Archive for May 2011

The Shane Black Effect

May 26, 2011

I blame Shane Black for thousands of crappy action scripts, and coverage by professional script readers that mistake writers’ self-conscious asides for “voice.” Don’t get me wrong — I happen to think he’s a terrific screenwriter, which is why he can bend the rules. But when aspiring writers began trading LETHAL WEAPON scripts back in the day, I saw the unseemly aftermath: legions of Shane Black copycats, trying to emulate his style. Unfortunately, their clever bits directed at the script reader were more entertaining than the plot itself. Screenwriting became more about being “cool,” and less about visual story-telling. His success gave the lowly screenwriter rock star status.

Which is somewhat ironic if you’ve ever met him. He’s quite humble and self-effacing to the point of being ridiculously insecure about his own talent. Years ago, I was at the Maui Writers Conference when both Shane and Joe Eszterhas of BASIC INSTINCT fame were speakers. They really had a great line-up in those days, and the MWC screenwriting contest was judged by some very impressive movie/TV people as well. Anyhow, I had optioned a script to the co-writer of ROBOCOP, so I felt like I could strike up a conversation with Shane when I saw him walking by alone. I asked if his parents named him after the movie character in the Western, SHANE. He paused and said, “Oddly enough, no…” To be honest, I can’t recall what he said after that because I was pretty nervous just standing there talking to him.

Later, I spotted him sitting at the bar with Esterhas, a bear of a man who was the antithesis of Shane in almost every way. Since I’m a recovering alky, I bought a cola and sat across the bar from them with a couple of Shane and Joe wannabes. We tried to imagine what they could be chatting about over beers. We also calculated how much the two were worth from their recent multi-million dollar spec sales. Yes, those were heady times for screenwriters. And that’s why I blame Shane for all the lousy scripts that have been pouring into Hollywood ever since LETHAL WEAPON came out.

Before Shane rode into town, it was almost considered unprofessional to write self-indulgent stuff that winked at the reader or wasn’t directly related to the plot and characters. Relying heavily on dialogue to tell your story was considered bad screenwriting. It was said that you should be able to just read the narrative lines as if it was a silent movie and tell from the action on screen what was happening. But more and more, it seems like movie dialogue sounds like bad sit-com writing, where everyone is trying to come up with snarky putdowns and coin the latest celeb/reality show phrase du jour.

I understand the need to make the script read entertaining and fun. However, I try to save my best lines for the characters. Too many nudge-nudge writer asides take the reader out of the story, in my opinion. I’ve seen screenwriters do some funky formatting things too, which I admit looked kind of cool… but if the story is generic or derivative of movies we’ve already seen, there are no gimmicks that will make it any better.

Perhaps one of the best compliments I’ve ever received came from Charles Leavitt, who wrote BLOOD DIAMOND, K-PAX, THE MIGHTY (underrated, worth watching), plus other movies. A bankruptcy lawyer here in Honolulu knew Chuck through a family connection, and as a favor to me, asked him to take a look at my family/adventure spec about the mythical little people of Hawaii (MENEHUNES). The lawyer was also an aspiring screenwriter, who I had given notes to in the past. Against my advice, he sent Chuck a script that really wasn’t there yet… and when he got Chuck’s feedback, it said many of the same things I told my friend. Chuck didn’t pull any punches, so I was a little anxious about his critique of my script.

Months went by before I finally got an email from Chuck. He started out with the positives: “At least you know how to tell a story visually. That’s no small thing.” He proceeded to tell me that my dialogue and characters needed considerable work, although he thought the plot and structure were pretty solid. It wasn’t a glowing review, and he didn’t offer to show it to his agent or anyone in the biz. But I took solace in his opinion that my script didn’t totally suck.

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Amazon Redux

May 18, 2011

As much as I hate to kick a dead horse, it seems I get the most blog views whenever I post something related to screenwriting contests or the on-going Amazon Studio “experiment.” I’ve been reading some of the complaints on the AS message boards about Amazon’s monthly choices for Top 50 semifinalist scripts, and have one bit of advice for those writers: stop whining about not making the cut.

Yes, that’s easy for me to say because I’ve had two scripts make the semifinals, and my Amish horror spec SNALLYGASTER is in the running again this month. But aside from receiving two Amazon Studios t-shirts the prior times I made the Top 50, nothing happened. No contacts from Warner Bros. or any agents/managers. Unless you actually win one of the cash prizes, the contest results are pretty meaningless.

Moreover, I really don’t think Amazon cares one bit what you do with your non-winning script, or mine for that matter. So to those complainers who keep asking Amazon to release them from their so-called option agreement, why don’t you just change the title of your script and do whatever it is you want to do with it? Do you honestly think the Amazon Studio cops are going to be tracking your every move and checking whatever scripts you’re trying to get people to read? Sheesh.

Furthermore, if you’re upset that you didn’t get any recognition in a contest that has gotten about 4,000 submissions, you are in need of a serious reality check. Over 40,000 scripts are registered each year with the WGA — ten times as many as Amazon has received. Add those to the backlog of screenplays that have been floating around for a long time, some of which are actually damn good, then put yourself in the shoes of professional readers/reps/development execs who have to sift through hundreds of awful scripts each month. To make it to the top of the dung heap, your script or story needs something that sets it apart. You have to show them an idea or twist on an idea they haven’t seen before.

I haven’t had the time nor interest to read many of the Amazon entries, but obviously the AS judges saw something in the ones they have chosen over the past few months. Are their choices flawed, or simply bad taste in some cases? I don’t know. The other night my wife and I tried to watch that Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz action “comedy” that began as a hot script called WICHITA. They changed the title to KNIGHT AND DAY. It was horrible. When I read the script, I thought it was too over-the-top and predicted it would bomb. But somebody, including Cruise, Diaz and their people, obviously saw something different when they looked at the project. Does it mean they were all wrong from the get-go? Maybe. Bottom line is it doesn’t matter what you or I think is going to make a good movie. It’s always going to be up to someone else to play “judge” and pick their favorites, based on whatever criteria they have developed over time.

If you’re lucky and develop your craft, you’ll improve your odds and get better at choosing story ideas that aren’t D.O.A . from page one. But if you let contest results and rejections get in your head, you’re already out of the race.

NEXT POST: Confessions of a screenwriting contest junkie… and how I learned to “read” the contest judges to get a leg up on the competition.