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Thursday, August 27, 2015

What To Write About

This is the continuation of What the F*ck Should I Write About?, in which I searched my notebooks for a new story idea, but only found ones that were utterly preposterous.

There are typical ways that screenwriters decide on story ideas. Often managers and agents will ask their clients to submit loglines so that they can pre-approve and co-develop the concept from the ground up. The logic is that agents and mangers have a better sense of which concepts might catch fire in the spec market and lead to a sale. The emotional downside is that writers can come to feel stifled when dozens of their ideas are shot down by their reps.

Similarly, students in classes or pros in writing groups will often pitch their ideas to their peers like a test audience. As readers of this blog know, I'm a big advocate of getting feedback at every stage of the writing process (see This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like.) What could more logical than getting out of one's head and seeing how an idea plays with smart, talented fellow writers?

The creative downside is that some stories emerge through the writing process itself. The logline of the first draft may be completely different than the logline of the 2nd or 3rd draft. Sometimes it's difficult to express why the jagged kernel of an idea is so compelling, and why a slick and snappy concept with a wicked hook inspires nothing but the urge to take a long nap.

Then of course there's William Goldman's rule, which applies to anyone who would try to tell you whether an idea is good or bad: Nobody Knows Anything.

So this time, instead of taking a poll or applying some complicated, statistical rubric, I just asked myself a simple question:

If I could only write on more spec script, what would it be?

It's a clarifying question if you ask it honestly. It doesn't need to be deeply existential, as if you found out you had a Year To Live. It's just practical. If I could write only one more movie, what elements would be most important to me? Would it be a genre movie, like so many I have written before? Would I break out and write a comedy or family drama? Would I try to reach a wide audience or some eccentric niche? Who would I write it for (because every story is a kind of love letter to our ideal audience)? Who would I write about? What would be their secret fears? What would be their deepest shame?

Of course, these questions tend to become fruitful and multiply. What kind of movie, if I could only WATCH one more, would I choose to SEE? What would it look like? How would it feel to watch it? What truths would it affirm, and what fate would it utterly deny? Would it be funny? Would it be sad? Would it be scary and sublime?

It's only natural when facing the blank page (well...blank screen) to look at the grim marketplace, to recall the movies that are actually getting made, to consider the odds, and then to think, "Why Bother?" But, there is twisted sort of Alice-In-Wonderland-thinking that can turn questions like these on their heads. 99.99% of original scripts never get made, so why not write one as if I couldn't possibly fail? It's this kind of anti-logic that ignites the passion that drove me to write in the first place.

So, I asked myself all these questions and you know what?

I got an idea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Should I Write About?

It's time to write another spec, and as always, this fills me with dread.

I'm trying to find an Idea. You know. A three sentence logline with a flashy hook, one that is both tremendously commercial and starkly original. However, all I find scribbled in my notebook (the The Bucket in which I keep all my Golden Story Ideas) are fragments, digressions, and visions for movies that are utterly preposterous.

First, there's "Hamlette." Over my August vacation I saw Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet on stage, and I loved the production. I thought, there hasn't been a movie Hamlet lately, not since Ethan Hawke's GenX Dane back in 2000. What if Hamlet were Hamlette, a woman? Sure it has already been done by Danish silent film actor Asta Nielsen, but what if I switched genders of several of the main characters. King Claudius, the villain, would become Queen Claudia, cruel as any grinning Disney witch. The Ghost would be Hamlette's mother, as terrifying as the vengeful spirits in Japanese horror. Hamlet's mother would be Hamlette's father, trading Oedipus for Electra. Hamlette and Ophelia would have a forbidden Sapphic edge.


Speaking of silent films, this Hamlette (as per my frantic and impassioned notes) would be inspired by the dark, expressionistic sets of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Hamlette herself would be inspired by silent film sirens like Heddy Lamar and Louise Brooks, only more brooding, violent and existential. The movie itself wouldn't be silent, but perhaps the the play within a play would be a 20s silent film depicting the Queens murder in pantomime. The language would be a surreal mix of silent film subtitles, updated modern dialogue and Shakespearean soliloquy.

The last line about this Idea in my notebook is that the whole thing could be shot in stop motion animation. Hmmmm. Needless to say, this idea doesn't sound like what my agent is looking for, so I keep flipping pages, looking through other Ideas.

There are a couple more horror concepts. One is a kafkaesque spin on Gremlins, in which the characters find gummy, oily, spidery creatures called "Things," which turn out to be the "object causes of desire," that inexpressible Thing that we all feel is missing from our lives. Yet when the characters get precisely what they want, their lives become a living hell. There are all sorts of sketches of these monstrous Things growing larger and multiplying out of control.

The problem with this Idea is it feels too familiar  (another rash of creature-ids run amok?) and in my notes there are several references to both Buñuel and Lacan, which is always a sign that I'm in trouble...


I keep turning pages. There's a romantic, supernatural thriller called The Philosophers, but it's perverse to the point of being like a Lynch or Cronenberg film, and it's not so much a story as a haphazard list of possible episodes all inspired by the work of my favorite philosophers. Again, I realize that that any combination of  period costumes, expensive special effects, and the Ubermensch is going to spell disaster. I continue to dig.

There's a promising Idea of reworking Sleeping Beauty as film noir, in which Sleeping Beauty herself is a femme fatale bent on the Prince's murder. Unfortunately the sketched-out dialogue of knights in full armor speaking in the hard boiled language of Raymond Chandler quickly dissolves into farce. There's a sci-fi, apocalyptic take on the 60's TV series Bonanza. I'll put a pin in that one. There's a supernatural crime thriller about a bunch of con artists who make a billionaire widow believe that they are psychics and have contacted her murdered daughter. I can't decide whether the ghost actually turns out to be real or the con-artists are just turning on each other and fucking with each other's minds. Nahhh, either way it's way too pretentious. What about this story of a narcoleptic who is constantly falling asleep and waking up as a buxom swords-woman in a desert world of alien troglodytes? No. No, swords-and-sandals. I swore to myself, never again.

What the FUCK do I write about??? I close the notebook and pick up the next one on my stack. I'm sure there's an Idea in here someplace...


To find out how I solved this problem check out the follow up article What To Write About...

Monday, July 27, 2015

5 Things that make a Big Blockbuster Work


Hello everyone,

Lately, it seems like I've had the fortune and the misfortune of watching a myriad of Big Blockbusters. Some of them were pretty good (Kingsmen, Mad Max: Fury Road), others were somewhere in the middle (Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7) and one was absolutely abysmal (Jupiter Ascending).

The funny thing is I watched all these Big Movies right after I attended the Nantucket Film Festival where I saw countless indie movies. I realized I can put into words what makes a good, high-brow drama but when it came to blockbusters I was limited to "Dude, it was fucking awesome!" despite it was obvious I enjoyed Kingsmen considerably more than, say, Jupiter Ascending. I feel like this lack of vocabulary is something that creates the rift between the critics and the audience, because an esteemed, scholarly film critic can't just write: "DID YOU SEE THAT GUY WITH THE FLAMING GUITAR?! THAT WAS COOL!" and print it. Despite this though, they know a good blockbuster when they see one. Notice Jupiter Ascending has a 40 metacritic score, whereas Mad Max has a solid 89.

So I decided to do some thinking and come up with some elements the good Blockbusters shared and the bad ones, thankfully, didn't.

1 - Make sure the Cool Shit in your Movie is Actually Cool

"Cool" is a pretty elusive concept. Dictionary.com has 29 different definitions for it, but just like bad acting, we know it when we see it. Case in point: A car jumping from one skyscraper to the next or the Dino WWE at the end of Jurassic World was cool for me, whereas Channing Tatum rollerblading on air (?) while being a dog (??) was decidedly not cool. And it's a weird thing because the line between "cool" and just plain "goofy" is a very, very thin line.

Case in point: Definitely goofy.
Obviously you need to give it to the Wachowski's, The Matrix is one of the best blockbusters ever made and the whole bad-ass trench coats and crazy karate aesthetic could have easily been goofy as fuck. But they pulled it off. Here is what it looks like when it is NOT pulled off properly. (That clip is from the Turkish TV Series Mr. Cloud. Not one of our proudest moments.)

In Jupiter Ascending though, they have a half dog rollerblading on the air. If you can't type it without being self-aware about how stupid it sounds, perhaps you shouldn't do it.

2 - Give Me An Action Sequence I Haven't Seen Before!

These types of movies are style over substance unless they are done by Christopher Nolan. And that's completely fine. The audience doesn't want a deep theme or characters, but that doesn't mean the screenwriter's job is easier. They have one job: Give us big set pieces we haven't seen before.

That sounds easier than said. How do you write a car chase that is different than the thousands of other car chases in the history of cinema. Well, see, that's where Fast and Furious 7 succeeded with their jumping through the skyscrapers sequence or the Drone Chase sequence.

Or how do you do a fight scene we haven't seen? Set it in the Westboro Baptist Church and have Freebird play over it!
3 - Stylish Characters 

Nobody in their right mind expects deep character work from a big Summer blockbuster. A lot of time you would spend on building characters interaction  are spent on the aforementioned car chases and such. And yet, some characters are obviously... better than others. Han Solo isn't more "deep" than the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels -- I would even argue that Anakin Skywalker is deeper than Han Solo -- but Anakin Skywalker is the cinematic equivalent of getting a root canal and Han Solo is a best friend/big brother/President for Life rolled into one.

I think the word is style. Galahad, for example, might not be a deep character, but the movie is very clear as to who he is: He's the ultimate old-school gentleman, both in the action sequences and during his interactions with the other characters. ("Manners Maketh Man") Here's maybe a choice that's more controversial: Vin Diesel's Dom in Fast 7 has style to spare. He's a cool, macho guy but we don't get this only from Vin Diesel's performance, but also from surprising character work. For example, when his lover Letty goes to her grave and ruminates about her lost memories... what does Dom do? He shows up with a motherfucking sledgehammer to destroy her headstone.

Strong choice. Strong style. Obvious in every character interaction and action sequence.

Weirdly, Eddie Redmayne's Balam Abraxas in Jupiter Ascending definitely has a lot style as well. He's the only interesting part of the movie, over-acting at an operatic frequency only by whispering and screaming at the top of his lungs. Does it work? Maybe. But both the screenplay and Redmayne definitely commit to the insanity of the ten thousand year old character.

Poor Balam only gets to poop once every ten thousand years!

4 - Know Your Style

Fast and Furious is aware of how goofy is and runs with the over the top action pieces. Mad Max: Fury Road attempts to deliver an adrenaline shot of insanity directly into your veins and peace out afterwards. The very meta Kingsmen can get away with (spoilers for Kingsmen) killing its main character half way through the movie.

Some movies can't nail what tone they are supposed to be. Avatar Last Airbender, a.k.a. shit in its cinematic form, is unrelentingly grim whereas Jupiter Ascending probably could have had less levity.

And then there are movies that have no idea what tone they are supposed to be at all. On that end, I give you Jurassic World that's 4 different movies for each quadrant of the audience. It's sometimes a sentimental Spielbergian drama about two brothers who discover how boring they are, sometimes it's a romantic comedy about a polar opposite couple, sometimes it's heavy conversations about what it means to weaponize animals and, during the Lauren Lapkus and Nick from New Girl segments, is an improvisational Judd Apatow comedy.

5 - Bonus Points for Something Unexpected

This is really tricky because Blockbusters need to be for everyone, so you can't ruffle too many feathers. Creative risks are discouraged, but, at least, on the visual front, directors can take on interesting visual challenges and give people something "they haven't seen before" -- see the insane single takes of Gravity or the weird dream imagery of Inception. But, on the content level, it's very rare when a hero does a morally dubious thing or the movie ends in a dark place. Because of this, personally, while I find myself liking blockbusters, I'm rarely surprised by them.

(Following paragraph is a spoiler for the Kingsmen) 

So imagine my surprise when Galahad got executed by the villain halfway through the movie. I love moments like these and, I assure you, there is nothing that delights a reader more than being surprised. I read for major studios and, %95 of the time, things went exactly as how I thought they did. So, if you can throw a curve ball... Do it.

This is especially great if you're writing a spec script. See, Spiderman isn't going to die halfway through the movie. Harry Potter is never going to be defeated. There are constraints to writing a piece that is connected to an IP (intellectual property) but, in a spec script, you can do things those big movies can't do! So experiment! Do crazy shit!

But nothing as crazy as the costumes in Jupiter Ascending, please.
Can you think of more elements/variables I missed? Have any favorite blockbusters that break these rules? Feel free to discuss these in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Levin

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Letter To A Screenwriter on The Ledge

Wait, don't jump.

Think for a second.

Your job is to write stories that make utterly ridiculous and implausible fantasies appear real. You've gotten really good at it. So good that right now your using the same tools of your imaginative craft to tell yourself a story about yourself. In fact, you've told so it so well that your ridiculous and implausible story about victimization, inauthenticity, and failure actually seems real.

It's not.

It's all cheap special effects, formulaic plot twists, and cliches cribbed from Save The Cat.

Step back, be your own best studio executive and demand a rewrite.

It's a movie in your head. It's not your life.

With love,

- Sean

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

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


Post by Levin Menekse
Welcome to another edition of "Great Job/Shitty Job" where we take a look at movies that are neither stinkers or classics and find out what we can learn from them, both good AND bad. You can check out the first installment, on Interstellar, over here.

Which brings me to Jurassic World; a movie I simultaneously enjoyed and got frustrated by, as if I was eating a bad watermelon on a really, really hot day. It hit the spot on some accounts (Childhood Nostalgia! Dinosaurs!) but made me squirm aplenty. So, what are some lessons we can take away from this movie?

#1: Great Job, Jurassic World -- "Pretty Cool Set Pieces"

For the uninitiated, a "set-piece" is a sequence that is more elaborate than the other scenes in the movie. They usually involve a lot of "fortunately/unfortunately". For example, in Jurassic World, one of the major set-pieces is the Dinosaur WWE at the end -- let's break it down, shall we?

Unfortunately, our characters are cornered by the raptors! / Fortunately, Chris Pratt comes in and he's so charismatic the Raptors can't bring themselves to eat him! / Unfortunately, the Big Bad Dino -- Indominus Rex -- shows up. Uh-oh. Meal time! / Fortunately, Chris Pratt charms the shit out of the Raptors and they attack the Big Bad Dino instead! Wohoo! / Unfortunately, the Big Bad Dino is a bad-ass motherfucker and it seems like the things are going to shit! Bad bad bad! / Fortunately... it's time to break out the T-Rex! BIG FIST BUMP!

And so forth. You get the gist of it.

The movie handles these sequences with a deft hand. Not only are they gorgeous, they are also surprising. I, personally, did not see the "HERE COMES TO T-REX!" moment and might have squealed a little when it happened. Plus, you want every "Fortunately/Unfortunately" iteration to escalate the tension... until it explodes with a nice, fist-bump-y roar at the end. And, my friends, the eventual demise of the Big Bad Dino is such a fist-bump, "holy crap!" moment, it closes the Dinosaur WWE set piece with style to spare.

Yup. I googled "Dinosaur WWE". Internet never disappoints.
Plus, Jurassic World manages to implement character development into these set-pieces: When the Big Bad Dino attacks the two distant brothers while they're traveling in the Pokeballs, the set piece forces them to bond together, furthering their character development. Similarly, when Claire goes HAM in the end and pulls out the T-Rex from it's cage, she has come so much further than who she was at the beginning of the movie.

#2: Shitty Job, Jurassic World -- "Shitty Character Development"

I know I just praised the movie for using its set pieces to tell character stories and further character development... So why does the Jurassic World get a "Shitty Job" for Character Development?

Of all the filmmakers in the world, the studio went with Colin Trevorrow, a small indie filmmaker. His only credit before this was "Safety Not Guaranteed" which is a romantic comedy that excelled in intimate character work. Which, I assume, is why Trevorrow was hired -- after all, there are so many blockbusters out there these days and distinct, unique, fresh characters give an edge to the box office potential of these movies.

And some of it shows in the movie. Irrfhan Khan's quirky billionaire seems to have some sort of an inner life. Vincent D'Onofrio might be playing a villain, but, hey, he gets the screen time to explain his motives and some of his points are actually salient. He's not some sniveling selfish guy, he just fashions himself to be a realist among all these naive idealists who think dinosaurs are cute.

Unfortunately though, for the majority of the movie, we're either stuck with the two Boring Brothers or Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's cute couple.

Hey! We heard something interesting was going on! We're here to put an end to it!
Two Boring Brothers are Boring. Look, I'm completely on board with some old-fashion Spielberg family sentimentality, but can we not to do it in the most non-specific, general way possible? Start with the older sibling being bored by the younger one, end with them holding hands and avoiding danger together and throw in some cliche "Remember how I protected you when the monsters came to get you at night?" big-brother stuff and... wow. Just typing that bored me.

When I write a big budget movie, here's a litmus test I usually use for my characters: Would this person be interesting without the plot of the movie in motion?

In Jurassic World, some characters pass this test: Yes, I would actually watch a movie about Irrfhan Khan's conflicted billionaire charmingly irritating his employees. I don't know if I'd like to run into Vincent D'Onofrio's character in a Christmas party, as we'd probably butt heads but, hey, he seems to have some pretty unique POV on the world.

The Boring Brothers definitely and unequivocally do not pass this test. Look, I get that they are young, I get that they are not going to have interesting ideas but... Their parents are divorcing. That's an interesting angle to explore them from. Instead, we get the most general "they are distant because...uhhh..." and "now they love each other. Yay!"

Which brings me to Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's characters. Sigh.

But we're so good looking and charming! What's not to like?!
I don't want to beat a dead horse here. Everyone from Joss Whedon to Gawker pointed out how sexist the movie is. I agree with that -- it's as if someone went "Mad Max was so feminist, we need to do something to balance out the summer!" -- but let's look at all this from the lens of screenwriting:

In a big movie like this, you expect certain stereotypes. The stuck up, non-nurturing career woman thawing and becoming more maternal is a goodie, but that's not necessarily the problem if we're looking at it solely from the screenwriting perspective.The problem is how these two characters reflect on each other: We know Claire's journey, it's very pronounced. Owen's journey, on the other hand is... being awesome and being told that he's awesome and become more awesome as a result?

That's not solely sexism, that's also bad storytelling. Couples are much more interesting when they grow together and bring out the best (or the worst) in each other. It's really fucking boring -- and a waste of the talented Chris Pratt -- when he's on the same frequency the entire damn movie! There is a bit of an attempt at some sort of arc when he has to take out the raptors to track down the Big Bad Dino but even then the movie makes it very, very clear that he has no choice.

Extremely simple: No Choice and No Change makes for a Boring Character.

#3: Shitty Job, Jurassic World -- "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?"

The Writer's hand is never more explicit than when a character makes an incredibly stupid choice just to get the plot rolling. And the thing is, characters making stupid decisions is one of those things, like Bad Acting or Bad Dialogue, that just ruins the movie experience in a fundamental way. You won't need to know anything about screenwriting or directing to yell "WHY?!" at the screen. (Hopefully in the comfort of your own home.)

Let's play the Jurassic World, Spot the Dumb Decision

- One day, you come to work and can't find a genetically engineered killing machine Dinosaur in his cage! Do you:

A) Look around the cage for any footprints and other signs from a safe distance?
B) Fill the cage with sleep gas / food to prod him out if he's in there?
C) Check the GPS Locator you have implanted into the predatory Dinosaur just in case something like this happened?
D) JUMP INTO THE CAGE, UNARMED, AND DO NOT CHECK THE GPS LOCATOR UNTIL YOU START GETTING EATEN BY THE SAID DINOSAUR.

"Yup. We know that we shouldn't let our dicks burn, but it was written into the script!"
Dumb dumb dumb. And if you're thinking: "But Jurassic World made so much money, obviously nobody cared..." I assure you that the producers reading your spec script are not going to be as generous. The thing about sequels and remakes, and part of why they make so much money, is that the audience WANTS to like these movies. As they step into the theater, they're already enticed by the previous memories associated with this product.

When a Producer or a Reader reads your script, s/he is staring at a 1/100 chance of this script being good. There is no such goodwill. S/he is probably tired, even annoyed about this task of reading through yet another screenplay. And a "dumb character moment" is the easiest way to annoy a reader because it pops right off the page and shits right in the face of your story.

#4: Great Job, Jurassic World -- "A fresh POV"

You'd expect a rinse and repeat mentality in the 4th sequel of, arguably, the biggest movie franchise in the history of movies. But Jurassic World actually tackles the franchise in some fresh ways and raises new questions. For example, the morality of using dinosaurs in the military? Fresh concept. A zoo keeper who is the Alpha to a pack of Raptors? Fresh concept. Seeing the Jurassic Park completely operational, in all its glory? Fresh concept.

When a Studio or Producer approaches a writer about working on an IP (Intellectual Property -- a book, a sequel, a remake etc.) the writer has to choose how to attack the material. This is called the "take" as in "her take on the material". You know how we always talk about a writer's "voice"? Well, a writer's voice manifests itself at these instances. A hundred writers would have written Jurassic World in a hundred different ways, but Connolly and Trevorrow came with fresh ideas on how to attack the material and got chosen out of that hundred.

You're probably thinking "Well, I'm not at that level yet, nobody is asking me to write Jurassic World!" but this goes for even the most basic of movies. Ask yourself: Is my perspective on my story "fresh"? If you're writing a horror movie, for example, how is it different than the other horror movies waiting patiently on an agent's desk? What are you giving us that we haven't seen before?

Alright, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why The Success of Fifty Shades of Grey is Pretty Great for the Movie Industry.

by Levin Menekse
I recently watched Fifty Shades of Grey. What I thought about it doesn't matter, what matters for me, and for you, is that it probably made 50 times more money than your favorite movie.

"But I'm an artist/art lover" you say "I don't care how much money a crappy movie made!"

Ah, but it makes so much difference. We work in an industry that ebbs and flows on trends. If something makes money, all of a sudden other projects become viable. When Twilight made so much money, an entire generation of vampire movies popped up. When Transformers made so much money, Battleship happened. Now that Fifty Shades of Grey made so much money... What's next? What sorts of movies will its success engender?

... this also happened, apparently.
The Mid-Range, Actually Good Studio Movie

You know this if you work in the industry, but the mid-range "good" Studio movie is a rarity these days. Studios either make massive blockbusters based on IP's (Intellectual Property -- remakes, sequels, adaptations) or low budget horror movies. (Blumhouse) There are a few exceptions of course -- The Social Network, Moneyball, Captain Philips -- but, as a movie goer, you should know that there are a myriad of beautiful, intelligent, challenging movies that are just not getting made because the numbers don't add up.

Now, Fifty Shades of Grey is no Social Network or Moneyball. It's definitely not going to be nominated for any awards. It's based on an IP. But it's a small, dark, challenging drama. The majority of the movie takes place in small rooms with two leads just... talking. There are times where it felt like I was watching an experimental theater performance or something.

And this is good. Dark, challenging movies getting made with adult themes is good.

One of the good ol' industry lingo is the "The TV show/Movie I'm pitching you right now is the popular movie X meets popular TV show Y!" Now, Fifty Shades of Grey is one of those anchors. And there are talented people right now trying to get that challenging movie they've been trying to get made for the last ten years by saying the magic words: "It's Fifty Shades of Grey meets ____"

And then there is also this... apparently.

The Talent Involved

So I was a bit sneaky earlier when I mentioned Social Network, Moneyball and Captain Philips because guess who produced Fifty Shades of Grey? The same people -- Michael De Luca, Dana Brunetti -- who made those movies! Between the two of them they also produced: American History X, Magnolia, Pleasantville, Dark City, Boogie Nights, Wag the Dog... and the list goes on.

These are people who have great taste. Sure, they already had clout before Fifty Shades of Grey but the success of this adaptation boosts their profile within the industry. Isn't that a good thing? Aren't these people the "good guys" of the industry?

And then there is the cast. Both Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, and Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele, can now actually get movies made. That's a pretty great thing because they're both extremely talented actors. Dakota Johnson is surprisingly effective in the movie. She's charming, vulnerable, funny and somehow manages to make someone named Anastasia Steele, an English major with the name of a C-list pornstar, feel like a three dimensional person. Jamie Dornan has the tougher job of the two due to the ridiculous lines he has to say with a straight face -- "I don't make love. I fuck... hard", "I'd like to bite that lip" -- and he's rather... constipated through the whole movie but he's phenomenal on The Fall, holding his own across a heavy weight like Gillian Anderson.

Either of these very talented actors might be in your new favorite movie down the road. And you'll be glad they were in Fifty Shades of Grey because that was the reason why your favorite movie got made in the first place.

Don't hate us... please?
A New Demographic

I have made a lot of assumptions through this essay and even if they turn out to be complete horseshit, I hope this particular assumption is true:

"Women love Fifty Shades of Grey because there aren't many other alternatives in the same genre."

It's easy to point at Twilight and Fifty Shades and say that the type of men women seem to want is a jealous, billionaire stalker. But I sincerely hope that's because there aren't many alternatives. If I want to see giant robots fighting, I can see Neon Genesis Evangelion instead of Transformers but if Transformers was my only option? Maybe I'd see Transformers to scratch that Giant Fighting Robot itch. Maybe women who want challenging, erotic dramas are also dealing with a similar sort of drought.

Because we haven't found a good genre for the sexually empowered women yet. Women who use their sexuality to evoke a response are usually either belittled or pitied and the sexual enjoyment is shamed endlessly. So, maybe, the success of Fifty Shades of Grey will start a new trend where we will see actual good movies directed towards this particular demographic. (Shameless plug) I wrote a TV Pilot where the main character is a female pornographer trying to break into the mainstream by making a "better" Fifty Shades of Grey (Shameless Plug ends) and I hope as hell someone actually does that.

I also like how I say "this particular demographic" as if that's not, you know, 50 percent of the entire population!

So, yes, ultimately, I believe the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty great for those who love movies! Or maybe I'm just full of shit. If you have thoughts please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

5 Mistakes Indie Filmmakers Make

And now, as I (Sean) am embroiled in The LA Film Festival, let's get Levin's take of the joys and frustrations of Indie Film....

I consider myself a "small movie" type of guy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy spectacle as much as the next person but when I want to be challenged, well, I go for the "indie" films. My favorite movies always seem to come from this category, whether it be Dogtooth, Upstream Color or Before Sunset, because indie films are more comfortable with pushing boundaries and reach for something new. And that, something new, is what I love about movies in the first place.

But I've been burned too. There is a reason why you'll see Sean blogging about Los Angeles Film Festival and not me, because I've come to develop an allergy to Film Festivals after a few unfortunate days of sitting through one shitty movie after another. And here are five mistakes that made those movies "shitty" in my humble opinion.

1 - Bland Visuals

In Upstream Color, a thief is robbing a person of her belongings. He somehow has control over what she sees. He's to the edge of the camera. The female protagonist looks up to see the thief's face and the thief says: "I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the Sun."

All of a sudden, the screen fills with searing brightness as she's unable to look at him anymore.


This moment was awe-inspiring to me when I saw it. It was accomplished with simple, "indie" means that required no SFX, but its effect, this particular visual flourish, was indelible.

I find that many independent movies I see are content with just four-walling the entire thing and presenting the audience with simple visuals. But visuals are why we watch movies. The visual grammar of the movie is a fundamental part of the story.

Also, just because I chose Upstream Color, a mind-bending sci-fi, to make my point shouldn't make you say "Well, I'm writing a drama". Wong Kar Wai writes dramas too and his dramas look like this:


2 - Incomprehensibility + No Emotion = Sad Audience

The audiences go to Indie Movies to be challenged, to be exposed to something new. But we still watch movies to be emotionally moved. This doesn't mean swelling music at the climax to cue us into the emotions of your protagonists, but give us something. The worst movie experiences I had at the movie festivals were movies were I had no idea what the hell was going on AND I didn't care.

Now, that last part is really important. Two of my favorite filmmakers, David Lynch and Shane Carruth, excel at making movies that are famously opaque. Especially in Lynch's movies, there is no narrative through line to logically connect one scene to the next, but there is always a central emotion that keeps the audience engaged. If not for Betty and Naomi Watts' performance, do you think Mulholland Drive would be the classic it is today? Without the palpable grief the town feels after Laura Palmer, do you think people would have responded to Twin Peaks?

3 - I HAVE A MESSAGE AND YOU WILL HEAR ME LOUD AND CLEAR!!!!!!

Of course it's important to have a theme. If we walked away, especially from an indie movie that didn't say something, we'd all feel robbed. And yet, I feel, especially with the indie movies, there is this weird responsibility to SAY SOMETHING and overcompensating in the process. There is a difference between being thematically weighty and just being didactic. I know the following example is hardly indie as it stars Brad Pitt, but shed it of its cast and the writing itself is small. It definitely has an "indie" feel to it:

A tale about the futility of hope in Obama's America because the inconspicuous TV's in the background tell us that OVER AND OVER AGAIN!
4 - This is not a Studio movie, but it sorta is?

The audience is here to see something different, something challenging. If they wanted conformity and predictability, they would've gone to the Blockbuster-of-the-month or stayed home and watched Hallmark.

Some indie movies feel like auditions for bigger studio tentpoles with their precisely 3 act structure with the clear resolution and the abundance of thematic cliche's like "Love Conquers All!"

You know the big movie this weekend, this little thing called "Jurassic World?" The writer/director of that movie first made the small indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" which, for all its faults, was definitely a surprising as hell movie that did a lot of unconventional things. So embrace that! There is a reason you're writing an indie screenplay and not a blockbuster!

5 - Do too many things because this is the one movie you'll ever make!

A movie about... EVERYTHING!

You will write many, many screenplays throughout your life. There is this tendency for screenwriters to go "This is my one crazy, indie, weird feature! I'm going to CRAM EVERYTHING IN IT!"

As a result, you read this screenplay and it feels like there are three different movies in there. A good question to see if this is the case with your screenplay is to ask: "Is there a consistent tone?" or simply "If I take this subplot out, does anything change?"

Pick one movie and stick to it.


In Conclusion: These are just some commonalities I found among the indie movies that disappointed me. Can you think of any other elements that these movies share? Do you think I'm wrong about anything? Have you seen any movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival so far that disappointed you? Share in the comments!