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.