Friday, January 30, 2009

Movie Night Review: "Eagle Eye"

I read the script for "Eagle Eye" a couple months ago and was surprisingly engaged by it... so much so that I had to see the movie. I'm glad I did because it's a window into the development process of any project. In some ways development came up with ways to solve the problems of the script and in other ways (more ways I think) they made it more confusing, leaving "Eagle Eye" a bit of a mess.

Let me say first of all that there are a couple of really cool action sequences in "Eagle Eye". There's Shia Lebeouf dangling from a suspended car in a wrecking yard, and then there's a great, nimble cat and mouse chase behind the scenes of an airport's luggage conveyor belt. Those two sequences deliver on genre well, and you can see why a director would be drawn to the material, but in many other aspects "Eagle Eye" is plain colorless.

At the center of "Eagle Eye" is Jerry Shaw, a copy boy at a copy shop who's never amounted to much but who, when his twin brother dies mysteriously, gets a call from a "voice" who forces him to carry out dangerous, criminal acts under the threat of death. Joining him on the insane ride is Rachel, the mother of a music student en route to Washington, who the "voice" has also singled out to be part of some larger plan.

Both Jerry and Rachel have no idea why they've been chosen and what they're being called on to do but the voice can track their every move, using technology to force them to bend to her will. It's a terrific expressionistic thriller concept. Problem is it has no second act. (One of the things that got annoying for me was that there were often no consequences to disobeying the "voice." She'd just sigh and say something along the lines of, guess I got to do this myself.)

Making things even tougher, the characters are all stock and their motivations aren't credible. Take Jerry. He's got no close family, friends, nothing really to live for and yet the "voice" is able to get him to go along with her plan. Like hubby said, as soon as he entered the apartment and he saw the ammonium nitrate sitting on his table, he would have been calling the cops. Seems strange that Jerry goes along. It's a leap of faith that is hard to buy.

In the script, there was the seed of an interesting reason that's been excised from the movie, which leaves Jerry's character all the more vague. And in cutting large parts of the subplot, the FBI folk seem like caricatures. Poor Anthony Mackie has nothing to do in this movie besides wear camouflage and rip out hard drives from the source of "the voice": the agency's massive surveillance A.I. known as ARIA.

Development did come up with a few better ideas in terms of how to execute clunky things in the script...a character's S.O.S. winking with his eyes becomes the rapid shutting on and off of a cell phone screen which fits in well with the movie's theme, and a saggy middle hotel scene where the action just stops to inject some romance and necessary exposition gets transposed to a Circuit City store with its giant projector screens. On the whole though, I'm not impressed by D.J. Caruso's depiction of an oppressive technology-saturated world. In this regard, I think he failed the script.

Couple this with some questionable casting (Michelle Monaghan is pretty vacant as Rachel and I love Rosario Dawson but had a hard time buying her as the tough-as-nails government appointee) and I'm convinced this movie could have been better executed. Still, as is, there are worst things to watch while munching on a bowl of popcorn.

"Eagle Eye" gets two and a half Oscars out of five.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The F-Word

Can a production company of two people really have a "slate?"

Even at the festival when I told people about the documentary, I know they thought...but then is she serious about getting the other movie produced.

I go giddy sometimes thinking about the amount of things I want to do and that's not with the little romantic comedy I want to get done by the middle of next year. Or the new kids project we want to develop for the UK market.

Is "focus", systematically detailing the tasks to lead you to your goals, really enough to pull you through, or does "prioritization paralysis" just sink in?

Comic by ravenyoung

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nothing's Too Precious to Lose

I heard back from the ex-boss with feedback on the "problem child" screenplay.

He's a writer as well as a producer and whereas most people giving notes attack specifics in the given plot or characterization, he came at it from a premise angle. When I first wrote this script I was very attached to the idea of putting on screen a character and a field of work that's not often seen (an immigration officer) but the more I work it, the more I realize why it's not on screen. It's not very sexy and it doesn't work that well with the other elements I've got.

So he came up with an idea that opens up the screenplay a whole lot more, makes it more comedic and probably fixes some tone and stakes issues the piece has. It's big picture stuff that I feel story consultants and even writer friends might be wary to touch because they figure they've got to work within the parameters of the story you've sent them. In fact, I've been in situations where I've had big premise-changing thoughts about other people's scripts but bit my tongue because you figure, oh but that's an entirely different story.

But the question should it a better story? For me, nothing's precious and I find throwing out things that work and that I love, liberating. What I learned crafting a specific scene or sequence doesn't change just because I have to jettison it.

All this is a lesson too that you've got to get the story of the script working before you prune and polish. I'm glad I showed it to Mr. Ex-Boss but now I kind of wish I'd plucked up the courage and showed it to him earlier.

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Praise of Richard Jenkins & Other Thoughts on the Oscar '09 Noms

When I heard Richard Jenkins had been nominated for Best Actor for "The Visitor" I screamed so hard I scared hubby. I was on my way to story time at this cool coffee shop with the Chicklet and was listening to the radio where some guy was bemoaning the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio was "snubbed" for Revolutionary Road. (At least someone's fired up about that movie.) Then he read the Best Actor nominees and that's when I had that moment of unbridled glee.

The "Visitor" was released way back in the Spring of 2008. The role for Jenkins wasn't showy, apart from one scene at a detention center where his frustration boils over. And yet his ability to create a real character on scene was superlative. Of course he'll just sit there Oscar night and watch Mickey Rourke walk up to the podium, but I sure am glad they found a "fifth slot" for the "TV actor" from Six Feet Under. And it's a wonderful way to reward a brilliant, small gem of a movie.

I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed by the rest of the nominations. In adapted screenplay, all I've seen is "Slumdog Millionaire"...everything else seems to require so much of me. I just can't get fired up about seeing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" no matter how many nominations it nets. When I watch it I feel that it'll be out of a sense of duty.

In originals, I'm thrilled by the recognition for "In Bruges" and "Wall-E" and will probably eventually see everything in this category. I'm looking forward to seeing "Happy Go Lucky" but it's interesting that Mike Leigh gets nominated for a screenwriting award when his process is improvisational.

Finally, it's a trip to see Robert Downey nominated for "Tropic Thunder" given the comedy poked at the Oscars in the movie. It's great to see the academy break convention and honor a terrific comedic performance...although, "Tropic Thunder" for me is a triumph of an acting ensemble and I feel it's weird when one guy gets singled out. (I really did agree with Colin Farrell when he won the Golden Globe and said half the award was co-star Brendon Gleeson's.)

At any rate, it'll be interesting to see whether the Oscars can halt its ratings decline but early signs aren't good. No blockbusters. No big duels between best pics. No controversial host, just hunky if slightly dull, Hugh Jackman coming off a flop. Maybe they can recover next year by letting the controversial Aussie host it. I know I'd tune in.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Screenwriting Book Review: "Writing A Great Movie"

A while back, I promised to share the occasional screenwriting book review. When I was starting out, I'd view these books with skepticism but now I find that a good, well thought out guide can introduce a new tool, sharpen your skills or allow you to better analyze a script's problems's just a matter of separating the dross from the gold. Yes, Third World Girl's age of cynicism with regard to books on screenwriting is dead. It died right around the time I discovered Jeff Kitchen's “Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting.”

“Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting” targets the experienced, adventurous writer willing to go outside the usual starter-kit when it comes to crafting the salable screenplay.

Kitchen brings forth a mishmash of approaches that defy easy categorization but are exceptional at refreshing a stalled script. Using six hit movies—“Training Day,” “What Women Want,” “Minority Report,” “The Godfather,” “Tootsie” and “Blade Runner”, “Writing a Great Movie” brings to light seven approaches, or tools, to turn mere story into drama. In addition, once Kitchen explains how to use these tools, he mimics the writer’s creative process, building an original story from scratch using the methods presented.

Many screenwriters will already be familiar with some of Kitchen’s kit like “The 36 Dramatic Situations” and the “Enneagram,” a blend of tradition and psychology that comes together in a personality profile of nine behavioral character types. Other familiar concepts have been recast as tools in surprisingly effective ways. Kitchen shows, for example, how writers can use dilemma to shape an entire plot and how theme is the lens that brings drama and clarity to an unfocused story.

Rounding out these tools are “The Central Proposition” and “Sequence, Proposition, Plot” which both use the power of logic to help bring order to the chaotic creative process. The Central Proposition strips the script down to three sentences. “Sequence, Proposition, Plot” extends this approach to outlining the entire script working backwards from the final outcome of the story.

Kitchen makes this all much more entertaining than it should be with his easy style, practical strategies and continuous check-in with his chosen movies. Though “Writing a Great Movie” sometimes feels like several different books because of the lack of a cogent theme, and because any of the tools could spawn two hundred pages in their own right, Kitchen does an admirable job of showing writers the “road less taken” when it comes to ratcheting up drama.

Shelf or Toss: Shelf. I turn to this book as a diagnostic tool to help solve script problems at the end of a draft or to brainstorm upping the conflict on a rewrite.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Pretty Compelling Argument for Facebook...So Why'm I Still Holding Out?

I am pretty bad at trying to articulate why I'm not on Facebook. I don't even think I've worked it out myself... Some days it gets as crazy as my theory that the F in Facebook is for fat and everyone just gets on there to see how Fat everyone else has got.

Anyway, just when I'm happily wallowing in my ambivalence, a third worlder on Slate makes a pretty compelling argument for signing up. But he doesn't touch on Third World Girl's neurotic angst over rejecting people even though I'm sure said people won't agonize over it the way I do ignoring them. (Ah, the irony.)

So for now, I'll keep facebooking vicariously through hubby. Though in the end, I may just get on there to make communications with my real life friends & family easier. I mean, didn't I just write a post on "keeping in touch?"

Friday, January 16, 2009

I'm Not Reading, I'm Staring

I recently did a rewrite on a comedy I've been working on for a while... you know, the one you no longer have perspective on because you've been chipping away at it for so long?

Anyway, I promised myself I would at last send it out to an old boss at production company I used to read for. I would usually have printed it out, given it a read to make sure all was in order, and then sent it off, but instead of the usual "last read" I made a PDF and did *not* read the script.

Instead, I just gave each page the once-over like I was checking out a spring catalogue. I stared at it for about ten seconds. How did it look? Too dense in the action lines? Enough white space? Any weird thing happening with the MOREs and CONT'Ds?

I was just amazed at how many of the little gremlins you catch this way: dialogue blocks given to the wrong character, paragraphs that accidentally repeat themselves, "widows", i.e. words hanging by themselves taking up valuable "page real estate" in the script.

I've now become an instant believer in the stare test. We so often read our scripts from beginning to end our brains compensate for errors on the page and read the version in our heads. The stare test shakes up that dynamic and allows you to look at things in isolation, giving you a better chance of catching errors. (Naturally, you can print and read too, but I wanted to save some trees.)

The stare test is such a quick way to make sure your "slip isn't showing" before you & your script step out into the world, I don't know how I ever lived without it.

Photo by pimpexposure

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Keeping in Touch Does Not Have to Be Desperate and Stalkery

Ah networking. The necessary evil. Scratch that. These days I don't think of networking as evil at all. It's fun getting to meet new people.

I was genuinely surprised at how at the recent festival, I lit up at the idea of every get together and hang out. Yes, I wanted to make contacts, but I also genuinely enjoyed the company of the folks I met. I was a networking queen. I was my own "Sasha Fierce."

Since coming back, though, people keep asking... are you staying in touch with the people you met. And that question always gives me pause, because the people I met are not in my league at all. I am not going to run into them on the street where I live while I'm taking the Chicklet to the playground. How do I cultivate a relationship in a natural way when it's the most unnatural thing?

Here are a few ideas that I've been working on to keep relationships going after you come home from that summer camp environment, without you feeling like a stalker or hanger-on.

1. Find a reason to stay in touch. Note their script sales, distribution deals, festival acceptances and send your kudos. (Set up a Google alert for them so you don't miss any big developments.) And keep them abreast of your news. Contest wins. Screenplay readings. Significant project updates, like attachments or distribution deals or other financing success.

2. Be a resource. If you're in touch with a contact for any period of time you'll have a sense of what might be of use to them. Did they mention their production company's looking for a great urban comedy and you know someone that has one? Did they complain about the lack of quality tea lounges in your neck of the wood and you know a spot that serves the perfect Darjeeling? Forward stuff. Share info. Become known as the kind of person who's interested in solving their problems magnanimously, without wanting anything in return.

3. Invite them to stuff. Maybe they want to check out a festival screening or play opening. Make a specific offer to see something they might actually be interested in. (Research, research, research.) This is the mother lode if you can hit it. There is nothing like going on an actual date.

4. If they are members of professional associations or charities, join and support those charities. A caveat on this's got to be something that you would naturally be a part of, otherwise it is stalker-y, i.e. Don't just show up at the Knitting Circle with your yarn of wool and beginner needles.

5. If you freelance write for any medium, interview them. It's free promotion for them and it builds the relationship. Boy do I regret now that I didn't do more of this when I was writing for the screenwriting magazine.

6. Send handwritten thank you notes. You are bound to stand out in the ultra-cyber age. Show that you value the gift of their time.

So go forth and meet. You never know who you'll find. Just remember to smile and enjoy it. No one wants to be around a sourpuss. Happy friend-making, people.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Yay Slumdog!

I'm not, like Danny Boyle put it, "full of pulsating affection" for this movie but I am happy for its success. I love its optimism and its color and its Dickensian feel. The narrative is epic, winding from place to place and it's really a coming of age love story. And yet I suppose it's a little melodramatic for my taste and I found the acting uneven in spots.

Why then am I celebrating its good night at the Globes? I love the pride that India (Mumbai in particular) feels for this movie. I love when other filmmaking cultures get their due and I love that Boyle and co. succeeded in making something authentic and commercial. And it's a great template for the project I'm producing. I met with a very experienced producer-manager recently who said soak up everything about this movie. Figure out how to market and position yours along the same lines.

I was also happy for "The Wrestler" which I haven't seen but whose Cinderella story I'm aware of. It just makes me so happy that a director was willing to go to the mat for his talent. Darren Aronofsky's money for the movie fell through once he decided to make it with Mickey Rourke, so did he buckle and use Nicholas Cage? Nope. He went to France where Rourke remains loved. How awesome for the filmmakers on "The Wrestler" to have their faith so thoroughly vindicated.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Co-Director Explains It All

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Loveleen Tanden explains what her co-directing credit on "Slumdog Millionaire" really means and why she's embarrassed by all the brouhaha over her awards "snub".

At least she's getting some overdue press. Check it out for yourself.

"The Co-Pilot of 'Slumdog': How a little-known Indian filmmaker helped shape the acclaimed movie"

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I Concede. One of My Favorite Screenwriters Does Write Some Clunkers.

Hey! I know! Let's forgo dialogue altogether.

I've always loved the work of Richard Curtis, the man responsible for "Four Weddings and A Funeral", "Notting Hill," and "Bridget Jones' Diary." He writes memorable comic scenes and great characters and his most ambitious film "Love Actually" is our Christmas movie...the one hubby and I watch every holiday season because it's just so damn hopeful, feel-good and filled with wonderful performances and music. So I was a little surprised to see Richard Curtis turn up twice on Entertainment Weekly's 15 Nominees for Worst Movie Dialogue Ever, once for the line "I'm just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her," ("Notting Hill") and "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed" (from "Four Weddings and A Funeral").

His labeling as purveyor of the hokey dialogue made me watch this year's Christmas night screening of "Love Actually" with a more critical eye and what I realized is that although Curtis writes some hilarious dialogue, he also writes more than his share of on the nose, speaking the subtext dialogue that no one ever says in real life. In several scenes he slips in a line that is the "just for dummies line" that ensures that you get what's happening, if you say, got distracted for a moment thinking about Hugh Grant's hair.

Curtis is also fond of having his characters talk to themselves to show us what they're thinking, which is of course, a bit of a cheat and sometimes tough for an actor to pull off because he's got no one to play off of. The Colin Firth character in "Love Actually" for example sits down in front of his typewriter to work and instead of a dramatization of his loneliness, the character says to no one, "Alone again. Naturally." The dude in love with Keira Knightley says "Enough. Enough now," to himself as he walks away down cobblestoned streets to finish off that subplot. And the shy porn stand-in in an example of blatantly speaking subtext in a way that's out of character for her says to her guy on the first date, "All I want for Christmas is you."

It's interesting to me that the really good and the cringe-worthy can co-exist together. It's comforting to me. It's like a screenwriter I really adore sometimes doesn't get it right. He's capable of great brilliance and considerable mawkishness.

Perhaps it's just a question too of the genre. Of the 15 nominees for bad movie dialogue, more than half of them were from romantic comedies. Guess sometimes it's hard to make love's lines fly.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fake It Until You Make It

I just came back from a pitch coaching session and it was so not what I thought it would be. The idea of pitching is for me nerve-racking. It's sales and glib and fast talk and so not what Third World Girl, and it turns out, most girls are drawn to. No surprise... we are by nature taught to think that modesty's a virtue and people will just sense our awesomeness telepathically as we blend into the wallpaper and wait to be asked to dance.

But I digress.

After the session with this entertainment coach I realized that the pitch is really a first date and the best way to get the second date is to assure the guy or gal across the table that you're solid, know what you're doing and won't break their heart and wallet in to a million little pieces. Having the great, succinct one-line is important but equally important are the connectors, the small (big) talk, having folks in common, being professional, and, if you're producing, getting an impressive package together because the more inexperienced you are, the more experienced the people around you need to be.

By the end of the session I know I'm not ready to pitch a major studio. I've got to keep my head down and keep building, building, building till the dream project solidifies into budgets (I'm hiring a line producer), casting reels, a casting director and my romantic leads. Then I get to start thinking about a director. Yep, a ways to go yet.

Here are a couple points I thought were priceless:

• Drop names. Make the exec feel're one of them. You move in his/her circles.

• Don't leave anything behind (send it via e-mail which allows you to tweak your material based on the session) and don't hand anything out in a pitch. You want the attention on you not a piece of paper.

• Master the art of authentic bragging. State what you've done in the "a little bit about my background" section

• Do your homework on who you're meeting with. IMDB is your friend. IMDBPro is your BFF.

• If you're a producer, make your package perfect. Know your audience, your budget range, attach a casting director/key talent. Make it feel so real, so credible, that the exec can feel comfortable enough to give you their enormous piles of money.

• ...But know your worth. Don't be desperate. You're not begging. You're talking about why you think your project is an amazing idea and why it would be a good fit for the exec. But if they think it's not right for them, respect that. Let it go. Build a relationship that leaves the door open for other projects.

Hopefully all this means no more clammy hands and panic attacks when I get into a room and someone asks those four terrifying words..."So what's it about?"