Google+

Monday, March 30, 2015

Interstellar Part 2: The 2008 Original Script vs The Final Movie





And now ANOTHER word from the ever passionate and perceptive Levin Menekse!





Hello everyone,

My last post on the Good and the Bad of Interstellar garnered interesting, pretty polarizing reactions. I got a lot of flack from the fans of the movie for not "getting" the movie. So as an intellectual who obsesses over "getting things", I went down a rabbit hole of research to make sure I understood everything that culminated with me reading the original 2008 draft of Interstellar.


This is pretty much what I look like in real life.

Initially set up to be directed by Spielberg, the 2008 draft is both more adventurous (cute aliens!) and darker in tone (oh boy, that ending) than the final movie. What I want to do in this post is not to simply contrast the two versions, but also try to figure out why those changes to the screenplay were made and if they were effective.

As those in the industry know, screenplays go through many, many drafts before they are shot and the differences between the original script and the final product are usually immense. (Check out Sean's great blog post about this phenomenon here.) What makes Interstellar a special case though is that this wasn't your usual "Studio Meddling", this was Christopher Nolan coming in and rewriting the entire thing. This was a visionary genius who nobody could say no to.

So, let's take a look at the differences and whether if they were good changes or not. (Honestly, most of them are in the grey area, so those of you who love the movie and Christopher Nolan -- you can put down your pitchforks.)

Just so we're clear: I love Nolan's movies. The saying goes: "It takes a hundred talented people to make one bad movie." Nolan made four legitimately great movies and the guy is only 45 years old. But, if you're especially bloodthirsty, I'm sure we can spar back and forth about which 4 of his movies are "great".

A Sense of Adventure (2008) vs A Desperate Journey Against Extinction (2014)

The 2008 script is a fun movie, no wonder Spielberg was interested in directing it. There is still a sense of desperation as the Earth is dying and Cooper still feels guilty about leaving Murphy behind, but there's no agonizing goodbye scene. There is no Michael Caine reciting epic poems or Matt Damon being super, super sad. The scene where Cooper watches the old messages of his kids is still there but Murphy actually makes peace with Cooper's absence, so Cooper feels more sad than guilty.

In the script, instead of the Water Planet and the Ice Planet -- there is only one planet that has ALIENS IN IT. And while they are initially terrifying, they end up being E.T. level cute and playful. They are these fractal beings that constantly break down their matter and fuse it back up and they can be as big as a forest or as little as a cat. At some point, Brand takes one of them with her and the creature basically hangs around until the end, doing cute stuff.

Plus, instead of our foes being broken human beings and crazy environments-- our foes are... wait for it... Chinese robot soldiers! No, seriously. They're basically Chinese versions of Tars and Case who arrived to this planet first and now want our American expedition group out. So Case gets into a robot-brawl with them in order to rescue a machine that can manipulate gravity... and so on.

You get the idea. This fits in with the Spielberg version of this movie, but when Nolan got on board, I bet he wanted to make something more unique and weighty. There is definitely a sense of existential desperation in Nolan's version, a great weight to the journey. In terms of antagonism, it's mostly Man vs Nature -- or Man vs The Universe, in this case -- which really makes the movie feel like this is the Human Kind doing their best to survive against all odds. The two human antagonistic forces -- Tom to Murphy, Mann to Our Team -- are motivated by sadness and hopelessness, which paints them as a flip side to the "hope-against-all-odds" Cooper and Brand.

The best way I can describe the tonal difference is that I can see a theme ride being made from the 2008 version -- you go through the alien planet, fight with robots, cute aliens do crazy shit... But you really can't make a theme ride from the final movie.

This is a real "Interstellar Amusement Park Ride" which could be yours for only 12k!

Central Emotion Spine -- Brand (2008) vs Murphy (2014)

The Brand - Cooper relationship is the central relationship of the 2008 version. Their chemistry is rather typical: The buttoned up, rational Brand doesn't initially like the rebellious Cooper but, as the time goes on, the two warm up to each other and have sex. The big "choice" of Cooper at the end of the movie is between staying with Brand and possibly going back in time to join with his family. Which isn't strong at all because of course Cooper is going to choose to go back to his family.

What's interesting is that we barely see Murphy in the 2008 version. Once we're with Cooper in space, we stay there. There are no scenes with him (in the 2008 version she's a boy) and he only becomes a bigger part of the story in the third act -- and that's independent of Cooper. There is no "ghost" stuff in this version and Murphy never even gets to meet Cooper again!

I think Nolan made the right call here. Rearranging the emotional axis to Murphy and Cooper gives a poignant undertone to the movie because she's the sacrifice Cooper had to make. Plus, their relationship is different than the predictable Cooper - Brand romance, which feels organic but non-consequential.

That being said, in my humble opinion, Nolan also went about doing this in a way that wasn't completely successful.

"Not completely successful, you say? You're an amusing chap, aren't you?" 

Makes Sense (2008) Vs Unbounded Ambition That... Doesn't? (2014)

Focusing on the Cooper - Murphy relationship allows Interstellar to be an epic but intimate movie. The climax, after all, is set in both a massive, 5 dimensional tesseract but also in a little girl's bedroom. However, Nolan uses this story device of the "ghost" in order to make this happen and while this addition is smart, I believe it needed another pass to be completely embedded into the fabric of the movie. As it is, the delicate balance of the script has been tampered with by these modifications and these changes are at the root of Interstellar's larger logical/story problems. Let me explain:

The 2008 version is much more straightforward. Instead of the "Ghost" directing them to the NASA base, Cooper finds a drone with those coordinates. When he takes the drone to the NASA base, he fixes something for them that they hadn't realized was fixable. So they ask him on board because he's a crazy good engineer who is really good at fixing things. Pretty straightforward.

This drone also functions in a similar way to the tesseract in the final movie as it's revealed that the future-Cooper was the one who sent this drone the past. After Cooper leaves on his mission, Murphy tinkers with this drone to find that it actually contains the instructions on how to build the "gravity machine" and saves everyone, similar to how Cooper gives the "gravity equation" to Murphy in the final movie.

I think Nolan realized that he can use this idea of a "ghost" to have the father-daughter communicate directly. However, this approach engenders logical problems. For example, this "ghost" brings them to the NASA base and Cooper is recruited in because "you're our best pilot!"... which makes no sense because if he was their best pilot, then why didn't they try to recruit him beforehand? "Oh, because we thought you were dead", Michael Caine states and that's that. Changing Cooper into a pilot also makes the scenes of him tinkering with stuff feel unnecessary. In the 2008 version, that's his "superpower", so to speak, so of course it makes sense that we would see him fix stuff in the 1st act. But in the 2014 movie, Cooper's superpower is his piloting skills -- which renders the scenes of him fixing stuff rather redundant.

Similarly, the "gravity machine" is replaced by this equation Murphy solves at the end of the movie. In the 2008 script, this machine is built by the Chinese Robots who, due to a time anomaly, had 4000 years to work and advanced technology as we know it to unimaginable heights. I really love that concept -- the "treasure" Chinese Robots keep talking about turn out to be, simply, 4000 years worth of time -- and I think it works with the themes and the iconography of the piece.

I was mighty underwhelmed by the way the "gravity equation" worked in the movie. It was vague, felt like a shortcut and it wasn't visual at all. As a result, I couldn't get behind the climactic sequence of the movie and it's one of the reasons why I don't think the climax of the movie works that well.

WHAT? GET HIM! DEATH TO THE NOLAN HATER!

The Ending That Destroys (2008) vs The Ending That is... at least somewhat Hopeful (2014)

The 2008 version sails along with that playful Spielberg tone until the very end when shit turns DARK. Cooper arrives to a dead, cold Earth and accepts his death. He's rescued at the last minute and brought to the space station... where he's told Murphy is long, long dead. He meets one of Murphy's descendants and the descendant gives Cooper the watch he gave to Murphy at the beginning of the movie. Then Cooper, emotionally destroyed, says he wants to be useful but the people venerate him to such a point that he's not allowed to do anything. He's stuck tending to a farm, his worst nightmare. And then he steals the ship and goes after Brand... but it's desperate and soul crushingly sad.

The ending to the movie is much, much better. For all its faults, the movie absolutely nails its last ten minutes once Cooper is rescued. Having Cooper meet Murphy is infinitely more satisfying than the alternative.

That being said, the changes Christopher Nolan made to justify the ending, again, tamper the balance of the script. These little changes he made almost creates a domino effect that engenders the parts of the movie I couldn't connect with. For example, in order to make the Cooper-Murphy reunion feel as climactic as possible, Nolan makes Murphy into someone who couldn't, for 15+ years, get over the fact that her father went on a desperate mission to save Mankind. You would think that after some time she would grow to appreciate her father and his sense of duty. This doesn't happen so that the reunion scene at the end could have the largest impact, and, as a result Murphy as a character is rather one note and hard to relate with.

Weirdly, this also effects Brand's character. Because now Cooper's primary relationship is with Murphy, Brand is relegated to having a lover in one of the three planets. This results in her giving the goofiest speech in the movie about how they should travel to that particular planet despite it being the worst choice because... "love is awesome". This domino piece hits the next one and all of a sudden you have two hysterical women who are supposed to be scientists but acting irrationally because... emotions?

Ultimately: The lesson to take away from all this is that you can't change little things without affecting the larger structure of your story.

Writers, producers, directors, actors:
When you give notes or modify something in the script, it affects the entire project. You rewrite a scene, it affects the sequence. You rewrite a sequence, it might affect the entire story. And you might need to go through your script a few times to make sure everything lands properly and makes sense. No shortcuts. You're asking people to give their time to you, extend the same courtesy to them by working on your project a bit more until it's truly great.

Well, hope you enjoyed reading this blog post. See you next time,

Levin

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Agency Packaging Fees: Are They Justified?

What is your opinion on "agency packaging fees?" Producer Gavin Polone thinks they go against the interest of the writer, and work against the quality of the show, where every dollar should be put on screen. (see his article in the Hollywood Reporter, link below...)

For writers, the issue of agents and packaging fees is similar to managers and producer's fees.  The question is always what "extra" is the representation bringing to the project such that they deserve a fee? What do you think? Are packaging fees a scam, or are there some good arguments FOR agency packaging fees?


Is Your Agent Getting Something For Nothing?



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Great Job/Shitty Job -- a Breakdown of the Good and the Bad of Interstellar





And now a word from from the always insightful and entertaining Levin Menekse!




Hello everyone,

This is the first post in a series of posts where I'm going to take a look at movies which I think are either underwhelming or messy and find out what we can learn from them, both good AND bad. The idea is to specifically analyze screenplays written by talented writers but, for some reason or the other, don't quite work on the same level as the rest of their work. We all love great screenplays and most of us can tell a train wreck from miles away, but this is hopefully going to be a fresh take on this whole "Let's talk about X movie!" idea because I'm going to focus on the interesting middle ground.

So, for example, Shyamalan's shitty output will not be here. It's easy to mock The Happening because it has Mark Wahlberg pleading with a plant for safe passage, only to discover the plant is plastic and mutter: "Plastic... I'm talking to a plastic plant..." That's an easy target. I would not do that. But, for example, I might take a look at Prometheus (messy) or The Lovely Bones (underwhelming) or Wild At Heart (messy and underwhelming).

Okay, this is the one and only time I'm making fun of The Happening.

So, Interstellar. Yes. Let's take a look at Nolan's latest Magnum Opus:

#1: Great Job, Interstellar -- "Make Your Characters Suffer For Real"


When we sit down to watch a movie, we want to see characters at their most extreme, defining moments of their lives. Whatever is the worst thing that can happen to them -- we want to see that. Now, most movies give at least a lip service to the idea in the form of that "All is lost!" moment. You see it again and again in the movies -- characters "almost die" in the final act.

Not to say that almost losing your life isn't a dramatic moment, but that's dramatic for everyone. What you want to do is to make that moment especially dramatic for this specific character. Case in point; in Interstellar, Cooper skirts death a dozen of times. He's almost crushed by giant waves or strangled by an insane astronaut, but the most painful moments of his life are when he has to leave his daughter behind or see her struggle to grow up without him being there.

Nolan milks those moments for all their worth. The climax expertly interweaves the emotional stakes and the objective stakes of the story. Cooper not only gets to save the Human Race, but he also gets to achieve emotional closure with his daughter.

So, the lesson is to make sure that your characters suffer in all the ways that they can. Make sure they meet their worst enemy, whether if that is themselves or a Death Star... or a tree.


No... NOT A TREE!

#2: Shitty Job, Interstellar -- Respect Your Audience

Look, when you ask for someone to sit down and watch your movie, you're asking them to give two hours of their life to you. Let's not even mention the money and how they had to call up a babysitter to come to the movie theater. So, here are a few ways how not to piss off your audience:

Don't give them pointless scenes of exposition or set up things that don't even matter.

For example, we have a scene in the first act of Interstellar when Cooper gets really pissed off that his son isn't going to go to college... Followed by scenes where it's revealed his son wouldn't want to go to college anyway and he's perfectly happy tending to the farm. Or there's a whole sequence of Cooper hacking a drone flying over his farm... what does that have to do with anything? Yes, it's a nice father-daughter bonding moment, but when you're writing a movie like Interstellar, you're looking for moments that will BOTH advance the story AND the character. Otherwise you're going to end up with a movie that is 170 minutes long that could have easily been shorter.

Don't be lazy. At least try.

So there's a moment in Interstellar when Cooper and Murphy find a secret NASA base through "supernatural" clues given to them by a "ghost" living in their attic. They get captured... and the next thing you know, the guy who runs the NASA facility is asking Cooper to commandeer their last remaining ship because "he's the best man for the job." He says that he couldn't find Cooper before because everyone thought he was dead. (What?)

In the 2008 draft of the script, there is no "ghost". Cooper finds a drone, brings it back to the NASA base and helps them fix something they didn't know was fixable. As a result, they are impressed and enlist him on the mission as an engineer who can fix things under pressure. This makes sense. In the movie, this part is cropped out and a bullshit explanation is fitted in.

And it's only just another bullshit explanation in a movie rife with bullshit explanations. Another glaring ridiculous bullshit explanation is the whole deal with Doctor Mann, who decides to kill Cooper because...? He wants to save Humanity -- after, mind you, it's established that they can't. If he wants to go back to Earth, then why does he... Anyway, the point being, please, if you feel like you have a cool idea that doesn't make sense, at least try to make it work. Don't insult your audience.

This is especially true if the other parts of your movie is trying really, really hard to be scientifically accurate with characters talking in an opaque jargon we're supposed to take seriously.


"We can't go there because the relativity of the neutron star doesn't work with the quantum theory! This isn't some cheesy Science Fiction movie, people! QUANTUM THEORY! NEUTRON STAR!" 

#3: Great Job, Interstellar -- "Fortunately/Unfortunately and Escalation"

We need both wins and losses for a movie to work. We need a roller-coaster ride of emotions, monotony is our greatest enemy. And, in addition to that, every new obstacle needs to raise the stakes.

Interstellar does this beautifully. Yes, the world is shit, but, fortunately, we have a plan to colonize these other planets. Unfortunately, the planet we end up going to turns out to be periodically besieged by giant waves and our astronauts almost die. Fortunately, TARS is a bad ass who saves them. Unfortunately, Cooper realizes he just missed twenty years of his daughter's life. Fortunately, there is another new planet they can go to and they find Matt Damon! Unfortunately Matt Damon is bonkers... You see where I'm going with this. Nolan tightens the screws and raises the stakes until things are just unbearably bad.

As opposed to a certain M. Night Shyamalan movie that starts off with people gouging their eyeballs out and hanging themselves en masse in a catastrophic frenzy... only to present a climactic act where the final antagonist is an old lady facing against Mark Wahlberg.


No, seriously. This is the final antagonist of The Happening.

#4: Shitty Job, Interstellar -- "Tough Choices For Your Characters"

Now, this is some tricky territory we're entering because Interstellar does pose some palpable choices for the characters -- the problem is that those choices are either made in the first half of the movie, or they're made off-screen. For example, it's a great dilemma Cooper faces in the first Act: Either stay on this desolate Earth and spend his last years with his family, or try to save the Human Race by finding a new planet but leaving his family behind. Another great dilemma is the one Mann faces: Either die alone in a desolate planet or lie and doom the mission, so that he might be rescued.

These choices work because both options suck. Remember:

A choice is only a choice if both options are great or both are terrible.

However, Cooper's choices dry up as the story goes on. His final choice is between sacrificing himself and... dying? What is Mann's choice after he's rescued? What is Murphy's choice in the movie? Of course she's going to believe her father once she figures out what's going on. Of course he's going to try his best to communicate with her.

In the climactic scene, neither character makes a strong choice. 
And it hurts the movie.

Because, without a strong choice, how do we know how our characters changed? Here is a good question to ask yourself: "If faced with two similar situations, would my protagonist make a different choice at the end of the movie than he did at the beginning of the movie?" If we pose this question to Cooper... The answer is no. He started the movie just as he ended it.

There are more things I want to say, like how there is no relationship in the movie other than the one between Cooper and Murphy, or how TARS is one of the best robots ever, but I don't want to end up writing a dissertation.



"We all know I'm the best part of this movie. Watch me strut like the badass I am."
So, I hope you enjoyed this brief analysis of Interstellar. Let me know if you enjoyed it or wanted me to write about another problematic movie by a brilliant mind.

Levin, signing out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How To Write Screenplays For Amazon

As I dig into yet another semester teaching at USC, I am showered with questions from students, recent graduates and other emerging writers:

Is indie cinema dead? Are original movie specs, scripts not based on a YA novel or Marvel comic book, a waste of time?What should we be writing now? What will movies and TV series look like in the future? What kind of original content are companies like Netflix and Amazon looking for?

In order to answer some of these questions I caught up with the current head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price. His answers to these and other questions were inspiring for anyone who has been frustrated by the current climate in Hollywood. To give our discussion so context:

Emerging writers and filmmakers often complain that movies can only be made at monster budgets (100 million and above) or micro-budgets (500 thousand or less.) Many iconic filmmakers, like John Waters and David Lynch, have bemoaned The Death of Mid-Budget Cinema (movies budgeted from $5 million to $60 million.) For the last decade, major studios seemed to have (mostly) turned their backs on sophisticated movies for adults, and indie cinema was moribund.

However, Amazon's announcement that producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, In The Bedroom, The Ice Storm) has been hired as its head of production is an exciting and "hopeful" turn. Any writer/filmmaker who has not checked out Hope's blog, read his book Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions, or watched "independent films, classics, silent films, foreign films, documentaries and shorts" on his film site, Fandor, should do so now

Amazon itself has won golden globes for its sophisticated and edgy comedy, Transparent, and is now developing a TV series with Woody Allen. What could all this mean for original (but unknown) filmmakers? I spoke to the man who should know.

SH: Most screenwriters hope to write an original screenplay and see that screenplay made into a movie. However, nearly all of the movies that were released in 2014 were based on underlying material (sequels, remakes, or adaptations of books). Of the few original screenplays that were nominated for awards, almost all were penned by well-established writer/directors. Especially now that Ted Hope is working with Amazon and Amazon is developing features both for theatric release and streaming, will original spec scripts come back into fashion?

Roy Price

RP: It’s always going to be easier to get your movie made if you’re established and people are dying to work with you or finance you, which is one of the benefits of getting some acknowledgement and recognition. But it’s no illusion that the business is more oriented around sequels and properties today than it was in 1979 or 1959. I’ve heard people lament from time to time that American cinema is not as idiosyncratic or creative as it was in the 1970s. I could quibble with that -- Guardians of the Galaxy was fantastic and kind of whimsical, and I would argue that The Lego Movie has a very distinctive voice that comes from Phil Lord and Chris Miller -- but on the whole, perhaps it is a fair criticism. And it’s not because people are less creative of course, so there should be some awesome ideas out there to unleash on the world.

"At Amazon Studios, we don’t have any properties and we haven’t made any movies, so we won’t be doing a lot of comic book movies or sequels. We’re going to be very filmmaker-driven, looking for interesting, unique films."


SH: Many inspirational filmmakers (David Lynch and John Waters) have called Art House Cinema dead. The studios seem to have stopped making mid-budget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million.) This leaves students and emerging filmmakers with no options other than micro-budget films. Will Amazon be making mid-budget movies?

RP: Yes, we will. Part of the problem with the mid-budget movie is that the distribution windowing fails to maximize revenue associated with those titles. For many “prestige” or “specialty” titles, they get a small theatrical release and some marketing. Some reviews come out. Then it’s in theaters for a few weeks and then it’s gone. Maybe two months later it is available for rental. Maybe seven to nine months after that it might be available in a subscription video service. The audience for many of these movies is older (in movie audience terms -- so like 35+). That audience typically goes out to the theater 3-4 times a year and not usually on the first weekend of a movie’s release. But that’s a lifestyle issue not an interest issue.

Many people in that group love movies and have money to spend. But if you live in Issaquah, Washington, it’s not always going to be convenient to make it into the city to see the movie. So what happens is that demand is created through the reviews, trailers and the (limited) marketing at a certain time, but the product is not made available until after that demand has dissipated. So the film is distributed in a way that is guaranteed to minimize the economic returns for financiers and filmmakers – in this segment, the windowing has backfired. We think that for these more mature movies for this specific audience, home video windows should be shorter. We also think we as Amazon.com can help these films find their audience in both the theatrical and home video windows.

Some people have tried to set us up in opposition to the theatrical chains, but actually I think we can find a happy, middle way together in this segment. There is still something special for customers and filmmakers about the theatrical experience. It is the best way to see a movie holding all other things equal. So we want to support as robust a theatrical run as a movie can support. We think these mid-range specialty titles need to be more broadly available sooner, but not necessarily immediately. We want to support a strong theatrical run.

So that’s what we plan to do. We think it will be better for filmmakers economically, and we think it will be good for film fans who would like to be able to follow up on great reviews they read about or great trailers they see. I mean ten months later, it can be hard to remember which trailer you loved – was it Puffy Chair or Tiny Furniture? Was it Jeff, Who Lives at Home or Listen Up, Phillip? Too much time has gone by.

"If independent films become more available to film fans when they still remember them and want to see them, opportunities and economic returns will increase for filmmakers and it will be much better for fans too. We expect that this will support more mid-budget features." 


SH: Television series like Amazon's Transparent seem to occupy the space that indie films once did in the '90s. Many of my students are inspired by Lena Dunham and the Duplass Brothers. Even in feature screenwriting courses, students most often talk about premium cable series instead of films. Should screenwriters developing sophisticated, character-driven drama and comedy be writing TV pilots instead of features?

People should do what they have a passion to do and what they have original ideas for. There is certainly great work being done in television. But I think the next 10 years will be good for independent cinema, and it is common today to move back and forth between film and TV so it would make sense to be open to whatever form excites you.

Some stories just need to be movies. Other stories call for a longer treatment. And there is a sophisticated at home audience who are eager to support imaginative, nuanced, challenging and original series. I would definitely consider both TV and film. 


"We have had thousands of scripts uploaded to our site and evaluated. We have made three pilots and one actual series from scripts submitted to the site."


SH: To what degree is your development slate dominated by established writers (Jill Soloway, Woody Allen) and what percentage of the projects that come to fruition originate from emerging writers (via your website, for example.)

RP: I think that there is a tendency in TV history for game changing shows to come from new networks or networks that are down on their luck (we’re in the former category!). And I think this happens because these networks are are hungry and open minded. Now that we have had some success in our first efforts, having all our shows hit number one on Amazon, Transparent winning the Globe for Best Comedy and Tumble Leaf winning the Annie for Best Preschool Show, the key for us is to stay open and not just only work with established writers or try to repeat ourselves tonally. We want to stay very open to new ideas and new talent.

We have had thousands of scripts uploaded to our site and evaluated. We have made three pilots and one actual series from scripts submitted to the site (Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street). Great show produced for kids 6-11. Check it out. So I am happy we have that pipeline and it’s not just a source of ideas. We put a great team around David Anaxagoras (who created and uploaded Gortimer) and he worked on that show every day. Great for him and for us. 

SH: Instead of primarily using traditional network series and classic films as models, should students and younger emerging writers be studying content produced for Amazon, Netflix, Vimeo, and other digital providers to understand the kind of projects that will dominate in the future?

No one knows what will be cool in the future or how narrative forms might evolve. People will tell you to devour the films of the past and that’s definitely helpful, but you can get into a mode where you’re too influenced and you’re copying a bit -- where you’re not influenced by Sullivan’s Travels or whatever, you’re actually basically just redoing Sullivan’s Travels. So you have to see all those older titles and then bring to it your fresh perspective. 

My view is that whatever you’re watching, the advantage you have is that you are the only one that has your perspective. Writers of the past didn’t have the opportunity to write in 2015 or 2016.

"...you have to understand the essential, permanent, Aristotelian elements of storytelling, etc., from the old movies, plays, novels, etc., but then put your own bad self into it."


SH: Paul Schrader was quoted in Variety “My feeling about Amazon and Netflix is that they are probably going to be even more brutal than independent equity money, because they are at heart number crunchers, not filmmakers.” Yet, series like Transparent seem to suggest a willingness to take risks. Is Amazon going to allow more creative freedom? And if so, should emerging filmmakers be focusing more on original and challenging subject matter instead of developing ideas that seem commercial or marketable?


Well, bear in mind that we’re in this to create really distinctive and memorable work that people will care about and that will live on our site for a long time. So these aren’t one off economic propositions for us as they may be for strictly financial players. We’re only interested in doing great work so we are going to create an environment where great work can be created. I would point out that Mr. Schrader’s concerns have not been borne out so far on the TV side.

Transparent

"Creating great work requires creating a great environment for filmmakers."


SH: Since the "typical" TV series is a thing of the past, can students and filmmakers play with the form? For example, I know a student developing a series with 90 minute episodes and a four episode arc. Others have considered 20 minute episodes or episodes of varying length like chapters in a book. Streaming seems to allow for all sorts of creativity when the episodes are confined to time slots and airing dates. What do you recommend?


Mozart In The Jungle
People should do what moves them and this is a great time to do something unique. That said, there are economic reasons for making TV shows in standard formats (basically so you can resell them to other people later and defray investment). So there is an argument for doing something at a standard length. But the first priority should always be to do what works. So I would do that.

Roy's last words of advice were these...

"If you want to outsell Pat Boone you don't do it by being extra Pat Boone-y, you do it by being the Rolling Stones."

And who can argue with that?

Lastly, yesterday Apple announced that HBO will be available for subscribers on Apple TV. We've been hearing about digital streaming for decades, but now (finally) the game may actually be changing. This is good news for writers, filmmakers and artists.



Other Genre Hacks Interviews with Roy Price:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A New Class at USC

I recently tweeted the the whiteboards of a class I teach to graduate students at USC. The picture was clipped ant the point a bit obscure, so here is the full picture with an explanation.


The Story

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

More precisely, we discussed each story in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? This is the first big choice the storyteller must make, and there is always more than one answer.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not they get it is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist.

Take a shot at telling your story in this way.

Hope and Fear

Legendary screenwriter teacher Frank Daniel taught us to continually orient the the audiences' emotions towards the future: the audience HOPES for one turn of events, while FEARING another. The basis of dramatic tension is anticipation. We let the audience know what potentially could happen, good and bad, and lead them to believe that either outcome is entirely possible.


Friday, October 31, 2014

"Stage Blood" in The Hollywood Journal



Check out a new piece I wrote for The Hollywood Journal to celebrate Halloween!

It begins, "It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood..." Read on HERE...




It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood.

“Are you okay? Do we need to stop?”

Soaking wet in only a thin cotton shirt, she trembles. She seems entranced by the blood running down her arms and legs. “No, I’m fine,” she assures me, her eyes suddenly sparkling. “This is perfect.” Then, possessed by something dark and unexpected, Tiffany stares right at me, and slowly runs the straight razor over her tongue.

The blood is fake; the razor is a blunt-edged prop, but several of the film students packed into my apartment bathroom cry out in alarm. I nearly drop the Super-8 camera. Later, when I’m hand-cranking the film, thin as correction tape, through the dim viewer, I re-watch this moment over and over, and each time I shudder.

By day Tiffany is a polite and prudent bank teller, but for that one moment she is Lilith, terrifying and sublime, rising from a crimson lake to take her revenge on the sons of Adam. Somehow, the stage blood has evoked a metamorphosis.

And, somehow this is all connected to the Halloween re-release of The Exorcist in 1979. Now I am thirteen-years-old, sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of civilized adults, watching a girl around my age gleefully abuse herself with a crucifix, splattering her bed-sheets and smearing the blood across her mother’s face. I look at adult faces in the audience, frozen and impassive. How is this happening? How is this okay? Much later, I will wonder if the horror, violence and perversity in my screenplays are just echoes of that primal childhood trauma.

All my memories of Hollywood are soaked in stage blood. I mopped up bloody footprints between takes on Slumber Party Massacre III. I trashed the blood-speckled plastic that wrapped Laura Palmer’s corpse. I combed through a draft of Halloween: Resurrection finding synonyms for “stab.” I counted the number of beheadings in a draft of Conan The Barbarian and decided to limit myself to six. I accidentally spilled a pint on the floor of my brother-in-law’s Jeep so that for years afterwards, every time it rained, his car would bleed.

I have been paid to write around twenty-five screenplays and teleplays, and not one of them didn’t call for stage blood. This really shouldn’t surprise me.

Blood is a metaphor older than language, originating on the walls of caves. Blood evokes ritual sacrifice and the fragility of human flesh. Blood means madness, panic, and transformation. Blood is the puncture of order and the gushing of chaos.

It’s the flood from the elevator doors in The Shining. It’s the stain on the teeth in Jaws. It’s not so much the pig-bloodied prom dress, but the look in Carrie’s eyes. What blood means, what I want stage blood to mean, is terror in the sublime.

But usually, it doesn’t.

Instead of poetic or uncanny, the stage blood that bubbles up in my credited movies and television often turns out campy, unintentionally comic, and only mildly grotesque. Still, I keep a vial of it by my writing desk. For me, Halloween will always be about the feeling I got when Tiffany let blood spill out of her mouth and run down her chin, her lips curling into a ghastly little smile.