Archive for the ‘movies that suck’ category

Rediscovering Mary Poppins

April 16, 2014

Last night, my wife and I watched SAVING MR. BANKS and we both cried at the end because the characters and emotions felt genuine. I read the script months ago, and had the same reaction — even though I had already read reviews that criticized the film for taking liberties with the true story it was based on, especially in regards to the author, Pamela Travers (a pen name for her book and clue to what the movie is actually about). I loved the screenplay for what it is: a well-crafted blueprint for a crowd-pleasing Disney brand movie. The pages I read moved me enough that I decided to watch the original MARY POPPINS before SAVING MR. BANKS was available on Netflix.

When MP was released in 1964, I was 7-years-old and my memory of seeing the film in a theater is literally a blur because I was near-sighted, and would not wear glasses until I was 12 (didn’t want to be called “four-eyes”). For some reason, I didn’t really connect with it, although I did have a crush on Julie Andrews… even now when you watch that film, she’s absolutely beautiful on screen. After all these years though, I wasn’t sure how it would play.

The first thing that struck me in the opening was the tone. It’s a bit darker and more poignant than I recalled. It’s also very surreal. Right away, I was drawn into its strangely straight-laced yet anything-goes world. Before long, I was telling my wife this was the most creative, inventive movie I’ve seen in a long time — more so than any number of recent Hollywood blockbusters and Oscar-nominated films. We both had been lamenting the dearth of fun, imaginative movies and were disappointed by critics’ picks like AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, NEBRASKA and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY… all of which seemed overrated to me. (Too much “realness” when I’d rather find an escape from nasty, mean-spirited, profanity-laced harangues and plain old crankiness. Heck, I can get that at my own family gatherings so why would I want to pay to see it in a theater?)

The original MARY POPPINS is truly original in so many ways. Yeah, there are some numbers and scenes that could be trimmed a bit. But as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why they haven’t turned this into a Broadway Disney musical, now that the technology exists to do a lot of the movie magic on stage. For instance, a few years ago we saw SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, in which the Seurat painting comes to life through the use of video backdrops. Imagine the sequence where Dick Van Dyke dances with the cartoon penguins, transferred to the stage with holographic penguins or some high tech animation. Or imagine what they could do with Mary Poppins gliding down from above, holding her magic umbrella… and later the “Go Fly a Kite” finale with kites flying above the audience! I’d pay Broadway ticket prices to see that.

CORRECTION: Turns out MP was adapted for the stage back in 2006 and had a fairly long run. Just goes to show how out of touch I am with Broadway theater! Apparently, the production received mixed reviews, but it sounds like the special effects were imaginative and impressive. Wished I had seen it back then!

Back to SAVING MR. BANKS: After seeing MARY POPPINS, I had an even greater appreciation for the writers of that movie who had to deal with the prickly Mrs. Travers in adapting her book. I think SMB captures the essence of their challenge and the central conflict between her attachment to the book versus the Hollywood writers’ task of making the material fresh and fun for American palates, while retaining enough of the book’s major elements to appease Mrs. T’s staunchest fans as well as her. The dialogue and lyrics are witty, full of clever word play, yet also hint at deeper emotions and themes related to childhood and growing up. If you’re going to see SMB, I recommend you add MP to your Netflix queue first because you only get a taste of the words, images and songs that make MP a classic worth revisiting.

I know purists will say SAVING MR. BANKS sugar-coated the real story, but isn’t that what MARY POPPINS  is all about — a spoonful of sugar to make unpleasant realities go down a little easier?


Reasonable Facsimiles

December 6, 2013

Been awhile since my last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with my Career Changers TV show, and also because I haven’t had much motivation to blog about screenwriting or the entertainment biz in general. Lately, it feels like nearly everything I see on TV/movies, or read in “hot” scripts and amateur screenplays, or listen to that is supposed to be “new” music…. well, it all seems like pale imitations of better stuff that has been been amped up, dumbed down, and homogenized for a mass market with short term memories.

Okay, I know that’s a tired trope. And maybe it’s more of a reflection on how long I’ve been writing. As you get on in years, you can’t help comparing things you grew up liking with things that are in vogue. I suppose every generation thinks “their” art and creative ventures were more original than the next generation to come along. But it really hit home the past week on a personal level, causing me to ponder whether I still have the stomach for screenwriting in a business world dominated by the cold hard realities of commerce versus the idealistic notions I once had of creating art.

The clash of personal artistic ambition and what I do these days to make a buck came full circle last week in an unexpected venue: my  cameraman and I were shooting a segment on the Legends in Concerts Waikiki show, which features “tribute artists” who perform as Elvis, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. The Chief Operating Officer of all the Legends shows worldwide, Brian Brigner, explained they don’t call them impersonators because of negative connotations associated with that word — i.e., con artists, drag queens who lip sync, comedians who do bad imitations of celebs, etc. In fact, these performers did all their own singing on stage, which has not always been the case with some of the stars they portray in the show who often rely on lip synching themselves because it is very difficult to dance, perform acrobatic moves and sing at the same time.

What made my interview with Brian even more interesting is that before he began working with Legends, he was managing and producing real music legends such as the Gatlin Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, and others who were huge country stars. He also had managed touring productions of big Broadway shows and ran live theater operations that offered a variety of “products” as he refers to shows and music acts. His start in show biz though came through the Indy car racing circuit… which actually makes sense. Fresh out of college, he decided he wanted to get involved with the business side of car racing, and that’s how he learned about marketing tie-ins to sponsors, packaging race car drivers as stars, putting people in seats, and so on. All the things you have to do in selling live theater shows — or movies for that matter.

I was really impressed with Brian’s professionalism and how smoothly the Legends show ran from start to finish. Everything was well organized, every performer and supporting cast member hit all their marks on cue, the band was note perfect, and the customers — mainland tourists, Australians, lots of Japanese — ate it up, squealing with delight when the look-alikes ventured into the audience to shake hands, kiss cheeks or accept a small stuffed koala bear as a token of appreciation for the Elvis imitator — er, tribute artist I mean. Truth be told, I enjoyed the show too.

But afterwards I flashed back to a script I wrote years ago that had been optioned by the writer of an iconic movie. I’ve blogged about what went down in the past, and the writer asked me to take his name out because he said there were some things that were inaccurate or might give the wrong impression of him. Rather than argue or ask which things I may have misremembered, I deleted those posts. Still, it was a script that to this day I believe was prescient and a smart commentary (or weird and bizarre at the very least) on the state of the entertainment biz back when I wrote it in the mid-1990s.

It was called I GOTTA BE ME and it was about a failed punk rocker stuck in a dead-end job, who becomes the poster boy for the ultimate “lifestyle makeover” company… which is really a front for a Disney-esque multimedia conglomerate whose real goal is to makeover entire cities, beginning with Hoboken, New Jersey, by brainwashing the residents into consuming their products from the cradle to the grave. That includes shows in which “look-alikes” replace dead stars to perpetuate the sales of their work, while remaking crappy TV shows and movies for a younger, dumber generation (they take over education and job training by privatizing government). The recycling metaphor is extended to how the corporation handles its biggest infrastructure headache: dealing with all the human waste produced by old people in Hoboken. So the CEO gets the brilliant idea of recycling shit into frozen yogurt, which they add an addictive ingredient to, then reselling it to the residents who produced it.

In my plot, the protag winds up in a Movie Coma, and the corporation replaces him with a look-alike — who does a better job of selling their product than the real guy. So they keep him in a coma, until he accidentally gets out of it and discovers the contract he signed allows them to use a Reasonable Facsimile of himself should he ever be unable to perform his duties as company spokesman/poster boy. When I look at the kind of scripts I’m currently trying to write to fit what I hear producers/agents/managers say they want, I start to wonder if I have become a Reasonable Facsimile of myself as a writer.

Needless to say, the writer/producer who optioned it was never able to get any traction with studios on the project. Yet when I look at the entertainment landscape today, I can’t help but think this is where we are and who we’ve become: mindless consumers who will swallow our own recycled crap if it’s dressed up with artificial flavorings, packaged in bright colors with cool graphics, and touted by the latest, hip celebs who get a piece of the action.

And you know why I was inspired to write this long, rambling missive? Last night I watched a documentary, GOOD OL’ FREDA, about the woman who was the Beatles’ secretary and fan club president for the 10 years they were together. Listening to her talk about the “lads” and seeing the old black and white photos of the four young guys made me yearn for a time when bands kind of just happened on their own, with no clear intention of conquering the music world or becoming a corporation unto themselves. They seemed so natural and authentic — the antithesis of music stars who aim for millions of YouTube views with each new release, regardless of how mediocre it is.

It got me to thinking about rock concerts back in the 60s and 70s, when bands and music events were often unpredictable, unruly affairs where nothing happened on schedule, musicians might be impaired or unable to perform… and even a bad show could seem special because you knew you were there to witness something unique. Sure, the band might flame out or never quite catch fire with the masses for whatever reason. But the glow from seeing the real thing — the originals — always stays with you.

Nicholl Notes and Depressing Comedies

October 11, 2013

It’s been a rough month for me. After I got word my LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET script didn’t make it into the semifinal round, I received more bad news. Two smaller fellowship programs — one for Asian-Americans, another geared to Hawaii screenwriters — notified me I did not make their cut either. The same LOST script that scored high enough to be in the top 5 percent of 7,251 Nicholl entries did not impress readers in other contests that don’t attract nearly as many submissions. But judging at any level is subjective, so none of this surprised me.

In any event, when I get depressed, I look forward to reading books or watching movies that might get me out of my funk. Something to make me smile, laugh, see the bright side of life in general. So I had high hopes for THIS IS THE END since most critics said it was hilarious, although there was profanity and a lot of “adult” humor. They must have seen a different movie than the piece of crap I saw. Okay, at first the idea of watching Seth Rogen, James Franco, et al, playing over the top versions of themselves was amusing… for about 15 minutes. Then it became a series of increasingly juvenile bits with them screaming “sh*t… what the f@ck… f@cking this/that/you” and other unimaginative putdowns that I hardly consider “adult” in any way, shape or form of writing. In hindsight, I wonder if they even bothered to “write” a script for this movie. It was depressing to think that this is the new standard for humor in modern American films.

Which brings me back to the Nicholl Fellowships. I guess their readers are out of step with Hollywood because the notes I got back from two of their contest judges said they liked my script because they felt it was funny, yet was “very mature” and had an “adult vibe” that made it stand out. This was the first year that excerpts from the readers’ comments were sent to writers who placed in the quarterfinals on up.  They did not send the complete reviews/scores or indicate who the readers were, so it’s sort of like incomplete coverage that only focuses on the positives.

The thing I found most funny — and flattering — about the comments was that one reader wrote: “I would bet money that the author once worked the same job as the protagonist in real life.” In the script, my protag works part-time in a supermarket as part of the security staff that monitors customers for theft and other potential problems in the store… a job I never had, but did research for the screenplay. I always strive for authenticity and try to find details in my characters’ occupations that will create a sense of verisimilitude, and give the illusion I know what the hell I’m writing about.

For what it’s worth, here’s the Nicholl notes in their entirety just as I received them on a single page Word Document. If you’d like to read my script, feel free to hit me up with an email…

2013 Nicholl Fellowships – QF Readers Comments for “Lost in the Supermarket” by Rich Figel

This script captures both the thrill of witnessing a born musical talent who has gone full tilt to fine tune his ability as well as the yearning for an artist’s beloved and realization that a life of artistic passion also carries many costs.

Phil’s honesty about his own lack of sheer genius or extraordinary talent as well as his open awe for those who possess them are touching. Through his perspective, we too both admire Davis’ gift, courage and choices as well as mourn the losses these choices have cost him.

Gen is flawed yet sympathetic as we ride the ups and downs with her, through Phil’s infatuated eyes while he covets his idol’s girlfriend. The writer adds welcome complexity to this love triangle: Phil loves Davis as an inspiring mentor and longs for his gift and girlfriend yet also feels her pain in loving an artist whose music comes first.

The story builds more and the craft improves as it progresses. Phil’s honesty is disarming. The humor is funny yet also feels genuine. This story is poignant, and the writer doesn’t compromise, particularly at the conclusion.


Reader 2:

There’s a very mature and adult vibe and tone to this story that makes it stand out.  The way the protagonist comes to care about and form a friendship with the musician feels different from what we usually see and the way he falls in love with the man’s girl is refreshing— though he longs for her, he respects the musician too much and keeps his relationship with the girl on a friends only level. 

This has a simple set-up and is easy to follow yet it has special touches that make it feel unique and fresh.  Humor is integrated expertly into the story and there are some great individual scenes and moments that add to the story without necessarily advancing it.  The central conflict is subtle yet still drives the plot slowly drawing us into the action.  We can’t help but fall in love with these characters and care about what happens to them.

The characters show real depth and personality.  They are likable.  Many of them are funny and provide a nice balance to the main drama which deals with the jazz musician and his girlfriend.  The way our protagonist becomes involved with the couple is worked into the story in a logical manner.  The dialogue is great — the conversations have a smooth flow and the lines sparkle with wit and realism.

The setting is used to good effect and there are a lot of “inside” moments about the way the supermarket works — I would bet money that the author once worked the same job as the protagonist in real life.  The descriptions are good and movement and action are laid out clearly — the reader easily forms a mental picture of what is happening on the page.

There were a few typos and some minor formatting issues but nothing to get worked up over.  All in all, this is a solid and tight work that shows a lot of creativity and skill.  I liked it a lot.

Tasteful Nudity

July 18, 2013

Did that get your attention? Good, because I have something serious to say, although I did want to comment on the HBO series, Game of Thrones — which my wife and I are loving, now that we’ve finally caught up with it through Netflix. There are great visuals, intricate plots, violent (yet imaginative) battle scenes, and yes, a fair amount of gratuitous nudity and sex in certain episodes. It’s sort of like an R-rated version of Lord of the Rings for adults. At its heart though, is the dwarf character, who starts out as a wastrel and uses his wits as a way of compensating for his “half a man” stature. Watching him adapt and grow, metaphorically, into a cunning leader by using his skills of lying, deal-making and common sense observations, is inspiring. He’s the ultimate underdog, who relishes the Game. But his most important quality is empathy.

We root for Tyrion Lannister, a.k.a. “The Imp,” because he identifies with those who are mocked, beaten down or abused. He doesn’t get on his high horse or moralize about the fairness of life or offer empty platitudes about helping others. He just shows it by small gestures, pardon the pun. However, those little things he does are magnified by the pettiness of his bigger, stronger siblings and their might-makes-right approach to ruling. Every wannabe politician should study The Imp’s character arc.

Oh, where was I? Ah, yes… the real point of this post was to direct you to a documentary that is available on Netflix via instant streaming: Chasing Ice. For anyone who is a skeptic of global warming concerns or thinks Al Gore was exaggerating the threats posed by climate change when An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, all I can say is watch this movie. Now. Not only does it show proof that glaciers are melting — it’s happening much faster than anyone predicted. Sometimes, reality is scarier than any big budget disaster flick.

And that brings me to the latest Godzilla remake. The local TV “news” media in Hawaii has been all atwitter about the millions of dollars spent and hundreds of extras being employed while cameras roll in Waikiki, as part of future scenes of death and destruction coming to a theater near you (and will probably bomb like the last Godzilla remake). Wow, isn’t that great! We get to see Hawaii demolished in another overblown Hollywood exercise in crap-tastic recycling of familiar monsters and cliche action “heroes” who don’t seem to care much about threats to the human race until giant mutant creatures or hostile aliens show up.

So here’s my gripe: Destruction is easy. Making movies about fake disasters is fun and exciting for those who get to be part of the experience. But making people care about real catastrophes that are occurring right now is hard. We’d rather look away from evidence of actual threats to the planet and escape into apocalyptic fantasies than do something to address clear and present dangers to humanity. Imagine if we — or these giant entertainment companies — would just put a fraction of the time and money they spent on the fake destruction of Waikiki, into something constructive… like helping some of the homeless get off the street, or fixing our aging infrastructure, or —

I forgot. You’d have to be living in a fantasy world to think we should expect our leaders to engage the public and rally them toward doing something useful. Instead, we get politicians who show up on Waikiki film sets for photo ops and a chance to hobnob with Hollywood royalty. I can see that little dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, smirking at our folly while knowing “Winter is coming” — except in our case, winter is global warming, and rising sea levels.

If you want examples of real heroes, I nominate the filmmakers of Chasing Ice and An Inconvenient Truth. It requires true courage to tell people they have to wake up and take action before it’s too late.

The Banality of Evil Geniuses

June 10, 2013

The other night I watched GANGSTER SQUAD, and I couldn’t get over how awful it was. From the opening scenes, it was in-your-face unadulterated violence meant to tell the audience that this was going to be an amped up version of the Untouchables or a lesson about the necessity of resorting to evil in order to defeat evil. Everything was over the top with very odd acting choices by Sean Penn et al. There wasn’t anything remotely smart about the plot or characters… which kind of made it noteworthy, since most TV shows and movies these days center around evil geniuses.

I suppose you can blame it on films like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or SEVEN, which ratcheted up the intelligence quotient for fictional serial killers, who must now aspire to be more creative psychopaths than your basic bloodthirsty gangster or brain-dead slasher. It’s supposed to make the plot more of a puzzle for the equally brilliant investigator to unriddle before the next work of performance art/gruesome murder takes place. Yet the more elaborate these exercises in brutality become, the less I care since it’s all artifice.

The most chilling thought I’ve had in recent times was in response to real horror: the Sandy Hook massacre. Not the shootings themselves. That kind of thing is all too common now. True, the age of the victims made it more sickening, but the reality is young children are gunned down everyday in urban cities, and the general public shrugs its collective shoulders. No, what made this different was the sheer number of children methodically shot down in one place at one time… as if the mad gunman had a specific goal in mind. A quota, perhaps?

Okay, you could say Adam Lanza was just a copycat killer inspired by the Columbine High School shootings. But the immediate gut-wrenching aftermath made me wonder if Adam really was a “genius” as some of his classmates said. I read different reports that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a “milder” form of autism associated with difficulties in social interactions — while at the same time also being linked to high intelligence in math or an extraordinary ability to focus on certain subjects. While researching a script that involved an autistic character, I read books by Temple Grandin, who is autistic and became known for her more humane slaughterhouse designs based on her observations of animal behavior (essentially, she says autistic people think in visual terms similar to the way animals process information).

She refuted the notion that people with autism were “insensitive” to the feelings of others because they avoided eye contact or might react in ways that seemed inappropriate in certain situations. She said autism actually made her hyper-sensitive — which explains why she cared so much about alleviating the suffering of cattle before they were slaughtered. It might seem strange to “normal” people that she viewed her work so pragmatically that she didn’t see a disconnect between killing and designing the apparatus to make killing “easier” on the animals. Yet if we were coldly rationale about end results, it’s possible to see a different motive in Adam Lanza’s methodical slaughter of innocent kids — like the sacrifice of young goats to a deity only he could see.

What if he really was a genius, gifted with a brilliance for mathematics? What if he was also hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others? And after reading headlines day after day, week after week, year after year, about people being killed by guns, he worked out an equation to stop the madness — by doing the unthinkable: kill a certain number of children, which would stun an entire nation into doing something to prevent future tragedies.

For a brief moment after the Sandy Hook shootings, I actually thought that might happen. I was wrong. Stupid, pig-headed, right-wing conservative politicians prevailed again. The bastards who feed at the teats of the NRA caved in to man’s basest rationale for the right to bear arms: because I want my gun, that’s why! (They did the math too, and deduced that the loss of 20 or 100 or even 1,000 children because of guns is worth the millions in donations they get from the NRA and will not cost them much in votes. So who is the real psycho or evil genius in this scenario?)

In my fantasy, after stricter gun control measures were passed in response to the actions of this disturbed loner, someone would discover a secret journal he kept that spelled out why he took such drastic actions… and he had run computer simulations showing it would take the deaths of at least 20 white suburban school kids (because slain minority children in urban cities don’t get as much media coverage) to achieve critical mass to spark change that would ultimately save thousands of lives in the long run.

If we could remove emotions from our daily decisions and look at the big picture, suddenly it might seem like a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. Then I realize, isn’t this the way terrorists think too? Sometimes, there is a thin line between evil genius and being a genuine hero. Anyhow, I guess that was the point of GANGSTER SQUAD, but with all the shooting and killing and Sean Penn’s overacting, I wasn’t really thinking about plot subtleties such as “meaning.” In America, we shoot first and ask questions later… questions that we never seem to answer.

The Black List – Part 2

April 6, 2013

Been awhile since I posted here for a few reasons. Mostly though, I’m just tired of slogging through other blogs, forums, Tweets, Facebook posts and e-newsletters telling me the ins and outs of “successful” screenwriting. Then I turn on the TV and watch the latest “edgy,” dark adaptation of a movie, book or rehashed crime procedural in which both the protagonist and villain are brilliant eccentrics who are simply misunderstood by ordinary people like ourselves, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry in the face of actual crimes against humanity committed every day… which are largely ignored or quickly forgotten. And it makes me wonder: what’s the point of all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over whether a script got a 5 or a 7 or the magic number 8 on the Black List?

Who the f@#k cares! That is not why I started writing in the first place, it’s not what motivated me to take up screenwriting, and it’s not why I’ve kept at it all these years. Yet even I get caught up in the contest/ratings game mindset because unless you’ve sold a script and gotten it produced, what do you really have to show for all your efforts?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… it’s an old song every artist, writer and musician who hasn’t broken through, has heard and sung themselves. As it happens, I “re-discovered” an early draft of just such a personal story I turned into a script a few years ago based on my relationship with the late great jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. He played electric bass for  Weather Report — that’s him soaring on “Birdland” and pouring his heart into “A Remark You Made” on the same Heavy Weather album. Sadly — or maybe not — Jaco was bipolar, subject to wild mood swings, depression and heavy use of drugs and alcohol. I went along for the ride with him a couple of nights that became the talk of Seventh Avenue South, the jazz club in Greenwich Village where I met Jaco and other semi-famous jazz musicians.

Anyhow, in my script, a young college guy who works part-time in a supermarket doing security surveillance, meets a bipolar jazz genius and his lovely lady friend… who the kid is instantly smitten with. (She was based on the girlfriend of another great musician I knew in college — and we developed a relationship while she continued to live with this rock guitar idol of mine.) In the script, the kid doesn’t exactly get the girl, and the musician meets an untimely end just as Jaco did… possibly as a result of him not taking his meds, while continuing to self-medicate with booze and cocaine.

What I later learned was Jaco felt lithium robbed him of his ability to play music. It did “flatten” out his moods, creating a semblance of normalcy and stability in his chaotic life. But it killed his creative urges and made him impotent as well. Which presents a terrible choice for an artist — would you trade your manic highs/lows and bursts of creativity for a more ordinary existence? As someone who has dealt with bouts of depression and mania, I can only say for me, I’ve tried to balance things so I can write when I feel like it, and live a fairly productive life when I’m not up to facing the inevitable rejections.

When I reread my old “Lost in the Supermarket” script, which I had shelved long ago for more “commercial” specs that were edgy, dark permutations on psychopaths and gory stuff, I was struck by how fresh it felt — no shootings, no stabbings (well, one near stabbing), no psychos or brilliant heroes/villains! It was about real people, albeit one or two bigger than life characters, wrestling with the meaning of life and art, and art as life. It made me laugh and cry because I wrote it at a time when I didn’t know where screenwriting would lead me… I’d get close to breaking through, but I just never got over the hump.

So what did I do with it? What do you think? I submitted it to the Black List, of course, to see how it would rate. Except this time I put a fake name on the title page to test a theory. When BL first launched, I was an early adopter and put up my most “successful” scripts in terms of contest wins and prize money (a couple had been optioned by reputable producers as well). There is a space on the submission form to include “Previous Awards.” So I listed some notable contest results — Nicholl quarterfinals, Austin finals, AFI scholarship, etc. I think that was a mistake.

What happened was my first paid script reviews were bombs. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest), the anonymous readers gave me 2s and 3s. At first, I thought it had to be a mistake. But the readers’ comments were so barbed, I got the feeling they were making a personal statement about the contests I cited — keep in mind, most of these readers are wannabe screenwriters themselves. I doubt many of them have come close to winning or placing in as many contests as myself or others who got equally dismal scores. Their pointed comments gave me the impression they wanted to take me down a notch. Or maybe they just thought my script sucked.

The next couple of scripts I submitted, I purposely left out the contest results info (again these were finalists in fairly well known competitions) and the scores went up to the 5-7 range. The median scores are around 5, so anything above that is better than average. An 8 or higher though is what gets promoted by BL, and since there is a follower’s mentality among agents, managers and producers, you need at least an 8 to get much notice.

So how did my old Lost script do when I didn’t include my contest results and used a fake name? Both paid reads were 7 across the board. Every single category. It’s like getting a “consider with reservations.” If someone else rated it 8 or higher, that reader can say, “I liked it too — just wasn’t sure my boss would!” If another person rated it lower, that same reader can nod in agreement and say, “It was pretty good. Just not good enough to recommend.”

Franklin Leonard, who created the Black List, had told me in an email that he had fired some of the first readers, but did not elaborate on why. Probably because they were overly harsh in their scoring or written comments, which is bad for his business model. Much safer for them to hand out mostly 5-7s, which is like Vegas slots that make you feel as if you “just missed” the big jackpot when the truth is the odds are no closer than if you scored 2s and 3s.

The funny thing for me though was my 777s felt like a jackpot that reaffirmed something I knew all along. When I write for myself, I can come up with stuff that I feel good about, regardless of whether it ever sells or not. It reminded me why I choose to create art that lifts my spirits, instead of succumbing to the mindset that psychopaths and sex are the only things that TV and movie producers are interested in.

Crappy Directing = EXTREME CLOSE-UP MANIA!

March 1, 2013

An old adage for screenwriters is don’t direct on the page — leave out camera angles, pans, zooms and CLOSE UP. Instead, describe your scene and actions in visual ways that convey how you “see” it played out on the big screen. Lately though, I feel like TV and movie directors are reading only the character names because it seems like every other shot in some films and a lot of TV series, are EXTREME CLOSE UPS of talking heads. In the Feb. 4 episode of The Following, sometimes half the screen was filled with shots of the BACK of Kevin Bacon’s head, unflattering profile shots of him, and more ECUs of some fat guy’s face.

When my wife and I went to see Les Miserables in a theater, it was because we expected to see an epic widescreen adaptation that brought the songs to life by showing us what it looked and felt like to be in that period of French history. During filming, actors on the set talked about the stench of rotting fish, which was part of the set designer’s efforts to make the movie as authentic as possible. So I had high hopes for the director’s vision… until I actually saw the movie. Between the silly handheld shaky cam effects and EXTREME CLOSE UPS, I actually got a headache and found myself closing my eyes so I could just listen to the music. On the rare occasions where we could see wide angle shots of the streets and city or characters interacting, we got a glimpse of the big screen experience Les Miz could have been. Alas, those moments were few and far between.

You might shrug it off as a matter of personal taste. As a writer, I disagree. If you write a scene that sets up conflict between characters, you want the audience to see the interplay and reactions — not just one head saying a line, followed by a cut to another head replying, with all the acting consisting of furrowed eyebrows, gritted teeth and other facial tics. I swear, when you watch Hawaii Five-O or The Following, the characters could be filmed in separate cities and spliced together without you even noticing — even when the two characters are supposed to be in the SAME CAR at the same time. What film school did these directors go to?!

In both of those TV series, the vast majority of shots are from the shoulder up. About the only time you see the characters’ legs is when they are running after someone or in fight scenes. Which is unfortunate, because good acting involves using the entire body. How a character moves or holds himself, their posture, fidgeting, can tell us a lot about who they are and what they’re really thinking or feeling. But the younger generation of directors (and writers, I think) believe it’s all about facial expressions and spouting snarky lines that are meant to show off the writer’s wit — not the character’s. It’s literally in-your-face, all surface, instant reactions. There are no bodies in their body of work, which makes their scenes as forgettable as the GIANT FACES that keep flashing on the screen.

Look at any of the classic films or TV series — especially comedies and sitcoms — that have stood the test of time, and you’ll hardly see any close-ups of talking heads, unless it is a particularly important or dramatic moment. That’s what used to make close-ups special. Now it’s just arbitrary. And unforgiving, especially for older or less attractive actors, thanks to high definition coupled with huge widescreen TVs in millions of homes these days. Moreover, the audiences are missing out on potentially funny or interesting bits of business they could be seeing. Watch some episodes from Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, M*A*S*H, any Hitchcock movie, and you’ll notice the subtle interplay of supporting characters… or even things in the rooms or setting that are interesting. Then turn on The Following or Hawaii Five-O and you’ll get to count nose hairs and moles on BIG HEAD SHOTS instead.

Anyhow, just wanted to get that off my chest. I wish more critics and viewers would publicly complain via Twitter and Facebook sites connected to movies and TV shows. It’s like people who SEND EMAILS AND WRITE FACEBOOK POSTS IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME. Gets kind of annoying, doesn’t it?