Monday, January 26, 2009


Hi, I review films for 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 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?