A place I go to waste time and put off actually WRITING movie scripts. Join me.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's time to walk the walk.... really fast!

If you're at all interested in screenplays, and I assume you are since you're reading this, then I urge you to be involved in two weeks of fun/despair/hell (delete as applicable) starting June 3rd over at 14 Day Screenplay.

The object is to do exactly what you'd expect: write a feature-length script in two short weeks. You can do as much planning as you like before, just no writing until the clock ticks over.

If you've never written before, there's more than enough info over at the site to give you a fighting chance. If you have written before then, like myself, I'll wager you find each successive script takes SO much longer than the last one. This is the perfect opportunity to shake out those cobwebs and live (and write) on your wits. And yes, it'll probably be terrible, but that's not the point.

So dust off those long-saved ideas you never really got round to and flex those typing fingers.

I'll see you there!


Monday, May 22, 2006

Q: When is a movie not a movie?

A: When it's a book.

Specifically, when it's a book called The DaVinci Code.

In this, number two of an occasional series of posts that may well be termed 'I don't like this because...' I'll attempt to dissect what is almost certain to become the year's biggest movie.

I have no problem, religious or otherwise, with Dan Brown. He writes novels, and has made himself a very tidy living from it. I also have no problem with the main conceit of The DaVinci Code; that there exists a blood-line of descendants from the supposed union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In fact, as ideas go, it's a good one to write a book around. It draws on a collective consciousness that has almost universal recognition, it charges readers with the task of re-examining facts once considered gospel (ho-ho!), and is likely to aggravate a few people too. That's pretty much all you need for guaranteed success. And a success it was, with sales well into the millions.

Does success in one media lead to success in another? With big names like Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and, for all you screenwriters out there, Akiva Goldsman involved it has to be a sure thing. Looking at the grosses, it is. US$77m opening weekend, giving both Hanks and Howard their biggest open to date. Add the worldwide figures and you get US$224m, the second biggest worldwide opening weekend in history behind Star Wars Episode III.

It's a success in every way.... oh, except one.


I can see a future when this movie will be on film-school syllabuses to illustrate the radical differences between a novel narrative and a film narrative. There is so much in this film that doesn't work, or is wasted.

Tom Hanks for one. One commandment of screenwriting is thus: The protagonist MUST be a wilful character. Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon character is exactly the opposite of that. He and his actions never have anything more than a surface effect on the story narrative. Instead he is buffeted around by the twists and turns going on around him. He never effects any change on the narrative; he never drives it, rendering him as much of an audience member as we are. While it might seem similar to Hitchcock's favoured method of an everyman in a situation much bigger than himself, the key difference is that Hitchcock's protagonists rose to the occasion and began to take control of their fates. Not so Langdon. I wondered why the producers went with as big a star as Hanks for such a non-role. The cynical side of me says that it's in the hope that his star appeal covers up what's missing from the role written for him, which is almost everything.

Another commandment: Show, don't tell. Or: The thorny problem of plot exposition. (Aside: For the most lucid example of plot exposition and its misuse, see the wonderful exchange between Miss Piggy and Diana Rigg early in The Great Muppet Caper, culminating in the line "It's plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.") I don't think I've ever witnessed a movie where I ran out of fingers counting the plot exposition scenes until now. A whole book's-worth of exposition shoe-horned into 140 minutes just plain does not fit. If you need to spend five out of every twenty minutes using on-screen dialogue to get your audience up to speed then you're doing something very wrong.

One more commandment: Screenplays are structure. Successful structure dictates that life-or-death action must be tempered by moments of calm in order for those moments of action to increase tension or be unexpected. The DaVinci Code is, as the saying goes, 'one-damn-thing-after-another' and each double- and triple-cross dilutes the effect of those that succeed it. Think of it like this; if I were to constantly slap you upside the head every two minutes you'd eventually get used to it and it'd lose its effect. But a quick slap when you're not expecting it? Works a treat.

Yet one more commandment: Get into a scene as late as possible, and get out as quickly as possible. This can be extrapolated to refer to the story as a whole, and the filmed DaVinci Code really should have ended at the tomb of Isaac Newton. This scene saw the obligatory confrontation between the force of good and the force of evil. It's the resolution scene. Nothing beyond that resolution has any bearing on the actual story. It's all window dressing. And still, they filmed something like twenty minutes of window dressing. When the only principle characters still left in your story aren't in conflict with each other, isn't that a clue that perhaps the story's over? After all, and perhaps this is the most important commandment of all: There is no scene without conflict.

So, in terms of the script, it's a train-wreck. Why? Akiva Goldsman knows film narrative. Ron Howard knows film narrative.

I saw Dan Brown's name in the Producer credits. Oh-oh. That might have something to do with it.

In fact, Goldsman sends out a little SOS at the end of the film. After having spent 135 minutes doing his best to try to convince us that Brown's madcap idea might just be an alternate history, he fills the last minutes with a scene where the male lead discusses that very notion with the female lead and ends it up, and I'm paraphrasing here, with "It doesn't really matter anyway. What matters is what you yourself believe".

I've never seen such a concise distancing of oneself from their own work.

It put a great big grin on my face.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Get Lost.

Been gone for ages again. Sorry. At least it's for a good reason, having been knee-deep in a new script and dabbling in the short story form, the results of which may (or may not) be posted here some time in the future.

Anyway, on to today's rant.

And, boy, is it a big one!

I hate Lost.

I really, REALLY have a problem with it.

Before I launch in, first a little context. Being in Australia we're now about half-way through the second season. I, along with my partner Amy, was an avid viewer of the first season - like the rest of Australia it seems - but my interest only stretched to about ten episodes whereby I swore off the thing, I thought mostly because of the constant teasing nature of the narrative. I was thoroughly p*ssed off at being told "Next Week: You'll finally find out the big secret of the monster on the island!" and it just not happening. Even the presence of the gorgeous Evangeline Lilly wasn't enough to keep me tuned in. Amy continued to watch it, and still does to this day.

In the intervening months between then and now I have had, on more than one occasion, heated arguments with friends about its relative merits, each time becoming more and more fervent in my hatred of it. I'm apparently in the minority thinking that it's bad television. I was able to live-and-let-live though, as I'm out at work when it airs so Amy doesn't have to put up with my protestations. Equilibrium was reached.

Then last week, I received an email from PK back in England, one of my oldest friends, that went a little something like this:


Have you watched 'Lost'? I've started watching it and it's fantastic!! So well written and completely gripping!

Talk about a red rag to a bull!

I actually feel a bit sorry for him as I vaulted right up on to my high horse and laid in to him like never before. It wasn't that I said he shouldn't like it, or that I thought any less of him because he does, but I tore the show apart and managed to offend him in the process. Perhaps it was because I told him I thought it was a show for stupid people, I'm not sure. I was just unable to keep a lid on it.

I think I have a right to hate it, though, and it's coming totally from a writer's point of view. I consider the precedent that Lost is setting to be damaging for narrative drive in film and TV. Of its typical 45 minute running time, often considerably more than HALF of that is flashback, or backstory as it's termed in Hollywood. For those of you reading this who don't write, you must know that backstory has to be handled very carefully and executed with great skill to drive the present narrative. After all, in a flashback we are watching something that has happened in the past which the character has moved on from because he/she is here in the narrative present. We don't think, in a flashback, "Wow! I wonder what will happen to them next? Will they make it out? How will they be changed?" because we already know the answers to those questions. A character can't lose a leg in a flashback, for instance, because they would be without that leg in the present, of course. To quote Robert McKee, "Powerful revelations come from the backstory - previous significant events in the lives of the characters that the writer can reveal at critical moments to create turning points." Those revelations are supposed to create turning points that turn the story in the present.

Lost doesn't do that. Lost substitutes exhaustive filmed backstory for genuine narrative turning points that move the story forward. It seems to be very much the case of the writers being unable to think of something to propel the narrative along, so instead they'll film another week of one of the ensemble casts' pasts. And coming from the man behind Alias, which had one of the most pacy and dynamic narrative builds I've ever seen on television, this is terribly disappointing. Partially it's because Abrams and his writers have given themselves very little to work with, dealing with a bunch of people on a deserted island. And now, with the monster being revealed as a cloud of growling black smoke it's just getting silly.

The reason why you don't see this level of backstory on screen is because it slows down the pace and has the audience continually living in the past. Writers are taught that it is bad practice. Abrams and his team are breaking one of the most important rules in screenwriting (The narrative must move forward) and, because others know not to, are being lauded for the originality of their show.

The most worrying factor is that there are likely to be many more shows that ape the design of Lost in Production Exec's in-boxes across the world. I for one hope Lost's current malaise in terms of viewers (now down by almost half on Season One here in Australia) causes a lot of those me-too's to be aborted before a penny is spent.