Screenwriting 101

Well I always say that you need to show and not tell. Rob sent me a link to the following video and it is a brilliant exercise in show don't tell. What is wrong with 'The Phantom Menace'?

It's officially a part of my new curriculum.

Linked from Gizmodo...

Wow. Verbatim cliche writing. Some might say lazy writing (although it would be cool if we could enhance crappy video).


How Original!

According to Wikipedia here are the twenty top grossing films of the decade...

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
3. The Dark Knight
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
9. Shrek 2
10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
11. Spider-Man 3
12. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
13. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
14. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
15. Finding Nemo
16. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
17. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
18. Spider-Man
19. Shrek the Third
20. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban noticed that of these films only 'Finding Nemo' was based on an original screenplay. All others were based on existing material - adaptations, toys or sequels/prequels. Now this isn't new - 'Gone with the Wind' was based on a book as was 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'The Godfather'. 'Casablanca' was based on the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's". 'Rear Window' was based on the short story "It Had to Be Murder". Adaptation is not a new phenonenon. There is a lot to like in that top twenty list. Yes, they are popcorn movies that appeal to the masses - that's the idea. That is why they are the 'top grossing' and not the 'best films of the decade list'.

The only problem with this list is that it solidifies the Hollywood bean counter's idea that these are the only films to make. It creates homogeneous film industry that spews out the same films over and over.

I think the solution to the problem is to let them keep doing it. Why? Because they are going to exhaust their catalogue of sequels and book rights. The well will run dry and they will have to start to look for new material. I think we are coming to a time that reflects the end of the 1960's where the studios lost touch with the audience and faltered. They fell apart and the pieces were picked up in one of the most daring and original decades of film.

Independent film has waned over the last few years and one look at Apple's Quicktime Trailers site shows an industry in confusion and flux. The future is uncertain, that is for certain. People love movies, that is also for certain. It's also a historical fact that Hollywood has been doing adaptations and sequels for a long long time. Andy Hardy anyone? Sixteen movies (granted before televison). Sergio Leone's 'Dollar Trilogy' was an unofficial remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

It is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a bad thing. Adaptation has given us some great films.

As for original films... What do consider the greatest?

Annie Hall.
Citizen Kane.
The Conversation.
The Apartment.
Ace in the Hole.
North by Northwest.
On the Waterfront.
Taxi Driver.
Sunset Boulevard.
Through a Glass Darkly.
La Dolce Vita.
2001 A Space Odyssey.
Do the Right Thing.
The Three Colors - Blue.

(and so many more...)


Martin Landau

Rob sent me this terrific interview with Martin Landau...

I really liked the part of the interview when he was asked about how he's been directed by such diverse and talented directors. He said "I haven't been directed, literally, in 30 years by anybody. I haven't been given a direction. I come in with stuff and I figure if they don't like it they'll tell me. They don't tell me. I hit my marks, I say the words, and I go home."

The great direction is in the casting. I've often said that good directing is letting good people do their jobs. We collaborate with people that share our vision.

A few years ago I did an animated show that revolved around music. I gave virtually no direction to the composer, the writer or the designer/animation director. They knew what they were doing and they were great at what they did - much better than I was at their job. To interfere and 'direct' them didn't serve the show. They 'got it' and I was constantly amused and surprised by what they came up with. They got the idea and they ran with it. The show benefited by this collaboration. I didn't need to make it 'mine'...

If it starts going off the rails then the director needs to put it back on. They are, as one great filmmaker put it, the Circus Master...

Hire and cast great people. They will make the film better. Leave your ego at the door. It's all about the film.

Martin Landau!

Crimes and Misdemeanors. Ed Wood. North by Northwest. Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

If you haven't yet, see them all. And then go for some more.


The Wire

As anyone might figure out reading this blog, I like to go at my own pace and rarely comment on anything new or trendy. It's not conscious, I just tend to get to things when I get to them.

I ordered the Wire for Sylvia's birthday this year. I got her the box set with all five seasons. We put the first one in and then proceeded to wolf them down at record pace finishing six or more years of work in a short month. I think my birthday might be covered as well...

Wow. On every level. Wow.

For those who don't know it, 'The Wire' is about the relationship of the Baltimore Police force and it's effort to control the drug trade in the city. It's also about the 'criminals' and their struggles, good and bad. What is great about the series is that it's really about Baltimore and the 'game' that is played on every level. 'The game' is the corruption from the corner gangs to the city politics and every season opens a new level of corruption. Season 1 is cops and robbers - police and drug dealers. Season 2 goes to the docks and the politics of the unions and the desperation and corruption of workers. Season three delves into the politics of statistics and the police force. Season 4 takes you to the schools and shows the failure of the educational system. Season 5 brings in the media and it's need for 'a good story'. This is just the surface - there's a lot more to it.

On top of the great writing and the thematic depth, I was totally impressed with the look and style of the show. It was shot with the care and detail of feature films. Employing such directors as Agnieszka Holland, the show is carefully crafted and steers from the trappings of shaky cameras and quick editing. The soundtrack rarely included music other than what is playing in the actual scene. It's sparse and realistic and totally engaging.

I can't praise the show enough. It's been described as the closest thing to a novel as we've seen on television. I think that is a good description. It rates up there with Kieslowki's 'Decalog' as one of the great achievements of television. It's a stunning work and I absolutely recommend it.


Special Effects

We had a spectacular electrical storm last night.

Take that Industrial Light and Magic.


The Eel Story!

My good friend Rob Mills has posted his now famous Eel pie story on his blog. The story involves a disemboweled eel that seemingly comes back from the dead to exact revenge... It's a great read and a hilarious story.

Thanks Rob!


Michael Bay

Rob Mills has been egging me on to share my thoughts about Michael Bay. I got this email this morning:

" and I'm shocked - shocked! - you have yet to vomit your rage for this man upon your blog :)"

Lately I've come to the conclusion that if I was a 12 year old boy I would love Michael Bay and his 'blow the shit out of everything' style. It's visceral and kinetic. It is also void of good film grammar and basic visual geography. 'Shoot for the edit' is his mantra and you can't help but wonder if that is because he doesn't have a clear idea of what he wants. Shoot 12 cameras and a million feet of film and cut it to 20,000 feet. Then again, Coppola shot a ton of film for the Flight of the Valkyries sequence in 'Apocalypse Now'. Maybe the films are exactly what he intends them to be.

I did find this quote on his blog which put his filmmaking approach into a proper perspective:

What kind of story were you trying to tell in the first “Transformers” film?

Literally, I wanted to see if this movie could even work. Early on we did this Scorponok sequence, to make it more real and vicious and dangerous, and to make these things more lethal. All my friends, when I’m doing movies, my buddies are like, “Are you kidding me? You’re doing that movie? What is that?” Everyone was saying that and I felt like such a jerk. I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is so risky.” I kept thinking: I can make this real. I can make you believe that they are actually here. I remember showing people a few images, we finally rendered them, with the Scorponok’s images and people instantly go, “I get it now.”

What was the question again? Kind of story??

I do like his Verizon commercial.

Michael Jackson

I have to admit that I've never been much of a fan of Michael Jackson. It's no offense to his talent but more about my taste in music.

For my little tribute I'll give you 'Fan Letter to Michael Jackson' by the brilliant but now defunct Rheostatics.

RIP Rheos and Michael...

It feels good to be alive.


For all you George Lucas Fans

Here is an hour long interview with Lucas after he finished his poorly received first film THX-1138. Lucas complains heavily about the studios inability to sell films, a problem that many people still agree with today.

I was just thinking about 'The English Patient' the other day. It was a film that I didn't initially go and see as the ads painted the film as a schmaltzy love story. It wasn't until I saw a new set of trailers that presented the film as much more complex that I went and saw it. Miramax was excellent at promoting their films and creating a buzz around their new releases. On the radio today a film critic was lamenting GI Joe, Transformers 2 and the upcoming releases of Fame and Footloose. Not that Hollywood has been terribly original from the beginning. One must remember that 'The Godfather' was based on a bestselling novel as was 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Gone with the Wind'. John Huston's 'The Maltese Falcon' was the second film based on the book - the first was in 1931. The business people like betting on the sure thing.

Thanks for the link Rob.


More Toobs

Rob's finished the new installment of 'In teh Toobs' and I can see why he fell behind schedule. Ambitious would be a fitting description.

Riley Hepburn and Cary Grant! Together at last.

Keep them coming Mr. Mills!

The Sweet Smell of Success

Last year my friend Annie put me on to Alexander Mackendrick's must-own book 'On Filmmaking'. It's as good a book as you're likely to find regarding the art and craft of making movies.

I had known of Mackendrick through his Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness - 'The Man in the White Suit' and 'The Lady Killers'. The one film I didn't see or even know about was 'The Sweet Smell of Success'. When Ealing went under, Mackendrick traveled across the Atlantic looking for work in America. He had been working with Burt Lancaster's production company on a different project when they asked him to direct 'Sweet Smell' from a script by Ernest Lehman based on the writers own horrible experiences as a New York press agent. Lehman eventually quit due to stress and Clifford Odets picked up where he left off, polishing the story and writing great bits of dialogue.

The film is about a young and upcoming press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who is in the service of the most infamous and powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). The plot is simple, Hunsecker wants Falco to break up a relationship between Hunsecker's little sister and her jazz musician boyfriend. Hunsecker is a huge ego with no scruples and he controls everything around him and his sister is no exception. Falco is equally without morals and will stop at nothing to get a seat at the table.

The film features a blaring jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and unforgettable location cinematography by James Wong Howe. The vibrant nineteen fifties New York jumps off the screen at you. Odets addition to dialogue is equal to the task with great lines like 'the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river' and 'I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." The performances are dead on and Mackendrick's direction is confident and fresh.

The film belongs with Orson Welles 'Touch of Evil' as a remnant of the 1940's film noir save for the missing femme fatale (at one point Lancaster wanted Welles for the role of Hunsecker). Both films feature protagonists that are morally corrupt. It's no surprise that 'Sweet Smell' wasn't a box office hit as Sidney Falco is a loser trying to get ahead by any means and Hunsecker is a snake with no regard at all for his fellow man. To call it cynical is an understatement. In a lot of ways Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) seems to be a descendant of J.J. Hunsecker. They are certainly cut from the same cloth.

I love moments like these when you discover a gem that was sitting there all along waiting for a few hours of attention. I also love films that stand out as so original and daring despite the fact that they caused nothing but pain for the men who made them. Mackendrick didn't fare well after the film and eventually took the position of Dean of film at California Institute of the Arts.

Ernest Lehman who left the film due to stress went on to a spectacular career with such classics as 'North by Northwest', 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound of Music'. Lancaster did well as an actor but his role as producer went down with the film as he and his associates abandoned their production company.

I'll leave you with a few more quotes to whet your appetite...

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried. "

"Don't remove the gangplank, Sidney - you may wanna get back onboard."

A corny trailer to be sure... And yes, that is Marilyn Monroe being pimped out by Falco.


In Teh Toobs

My good friend Rob Mills has launched a new internet series called 'In Teh Toobs'. Rob has been a familiar voice on this blog and I have learned much from him over the years. One of my first jobs in the film industry was working for Rob on an ambitious, independently-minded project called 'Land O' Hands'.

Rob is a television maverick in his own right. He came out of the trenches of 'Fraggle Rock' and feature films such as 'Labyrinth' and 'The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (can you believe the Turtles are back!?). He then started his own ventures with 'The Big Comfy Couch' 'Rufus the Dog' and 'Amigo and Me' (rumour has it that he used to interview people in his bath robe to work in his garage). His love of technology and his rebellious idealism makes for a perfect combination in his self-produced, directed, edited and performed 'In Teh Toobs'.

Anyone who makes films can attest to the difficulty of trying to do it all yourself. Rob loves to laugh, create, dream and procrastinate (weekly webisodes?). I look forward to the coming episodes of 'In Teh Toobs' and would love to share a link to the first episode (there is a prologue as well).

You can see him on 'In Teh Toobs'.


I've finished another year of teaching film writing. Overall it has been a successful year with many talented and enthusiastic students. As a writing teacher I want to instill my students with a sense of drama and purpose. I want them to create memorable characters and challenge those characters to get what they want.

I am not involved in the filming and post stages of the students work but I think technique and execution is something that needs emphasis. Yes, a good script should make a good film but there is something to be said for a great execution that makes a film 'feel' like a film. I've spent many hours on the internet watching films and I've noticed a common problem beyond bad story telling. Technique.

With all the new technologies there is a common thread of discussion that argue about the technical specs and don't consider the technique. Discussions that talk about frame rates (24p vs 30p), jello effects, sensors and pixels. My experience has been that technique will overcome all of it.

You don't need to look much further than Danny Boyle's film "28 Days Later" to see that traditional filmmaking techniques are more important. It feels like a film. Not because it was shot at 25 frames per second but because the visual technique is deliberate and thought out.

My screenings confirmed this. Good technique. Deliberate and well thought out visuals rise far above the technology you capture the images on.



I came across some fun trivia:

Actors who have been nominated for Best Director, Writing and Acting over their lifetime (not all at once)...

The answer is posted in the comments.



Our lives are constantly confused by the media and its love of drama and exploitation. WMD's in Iraq, Swine Flu 'pandemic'. I don't know what to believe so I will follow Jim Henshaw...


Francis Coppola's new film...

As you might know I'm a big Coppola fan. I am eagerly awaiting a trailer for his new film 'Tetro'. He has teamed up with Walter Murch once again and it's his first original sceenplay since 'The Conversation'.

The prolific blogger Mark Mayerson sent a link to an article on filmmakers in their 'magic hour'. It's great to see these great artists come back with such fresh material.

Part of my response to Mark:

Interesting to reflect on. I caught Billy Wilder's 'The Front Page' a few months ago and thought how out of place it seemed in 1974. It definitely felt like a throwback to a different time, out of step with the films of its day. I also watched 'A Passage to India' the other day and it too felt like it was of another time. I enjoyed the film more than 'The Front Page' but it does have a feeling of time warp in its style and approach especially when put up against contemporary films like 'Reds' and 'The Last Emperor".

Look at Welles reinventing himself with the unfinished 'Other Side of the Wind' and 'F for Fake' (which seemed to be about twenty years ahead of its time). Kurosawa is an interesting filmmaker as well. His films didn't veer in any modern direction (aside from Dreams) but seems to have been timeless all along.

Robert Altman took his leave with a wonderful picture, 'A Prairie Home Companion". I guess it's fitting that Altman left us with a picture about an old time radio show going extinct. Ironic.


For all you film nerds: apparently this video was shot with the new Canon 5d Mark II with a Panavision adapter and Panavision lenses. Hit the HD button to get a sharper version.


I wonder if Watson can do my taxes...

The Web...

"Ah Spring!
The frozen shell hath given way to life.
The water runs through the veins of the sleeping world
rising out of the crystal fog to breath again.
The sun warms the mind and frees the heart from a long deep dream."

I wonder if the Midge Fly that swarms around my house asks "what is the meaning of life"? Or "why am I here"? Does it think that "every thing happens for a reason"? I imagine it would be crushed to know that it is here to provide dinner for the waking spiders and nourish the suspended life, to toil and to reproduce so that other lives can thrive. I'm sounding like a capitalist...

Murder and mayhem outside my window.



Orson Welles' film of Shakespeare's 'Othello' is one of my favourite of Welles films. He made three films based on Shakespeare's work, 'Othello', 'MacBeth' and 'Chimes at Midnight'. The latter is a film invented by Welles based on the grand character of Falstaff (a combination of Henry IV Part One and Two and the Merry Wives of Windsor). In all three films Welles successfully transforms the stage plays to cinema with 'Othello' and 'Chimes' being the greatest. Both films suffer terribly from poor sound but this becomes secondary to the incredible cinematography, editing, locations and visual design.

I've always heard about a little film called 'Filming Othello' but could never find it. As one would expect, it has made it's way to youtube.

Rob Mills mentioned 'Chimes at Midnight' the other day and posted the link:

It's a shame that these films get caught up in rights disputes. It would be great to be able to access them outside of these poor internet copies.

Where is Chance the Gardener when you need him...

Such wisdom. Now, what's on TV?


Blu-ray... the '80's...

I've converted to Blu-ray. Not as a religion mind you, but as the format of choice. While DVD's look wonderful on my television, Blu-ray looks quite beautiful and sublime. Like others of my ilk, I am determined to add new discs to my collection and not replace the old ones... wishful thinking.

A few thoughts off the top...

Blade Runner - looks spectacular. The downside... the clarity allows the viewer to 'spot the matte painting'. Yes, the wizard emerges from the curtain occasionally to show itself. Still. Spectacular.

The Shining - that lens is really something else. Thanks to Rob for putting me onto the 'making of'. Intimate and fascinating. I loved the footage of the composer, Wendy Carlos (she invented an instrument for the film!).

The Third Man - The Third Man!

Body Heat - As my friend Ike said - What a debut!

Two films that I hadn't seen and have always wanted to see, 'The Last Emperor' and 'Reds'. I've always wanted to see them but refused to see them on VHS or television as I'm such a big fan of Vittorio Storaro. Storaro deserves blu-ray in the least, projection at the most. I've often criticized the '80's cinema as being commercial and benign yet it's easy to miss some great films being made under the radar. Both of these films have an epic sweep yet both of these films are small and intimate. It isn't something that you would attribute to the '80's at all. The 'masters' were all having a hard time finding financing for personal films as Hollywood made money hand over fist on commercial enterprises. I've wanted to write more on this topic but to be honest haven't quite got my head around it. I watched Coppola's 'Rumble Fish' the other night and was enthralled. It's so daring and original and was received so poorly. The decade seemed to be a cleansing of the 70's director-driven films but often feels like a river of gold where you have to shake the pan to find the nuggets.

Not that I would deride some of the terrific commercial films of the decade. I do love many of them. It just seems like we need to keep a healthy mixture. It is an issue today as the big companies are leaving their Miramax killing divisions behind and focusing again on huge commercial films. 3D, they say, will save the world! Again. The 1950's had the same idea with the advent of television. Spectacle! That's what they want.

There have been plenty of great films made in this decade and we can only hope that the accountants don't give it all away. I do love my blu-ray but I would like to keep watching films that are worthy of the awe.