggish good guy – but still a good guy – listen to the track anyway. Seriously, how freakin' awesome is it that a movie based on a theme park ride includes a writers' commentary track?!

[I've linked above to the Blu-ray edition. Amazon no longer lists the 2-disc DVD version on which I listened to the commentary track. Anyone know if the Blu-ray version includes the same tracks?]



I just realized I took the same easy road I've inveighed against time and again. The original sketch of my current project called for the hero to make a disastrously wrong choice at the end of act one. I backtracked almost immediately from that I idea. In my defense, I was encouraged to remove the disastrous choice to make the hero more "likeable." Screw that; I have no defense. I know better. Woody in Toy Story is not likeable because he's a good guy; he's likeable because he does something terrible – and fights like hell to fix it.

Every comment on my script since the change has involved some form of, "I don't get what the protagonist is fighting for." Of course you don't. He's fighting to fix the idiotic mistake he was supposed to make in act one.

I have now fixed the outline and I feel so much better... now that my protagonist feels so much worse.


Crying all the way to the bank

Short and sweet, via John August: "The protagonist is the character that suffers the most."

I'm going to add my own footnote: emotional/existential suffering counts more than physical. A lot more – though it is nice to give your hero a good Indiana Jones-style beat down every now and then.

commented before that many otherwise talented writers seem unable to apply this to semi-autobiographical protagonists. In the latest flurry of script reading, I've noticed a corollary. Many otherwise talented writers seem unable to apply this to characters written for stars.

I recently read a buddy cop script in which one of the two leads was written for a particular attachment. The star role was clearly intended as a weightier, showier, more memorable part than the second lead – Riggs, not Murtaugh. Unfortunately, unlike
Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, who dumped piles of crap on Riggs, this writer tiptoed daintily around his star. The character got all the great lines and stood up bravely for all the right things, but nothing ever got to him. The villain threatened the star with a gun, but never with deep, heartfelt, I-just-can't-go-on-style loss. The guy got beat up a few times, but he never really suffered.

Go ahead and hurt your stars. Give Mr. or Ms. Above The Title something to love, then take it away. Be merciless. They won't hold it against you. Heck, actors love that stuff anyway.

And if you need extra incentive, remember how much they're going to earn from all that suffering you endured writing the thing.


Power elbows

In an interview on the
Prime Suspect 7 DVD, Dame Helen Mirren thanks a senior policewoman who advised her against smiling or folding her arms while in character as Jane Tennison:

"You can watch all 22 hours of
Prime Suspect and I never fold my arms. It's a defensive act and while you might think folding your arms looks strong, you're actually putting up a barrier to defend yourself... For Tennison to have used such basic body language in her own incident room would have betrayed her instantly."

Michael Shurtleff gave us similar advice in class once, though with less nifty psychology and more straight-up ego. "Keep your damn elbows from touching your body," he said. "It makes you look small. On stage, you want to look big – so people will look at you."

I wish someone had given Joseph Fiennes that advice before he starred as an FBI agent in
FlashForward. I like Joseph Fiennes. I'm one of the few people in Hollywood who thinks Shakespeare In Love deserved to win over Saving Private Ryan – and will say so out loud. But I hated Mr. Fiennes' performance in FlashForward. Dude had his arms clamped in front of his body – elbows touching shirt – in every scene. I wound up rooting for the slimy guy from Pirates Of The Caribbean to run off with Penny from Lost. That can't have been right. Joseph Fiennes' character was the series lead; I should have been rooting for him. I'm not blaming Mr. Fiennes for the death of the series... but these elbows didn't help.

Okay readers, where are your elbows right now? Think about it – then MOVE THEM. Do this in interviews. Do this any time you want people to take you seriously. And if you've got an actor on whom the survival of your entire precious series depends, tell him you want to see daylight inside those elbows, now!


Mixed company

Many recent films about friendship take as a given that the friends will be all male or all female – think Sex And The City, The Hangover, Grown-Ups and the whole Apatow-esque genre. While I have enjoyed some of these films, I find the single-sex friendship assumption strangely old-fashioned.

I'm not talking about the dang kids with their mixed sex preteen sleepovers and such.
I'm talking about me and everyone I know. I went to a co-ed school. I live in a co-ed neighborhood. I belong to co-ed clubs and work in a co-ed office. It would be weirdly anti-social to befriend only women, or for the guys I know to befriend only men. And it's not just my generation. My dad's book club seems pretty well mixed, and they're all closer to the Greatest Generation than X or Y, or whatever we're up to now.

Still, these movies make money. Some of them make A LOT of money. Maybe my life and my dad's book club are weirder than I think. Or maybe we all secretly long for a bunch of guys to do guy things with or gals to do gal things with, even though most of our friend activities do not involve bachelor parties and shoe shopping.

Or maybe – and this is the reason I find most likely – we are so well programmed to expect romance when two attractive actors meet in a movie, that a writer who wants to focus on friendship has to set up an artificial locker-room world to keep things on target. Friends fall into romance off screen, as well – and it does play hell with the storyline.

That last reason explains why television shows seem to feature more realistic mixed-sex friendships. Television characters hang around for years; we don't expect them to pair off every ninety minutes. Sure, nearly everyone at the end of
Friends wound up in a couple. But it took two hundred and thirty six episodes to get there – plenty of time for the writers to explore other themes.

Speaking of friends – and
Friends – I enjoyed the first season of Cougar Town. I loathed the name and had to be coaxed into watching it, but I enjoy the show and its depiction of mixed-sex friendship, romance and everything in between. And that friend who convinced me to watch it? A guy. We went shooting a few years back for my birthday. With like, guns. 'Cause when you hang with me, it ain't all shoe shopping.

Though, some of it is.


Steady as she goes, Mr. Sulu

IT has arrived. The smartest-looking desk chair on earth. By the end of the week, I expect IT to be writing my scripts for me.

Anyone else think this looks like Captain Kirk's chair?

A little, right? The wide armrests, if nothing else. By the way, the original Kirk chair sold at auction for $304,750. Which makes IT seem almost cheap. Almost.


Moving targets

As a reader, one often gets scripts in which an eager writer has specified the brand, and even the particular model, of every prop, car, electronic device and beverage touched by the protagonist. Here's a note to my fellow writers: don't do this.

First, unless the writer gives equal attention to character and plot details – which the people who write this sort of thing never do, preferring to use brands as a kind of hip shorthand – the script starts to resemble a catalog. Readers do not recommend catalogs for further development.

Second, though brand specificity shows that the writer has an "eye for marketing" – guess who else has an eye for marketing? Marketing departments. Though they might appreciate plot-important phones, cars and beverages, they aren't particularly fond of limited options.

Third – and this is the big one no one seems to think of – unless the writer is willing to track down every copy of the script every three months and update all the model names and numbers, that hip shorthand quickly deteriorates. Phones and bar orders that seemed cutting edge when the script was written, cause the reader to sneeringly check the copyright date a few months down the line. Consumer cool is an ever-moving target. Phones come and go, but well written character arcs, thorny choices and intriguing flaws are forever.



It occurs to me that the story I told in yesterday's post provides an example of another of ScriptShadow's twelve points. As a bonus, this point is one of my favorite things to see a writer pull off in a script.

Number 8 – SURPRISE!

Surprise applies to more than plot twists. It's also a powerful character tool. I love it when the wrong person surprises everyone and says the right thing – thereby making previously obvious choices difficult.

In The Piano, the heroine believes true intimates should be able to read each other's mind. The right man never manages the trick while his finger-chopping rival succeeds. The heroine is surprised – and forced to reevaluate her choices.

In Sleepless In Seattle, Bill Pullman's schlubby fiancĂ© seems destined for dumping. He turns the tables, stands up for himself, and dumps Meg Ryan instead. Sure, Meg winds up with Tom at the top of the Empire State Building. But her once obvious choice is tinged with surprise – and a little bittersweet regret.

The otherwise mediocre film Waitress contains a wonderful, unexpected scene – worth the price of admission on its own. At the film's climax, the brutal husband learns that his wife has secretly plotted to leave him. The audience – and the wife – expect an abusive confrontation. Instead, the guy throws himself on his knees and tells his wife every tender word of love she has longed to hear. He's still the wrong guy, in a major way. But the protagonist's clear path is suddenly not so clear – which is unsurprisingly, exactly what one wants in a drama.


Two stories

I enjoyed ScriptShadow's recent post on How To Write A Great Script. The twelve points seem like basic, obvious stuff. But most of the scripts I read fail on exactly these points. I guess they aren't so obvious.

One of the biggest issues I've found in scripts involves a combination of numbers 3 (a main character we want to root for), 6 (conflict), 7 (obstacles) and 11 (heart). Far too many writers resist making things difficult for their protagonists – they resist giving the protagonists difficult choices (7); they resist pitting those protagonists against equally compelling antagonists (6); they resist making their protagonists wrong at crucial moments – even though WE ALL KNOW that flaws are the best way to make protagonists more human-slash-likable (3); and in the end, they resist making their protagonists suffer the consequences of their mistakes (11).

I can't use examples from recent scripts I've read (confidentiality agreement, natch), so I'll offer a real life story instead:

hen I was in college, I worked in the dorm kitchens. At one point, I was assigned to assist an older employee who had returned to her job after a stroke. I worked as hard as I could since the woman needed my help to keep her job and qualify for her union pension. When my time assisting the woman ended, she threw me a surprise celebratory breakfast, presented me with a family heirloom brooch, hugged me tearfully and told me that she thought of me as the daughter she never had.

Isn't that a nice story? It's also boring as hell. And uninformative. You learn nothing about me, the protagonist, from that story – and you probably don't care to.
Now let's see what happens when we add a little 3, 6, 7 and 11 to the story (which is how things went down in real life, by the way):

I started the job with all kinds of warm, fuzzy feelings but quickly found out that the old lady was a BITCH. She was MEAN. She only had one functional hand, but that thing was a CLAW. When she wasn't grabbing me and yanking me around, she hit me with her cane. Seriously – she HIT ME. She hovered over me all the time, making derogatory comments about everything I did. Nothing was ever good enough for her. After a month of misery I could no longer drag myself to work. I went tearfully to the office and told them that even if the old woman might lose her pension, I still couldn't take the abuse. I begged to be reassigned, and, mercifully, they complied.

On the day I left, my tormenter turned into my fairy godmother. She threw that celebratory breakfast, presented me with the heirloom brooch, hugged me tearfully and told me that I was the daughter she had never had – and explained that if she had ever been hard on me it was because she knew I could take it and use it to achieve great things. She would be proud of me to the end of her days. Sniff. And CRAP. The old witch had a motive and everything. I still took the transfer, but every time I look at that brooch I feel like shit. And I kind of deserve to feel like shit.

But YOU like me a little more now, dontcha? :-)


Off on a dig

I'm currently working on a page one screenplay rewrite. I did a lot of brainstorming last week, and came up with some exciting ideas. Those ideas led to other ideas, which led to other ideas... and suddenly everything connected back to themes and arcs that were already in the script. I never realized what they meant before. Even though I wrote the script.

My sister made the following comment, "Rewriting a story is like working an archaeological dig." I'm going to add a bit: Rewriting a story is like an archaeological dig; everything's in there – you just need to dig it up, clean it off and figure out what it is.

Of course, good acting and directing is archaeology too. I remember a Royal Shakespeare production of The Taming Of The Shrew I saw at the Kennedy Center in 2003. Most modern interpretations of the play wink at the "difficult," "misogynistic" text. Some work – I enjoyed Kevin Kline in an Old West version in Central Park years ago – but most don't. The RSC production played the text absolutely straight. And yet they found emotional connections and character motivations that made the play work in a way I have never seen before. Now this is a play I know well. It is the first play I ever saw performed live and I ran straight home and reenacted it with my dolls. I KNOW the text. Or I thought I did until I saw the RSC production, in which they discovered gobs of previously buried information.

The first time we meet him, male lead Petruchio mentions that his father has died. Most productions gloss over that information; they take it to mean that the guy has an inheritance and is looking to settle down. But Shakespeare didn't write a lot of accidental stuff. If he says the guy's father has died, he means the guy's father has died. Which should be important. It would be important to me. Maybe Petruchio is in, I dunno – pain? – the first time we meet him. Maybe he sees a mirror of his misfortune in Kate, a woman who lacks her own father's love... and suddenly, we're off to the races on a whole new, fascinating play, filled with all kinds of interesting, emotional stuff that Shakespeare left there for us to find. It only took the nice folks at the RSC a few hundred years to dig it out, dust it off and figure out what the heck it all means.

By the way, considering how many RSC actors have been cast to lead American series lately, how is it that Jasper Britton hasn't found a home on American TV? Somebody give that man a lab coat, stat!