Friday, March 21, 2014

My Expertise in Box Office Failure is a website in which people pose questions, both specific and general, and "experts" on the topic provide answers.  After the back-to-back box office failures of both Conan The Barbarian and The Legend of Hercules, I seem to have the dubious distinction as an "expert" on What's It's Like When Your Film Flops at The Box Office.  The Latest question I answered was...

"Screenwriting: How did you get involved with The Legend Of Hercules?
The reviews haven't been kind.  So where did it go wrong?"

I answered this way...

I wrote a draft of Hercules in 2007. In 2013 it was rewritten by no fewer than 6 other writers one after the other, including the director. Having written that first draft and having taken screen credit on the movie, I have to share credit for its failure, but I haven't seen the final film, and I don't feel much personal connection or sense of "authorship" to it one way or the other.

Writing movies like Conan the Barbarian or Hercules is a lesson in deflating my ego as a writer and filmmaker. I take the jobs as any other member of the crew might take a job (grip, camera assistant, sound editor, location scout): in order to work and make money doing what I love to do. However, a franchise writing assignment is not the kind of job in which (at least in my experience) the writer creates wildly new characters, invents worlds, or makes a personal imprint on the final product.

The final shooting script of these sorts of movies (sequels, re-makes, and adaptations) is a product of collaboration between the various writers, the producers, the studio, the director and many other powerful forces, and that the end result tends to be a reflection of the success or failure that collaboration.

In a franchise movie like Chris Nolan's Batman series, that collaboration (a collaboration of over 800 people) worked. In the case of Conan and Hercules, which were both critical and box office flops, that collaboration failed.

To be more specific, in my 2007 script for Hercules, the lead character was an ordinary man and the story was about the real-life figure who inspired the Hercules myth. The movie was intended to have a gritty sort of realism to it. For that reason, although there were nods to mythological characters and events, the story beats were not anything like the "12 labors" of Heracles as found in the myths.  My version of the script actually got positive reviews online (Why Renny Harlin's 'Hercules 3D' Might Actually Be Better Than Brett Ratner's)

However, over time at least six different writers (all talented) re-wrote the script according to different and sometimes conflicting ideas from producers, executives, and the director. Hercules was made mythological again, but all the beats of the real-man premise were kept. A Roman-style gladiator sequence was added and a 300 style visual approach was taken. Dialogue was written and rewritten and pulled in one direction and then another.

Any one of these ideas (Hercules as a real man, Hercules as a slave, Hercules as a demigod) in-and-of themselves aren't bad, and all of the writers involved worked hard with the best of intentions. But the pieces just didn't fit together, and the impression it gave reviewers (who for the most part mocked the film) was that the Hercules myth was just ignored and that the movie barely had a story at all.

The same thing happened on Conan. That time I was the last of a string of writers instead of the first, but the problems of a failed collaboration were the same. A year after the film was released the star, Jason Mamoa, blamed the script (Jason Momoa blames the script for his huge Conan box-office flop). I know he didn't mean to blame me personally for the work I did or to single out any of the other writers involved. But, he was right that the script was dysfunctional: it reflected quite a number of different and conflicting visions of what the movie was supposed to be.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art, but the work of all the various artists involved - including the writer, director, producer, production assistant, and stand-by painter - all have to add up to the illusion that the movie was created with a single vision, or to put it another way: everyone has to be working on the same movie.

So, when I work on Halloween movies and Crow movies and Hercules movies, I embrace the job and give 100%. I commit fully to making the best movie imaginable. However, the form and quality of the final shooting script is often shaped by forces we as writers( and as actors, as directors, as producers, and so on) can't control. So, I try "let go of the results."

Great scripts emerge from a process of revision, reworking and rewriting, but that process - even when everyone working on the film is talented and has the best of intentions - can utterly fail. When a writer becomes involved in any film (as opposed to fiction or poetry where they have complete control) this is a risk s/he has to take.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why not SHOOT that script yourself?

Many fellow filmmakers and students that I work with write scripts that they plan to finance and direct themselves. Digital technology and social media has made it viable for nearly anyone to make a feature film if they have a little money and perseverance, but viability does not guarantee quality, and getting a high quality "micro-budget" film made and seen by audiences may be as difficult, in its own peculiar ways, as getting a film made in Hollywood.

Screenwriters who are wary of having their work butchered by rewrites, or re-imagined by directors (or simply ignored and un-produced by Hollywood), often wonder if making the film themselves is the solution to years of toiling away in frustration. Since I happen to know several veteran filmmakers who are at one stage or another in the production of this kind of project, I plan to publish ongoing conversations, about the joys and pitfalls of their endeavors.

This morning, I had a coffee with Jacques Thelemaque. He has been a filmmaker and an icon in the indie film community for two decades. His short films, including the celebrated short Transaction, have played all the major festivals, including Sundance, and won several international awards. Connection is his second feature film, currently budgeted UNDER half a million dollars.

"CONNECTION" follows the mood-drenched, sometimes subtly comic, journey of a young couple during their first experience at a “lifestyle” (swinger) party.

How is writing a micro-budget movie different  than writing traditional spec script?

Jacques: The main difference is that in writing an indie, micro-budget feature, you MUST write within the bounds of your resources. Meaning, you have to consider, with each scene/location/prop/stunt/etc. how you are going to shoot it and how much it will cost. It sounds restrictive, but it actually forces you
to come up with imaginative ways to realize things that money can't simply buy. With a traditional spec script, your imagination is unhindered by such things. The difference between the two kinds of scripts, however, are minimal for me, since even with an unlimited budget, I would be drawn toward telling the same kind of stories, in the same kind of way, that I am doing on a micro-budget: Character-driven pieces set in a compelling dynamic. I make lower budgeted films, not simply because I have to, but because I choose to.

In the script, Benjamin and Melissa Hughes seem to have an ideal relationship on all levels. But a vague need for something “more” coupled with a desire to fully explore their sexuality, compels them to an attend a party, and be introduced to a growing sexual culture, that will amuse, titillate and ultimately challenge them individually…and as a couple.

The "Lifestyle"
How is your story, in structure and content, different from a screenplay inspired by "Save The Cat?"

Jacques: The main difference is that in my story, people are too busy having sex (or trying to) to even notice the cat. I actually am not too familiar with the whole "Save The Cat" thing and not very motivated to understand it too deeply. My loose understanding is that a "Save The Cat" screenplay follows all the traditional Hollywood story-telling paradigms, including having the main character "Save The Cat" early on to build audience sympathy for them. Real people are more complex than any standard paradigms and that I'm vastly more interested in exploring that complexity than smoothing it out for entertainment value. My story doesn't answer questions. It asks them and leaves the audience to consider them.

How do your plans as director inform your choices in the writing process?

Jacques: I actually tend to try to separate the two. Of course, I can't help but visualize the film and think about directorial issues while I'm writing, but I try not to let that hinder me in any significant way. I simply focus on what the characters and circumstances are telling me as I make creative choices. Is there tension? Is it compelling? Is it authentic? Is it working on multiple levels? These are my four main general concerns while I'm writing. Then, when I direct, I "bury" the writer. The script becomes nothing more than a blueprint that I am free to re-interpret based on visual style, pacing, location, casting, quality of performance and many other real-world factors once we are actually committing it to film (or HD video, as is usually the case these days).

Why did you decide to fund this film through kickstarter and other fundraising campaigns rather than through a traditional production company or studio?

Jacques: Two reasons. Well, three actually. The first is that the budget I saw for this film was in that zone between self-financing (or raising money just from people you know) and traditional production company or studio financing. I couldn't have done the film the way I want to do it on a smaller budget. Of course, I could've gone the other direction and simply done the film for a larger budget, but that leads to the second reason I didn't go the traditional route: the film itself. The subject matter is challenging and I want to explore it in a challenging way. It will not be typical Hollywood fare and I don't have faith that traditional funding entities are interested in funding anything that doesn't have commercial appeal and/or serious star power. The third reason is that I don't know many people in the traditional production company or studio world, nor do I have much interest in developing those contacts. For the most part, I'm not at all a fan of the films they often choose to do.

How can people follow the making of this film, either as fans and fellow filmmakers who may involved in the same process?

Given the ubiquity of social media, there are numerous ways to "connect" with CONNECTION. Here are the ones we have thus far:

Our Crowd Funder:
Our website:
On Twitter:
On Facebook:
On YouTube:
On Tumblr:
On Instagram:

WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER Jacques Thelemaque co-founded Filmmakers Alliance in 1993, and in 2004, FA Productions, of which he is co-president. He was also the former Chief Community Officer at His films include “My Last Day On Earth”, “Infidelity In Equal Parts”, “Egg”, and "Transaction" which played at the Sundance Film Festival, and won the Grand Prix du Jury Award in the Labo Competition at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. He wrote, directed and produced the feature film “The Dogwalker”. He also produced 5 other feature films including “The Revenant” (Best Narrative Feature, CineVegas 2009).

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.