Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10 Best Written Movies of 2008

This wasn’t a horrible year for film, but it wasn’t particularly stellar, either. Nothing this year approached the delicate perfection of my favorite script last year: Lars and the Real Girl. And when you consider 2007 also had such interesting and unique screenplays as Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Savages, Juno, and Into the Wild; as well as a few excellent genre films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Knocked Up, this looks like a pretty mild year in comparison.

Note that what follows are not necessarily my favorite films of 2008, although there is a lot of overlap. These are the movies I think are best written. Sometimes the final film doesn’t quite live up to the screenplay and sometimes bravura filmmaking can overcome a flawed script. Also keep in mind that although I see a lot of movies I’m not a professional critic so I don’t see every major release. The candidates are obviously limited to what I’ve seen.

1) Slumdog Millionaire (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy) – a fantastic movie that started with a fantastic script. The premise is an unlikely one for a great movie which just shows how amazing the writing really is. Noteworthy particularly for how it incorporates very dark themes and still manages to feel uplifting. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of life on the streets for kids in India but is far more hopeful than disheartening – which gives this script a high degree of difficulty. The framing structure is also handled well which is not nearly as easy as it looks.

2) Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) – big summer popcorn movies must be filled with excitement and spectacle and this script certainly delivered on that count. It also had well drawn characters (even the minor characters) and some of the wittiest dialogue in any movie this year. I had a small quibble with the ending (SPOILER: I felt the final fight should have ended after the “icing problem” line but they dragged it on into a fairly clichéd brawl), but otherwise a really excellent script.

3) Milk (written by Dustin Lance Black) – the true story is inherently dramatic and compelling and the treatment was relatively straightforward so this might seem like a low degree of difficulty. But compressing ten years of someone’s life is never easy and the script deftly integrated Milk’s sometimes messy personal life into the main storyline without getting sidetracked. And sometimes the best writing is just quality, straightforward dramatization.

4) The Dark Knight (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan) (SPOILER) – I loved this movie but the plot is a bit of a mess. The script loses tension two thirds of the way through when they’ve captured the Joker and we don’t yet know about the kidnapping of Harvey Dent and Rachel. It’s held together by spectacular performances and amazing scenes. But though Heath Ledger gets justifiable credit for his amazing performance, remember that his character and dialogue was written. And this is a superhero movie that’s about big, complex ideas of chaos, law, justice, and human nature and morality. As scattershot as it sometimes is, it’s a tremendously compelling screenplay.

5) Zach and Miri Make a Porno (written by Kevin Smith) – Kevin Smith remains a frustrating director but a fantastic screenwriter. Here he doesn’t shy away from the raunchy humor virtually demanded by his premise, but he manages to still make a sweet romantic comedy because he clearly loves his characters despite their many flaws…and so do we. And there are genuine laugh out loud jokes. Also interesting, this was a movie that feels up-to-the-minute in terms of the characters’ use of culture, technology and language. You really sense that Smith is basing his writing on observations of people in the real world rather than other movies. Surprisingly, given the outrageousness of the story, Zach and Miri may be the most authentic contemporary characters of the year.

6) The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) – I liked this movie and the screenplay is well structured and subtle with rich, real characters and genuine emotion. It also has important stuff to say and some really touching romantic elements. Something left me a little cold though and I can’t quite figure out what it was.

7) Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard) – Though it drags a bit in the beginning, this is a tight, scary screenplay that milks the central conceit for all it’s worth. The characterizations and dialogue are also quite strong. The shaky camerawork means the movie won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but the script is interesting and well crafted.

8) The Wrestler (written by Robert D. Siegel) – Again Mickey Rourke deserves his kudos, but we must remember this compelling character started in the screenplay. Unfortunately, too much else about the script is cliché. Really, did the love interest have to be a stripper? And the estranged daughter storyline is well trod ground. The movie ends up being very good, though the script benefits a lot from the filmmaking and performances.

9) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (written by Jason Segel) – This may be a sign of what kind of year it’s been when this movie makes my list. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not that spectacular. But it’s tightly plotted, funny, and has enough interesting things in it to rise above the typical romantic comedy.

10) The Reader (screenplay by David Hare) – It takes a while to get to the point and the filmmaking is a little pretentious for my taste (not the screenwriter's fault), but this is a movie about complex, challenging ideas and characters that you don't see on screen very often. A worthy if flawed script.

Near Miss: Changeling (written by J. Michael Straczynski). The story definitely haunted me and the writing is mostly quite good. The big problem for me was the ending. In an attempt to stay true to the chronology, the film gets muddled at the end. I think they would have been better served to reorganize events to end the movie with the trial/council hearing scenes which would have had a better sense of finality while not violating any of the bigger truths of the history.

For whatever it’s worth: Number of my top 10 with one credited screenwriter: 8. Number written by the film’s director: 3 (Dark Knight is co-written by Nolan)

And for Worst Movie of 2008: Jumper
Now, I didn’t see a lot of the allegedly spectacularly bad 2008 movies like 10,000 BC and The Love Guru, but Jumper was definitely a big mess. It’s a solid potential premise but the movie just makes no sense and has a spectacularly anti-climactic ending for a supposed action movie.

And a special award for “Questionable Plot Device in an Otherwise Watchable Movie”: The magic loom in Wanted. A magic loom. Really?

Here's looking forward to 2009!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Screenwriting Book Review

There are several hundred books out there purporting to teach you how to write screenplays, sell screenplays, pitch or in some way improve your skills as a professional screenwriter. I’ve got a few dozen on a shelf in my office. Some are good, a few are REALLY good and many are just taking up space. From time to time I ask the guys at Samuel French (a bookstore catering to entertainment industry types) what the hot screenwriting book is at that moment. I don’t have the time to read them all, but I like to stay abreast of what’s causing buzz.

I’m going to review a few of the classic screenwriting books today. I’ll post more reviews on occasion in the future. (Note: Some of my copies of these may be earlier editions.)

Screenplay” by Syd Field
Syd Field is the guy who pretty much started it all with his analysis of three act structure and this book is the one that kicked off the flood of screenwriting books. He provides a good, clear guide to story structure, but I recommend not getting as rigid with it as he does. I don’t care for his character development approach…I don’t know many real writers who use it. But this would be a good starting point book for most screenwriters and is an industry standard.

The Screenwriters Workbook” by Syd Field
(I’ve lost my copy of this so I’m reviewing from memory…admittedly a sketchy idea.) I actually prefer this one to “Screenplay.” It has a step-by-step process including assignments for the reader. If you do the assignments as you go along, by the end of the book you’ll have a screenplay. Which is pretty cool!

Making a Good Script Great” by Linda Seger
This is the best overall book I know of. It covers all the major theories and topics of screenwriting in a way that fits with how I think most pro screenwriters work. It’s supposedly a rewriting book but it really deals as much with outlining and first draft concepts as rewriting. Because of its comprehensive nature it doesn’t really delve as deeply into some of the areas as might be desirable, but it’s a great first book to read on the topic.

The Writers Journey” by Christopher Vogler
This book was a revelation to me. It’s based on the mythology studies of Joseph Campbell with some Carl Jung thrown in. It’s a completely different approach to structure centered on the hero’s journey. I like it because it builds the story from a character arc standpoint instead of focusing on page numbers. I merge this with three act structure when I work out my scripts. There are other hero’s journey books which include more “stages” of the journey, but I think Vogler selects the right amount to be most useful without turning the script into a paint-by-numbers affair. Also covers archetypal characters which can be useful as you develop your supporting players.

The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley
Full disclosure: David Howard was a mentor of mine. As the title suggests, this book is a collection of screenwriting ideas. Chapters are titled things like: “Exposition” and “Plausibility.” It doesn’t have as strong an overview of story development as other books, but it deals with lots of important concepts which are frequently overlooked. Plus it has a large collection of analyses of well known films. An excellent book to pick up after you feel you’ve mastered the basics of structure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How to Network

Last post I discussed networking mistakes. This time I’m going to take a more positive approach to the subject. Networking is important in the film business. This is an insanely competitive business. There are so many people trying to break in, the “buyers” are always overwhelmed. You need to build advocates for your work to break through the clutter.

The most important thing is to be engaged. If you sit in your apartment pounding out screenplays all day it will be hard to network. You need to be out there meeting people. The best places to network are where industry people congregate. Okay, maybe you can’t wrangle an invite to the Paramount holiday party but there are other things you can do. Go to film festivals. Join groups like Film Independent (in LA, IFP in NY) and Scriptwriters Network. Take classes. Get involved in an equity waiver theater company where you’ll meet aspiring actors and directors. Really, if you love film so much, why wouldn’t you want to do those kinds of things?

(That’s one of the reasons it’s important to live in Los Angeles if you are trying to break into film or TV writing. It’s not impossible to do it elsewhere, but you will run into a lot more people to network with in your daily life if you’re in Los Angeles. Even going to non-industry events in LA can be networking opportunities.)

So now some rules of networking:

First rule of networking: Nobody is doing you a favor. If you are talented and your work is good, you have value in the business relationship. Do not approach networking like a beggar looking for a handout. When a development exec reads a script from an unknown screenwriter he’s hoping it will be great – because his job is to find great scripts! If your work is great then networking is really creating mutually beneficial relationships. Which leads to…

Second rule of networking: It’s an ongoing relationship. When you meet someone the goal should be to build that relationship not to get them to do something for you. When I go into a pitch meeting with a producer who I’m meeting for the first time, my goal is to establish rapport more than to sell a specific idea. Once the relationship is established I can go to that person again and again with ideas. And hopefully they’ll come to me when they have something they need help with.

Third rule of networking: Nobody is unimportant. As I mentioned last time, lateral networking is the most valuable. The producer’s intern will become her assistant and then a development exec and maybe even the head of the company – often in startlingly short time. The mailroom of CAA is filled with Harvard MBAs because it’s the entry point for aspiring agents. The guy delivering your script could be a major player long before your movie ever gets made.

Corollary to rule number three: What you need to be looking for is talent and drive. There are a lot of people in Hollywood going nowhere fast. I believe in being polite and respectful to everyone. But when I meet someone who is talented and driven, no matter what their job is right now, that is a person I make it a point to stay in contact with.

Fourth rule of networking: Quality is the commodity. All the charm in the world will not help if you don’t deliver good work. Make your script great then get everyone you can to read it. If it’s really great then your writing will do your networking for you.

I’m often handed a script and asked if I will give it to my agent. The thing is, I only have so much credibility with my agent. I can really only give him one or two scripts a year before I’m bugging him. His primary job is to sell his current clients after all, and if I’m constantly asking him to read other people’s scripts then that’s time he’s not spending on my career.

And if I give him a script from a prospective client the first thing he’ll ask me is have I read it and is it good. If I say yes and it’s not good, then my recommendation starts to lose value. Believe me, if I read a great script I will be anxious to give it to my agent. It will make me look good and if the writer turns into a client who makes him money the agent will owe me one. So if you’ve networked and built a relationship with me, don’t ask me for a referral, ask me to read your script and let it speak for itself. But it better be one of the best two scripts I read all year!

Now go forth and network!