Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tales from the Script

Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories, by Peter Hanson and Paul Herman.

Here's a collection of interviews in book form and on DVD with a bunch of real screenwriters, including William Goldman, Shane Black, Frank Darabont, Paul Schrader, Nora Ephron, John August, John Carpenter, Paul Mazursky, Ron Shelton, Robert Mark Kamen, Antwone Fisher, David S. Ward, Steven E. de Souza, and others. (If you don't recognise all those names, you haven't been doing your homework as a screenwriter.) 

The book is great, the DVD is better. Partly for the joy of seeing the writers and hearing them speak, but also because of all the Extras on the disc. Worth it for the Advice for New Screenwriters section alone.

Here is a video clip which provides a taste of what's on the DVD.

First posted:10 October 2011

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

You're not interesting enough...

On September 30, Charlie Kaufman Being John Malkovich Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New Yorkwas one of the speakers at the 2011 BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture Series. His comments have been reported in a number of places, including The Guardian.

One of the many quotable lines from the session addresses a fear which afflicts some aspiring screenwriters: You're not interesting enough to be writing movies.
My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who'd worked on the David Letterman Show. Adam's scripts were the best thing about Get a Life – and we all tried to write in Adam's voice. That was the job. 
I was frustrated with the results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else's voice. The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. The major obstacle to this is your deeply seated belief that "you" is not interesting.      Charlie Kaufman
If Charlie Kaufman wrestled with the fear of being uninteresting, there's hope for the rest of us. 

First posted:  8 October 2011

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Advice from Joe Eszterhas

Devil's Guide
One of the most successful spec screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1980s and '90s was Joe Eszterhas. His films included F.I.S.T., Flashdance, Music Box, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Telling Lies in America.

A lot of people don't like him for his lifestyle, his drug use, his arrogance, or his choice of stories to tell. I'm not here to defend him over any of those things, just to say: If you want to see how to write a great script that sells, read one by Joe. You can find a copy of the script for Basic Instinct here
Basic Instinct
In 2006 he published The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, a mix of reminiscences and Hollywood trivia in the guise of a handbook for wannabe screenwriters. (It's an eye-opener; well worth reading.)

In the following video, recorded at a public reading of that book in 2006, Joe talks about his research and how he went about writing some of his scripts, including Basic Instinct.

First posted: 4 October 2011

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

"The script will write itself."

I finally got to see the classic Tod Browning movie, Freaks (1932) the other night. It's an amazing film, and well worth the effort needed to track it down. Sadly, it pretty much ended Browning's career, but that's often the way with art. The better your work, the less it's appreciated. Until you're dead, of course. Just ask Vincent Van Gogh.

The Player
Having seen Freaks, I immediately followed up by rewatching the movie which first piqued my interest, Robert Altman's The Player (1992). Lyle Lovett gives a memorable rendering of, "One of us, one of us..." [Few things irritate my wife as much as the sound of me imitating Lovett around the house. I should probably stop doing that...]  If you haven't seen The Player, it's a Hollywood insider movie, like All About Eve, Celebrity, For Your Consideration, Get Shorty, The Muse, State and Main, The Stunt Man, Sunset Blvd., The Last Shot, Tropic Thunder, or What Just Happened?  And probably the best of those.

I first saw The Player at the movies in 1992, and have watched it lots of times since on VHS and DVD. It has three scenes which stand out for me. First is the opening a continuous tracking shot, just under ten minutes long. Yes, a single shot sets up the entire movie, shows us all the key studio characters in their native habitat, and introduces the problems in Tim Robbins life. 

Russian Ark
Ten minutes isn't the record for a tracking shot. Russian Ark (2002), set in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, is a single shot, 99 minute, guided tour of Russian history and art, possibly wrapped in a mystery. Hard to be sure when you don't speak Russian. Anyway, it took over 4,000 people to put this film together. The Winter Palace was closed for one day only, and they had to get it all in that time. Three ruined takes, then a successful fourth attempt, and now we have an extraordinary movie. Lush, magnificent, unique, gorgeous. Well worth seeing.  

A scene from Russian Ark - Catherine the Great takes morning tea in the small parlour
The second scene in The Player which stands out for me is the one where the newly-arrived, young, hotshot, studio executive is explaining his scheme to save the studio money – he'd stop paying writers and take stories direct from newspaper headlines (a technique pioneered by Warner Bros. in the 1920s). There's a brief interchange between Larry, the hotshot, and Marty, a studio accountant, who has to pluck a headline from the paper.

       How about, “Mudslide Kills 60 in 
       Slums of Chile”?

       That’s good. Triumph Over Tragedy. 
       Sounds like a John Boorman picture. 
       You slap a happy ending on it, the 
       script will write itself.
I'd pay a lot of money to watch a script "write itself." Yet the glib attitude behind that line can be encountered today in many places outside Hollywood.

The third memorable scene, one which greatly surprised me this time round, is one of the moments in the opening reel where Tim Robbins is dealing with yet another threatening postcard. This time he shoves the Humphrey Bogart card in his desk drawer, which is left open long enough for us to see a stack of other threatening postcards and... wait for it... a screenwriting advice book!  I must have blinked and missed it all those other times.

And what was the well-dressed studio executive supposedly reading twenty years ago?  Look closely.

First posted: 2 October 2011

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Answering machines

I was chatting with a friend recently about ideas for short films and one of those mentioned involved a telephone answering machine. That lead to me doing some quick research. I turned up fifteen films with scenes involving answering machines (though there are many more). 

The most surprising dates from 1955: Kiss Me Deadly, a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer story. In 1955 most Australian families didn't have a phone, much less an answering machine, so it was interesting to see one from that era in action. 

Mike Hammer and a 1955 reel-to-reel telephone answering machine.
Get Shorty (1995) and Definitely, Maybe (2008) have very similar scenes, where the post-coital happy couple receive a message summoning them to a hospital.  

"My name is Maude Lebowski. I'm the one who took your rug."
In The Big Lebowski, an answering machine solves the mystery of the missing rug. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets my vote for the movie with the cutest answering-machine.  
The Magrathean answering machine.
Swingers (1996) has two such scenes, both well worth seeing. The first introduces the machine as a character in its own right, commenting on the messages received (or not received) and attempting to give advice to Jon Favreau. The second consists of a series of phone calls Jon makes to a woman he's just met, where he is stymied by the machine and descends into ever-increasing frustration. A very similar scene, involving George Costanza, occurred in a Seinfeld episode five years earlier. Coincidence? Probably. 
Jon Favreau gets advice from his answering machine.
In Once (2006), the heartbroken protagonist sings a sad song, while an insert shows him ringing the ex, only to get her answering machine. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack rages to his psychiatrist's answering machine about the fact his childhood home has been turned into a supermarket. 

In Bowfinger (1999), two messages arrive over the answering machine in the opening scene. The first helps establish the point that Bobby Bowfinger is struggling financially; the second leads to a sequence of phone calls which set up the subsequent scene, a meeting where the protagonist's plan is outlined to the gang. 

Bobby Bowfinger summons his gang.
From a writer's P.O.V., what's most interesting about the various scenes is the way the machine enables someone not visible onscreen to influence a character's story. Sometimes they are purely comic relief (Seinfeld, Swingers), other times they provide new expositional information, or alter the direction of the protagonist (Get Shorty and Definitely, Maybe). Whatever role they play, answering machines have to be the cheapest actors in the business.

First posted:  29 September 2011