Archive for March 2010

Bogus Book Mash-Ups

March 24, 2010

From the NY Times

Sketchbook | Ward Sutton Monster Mash-Up “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, captivated readers and unleashed a whole new genre. Grahame-Smith’s follow-up, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” hit bookstores this month, to be followed this spring by “Jane Slayre” and “Android Karenina.” As publishers run out of 19th-century classics to ransack, can these more contemporary titles be far behind?

More Monster Book Mash-Ups from the NY Times (see post below)

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Book Mash-Ups and Do-Overs

March 24, 2010

Having been to screenwriting conferences (Austin Film Festival and Monterey County) and book-writing conferences (Maui), I’ve noticed how the publishing biz is becoming more and more like Hollywood. Literary agents need to be sold on the concept first, and pitching book projects has become pretty similar to pitching scripts, right down to the query letter.

In fact, I think book writers could learn a lot from screenwriting books and workshops about coming up with concepts that have a better chance of selling, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. When I was a finalist in the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest a few years ago, I sat in on presentations for fiction writers. What I heard in those sessions was almost identical to things I heard from working screenwriters during panel talks when I was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival way back in 1998. Yes, I’ve been at it that long.

A friend of mine also signed up for a Maui Writers Conference retreat for book writers. Afterwards, he excitedly told me about how the retreat instructors helped him devise a marketing plan — even though he hadn’t even finished a first draft yet! I had been under the illusion that publishing was for “serious” writers and the words were more important than marketing or deal-making, which is what you expect in the movie biz.

Aspiring screenwriters are often told that agents and producers want stuff that is “familiar, yet different.” Since even low budget films cost millions to make, the people who greenlight these projects need to minimize risk — or else their necks are on the chopping block if the movie flops. So it’s become common to see pitches that combine elements of successful movies to put a fresh spin on old formulas. You know, it’s DIE HARD in a (insert new location here)… it’s JAWS in outer space… it’s OLD CLASSIC meets whatever is hot right now.

Now we’re seeing the same mentality in publishing with book mash-ups. I admit I laughed when I first heard about the Jane Austen parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s one of those funny ideas writers get when they’re very drunk, but dismiss it as being too stupid after they sober up the next day. Then someone else actually writes it, and you can’t believe it sold for big bucks.

Naturally, the success of P&P&Z spawned imitators such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The latest book mash-up is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of P&P&Z as well). Yeah, I chuckled at that too… but do I really want to read another twist on stories about vampires or zombies?

Last week, I saw ZOMBIELAND, an amusing movie that is most notable for the first-person narration about the Rules for surviving zombie outbreaks. Many critics heaped praise on it, calling it hilarious. Really? The thing is, it’s just a movie — I don’t expect as much as I do from a book. As a screenwriter, I know film is a collaborative process. High-minded themes, character development, subtext, all take a backseat to a studio’s main goal: putting live butts in seats.

Despite the fact that publishing is becoming more like Hollywood, if I could start over my writing career, I’d focus on books. It may seem “easier” to write a 110 page screenplay, but the truth is it’s harder in some ways — you have to be merciless in cutting dialog and narrative. I’ve had to leave out pages and pages of stuff I researched at great lengths, or bits I loved… things that would have been good material for a book.

I also think the odds of getting published are much better, simply because it costs far less to produce a book than a film. Lit agents and publishers can take more risk with a manuscript from an unknown commodity. And if no publisher wants your book, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to self-publish than mortgage your house to make an independent film.

The irony is if you write a script with richly-detailed characters and scenes, most agents and producers would toss it in the trash for being too much like a book. Yet half the projects in development are, you guessed it… book adaptations, because of the richly-detailed characters and scenes within those pages. And then some screenwriter is going to have to hack away most of what made the book so good in the first place. Go figure.

Got a book mash-up idea you wanna pitch? Let’s hear it! I’d be happy to steal it. The sillier, the better.

Avatar, the Oscars and War Movies…

March 15, 2010

From our recent Big Island trip, a shop that specializes in da kine gecko stuff!

Just got back from a week of R&R on Kona with my wife, Isabel. Perfect weather for snorkeling, tennis and a little golf. Also watched some of the Academy Awards while we were there, and was disappointed that AVATAR didn’t win for Best Picture… not that it was the best-written or most original plot. But it’s a game changer for the movie biz. The 3-D technology gave me a reason to go see a film in a theater instead of waiting for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it at home, free of irksome idiots who talk or make noise throughout the movie.

Frankly, I thought THE HURT LOCKER was overrated. Good movie, solid acting, directing. But in the end, what’s it about? War is hell, sure. Being a soldier or defusing bombs is nasty business — it’s a job though, and someone’s gotta do it, right? In a way, that’s a central theme in AVATAR too. Both films are about choosing the military as an occupation. What makes AVATAR better in my opinion, is James Cameron isn’t afraid to make a statement about the politics — and economics — of war. HURT LOCKER doesn’t go there, and some critics praised it for being apolitical. To me, that’s a cop out though.

The people who panned AVATAR cite other movies with similar plots and themes. For instance, someone took a synopsis of Disney’s POCAHONTAS and crossed out those character names, then scrawled in the names from AVATAR above them. Others have compared it to DANCES WITH WOLVES. What they all have in common are capitalistic industrial-military societies imposing their will on native cultures that don’t have the same materialistic values as ours.

In POCAHONTAS, the Western explorers were seeking new lands to lay claim to. In DANCES WITH WOLVES, the U.S. military is looking to take more land from the natives. In AVATAR, they want “Unobtanium” — in Iraq, it was really all about the oil, wasn’t it? Yet does HURT LOCKER even raise the question of why these guys are in the Middle East, risking their lives? Nope. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on new meaning in that movie.

I’m not saying HURT LOCKER should’ve been a Michael Moore type screed against Bush/Cheney and American Imperialism. But at least give us a point of view other than “it’s just my job.” Even on that level, the film doesn’t tell us much about the main characters. What’s their motivation — is it a paycheck or the adrenaline rush? In every generation there are macho guys who want to destroy things and kill people. Thank god, because I don’t want to go kill the enemy. Yet some of them are clearly addicted to violence as a lifestyle choice, which is reinforced by video games and, yes, movies. At least TOP GUN had some sexy scenes and rocking musical montages.

What people don’t give Cameron enough credit for is constructing a script that aptly sets up later action sequences. As a writer who has tried to do just that in my own screenplays, I can tell you it’s much harder than it looks. Next time you watch AVATAR, note how small details and lines in early scenes are paid off in later big moments.

And I bet nearly all of you were rooting against the human military machine — the Americans — at the end. In HURT LOCKER, did you really care who won? No, because there was nothing for us to win over there. Everyone lost in Iraq, and we all know that. So by not making any political statement in the movie, the writer and director leave us only with our own ambivalence about the war.

Conversely, AVATAR literally transports us to another world where we’re confronted with clear-cut moral choices that requires you to take a stand one way or the other. It made me care about 10-feet tall CGI creations that seemed more human to me than the “real” soldiers depicted in HURT LOCKER.

My Cameron connection: Marie Cantin optioned one of my early scripts with her significant other, Michael Miner (ROBOCOP cowriter). She produced THE WATERDANCE with Gale Anne Hurd, who was Cameron’s second wife — before he married Kathryn Bigelow, director of THE HURT LOCKER.

Parting shots: GLORY is still the most moving war movie I’ve ever seen. However, APOCALYPSE NOW remains one of my favorite films, just for the sheer audacity of some of the scenes and visuals.

Professional Liars

March 5, 2010

Deep movie preview voice intones: “In a world without lying, there are no stories… no novels… no movies as we know them… no imagination. Only facts and non-fiction…”

That’s how I would pitch THE INVENTION OF LYING to other writers and people in the entertainment biz. Coincidentally, a popular book business blogger — Nathan Bransford — just wrote a post on the connection between lying and story-telling. He didn’t mention the Ricky Gervais movie, but I did in the comments section. (Link at bottom.)

Some of the blog readers disagreed with his premise on the grounds that lying is purposely deceptive, while story-telling is about a willing suspension of disbelief. I kind of agree… but it still goes back to an innate ability humans have to fabricate untruths or make things up. Can any other animal do that?

Ironically, for me the movie didn’t quite work because I wasn’t able to totally suspend my disbelief. It’s one of those premises that are funnier to think about than actually watch (like IDIOCRACY). The movie has many amusing moments, but it’s just too hard to swallow. However, I did love how his “lying” about what happens when you die leads to the birth of religion. I’m surprised that didn’t create controversy among True Believers of all creeds.

There’s also a funny subplot about his occupation: he writes movies… except they are all fact-based historical stories that a single “actor” reads while sitting in a chair. That’s all the producers make — until he discovers lying, and he spontaneously invents a wild tale of aliens and dinosaurs, which he passes off as being true. His movies become hugely successful, even though they’re still being read by a guy in a chair.

When you think about it, a great screenplay does the same thing: it makes the reader see the movie in his head, whether it’s an epic spectacle or intimate character study set in a mundane world. But we’ve become so inured to fantastic tales because we’re bombarded with creative “lies” in ads, TV shows, movies, and yes, politics, that we need even more visual stimuli and 3-D glasses to transport us into other worlds these days. Sitting in a chair and reading a book just isn’t enough for the masses anymore.

It got me to thinking about other movies that involve creative “lying” as an occupation, such as advertising and marketing. Remember CRAZY PEOPLE, the Dudley Moore comedy? He played an ad exec, who has a breakdown and winds up in a mental institution. His breakthrough idea is to create ads that tell the truth… like “Volvo — boxy but safe” or something like that.

Since I’ve done some advertising and PR copywriting, I have an appreciation for the art of stretching the truth and spin. I’ve also had sales and marketing jobs in which I had to find creative ways to make things sound better than they really were. In short, I have been a professional liar most of my life.

Yet my most rewarding experiences as a writer have come from sharing real stories from my life as a recovering alcoholic/addict in my newspaper columns for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (“Addicted to Life”) and Honolulu Advertiser featured blog (“Addicted to…”). Maybe honesty isn’t the best policy for a writer, but it’s the one reason I’ve managed to stay clean and sober all these years. And that’s the truth.

Relevant links:

Nathan Bransford’s blog for book writers.

Movie trailer for THE INVENTION OF LYING.

Passing Strange: See it on DVD!

March 1, 2010

It’s not often I give a Netflix movie a 5-star rating, or watch anything a second time just after I viewed it. Yet there I was, putting the PASSING STRANGE dvd back in the DVR player, and bopping my head to the opening notes that kick off this amazing piece of theater.

If you haven’t heard of it before — and many did not because it ran on Broadway for just six months — it’s a musical about a young black man’s search for identity through music. Not the most original premise. But the way it’s told through song and witty repartee makes it one of the most memorable things I’ve seen in a long, long time. Spike Lee does a terrific job of filming and editing the performances so that you feel like you’re in the front row… heck, you can almost taste the sweat dripping off the actors.

Since this blog is ostensibly related to career matters and occupational choices, I’ll tell you why it moved me so much: I’ve been thinking about throwing in the towel on screenwriting after 15 years of serious effort and little to show for it. “Close” don’t count. Neither do options, or winning screenwriting contests. If your scripts aren’t being made, it’s as if you don’t exist (or so I thought)… I look back at my life and wonder what if I had focused on a career in advertising, journalism or any kind of “real” job. At least I would have made more money. But I’m not sure I could be happy in that role because I was always searching for something more…

And that’s what PASSING STRANGE is about. Stew, the author of the play and singing narrator, calls it “the Real.” His young alter ego on stage, referred to as Youth, leaves his mother and life in L.A. to find the Real in Europe. It’s funny and sad because as Stew later notes, the Real is an illusion — a “construct” that ironically can only be made real through art.

That’s what writers, musicians, and artists are all looking for: to create a moment or piece of work that transcends ourselves and speaks to a larger truth. We want to make our mark for eternity. But at the same time, as Stew says in his play, artists want to remain children at heart. He has a great line later on about how weird it is that so many of us “spend our entire adult lives acting on the decisions of a teenager.” Ain’t that the truth.

I guess that’s why I cried at the end. Stew stayed true to himself to become the man on the stage singing about his life, laughing about his foibles and stoned-out epiphanies, a bit remorseful he chose music over love when it was offered… but in the end, music is love to him. It’s the thing that connects him to the world and everyone in it.

It inspired me to go back to a screenplay I wrote in 1994 that was my first optioned script — a bizarre comedy about an aging punk rocker loser who becomes poster boy for the ultimate lifestyle makeover company that’s actually a front for a Disney-esque corporation with plans to brainwash the masses into being mindless consumers of its products. The title was “I Gotta Be Me!”

After watching PASSING STRANGE, I realized what I have to do is go back to that story and rewrite it as a punk rock musical. Maybe it’ll never sell, but I still have something to say. Thanks, Stew, for reminding me I have my own song to sing, whether anyone wants to hear it or not. And if they don’t, it’s all right…

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For those who are curious, here’s the I GOTTA BE ME script that was optioned by Michael Miner, co-writer of the original ROBOCOP. His significant other, Marie Cantin, was also attached as a producer. It remains unproduced, just waiting to be re-imagined… as a musical, perhaps.

I Gotta Be Me (7.08)