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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Moving to www.scriptenabler.com

To my loyal blog readers (all sixteen of you):

I've decided to bite the bullet and set up shop under my own shingle. I managed to move all the articles over to the new domain but unfortunately, I wasn't as successful moving the comments. This is my last post here at "Just Saw...".

Get out your bookmarks.


See you on the other side!


Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Good Shepherd

The good idea: Matt Damon plays a counter-intelligence administrator during the events leading to the formation of the CIA.

What worked: The life within U.S. covert operations from pre World War II through the Bay of Pigs is richly depicted through Damon's stoic portrayal of Edward Wilson. The paranoia and anxiety are tangible.

What didn't work: Much of the film is made up of flashbacks of Wilson's life: the suicide of his father at a young age, his induction into Yale's secret society Skull and Bones, his recruitment into counter-intelligence work and his loveless marriage to Clover (played by Angelina Jolie). Unfortunately, for all their efforts and attention to detail, these flashback scenes serve as gloriously shot exposition revealing not much more than the emotional complexity of Wilson's life.

There is precious little story. A U.S. military operation in Cuba is severely compromised by a leak within the intelligence community. An anonymous package is slipped under Wilson's door with grainy, underexposed photographs of a couple having sex and a sound recording of their pillow talk indicating that this tryst was the leak.

Wilson turns in the package for forensic evaluation and enough clues are discovered to reveal where this tryst took place. Upon traveling to the location, Wilson discovers the leak is his own son and the woman who passed on the information is his son's fiancee.

Eric Roth's story structure is daring. We start the film with Wilson's receipt of the package. All the flashbacks occur during the time it takes the forensics team to evaluate the photographs and to demux the various sound elements.

Wilson's revelation that the leak is his son is the second act break. In essence, most of the first two acts are flashbacks of events prior to the discovery of the leak. From his Soviet counterpart Ulysses, Wilson is presented with the choice embodied in the movie's theme: Would you protect your country or your son?

What the film gains by this structure is a true mystery. By showing Wilson's past, we are presented with a gallery of credible suspects in this cloak and dagger. Everyone occupies an area somewhere between light and dark. Sometimes it's easier to trust your enemy than your friends because you know he's your enemy but no matter what, you are always looking over your shoulder.

Without this structure, The Good Shepherd would be an ordinary whodunit with some vintage CSI techniques. However, the movie has a far greater emotional resonance because it takes great pains to show how Wilson's father's weaknesses passed down to him and how he subsequently passed them down to his son.

Is there anything heroic in Wilson's choice to assassinate his son's fiancee? Ultimately, Wilson is protecting himself more than either his son or his country. That Wilson ordered the assassination is my surmise: the film leaves the point ambiguous if Wilson or Ulysses ordered it but it would be an utterly pointless exercise if it weren't Wilson's decision.

Ultimately, there is not enough story to sustain the nearly three hours it takes for The Good Shepherd to play out. Even though the flashbacks depict many different events from Wilson's past, they repeat the same theme over and over again: choices are difficult when you don't know who you can trust. Forty five fewer minutes of this theme and The Good Shepherd could have been an excellent film.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: The Eye of Jupiter

Let me offer this disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of this show. Life on earth isn't good enough for me so I've adopted another universe to live in. Tonight's event was a special screening of the mid season finale (I'll never get used to that phrase) of Battlestar Galactica: The Eye of Jupiter. Special because the episode was screened in a movie theater a day before its scheduled airing on TV.

Let me also say that I have no industry connections or studio perks. I signed up for the ticket lottery off www.scifi.com and stood on line for 2 hours to get a seat. You have to understand, I get impatient if I'm in my doctor's waiting room for more than 10 minutes. [for the record, I was the guy who asked 'was it different with an audience?' at the Q&A]

If you've read any blurb about this episode (and this will be moot within 24 hours), there is not much more I can add here plotwise. After all (and please don't be shocked) it is the first part of a two parter so there isn't any great revelation other than nuclear weapons will be involved.

In attendance (forgive me, I couldn't hear all their names and don't recognize the staff by sight) were writers David Weddle, Michael Taylor, Jane Espensen, Mark Verheiden, and Anne Cofell Saunders. What was gratifying was that the sole ovation during the opening credits went to the writer of the episode, Mark Verheiden (if writers were musicians, he'd be a rock star).

Battlestar Galactica is one of the few shows I watch in real time even though I have a DVR (not Tivo, but a p.o.s. Moxie). Normally I enjoy it with a beer in one hand and a burger in the other. Tonight was communal. We laughed at the jokes (and maybe at a few things that weren't intended to be funny-- 'Algae Planet'? I guess all the good names were already taken), we gasped when Starbuck's raptor went down and we all screamed when "to be continued" flashed on the screen. The theatrical experience was different from the television experience.

I don't mean different in just the banal difference between sitting at home and sitting in a theater. There was something different about this experience. With Edward James Olmos' face towering 20 ft high and seeing every pock on his cheek, suddenly every intimacy took on mythic proportions.

I wondered if I had felt the same way with Kirk, Picard, Mulder and Scully, and Malcolm Reynolds: characters embodied by the same actors on both the small and big screens. The story of this episode was 'big' enough to fill that cinema screen unlike some of the Star Trek sequels. That's not a snipe at Star Trek by any means.

We the audience didn't want the Star Trek universe to surprise us as much as let us relive the glory days, like an aging rock band that can't leave the stage until they play all their hits. We had come to expect certain things from a Star Trek yarn and were disappointed if we didn't get them all. The characters had lost their capacity to surprise us and became cliches.

When I said 'big' up above, I mean that the episode showed me something I hadn't seen before, at least not in the Battlestar Galactica universe. Will Adama sacrifice Lee, Kara and the Eye of Jupiter? Of course not because we know that would be the effective end of the series. How Adama will get out of this dilemma, I haven't a clue... but what is joyful to me is that because the show is still young, I don't know what the 'Battlestar Galactica' solution would be.

Let me put this in a Star Trek context. Kirk led a charmed life and would bluff or use cowboy diplomacy (The Corbomite Maneuver) to win the day. Or our intrepid crew would utilize some obscure science or technical wizardry to gain the upper hand (any episode using the transporter). We want to see Kirk being Kirk because we take comfort in that.

What made The Wrath of Khan so shocking was that with the death of Spock, the Star Trek universe suffered a real loss for the first time and it changed Kirk. We saw something new in his character. However, once Spock conquered death then really, how do you define 'loss' in this or any science fiction/fantasy universe anymore? By forfeiting any sense of real danger, all the subsequent Star Trek sequels suffered from the lack of any true dramatic tension.

Did Malcolm Reynolds do anything in Serenity we didn't see him do in Firefly? Did Mulder and Scully do anything in the film version of X-Files that we hadn't seen them do hundreds of times during the series?

The James Bond franchise suffered from the same malaise. Not only did we know James Bond would win the day, he was smug and glib about it. What made Daniel Craig's Bond so refreshing was that he truly was a 'blunt instrument'; that he shared the audience's sense of 'oh shit, what's going to happen now?' He allowed himself to be fooled, betrayed and outsmarted. He didn't have an answer for everything and he paid a price.

Perhaps that also might be my biggest complaint about movies in general is that for all the big budgets and splashy casts, they have lost the capacity to surprise. I suspect it's because we've become slaves to the three act/Hero's Journey structure which is now used to mitigate financial risk at the expense of artistic risk. Even so-called 'indie' movies have smoothed their rough edges either by design or by process because they have to appeal to a large audience to make back their nut.

By taking a television series episode (which is the definition of 'same, but different') and magnifying it on the big screen, the overused story muscles and go-to plot devices would become apparent. But despite having seen every episode and analyzed more than a few, I've noticed that BSG has rarely repeated itself.

So far, there are few things sacred about the Battlestar Galactica canon. That's good. 'Adama being Adama' has no meaning because we don't yet know all there is to know about him.

And as long as the exploration of the characters has the capacity to astonish, disgust and delight us, that as long as 'Adama being Adama' or 'Baltar being Baltar' has no meaning, and as long as the surprises outnumber the cliches, Battlestar Galactica has a welcome home on any screen.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Heroes (on NBC)

I've been handicapping the new shows this fall searching for something fresh to spec. I'll make an admission here: I love television. I've been a TV addict all my life. My first grade teacher said I sounded like a TV announcer when I spoke (that's how she knew I wasn't retarded and just needed eyeglasses).

A lot of hay is being made about how serialized dramas aren't doing too well this year. The New York Times (October 29) ran a huge article about how audiences aren't willing to make a commitment to these shows for various reasons. That, in a nutshell, to watch these shows requires a huge commitment to keep up with the interweaving plots and an emotional investment in the characters.

So what did "Heroes" get right?

The pilot for "Heroes" was a "premise" pilot. What a premise pilot is (to me) is a pilot that is heavy on exposition required to introduce us to the characters and their world. What's typically missing from a premise pilot is a strong story to carry the episode. Among the other pilots this fall season I consider premise pilots are "Studio 60," "The Nine," "Jericho" and "Six Degrees."

What made "Heroes" different from these shows is "Heroes" had a lot more action. Consider the cheerleader, Claire Bennett. We're introduced to her as she tries to commit suicide (again) which reveals she has the ability to heal herself. Then she rescues a fireman from a burning train, fishes her class ring out of a running garbage disposal, and asks her parents who her real parents are.

Compare to Jordan McDeere on "Studio 60." She makes a faux pax at a dinner and hires a new showrunning team (which doesn't give us any more information than the TV Guide blurb). The WGA Awards dinner scene where we meet Matt and Danny for the first time is 100% exposition: the characters reveal information they already know for our benefit. We know Harriet Hayes is a great comic actress only because everyone says so. She hasn't done anything herself to define her character.

In "Smith" we spend a good five minutes learning that one of the team members is a cold blooded killer (and quite petty too) by watching him kill two surfers in cold blood with a high powered rifle. Since this type of character isn't a huge surprise in the crime/caper genre, could they have spent some of this time on something else more interesting?

In "Heroes," the characters don't know the extent of their powers, what to do with it or why. When they find out, we'll find out. In "The Nine," the characters presumably know everything that happened during the bank robbery and the series is built on teasing that information out of them little by little. But since they already know the events of the robbery, there's no suspense. As they face their dilemmas, you can't put yourself in their shoes and empathize because you don't have all the information they have.

We're also given the tease that the characters in "Heroes" are destined to meet each other. Well, so are the characters in "Six Degrees." However, since "Six Degrees" is themed on the randomness of life, what we have to look forward to is a series of "meet cute" scenes where they will declaim what we the audience would already know. In "Heroes," our characters will have to figure out a way to find each other.

Finally, "Heroes" has a sense of humor. When I first saw Hiro I said to myself, "Uh-oh, not another Asian stereotype." But in the case of "Heroes," Hiro adds a lightness and mischievousness that's missing from "Jericho" which is about as bleak, hopeless and dark as a show can be. Hiro is the best thing in show (especially now that we have a hint how he's going to change and get all badass) because he's the only one who's really having fun with his special power, not burdened and tortured like everyone else.

Change is always possible. Last year, I remember the first few episodes of "E-Ring" watching Benjamin Bratt coordinate missions from his desk at the Pentagon. Then about three or four episodes in, he started going on the missions. I'm guessing that someone realized Bratt is more interesting out in the field than behind a desk and made the requisite adjustment to the show's template.

But some shows, like "Smith" aren't fixable. Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment president said in The New York Times (October 23):

The problem with ''Smith,'' Ms. Tassler said, is that CBS executives did not believe it was going to get any better.

''We have a unique vantage point at the network,'' she said. ''I've seen cuts and read scripts for the next four to five episodes, so I could see where we're headed creatively. And we weren't 100 percent happy with what we were looking at.''

Specifically, she said, the show's scripts were becoming harder to follow. ''You have to have clarity in the story-telling,'' she said. ''Confusion kills. I think it was particularly challenged in that area.''

Personally, I would love to know what it was specifically that she saw that made her give up hope.

A lot of people subscribe to the "build it and they will come" philosophy. That if you tell a story well, you'll attract an audience. But sometimes a well-produced show can't find a mass audience (just ask the producers of "Arrested Development"). However, in this case, it's too easy to say the audience is unwilling to make a commitment because they have so many options. But it seems to me that some of the fall shows aren't completely built yet and some tinkering would be prudent to give the characters the arc they deserve.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Playboy Mansion

Some coach said to some team before some big game, "Act like you've been here before." Even with my jaded views on American culture, it was hard not being awestruck standing on the ground where many a teenaged boy's fantasies began-- The Playboy Mansion.

The event was a Safari Brunch Benefit celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Wildlife WayStation. Among the celebs I saw there were Bill Maher, Jillian Barberie, Lou Ferrigno (in his Sheriff's uniform), Corey Feldman and Nicollette Sheridan. Monty Hall ran the live auction and for a moment I thought about bidding on a Gene Simmons autographed guitar (which finally went for $2,500). Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. sang. It was like being in heaven except I'm pretty sure heaven doesn't have an open bar.

There were many animals there that were rescued by the Wildlife WayStation. A macaw, babboons, lots of different birds (and lots of piles of bird shit), a golden eagle, and some kind of yellow boa. For me, the most impressive was the 12 year old white tiger. This was as close as I wanted to get. I felt my clothes had the word "bait" written on it.

Oh yeah, Hef was there too. He was past me by the time I could pull out my camera. That's Holly walking next to him. He looks like a man who really enjoys his life. Unfortunately, this was a close as I could get to him as he always seemed to be surrounded by a crowd of cameras.

I got to visit the game room and saw the original Bally's Playboy pinball machine. There was a cool leather sofa, ash trays(!) and a pool table. The drink in my hand is a Bacardi and Coke (just enough Coke to give it color). I managed a peek into the adjacent guest rooms (ah, if only walls could speak).

What trip to the Playboy Mansion would be complete without a visit to the grotto? It was about a hundred degress in there. I'm cramped up against the side of the wall because there was a couple over on the other side making out. I didn't really want to disturb them. That round purple thing is not a lens flare but a floating ball.

And of course, the answer to the question you're all dying to ask: Yes, the portable toilets had their own air conditioning units.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Power of Film

Howard Suber wrote a book, "The Power of Film." Before you scream, "Not another book about screenwriting!" let me tell you a story.

Upon my acceptance into UCLA's MFA Screenwriting program, I was given this advice: Take Lew Hunter's class and take Howard Suber's class. I had heard of Lew from his screenwriting book "Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434." I didn't know a thing about Howard but once I got to school it was apparent that Howard was "the man."

Because of certain scheduling peculiarities (read: my chaotic life), I wasn't able to take Howard's Structure class the first quarter I was in school. What became obvious to me after that quarter was that my classmates who had taken his class seemed to know something I didn't. It wasn't just facts or theories but they had tangible insight into films that I didn't possess.

During my first few quarters at UCLA, I was struggling to find a new writing process. The process I had developed as a playwright didn't serve me well in screenwriting. I would leisurely write a play over the span of a year using dialogue to explore my characters. Now I had to tell a visual story using succinct scenes with spare dialogue and squeeze 100 or so pages out of my brain every 10 weeks.

At the same time, I was struggling to make sense of the Hero's Journey, the purpose of the act breaks, the importance of conflict, how each conjugation of "narrative" had a different meaning, the difference between making a film and getting a film made, the phenomenology of perception (I dropped that course after one class. I'm still not sure what phenomenology means.), pitching and the art of presentation, the word "diagesis" and how it relates to Star Trek, the corporate conspiracy behind television... well, let's just say my mind was about to explode from information overload.

What I didn't have was a way to organize and contextualize all this information.

My last quarter at UCLA was the first quarter I was able to take Howard's Structure class. In the syllabus he included the OED definition of structure: "The relationship of the parts to the whole and to each other." I hoped his class would help me make sense of everything I learned at UCLA. I wasn't disappointed.

Between his lectures and his handouts I could feel my brain rewiring itself. Neural connections were being made that didn't exist before. All the facts that were floating around in my head now had a place to live. That thump you hear is the sound of me kicking myself while thinking, "Why didn't I see that before?"

"The Power of Film" is a distillation of 42 years of teaching, 8,000 pages of handouts and countless hours of lectures. Free of techno-jargon and movie-speak, Howard's book contains many illuminating insights and how they manifest themselves in popular American films.

While "The Power of Film" is not a book about screenwriting specifically, it is extraordinarly useful to screenwriters.

During my 434 classes I obsessed over my act breaks. I couldn't seem to get them right. Then I read the following paragraph from Howard's chapter on acts:

"Thinking in terms of acts is similar to erecting a scaffold to build a building: it may be a useful tool for the craftsmanship during the construction phase, but it obscures the view of the work itself, and the people who gaze on the finished project will not know or care what kind of scaffold was used."
I had a new perspective on the purpose of an act break and suddenly I felt free of the dogma that dictated, "Your act break must..." blah blah blah. I had felt the need to shine a light on my act breaks in the same way I'd point to a building (using Howard's metaphor) and say, "I used a scaffold here."

My mistake was trying to construct a building so you would know I used a scaffold to build it. No one needs to know I used a scaffold. So now the question becomes, "How do I use an act break to serve my story?" instead of, "How do I get my story to an act break by page 30?"

What is also apparent in reading these pages is Howard's great love for film. There is almost an "I can't wait to share with you..." quality to his prose; the same quality that was present in all his lectures.

When I'm stuck (which is often), I'll leaf through a few chapters of "The Power of Film" and suddenly I'm back in Howard's class and I'll feel the same inspiration I did then and use my renewed confidence to keep pushing forward. For me, it's become an essential book simply because I reach for it over and over again.

The Power of Film, written by Howard Suber, is available on Amazon.com

Monday, September 18, 2006


Logline: A PI investigates the death of a Hollywood icon.

The good idea: A period piece about a murder in old Hollywood.

What didn't work: Louis Simo is not a very good private investigator. The people he's watching know he's watching, he's condescending toward his clients and he has no sense of human behavior. It would have been a brilliant artistic decision to make this guy solve a crime but unfortunately, he is never able to overcome any of his critical flaws to see the bigger picture.

Fortunately for Simo (and unfortunately for the film) there was no bigger picture for him to see.

George Reeves is dead. His suicide is inconceivable to his mother so she hires Simo to find his murderer. In his way is the studio Reeves worked for (personified by Eddie Mannix) who will do anything to quash all hint of scandal that might alienate their audience.

Through flashbacks Simo wanders through events in Reeves' humiliating Hollywood life including casting cattle calls, cheap publicity stunts and lip service to artistic integrity. Reeves' affair with Toni Mannix would be Hollywood's worst kept secret as they attend public events arm in arm.

But despite all this, the audience is never presented with a smoking gun that declares there is something wrong with Reeves' suicide. Simo's motives for continuing his investgation lies more with prolonging his paycheck than finding the truth or healing his relationship with his estranged family. Reeves' own mother eventually abandons the case.

Everyone seems to have a strong motive to keep Reeves' death quiet. However, no one really seems to have a strong enough motive or constitution to kill him. Not his fiancee Leonore Lemmon, a golddigger who could cash in on the notoriety and move on to another sugar daddy; not his sugar mamma Toni Mannix who proves to be too weak and frail to commit murder; and not the cuckold Eddie Mannix who was really under no great threat from Reeves' professionally or romantically to provoke him to murder.

Usually in a conspiracy, the clues are presented and alternate theories are created to explain the clues. However, the film does a poor job presenting its theories in its flashback set pieces. There are two gunshots in the floor that are explained in only one of the flashbacks. Neither of the other theories even addresses them.

Probably the greatest weakness in the film is the character of Louis Simo. When confronted by Mannix's thug Strickland, Simo backs down and gives up leaving us with a mystery that no one wants to solve. Simo hasn't failed because he's exhausted all his options, nor has he ceded his will for a higher purpose (like protecting his family).

Superman is supposed to be invincible just as Louis Simo is supposed to risk everything in pursuit of his goal. Both failed in this film because of their own internal weakness. Maybe that was intended to be the overall unifying theme: that putting faith in heroes leads to disappointment both for the fans of Superman and for the audience of this film.

However, the way this theme manifests itself through Simo's actions isn't compelling. At the first sign of trouble, Simo gives up. I could have done that.