Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My 2 Star Movie

Last week, one of my better students asked me if I would read his senior thesis screenplay, one of the biggest projects of his college career and it really got me thinking. Here is my response:

Did I like the screenplay? Basically on one level, yes. If this was a movie, I would enjoy it but I think I would enjoy it in the way that I enjoy a candy bar or pizza, it tastes really good going down but, in the end, I know that it is empty, pointless, worthless and, ultimately bad for me.

So, as a guy who likes trashy, junky B movies about hot girls and bad guys and stuff blowing up, I liked it.

As a screenwriting teacher, I feel that it is my job to inspire art, to get students to aim higher than writing screenplays for movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator audience.

Of course, there is something to be said for movies that appeal to that demographic because it encompasses the highest number of people and, of course, the biggest possible box office for your product.

So, honestly, your screenplay feels like a lot of other movies by people of my generation and the generation after mine, are movies that are based on stuff we know from having seen lots of other movies, not stuff that is based on our observations of the world around us.

When Scorsese made "Mean Streets" he was really drawing from the stuff he saw happening in his neighborhood. When Tarantino made "Reservoir Dogs" and Rob Weiss made "Amongst Friends" and Troy Duffy made "Boondock Saints" and all of those other people who made films about young tough guys they all had this detached from reality element that felt Scorsese inspired, like it came from watching films rather than from watching real life and I feel the same thing about "----."

Yes, it is entertaining and fun. I do feel that the cyborg element really comes out of the blue and all of sudden, 3/4 of the way through your tough, whimsical crime movie it becomes a science fiction film. What if, in "Goodfellas" when they go to whack Joe Pesci and shoot him, wires and sparks fly out and he turns into the Terminator?

The hardest that I can be on you is to say that I know that you can do better. "---" with its glorification of sex and violence feels rather juvenile to me, it's a fourteen year old boy's wet dream.

I think the story you told me about concerning the @#$^*** really demonstrated a hint at an ability to do something more original, to put a fresh spin on a familiar situation, entertaining while also commenting on an aspect of the human condition.

Look at your project and ask yourself if it is a 4 star movie, if it is a Grade A screenplay.

If produced, does your screenplay have the potential to be “Citizen Kane”, “The Godfather” or some other movie that historically gets 4 stars?

So, the point here is to be realistic about our work.

If you pick up the movie section of the newspaper, you will see that there are maybe 50 different movies playing in town

In the past three years, I have been hired to write or doctor nearly 20 screenplays and I have 3 new jobs coming up next year and, honestly, I do not know if there is a 4 star screenplay in there.

I know structure and I know formatting and character development and I write good dialogue, plot points, act breaks and all that but that’s only the beginning, lots of people know how to do that stuff and that is why there are so many 3 and 2 star movies, because there are a lot of B and C screenplays, in other words, “average.”

I simply don’t know if I am creative enough, smart enough or deep enough to write a 4 star movie and there is no shame in that. The point is you can teach the nuts and bolts but I don’t know if I can teach you to be creative, deep or smart --- that is called talent.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Avant-garde, moi?

Believe it or not, my background is in sort of avant-garde theater. My biggest influences are Ionesco, Pinter, Stoppard and Albee with significant contributions from Steve Martin and Richard Pryor.

In the past, I was striving to approach film in non-traditional ways but, the more gigs I got as a screenwriter and a screenwriting teacher, the more I had to play the game and utilize conventional three-act structure so my tolerance for films and screenplays that don't use it is now diminished and, unfortunately, I find myself less open-minded about unconventional films.

Part of that is practical as well, I know how hard it is to make a film, how much time, energy and money goes into any film and, at this point, to make a film that, inherently, limits its audience and cuts into its potential return on investment, sort of frustrates me --- as much as I am frustrated by the culture in which we live, where audiences have been conditioned to expect one thing from movies and any film that does something different goes largely ignored by the masses.

Of course, all of that said, I am proud to have sold a screenplay, "Aftermath", that does not employ three-act structure in the conventional sense and still succeeds as entertainment. I was not trying to break the rules but I knew that, given the nature of my production, three-act structure was not going to work for this film.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Something Like That

I have been networking with writer-director who has one well-regarded indie feature to his credit. He has a new story that he is trying to develop into a screenplay and I have been trying to help. Today he sent me a new take on the story and I responded with an alternative approach, which he questioned, wondered if I was really suggesting what it sounded like I was suggesting and this is how I responded, see if it sounds familiar to you:

"Something like that -- maybe not from opposite sides but maybe from different perspectives.

There has to be enough of an initial connection between them that would make it believable for them to "socialize" but maybe they come from different classes, backgrounds etc. so that both their differences and their similarities can be explored, much like, to tell the truth, a romance: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together in the end, following the classic buddy movie formula as well: opposites attract, then repel and then find some other way --- greater understanding of each other, themselves and the situation they're in.

They initially connect on a professional level, then a personal level, discover differences between them and their perspectives on what is happening but, by that time, they're deep in it, sort of need each other to survive, ultimately overcome their differences and discover their core similarities ----

or something like that."

Beyond that, I have been busy teaching the screenwriters of tomorrow -- or, at least a handful of people who might wind up being screenwriters tomorrow or the next day.

After a bit of a drought this year (sold and got hired to re-write "Aftermath", wrote "Bait & Tackle" and "Used To Love Her"), it looks like, after about six months of no new gigs, I have some new projects brewing for 2010, at least 2 and possibly as many as 5 screenplays to write, some good stuff. Here's hoping or something like that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Experienced vs.Newbie: Infancy?

Next, regarding a recent discussion of "experienced" vs. "newbie", I don't
come down definitively on either side.

My own two cents, for whatever two cents coming from me is worth is, all due respect to a guy who actually knows me and has graciously mentioned me as an experienced screenwriter, that, to tell the truth, I don't feel that experienced.

Yes, in the past three years, I have been hired to write or doctor nearly 20 screenplays, sold an original, saw one feature written-for-hire get produced, am expecting 2-3 others to be shot within the next year and I have been teaching college screenwriting classes for the past five years.

My point is that I feel like an infant, okay, maybe a toddler, and that I still feel like I have so,so,so much to learn about the art and science of screenwriting, I feel like I have just begun to crack the surface of what it means to be able to write a screenplay. I have seen movies where I just have to throw my hands in the air and say "You know, I could not have written this screenplay. I am not smart enough, deep enough or creative enough to have written this screenplay."

So, I keep going, learning, everytime I sit down to write, hoping to one day get it "right."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I was there and I saw what you did...

In an early episode of the seminal TV series “Miami Vice”, ultra cool and extremely fashionable cops Sonny Crocket and Rico Tubbs cruise through the city -serious, determined, somber - as Phil Collins’ classic “In The Air Tonight” simmers and builds to it’s famous thundering crescendo. It was 1983, MTV was exploding and Michael Mann’s TV series was one of the first to incorporate music video techniques and, in turn, probably influenced more than a few videos itself. In any event, I think it inspired a lot of kids to drive around in the middle of the night approximating some degree of their own fashionable gravitas with Collins’ song blasting through the sound system.

Not much of this was new to me. The song was actually released in 1981 and, during that summer, the summer that I was 16, and hanging out on Philly’s legendary South Street, on at least one occasion, it was on the radio, playing in the wee, small hours of the evening as I rode in a car, cruising through the city while most of it’s residents were asleep on a hot summer night.

In the ‘60’s, South Street was Philly’s answer to Greenwich Village, the center of all things Hippie. By the late ‘70’s, many of the hippies had sold out, grown up, died off or otherwise moved on but the street remained a cultural center, albeit with an increasingly mainstream commercial vibe.

1981 was a strange time to be growing up I say, fully realizing that it is probably the growing up part that is strange, rather than the era during which one grows up. I have little doubt that, 30 years from now, there will be 45 years olds thinking about how strange it was to be growing up in the early 21rst Century. In 1981 there were still some hippies around but there was also the emerging punk-new wave sub-culture and the gradual cooling off of Disco Fever. I found myself in the middle of it all, still listening to classic rock but eagerly embracing punk and new wave and mixing it up with some beloved 70’s funk and bubblegum – you know, “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70’s”.

A typical night usually began with a terrible movie at a grungy theater on Chestnut Street, an hour or so of video games at Spaceport or Zounds before heading to South Street for a series of long, leisurely strolls up and down the street, taking in the sights and sounds, bumping into friends, hanging out and, well, let’s face it, checking out girls.

Of course, I was not the only one experiencing this activity. In certain circles throughout Philly, this hanging out on South Street period is a time honored tradition, a rite of passage, if you will, even though there was not much in the way of rites or passage. It’s not like I had never stayed out really late or engaged in a bit of underage drinking but doing it on South Street felt so much better, and probably appealed to the budding filmmaker in me. I probably soaked it all in, assuming that it would make for some good reminiscing later on, in the future, when I might be prone to reflect to on my youth.

As in many rites of passage stories of this type (think “American Graffiti”) there was a girl, doing the same thing, being young, sort of free, hanging out on South Street with her friends around the same time. I saw her almost every night that summer, her auburn blunt cut, pouty bee-stung lips and a style that captured the times, not exactly a hippie, not totally punk but an original mix of both that she pulled off effortlessly.

She parked herself beside me, on the car I was leaning on, watching a bassist and drummer rock out. She slipped a Marlboro between her lips and smoked like she’d learned to by studying old movies; her way of saying “You know, you look like a really sweet guy but you have to know, somewhere deep down, that I am way out of your league.”

I, with my cascading Jew-fro and glasses that could have doubled as storm windows dominating my face, looked straight ahead, innocently ignorant to basic boy-girl 101 moves like making eye-contact, much less small talk. I must have been out that day.

Still, she stood next to me, I saw her frequently that summer, never exchanged a word and, writing about it almost 30 years later, I guess it made an impression. I heard later, after asking around, that, if we were all talking about the same girl, her name was Lisa and, within a few years, she had become a model.

I did a play at theater off South in the spring of ‘82 but, that summer, I was sent off to my dad’s place on Long Island where, instead of staying out ‘til 2 or 3 every night, I was getting up at 4 or 5 to work on a farm every day.

Nobody ever said anything to me and while my parents, ex-hippies themselves, were not especially restrictive, I suspect that they might have worried that I was up to no good during those late nights on South Street. Granted, the guy I was spending all of this time with was 19 and had a bit of a reputation ---no names here, he is a successful businessman now— nothing beyond flagrant curfew violations and the occasional public consumption of alcohol by a minor ever took place. Still, this improbable Fonzie-Richie Cunningham-“American Graffiti” dynamic was suddenly put on hold.

As mentioned, for many kids in Philly, hanging out on South Street during summer nights, is a time-honored tradition but, within that tradition, seems to be a built in period of disillusionment: the next summer is never as good as the first and, is often bad, lending itself to another time-honored tradition: talking about how the street had changed from one year to the next, how it used to be so much cooler. Okay, I grant this to the kids who came before me and the kids who came after me but, in my experience, the change from ‘81 to ’82 was like day and night. When I got back to town from my hard labor experience on Long Island, I was eager to hit the street once again even though I’d heard that things were different.

Gone was the sole beat cop who walked up and down the street; replaced by teams of officers who seemed to be on every other corner. The mix of hippies and punks were still around but there was a new element emerging: guys in muscle shirts, shorts and white socks pulled up to their knees who just seemed to be waiting for someone to look at them or one of their short-shorted-high heeled girlfriends the “wrong way.”

My hanging out on South Street officially went into the history book.

I never really spent that much more time on South St. after the summer of 1981. In ’83, hanging out on the street after a David Bowie concert, my friends and I were stopped for violating curfew --- remember that, at 16, I sat on the steps of the TLA dinking a beer at 2 A.M. --- but we were not cited for anything because three of us were in the company of a responsible 18 year old: me.

In ’86, after a semester of college in London, I got together with some of my flat-mates for a proper “glad to be back” cheesesteak at Jim’s. The “malling” of the street was in full swing.

By the late ‘80’s songs like “In Air Tonight” and Steve Winwood’s Madison Avenue bait “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do?” were the stuff of ubiquitous rain slicked, neon lit, city at night, “Miami Vice”-esque gag-worthy beer commercials. Ever the media savvy lad, I once even caught myself running through the city at night with friends, thinking to myself “Wow, Miller time, I feel like I’m in a beer commercial, cool.”

In 1991, I worked at the TLA Video on 3rd street. In ’92, my fiancĂ©e and I went to the Eyes Gallery and bought tons of 1920’s Mexican postcards of happy couples to use as our wedding invitations. Within the past 15 years or so, there have been increasingly ugly incidents on South Street and, yet, I firmly believe that the tradition of hanging out continues.

I never saw Lisa again. In a best case scenario, she went on to have a decent life and got older, like me. I teach college students now and sometimes get paid to write screenplays. For the past 17 years, I have been married to a girl I fell in love with when I was 14 – and, okay, if she is, in fact, in my league, she is a starter while I am, as always, a bench-warmer. We have two daughters who, if I have anything to do with it, will probably never hang out on South Street.

About ten years ago I heard a demographic statistic that said that people, especially men, tend to return to the music they listened to between the ages of 16 and 20. My family doesn’t share my passion for popular music to quite the illogical level that I do, so we rarely listen to it in the car (okay, I’ll admit it, mini-van) but, every now and then, I’ll be driving around alone, “In The Air Tonight” will come on the radio and I’ll turn it up, just slightly, and glance back in time for awhile.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How I Got Into Film

A guy I went to high school with messaged me on Facebook and asked if his girlfriend’s brother could get in touch with me for some advice on getting into the movie business. How did I get into film? That’s easy. Who doesn’t like movies? Sure, I got hooked early but even that’s not unheard of. When I was a kid, my parents had this huge collage of classic movie stills that I would stare at. This was before vcr’s and video stores so, if my father wanted to show a film in a class, he had to order an actual print from this a catalogue. I spent hours with that big book, pouring over synopsis after synopsis of old movies. That was it for me, the beginning and the end, after that, there was very little else that would captivate my interest, stir my passion and spark my creativity.

How did I get into the film business? Now that's a hard question because I hardly feel like I am in the film business. Yes, I did it, I have now done what thousands upon thousands of people are trying to do, I have sold a screenplay (did not get paid especially well), I have been hired to write or work on screenplays for other people -- again, not very well paying, actually minimum wage or less and that is not an exaggeration.

So, to backtrack, I made my first (animated) films when I was 9, bought a super 8 camera when I was 10 and made films with friends. Around that time, I saw “Jaws” and “North By Northwest” on the big screen, something clicked and I just said something like “this is what I want to do” to myself.

Also, around this time, I saw “Rocky.” Now, “Rocky” means a lot of different things to a lot of people around the world. For a film geek growing up in Philly, the thought that this virtual nobody could write a screenplay set in Philadelphia, shoot it in Philadelphia (huh, not all movies are produced in L.A.?), see it become a big hit and win the Oscar for Best Picture was mind-blowing, exhilarating and inspiring.

I think I always thought I would grow up and out of this silly dream of making films for a living but it never happened.

When I was 16 I found out about film school. You mean, you can go to college and study movies? I did go to film school and I guess I am pretty glad that I did though I am not exactly sure what I got out of it. For someone who loves film, it was total immersion, I learned theory/aesthetics, history, production etc. and I loved it.

A year after I graduated, I heard that an indie film was being shot in the small Maine town where my dad lives. I got the number of the production office and started calling, asking for a job, having nice conversations with the production manager but no job offer. I decided to take a leap of faith and go up to Maine. I walked into the production office and said "I'm here."

I then proceeded to tell the guy about all the classes I took in film school and the guy said, "Okay, can you go put up that tent with those guys?" I put up the tent, came back, he asked the other guys how I did, they said "well" and he said "Okay, you're hired. We don't pay."

I worked on the film for the next three months, pretty grueling, back-breaking work, doing everything from picking up the producer's dry cleaning to hauling equipment to directing traffic to assistant camera to body double and so on. I worked in every department. At one point, I worked 45 hours straight, not going home, not changing, not bathing, not really sleeping, not getting paid and I loved it!!! I was working in the movies.

I finished that job on a Saturday and two days later, started work on a big budget studio film, a wild study in contrasts. I had one job in the set building department that I did six days a week for three months, got pretty bored but made buckets of money.

So, after that, I never worked on another feature film set. I focused on writing screenplays and studying the ins and outs of the industry. I wrote low budget indie type stuff that everyone was doing in the early ‘90’s, stuff that I could produce myself if I could raise the $30-50,000 (which I could not) and I eventually made a short film that won an award from the American Film Institute. Pretty impressive, AFI, right? No, not really, it was a runner up award from a rinky dink contest BUT it was still the AFI, I can call myself an AFI award-winning filmmaker and that opens doors, attracts attention.

Through a contact at a record company, I got a couple of low-rent screenwriting jobs, adapting some non-fiction books into ideas for films that could feature soundtracks by the record company's artists.

I didn't get another job for 10 years and then it was after a couple of years of scoping out production companies and screenwriting classified ads online. I estimate that, since 2003, I have probably sent out 7000 e-mails to various people, most of whom never got back to me. Of those 7000 e-mails, maybe 2% ever responded back to me, of that 2%.....Well, you get the idea. I have had 10, give or take, paying screenwriting jobs in the past 3 years, one feature film was produced (though the director totally re-wrote my screenplay), I sold an original screenplay and a short film was just shot in NYC. Two other features (that I have not been paid for) are tentatively set to shoot later this year.

So, how to get into film? On that indie film in Maine, it was my bosses second film. Prior to getting into film, he had managed a restaurant in Manhattan and, I guess, if you can do that, you can do anything. This guy has gone on to be a huge producer in Hollywood, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for producing "There Will Be Blood."

A girl who I went to grade school with, who was in my class from kindergarten to sixth grade, is now Quentin Tarantino's executive producer and, while it's been 20 years since I have seen her, I was not aware of her having any film experience. A guy at the same school but two years ahead of me was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for writing "A History Of Violence" and he dropped out of film school mid-way through, moved to L.A. and worked his way into the business.

So, my suggestion to people who want to get into film, is to make films, either put your own stuff together -shorts or features -- make them good enough to attract attention. So that means that you need to know how to write a proper screenplay and how to do all of the nuts and bolts technical production stuff OR you can become a specialist. I am a screenwriter now but at one point, I could take apart a camera and put it back together with my eyes closed. Not anymore. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a gaffer.

Do it for love, because you love film, love working on films. You can work on making your own films or you can work on films for other people, just sniff around the local filmmaking scene if there is one where you live. You might (probably) work for free BUT you never know who the next big filmmaker will be, maybe you, maybe someone you meet.

Work hard, have fun.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Screenplay Is Only The Beginning

Yes, we all have to write a first screenplay to get it out of the way. It is a gradual learning process and I learn something new about screenwriting every time I sit down to write.

Oh, yes, you might think that you sell a screenplay and that's the end but, no, you can be kept in limbo doing re-write after re-write. In my case, the producer who bought it, bought an 80 page screenplay, by the time I made all of the requested changes, it had ballooned up to 104 page before gradually coming back down to 98, 96, 92, 86 and, finally 82 pages! They told me to make all of these changes and then we whittled it all down until it was nearly identical to the original screenplay this process had made it much stronger.

To recall "Pretty Woman" again, remember that the screenplay was originally a dark, gritty drama about life on the street? TRUE STORY! Julia Roberts says that from the time she signed on to do "3000", as it was originally called (referring to the number of dollars it takes to hire her for a week), to the time the film was made, the only thing that did not change was her character's name.

So, something to consider, things to ask yourself before proceeding:

1)What kind of movie is this? What genre does it fall into? Mixed-genre films can be a tough sell because the distributor doesn't know how to market them.

2)What other movies is yours like? This is really important. Nobody wants anything original, they want movies that are like other movies that were big hits. If you are going to be pitching a movie, you want to be able to say "This is 'The Hangover' meets 'Pretty Woman'", referring to two big hits because, the bottom line is the bottom line -- how much the film will cost compared to how much it is likely to make, based on other similar films.

This is just something to consider because writing a screenplay is only part of the battle, getting someone to produce it and then someone else to distribute it are massive mountains to climb and the further and further you try to climb, the less and less control you have.

I sold a screenplay in January, got hired to re-write it, turned in my final re-write in July and now I am done, out of the picture, technically removed from the project. The producer can --and probably will -- hire another writer to work on my screenplay.

I remember seeing the film "Georgia Rule" a few years ago and thinking that, somewhere down the line, it had probably once been a pretty good screenplay but through the development process it was altered, watered down and ultimately diminished

So, my general rule of thumb is that, while it is important to have a really good screenplay, it is more important to have a marketable screenplay.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Writing with my family, bashing "Memento", remembering Blake Snyder

In the past 3 years, four of my students have been finalists in the Set In Philadelphia Screenwriting Competition. Last year, one student was the winner of the Parisi Award for a screenplay by a writer under the age of 25. This year, another student won both the SIP grand prize and the Regional Award, another prize given to a screenplay that promotes the Philadelphia area. Normally, I am not big on screenwriting contests. They can be expensive to enter and, for the most part, I can think of few – if any – screenplays that were produced as a result of winning a screenplay contest. Philadelphia, however, offers one of the biggest paydays in the screenplay contest world – not to mention a trip to L.A. for meetings with some legitimate industry heavyweights -- and these factors were enough to convince my wife to convince me that, rather than coaching my students to glory, maybe I should be aiming for some of that glory myself.

Easier said than done. I sold my screenplay “Aftermath” in January, got hired to re-write it and worked until early July on a draft that pleased the producer. Along the way, I wrote two other screenplays start-to-finish. The bottom line is that I think I blew my wad creatively earlier this summer. I have shards of other screenplays floating around in various stages of development and I have not been able to make progress on any of them, things just aren’t clicking.

So, how am I supposed to write an SIP winning-screenplay?

With the help of my wife and my twelve-year-old daughter. I said, “Sure, I’ll write a screenplay if someone comes up with a story” and that is what is happening, we are brainstorming, developing a distinctly Philly story, something that could only happen here. While my wife and daughter are no slouches in the creative energy department, this process has been a great opportunity for them to see what David/Daddy does: teach screenwriting.

Speaking of screenwriting teachers, the opportunity to develop a screenplay with my family, has sent me running back to “Save The Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder. Sadly, Blake passed away suddenly on August 4th.
I didn’t know him personally but I read his books, we had a couple of e-mail exchanges in the past two years and I could tell that he was a really great guy, in addition to writing what will become, if it has not already become, one of the essential books on screenwriting. I know that I recommend it any aspiring screenwriter I meet. I wrote to Blake raving about how much I loved STC and he told me that I had made his day. Wow, I made his day?

In the book, he goes on and on about how much he disliked the film “Memento” – a film which I really disliked. No, lie, I sat there in the theater, 25 minutes into the film, looked at my watch and thought to myself, “Okay, great, he lost his memory, everything is happening backwards but is there going to be a story? Is there going to be a character I care about?” Ultimately, would “Memento” be as remarkable as fans of it feel that it is if it unfolded in chronological order?

How about all of those phone calls, where Guy Pearce sits around and explains the story to someone (we never find out who) on the other line? Huh? When a character has to verbally spell things out that otherwise would not be gleaned from the context of the narrative, it is called “exposition” and exposition is a no-no. Blake hated “Memento”, with good reason but the issue of exposition in it was one that he missed and was grateful to me for pointing out.

“Confessions Of A Shop-A-Holic” screenwriter Tracey Johnson knew Blake since nursery school and her recent blog posts have been fascinating personal and professional recollections of each other and friends and colleagues --- the account of Snyder and Johnson meeting with Howard Stern to work on a “Fartman” screenplay is a must read for aspiring screenwriters and die-hard Stern fans. I am a small fish in a big pond but I decided to join the countless others who posted comments on Tracey’s blog, relating my experience with Blake, our dislike of “Memento” etc. and, about an hour later, I got an e-mail from Tracey, saying, among other things, that my comment was the only one she had responded to, that she, too, hated “Memento” and that was missing Blake Snyder very much.

So, I still have shards of screenplays flying around and more are coming at me since I signed an agreement to be represented by a small agency but I am trying to focus on writing with my family (who are good writers to begin with), teaching them a little about writing for the screen and it’s been nice, a great way for me to revisit “Save The Cat” as well as nice guy and great screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I just turned in the "final" final draft of "Aftermath." Whether it is actually the final draft, the shooting script, I don't know but I am getting a check and, I guess, my job is over. "Aftermath" is now in the hands of the spirits ---well, actually, the producer.

The first draft was about 65 pages long, over the years it got up to 85 pages or so and it ultimately got up to 104 earlier this year before finally settling at a very respectable 82 pages.

I have been watching a lot of 70-75-80-85 minute long films recently ("Wendy & Lucy", "Bubble", Paranoid Park" and so on -- even the 65 minute "Dance Party USA") and I am aghast at the amount of filler masquerading as "story" --- long, long takes of grass blowing in the wind or someone staring into space, zzzzzzzzzzzz.

I am so happy that this 82 page version of "Aftermath" doesn't have a drop of filler --- let's hope that the director is simpatico.

Earlier this summer I wrote two 70 minute screenplays, "Used To Love Her" (yes, based on the Guns N' Roses song and a true story) and "Bait And Tackle" --- also lean, mean and filler-free. "Used To Love Her" is tentatively scheduled to start shooting on 8/1 in New Orleans --- the same day that a short film that I wrote, "Audition", is set to shoot in NYC.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Is Harder, Making A Good Movie Or A Bad Movie?

I tell my film students that it is as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good movie.

I remember watching a terrible movie on DVD a few years ago, then watching the "making of" special feature and seeing how much time, mental and physical effort went into the production of this awful film, how earnest and hardworking they were etc. ---- I guess the disconnect is at the point where someone or some people all missed the fact that the screenplay was bad and went forward with millions and millions of dollars to sail this doomed voyage.

On a film crew, everyone thinks that their job is the most important but, for me, as the screenwriter, I know that my job really is the most important because without me, nobody else has a job to do.

Of course plenty of films go into production without a screenplay. There was a film out a few years ago called "The Interpreter" directed by Sidney Pollack, starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman and I remember reading an article about it when it came out. Sean Penn says that he called Nicole Kidman and said that the screenplay wasn't even finished yet but that he though she had to be in the movie.

So, here is a movie with a big Oscar winning director, big Oscar winning movie stars and, for all intents and purposes, no screenplay -- in this case a screenplay that was apparently being written during production and thus, was, at best, a first draft --- and people wonder why the film bombed.

Of course, when I was working on "Pet Sematary" 20 years ago, I could actually see Stephen King sitting on the set re-writing the screenplay and it went on to be one of the highest grossing horror films of the 1980's.

For my part, though I can't remember the specifics, I do remember reading the screenplay and preferring the original ending to King's revision but who am I to second guess him?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Some blogger I have turned out to be.
At least I can play it off like I have been working on screenplays.... because it's true.

I went on vacation -- a week in Maine, no internet, highly recommended.

I brought 5 screenplays to read for friends, fun.

I also brought half a screenplay to finish writing, finished it, started another one and finished that one too, sweet.

So, I have turned in two screenplays this week, both micro-budget deals that could be shooting this summer and I am about to start on what I expect to be the final polish on "Aftermath."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too busy to blog?

Wow, some blogger I turned out to be!

Been busy BUT I just turned in the latest draft of my screenplay. It's getting close! I have gotten over 100 pages of notes on a 100 page screenplay but they have all been good notes and now the screenplay is a lean and mean 88 pages. Sweet.

Off on vacation tomorrow, bringing about 7 screenplays by friends, writers, directors, producers and former students to read. Fun. I also hope to do some work on a couple of new projects.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Writing for the producer

Wind me up a little and I can go on and on and on and, because film/screenwriting is really the only thing I know anything about, even when I go off on a tangent, it is usually relevant.

Writing is really my thing. I don't know much about producing but what I will say that might differ from a lot of writers is that I write for the producer as much as I write for the director or the actor.

What that means is that I write and teach my students to write in a very spare, conservative style that results in what I call very user-friendly screenplays.

My philosophy is that the screenplay is the instruction manual or blueprint for a film, and while it, of course, demands a high degree of artistry, the screenplay itself is not a work of art unto itself, it is the foundation of a film --- a jumping off place for directors, actors, cinematographers etc. and so, at the most basic level, it has to be a working document that serves everyone on the crew, not weighed down by verbosity, literary conventions and flowery prose.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Big Weekend

Sorry, been awhile.
This weekend, a student of mine won the Set In Philadelphia Screenwriting Competition and the Greater Philadelphia Regional Award (for a local writer), not a prestigious contest but one of the better paying ones out there and a nice honor all the same. I feel like such a proud coach, got soaked with Gatorade and everything. I had two students make it to the finals this year. Last year one of my guys won the Parisi Award for a Writer Under 25, which is handed out by "Nixon" screenwriter Steven Riviele. The year before that, another student came in third place.

So, I am busy. At this point, "Aftermath", the 98 page screenplay that I sold in January, has gotten over 60 pages of notes from the producer over the course of, now countless, re-writes. It's cool, her notes are great, the screenplay is better than it was when she first started pursuing it three years ago and it is only getting better.

In the meantime, I just got to work on a new screenplay that I was hired to write. A writer friend in L.A. asked me how I got the gig and it wasn't until I started to answer that I realized how wild the story is. I review films for IndieTalk.com, got a movie by this guy, trashed it, really tore it up, heard from him, started a nice back and forth via e-mail, hit it off and he asked me to write his next film. Maybe honesty is the best policy.

Back to work!

Friday, March 6, 2009

movie reviewer/screenwriter: odd combo, strange bedfellows

QUICK UPDATE: "Aftermath" progresses. I turned in a full re-write last week and am eagerly awaiting notes from the producer but the early word is pretty good. I suspect that I will need to do another pass on it, maybe just a polish but, one way or another, it is closer and closer to being finished.... for now.

That said....

Maybe it was bound to happen.

I have been reviewing films for years now and every now and then I hear from a filmmaker I have written about.

Around five years ago, I reviewed a film called "Monster Man" about a killer in a monster truck. I loved the film, wrote a glowing review and, before too long, the writer-director Michael Davis got in touch with me to let me know how much he enjoyed my review and that he felt that I was the only reviewer who really "got" what he was trying to do in the film. He went on to say that he felt my review would really boost interest and in the film. I hear that it did well in a European theatrical run.

Davis and I corresponded for awhile. He went on to write and direct "Shoot 'Em Up", the Clive Owen - Paul Giamatti....uh, shoot 'em up, a few years ago and I really "got" that one too.

Likewise, Benny Matthews, director of "Santeria" which I gave a good review to, got in touch with me and we are still in touch.

All of this is made just slightly more curious by the events of this week. I have just been hired to write a screenplay for a director whose film I did not like, did not give a good review to -- in fact, I was pretty hard on it. Nevertheless, the director and I formed a lengthy correspondence, cordial, respectful and eye-to-eye on almost everything.

I am really looking forward to writing his screenplay.

Now, if Michael Davis wants to get back in touch....

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Feng Sui: Be Careful What You Wish For

Okay, so I don't feel exactly like Lindsay Lohan in "Freaky Friday" or Eddie Murphy in "Flubber" --- or was that Robin Williams, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish one from another.

Nearly three years ago, April 2006, on the brink of sudden and unexpected under-employment, my wife took my still-born "career" by the horns and whipped up some serious chi inspiring, energy friendly home re-decorating. What was it that I really wanted? To be a screenwriter, I guess.

About a month after the Feng Sui express roared through the house, I got hired to write a screenplay. Granted, Feng Sui is not a passive thing, you do have to work for it/with it. I had been religiously scanning the online screenwriting classified ads for two or three years at that point, sending out, by my estimation 5000 - 6000 e-mails.

So, May 2006, I got a gig, barely any pay and the script had to be delivered two weeks later. Done!

Less than a month after that job, I got another and soon another, more and more and more.

So, at this point, Winter 2009, I have been hired to write and/or doctor somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 feature films ---- one of them, the May '06 screenplay, was produced and is hitting the festival circuit, minus my name after a dramatic and I fear, fatal, re-write by the director.

After three years of asking me to sell, I decided my original screenplay, "Aftermath", to a producer in L.A., made the deal in August more or less, got the first check in January and I am still working on the paid re-writes. I have had to put off a job working on a pilot for some guys with solid ties to the TV world. One of the guys who hired me two years ago wants me to do a re-write. Another guy who has hired me to write two screenplays for him, wants me to write a third even though I told him I was too busy, my brother-in-law/editor wants me to adapt a musical that he wrote the songs for and last, but certainly not least, the producer of the first film, the May '06 job, wants me to write something for him and might even let me direct it.

Now, that's some Feng Sui. Not that I am complaining, I'm just wondering how I am going to get through it all.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Hi, I review films for IndieTalk.com but I am also a screenwriter, a director and a screenwriting/film history teacher.In one of my recent reviews, I really bashed the filmmakers for having a terrible screenplay but I wrote that I didn't mean to single them out, that bad screenplays are a real issue in many of the films that I review for this site.

I know that the technology at our hands is amazing, cool etc, that the possibilities are virtually endless these days. There are so many great cameras out there now --I have seen the RED up close and it is all that it is cracked up to be --- and there are plenty of really decent, moderately priced cameras out there that do perfectly acceptable work. High quality post-production seems to be at everyone's fingertips.

So, what is the problem? Too many of "us" in the the indie world seem to be too focused on the technology, so much so that the foundation of a film is being ignored. I implore you, the indie film community, to put your camera down, stop tapping your keyboard and invest in what I consider essential filmmaking equipment: a good book on screenwriting.

For $20 or less, you can buy a book that will open your eyes to the magic of plotting out a story, usually in accordance with three-act structure. I know that a lot of technical, creative people are intimidated by screenwriting, that they find it mysterious and daunting to have to learn "the formula" and the formatting but it really helps.

Even if you just learn the basics, it can make your films and your approach to filmmaking so much better and I will not have to sit through films where the inciting incident comes 45 minutes into the story. Learn the basic concepts of structure, conflicts, what makes a strong main character etc. and it might be revolutionary to you.

The classic book on the subject is "Screenplay" by Syd Field but even I find it a little dry. Blake Snyder's incredibly amusing and readable "Save The Cat" will not teach you how to format a screenplay but it is an amazing study in how to conceive of a film ---- in about 200 pages. Even "The Complete Idiot's Guide To Screenwriting" is pretty good.

So, I hate to sound cranky but I am seeing a lot of low-budget indie films made by people who know how to shoot well, light well, edit well, do special effects well but cannot tell an interesting, compelling story and that should not be the case. It is really not that hard to come up with a story for a film. Yes, it is hard to come up with an original, intelligent story for a film but so many of you are just aiming to make basic, ordinary films anyway and there is nothing wrong with that IF the story is strong, the structure is sound and the characters are compelling.

So, by all means, while you are waiting for your RED Epic model to come arrive, pick up a good book on screenwriting, learn the basics and apply them to your next film, please.

Monday, January 12, 2009

This Is For Real

Wow, after months of discussions and negotiations following a three year campaign by a producer to get me to sell my screenplay, I got the first checks today --- one for the option and another for the first half of a paid re-write.

Now, I have been getting paid to write screenplays for over ten years -- okay, I had one job in 1996 and didn't get another until 2006 but, since then, I have been paid to write or doctor around 15 feature film screenplays.

No bones about it, I am small-time, minor-league -- for now anyway -- getting and taking whatever anyone could offer me and sometimes not getting anything at all, either taking the odd deferred gig because I believed in the project or simply getting screwed by the producer who hired me.

Of course, I have long had dreams of selling an original screenplay to Hollywood -- I have been pursuing this kind of thing for over 20 years. Yes, I hoped for buckets of money from this deal and wound up getting a shot glass but, hey, there are so many people out there who have this dream of becoming a screenwriting and it is actually sort of happening for me.

Getting the checks today really made it feel real. To that end, reality has sunk in. I got the checks, now I have to do the work. I have a re-write due by the end of month.

I can't say I didn't know what I was getting myself into and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Distribution: First In An Endless Series Of Notes

There are so many different approaches to distribution out there now that the conventional theatrical or home video release are only a couple of the options.

A former screenwriting student of mine, and some of his fellow Drexel film school grads, formed the filmmaking collective Sweat Robot and just released their first film, "Happy Birthday Harris Malden" straight to iTunes and Amazon for download after making some festival appearances to get the word out. It seems to be working out okay -- plus it's a really good film.

There are something like 4000 indie films made in the U.S, each year, of which 100-200 might get distributed and, even then, what distribution means is relative because some companies will promote the hell out of a film, full page ads in the trades and others just manage to do what they can.

From our perspective, the actors and the filmmakers, we should just keep trying to make the best films possible and hope that it matches the needs of a distributor who can, in return do it justice.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Structure, My Premiere and My Option

The film that I was hired to write in 2006 premiered at The Beverly Hills Hi-Def Film Festival on Saturday. I haven't heard any reactions to it, seen any reviews etc. Hmmmm.

I have heard that it might screen at TriBeCa in the spring.

I still haven't seen it.

A former student, a fine, fine writer, e-mailed me over the weekend and asked:
"Can't I just turn in a series of biting, poignant gut-punchingly visceral moments that made you want to laugh or cry?"

I don't think so.

Conveniently, I can speak on this subject having just seen "Burn After Reading" last night, a collection of great characters and some cool scenes that, strung together, add up to nothing.

What a waste of a movie! A film needs a narrative spine, it has to have an overall unity to make all the pieces mean something when slapped together.

A great example, one of the major artistic experiences of my life:

In 1980 I went to see Bill Cosby at the York State Fair. He came out and told one funny story, went off on a related tangent, came back to the story, went off on a related tangent, came back to the story and repeated the process for an hour.

It was one of the most brilliant, unified, cohesive pieces of stagecraft I have ever seen, so carefully plotted and conceived that I was truly left in awe.

The act had a narrative spine and everything else grew out of it organically, nothing was random and it all served to support the whole piece, the overall idea. A film should be about something and all the scenes should serve to make your overall point.

My formula:
Screenplay = Idea + Story + Plot
Idea - The overall themes and thoughts that inform the film.
Story - Everything that happens either onscreen or off even before the movie starts.
Plot - Everything that happens onscreen.

A simplified example:

Spielberg says, "I know, I have an Idea that I would like to express - 'War is bad'"

So there is this Story about the four Ryan brothers who go off to fight in World War II. Three of them are killed and the Army decides to find the other one and bring him back alive to avoid a public relations nightmare.

The Plot then follows Tom Hanks and a band of stereotypical caricatures as they hunt for Private Ryan, many of them getting killed along the way and leading the audience to realize how Bad War Is and how brutal WWII was. The three dead Ryan brothers are part of the story but not part of the plot because, for the most part, their deaths occur offscreen before the start of the movie.

You can be structurally sound and accessible without falling into cliche. I was really disappointed with "Slumdog Millionaire" because in the end, it really wound up relying on a seriously old school melodramatic cliche among other things.

My roots are in theater, offbeat, avant garde or absurdist theater. I have been influenced by more playwrights (Pinter, Albee, Stoppard, Ionesco) and stand-up comedians (Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin) than I have been by screenwriters.

I have had to work to fight against my resistance to conventional three-act structure. When I read Syd Field's classic "Screenplay" back in the 80's I couldn't get through it, I was so disgusted by the idea that the art of cinema could be boiled down to a simple formula, X, Y and Z by page 10, An Act Break on or around page 30, Act 2A, mid-point, Act 2B, another Act Break on page 60 or 90 depending on how long the film is etc.

So my early screenplays were, in fact "a series of biting, poignant, gut-punchingly visceral moments that make you want to laugh or cry" as an almost defiant stance against the industry standard. There are filmmakers who can get away with doing this but, for the most part, I am not one of them or, I should say, I was not one of them.

As a screenwriting teacher and a writer-for-hire I have found that I have to utilize three-act structure and I have come to recognize it as a beautiful thing, a convention to work within and to push the boundaries of and I can appreciate when a film hits its marks like a precision instrument as much as I can appreciate the rare film that defies convention and still succeeds.

The film that opened this past weekend, adhered to three act-structure for the most part when I wrote it. The director's re-write did not. "Aftermath" the screenplay that I am selling, does not adhere to three-act structure in the conventional sense. A colleague of mine, screenwriter Joe Stinson, who wrote four screenplays for Clint Eastwood (including the line, yes, "Go ahead, make my day") read "Aftermath" and told me You managed to break all of the rules of screenwriting and still come up with a piece that works." Yay for me.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Let's Get It Started...

Great, you’re saying, just what the world needs now; another blog about film by some guy who thinks he knows it all, right?

Wrong. I don’t think I know it all, I feel like I barely know anything and I like it like that. If I knew it all, where would the fun be? For me, part of the magic of the movies is the ability to always see things from a new perspective and, if not that, always hoping that the next film I see will become a favorite.

So, it’s a new year, this is a new blog and it is my intention for one to inform the other. I have been a movie guy since I was a kid and, over the years, there have been some memorable years, 1988, for example, when I first set foot on a feature film set as a crew member. More, much more, on that crucially important year as blog goes on.

2009 should, at last, be another pretty big year for film and for me.

On Saturday, January 3rd, 2009, the first film that I was hired to write will premiere at a film festival in Southern California. Yes, I am being vague. I am not saying which film festival it is or what the name of the film is. If you know me at all, you probably have that information. I will say that I was hired to write the screenplay in 2006, wrote three drafts of it, thought it was pretty good and when I heard that it was finally going into production in early 2007, I found out that the director had dramatically re-written my screenplay. I have read his version of the screenplay. I have not yet seen the final product.

By pure coincidence, within the next day or two, I will sign and send in the option agreement for the presumed sale and production of my original screenplay “Aftermath.”
The odyssey of “Aftermath” has been nearly as epic as the famous odyssey of Greek mythology. I wrote the screenplay in 2006, tried to produce it myself on several occasions, eventually relinquished control of it, let the project get adopted by a hot Philly production company, wound up amicably splitting with them over creative issues and finally gave into the L.A. producer who had been asking me to sell it all along --- much more on this situation in a future entries.

So this blog will focus on movies in general, screenwriting in particular and my experiences with both as a fan, a teacher, a reviewer (find my stuff at IndieTalk.com) and, for lack of a better term, a filmmaking professional. Besides weather, I feel like film is something everyone can talk about and my hope for this blog ---other than being a venue for my rants and musings – is that I might say something that strikes readers as interesting, amusing, perceptive or informative.

2009 looks like it could be a pretty wild year for me, beginning with a film screening at a fest and ending up (in September) with the production of another screenplay.

Earlier today - January 1rst! - I heard back from an actress with long list of credits ("Party Of Five" etc) and her boyfriend, who starred in one of the biggest hits of the '80's, who would like to read my screenplay "Payday", a steamy "Body Heat" meets "Wild Things" neo-noir that I was hired to adapt.

Who knows what else might happen along the way?