Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Wrestler: A Big Dissenting "Huh?"

So Third World Girl just doesn't understand what all the fuss is about "The Wrestler". In the last couple of weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, several folks I really respect touted this movie as the best of the year. So I saw it and was alarmed. Because I don't think "The Wrestler" is a great movie, I don't even think it's a very good movie...why such a disparity between me and such smart, discerning people?

Perhaps "The Wrestler" was a victim of over-praise. Maybe if I'd just gone into it with normal expectations, I might have been satisfied, but it all felt a little shopworn to me. Down and out performer, faded glory, estranged family, stripper with a heart of gold? I won't deny that Mickey Rourke's performance was incredible, so was Marisa Tomei's for that matter (and she has considerably less to work with) but the material... Call me a backstory addict, but without screenwriter Robert Siegel placing the character relationship in context, I just couldn't connect to the estranged daughter subplot. Without details, hints of what caused the breakdown, it seemed generic. Was that rage really all about his missing her birthday?

And to touch on the Siegel script once again, there is a line in the movie that made me cringe. The bit Marisa Tomei's character, Cassidy, delivers about Ram being the sacrificial Ram. It's the sort of thing that you write in a first draft because you think it's cool that you have a "hero as Christ metaphor" but it seemed totally out of character for Cassidy, and heavy handed to boot. It sits up there in the movie, begging to be cut.

Luckily I watched this movie with the hubby so I could ask him, was I crazy to think this movie was only average? He shrugged. He couldn't get over that all it took to get back into Evan Rachel Wood's life was a peacoat jacket.

There is no doubt that Mickey Rourke's performance as Ram is extraordinary, and I quite like Darren Aronofsky's naturalistic direction but I have to wonder to what extent the emotional response this movie evokes in an audience is tied into the emotional Rourke comeback tale...that tale that was shortchanged just a little by Sean Penn's upset win at the Oscars. Now why'd they have to go and spoil a really good story?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Favorite Screenwriters: The Wisdom of Nora Ephron

I went to hear Nora Ephron last week. She is funny, as you'd expect from the writer of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail and the upcoming Julie & Julia and terrific on the subject of age and balancing kids and life...the "stuff that interests you in this room," she said to the dozens of women drawing on her every word, "but that is of absolutely no interest to the guys outside."

But she had little patience for victimhood, the sort of "tell us how hard it is for women writer/directors" questions. She just shrugged. It's hard for anybody to get a movie made, she said...but then conceded that yeah, maybe it was a little tougher for women, but so what? Tough cookies. This is the job you signed up for.

She told a lot of great stories, many of them anecdotes relating to directing rather than writing, but I enjoyed the focus because I've decided I want to direct the little personal movie I'm writing now. My favorite part was when someone asked a question about conquering fears and she just gave the smallest sigh. She couldn't speak much to fear, not being familiar with it too much (and I believed her), but she did note that everyone in Hollywood is afraid. She said when the titles come up at the very opening of a movie and it has the studio's logo, she'd add underneath "20th Century Fox did everything in its power not to make this movie." People are afraid of making bad decisions, greenlighting flops, losing money. Far easier to sit on your butt, drink Diet Coke from your personal fridge, putter around your projection room and say no all day.

Your job, then, brave director is to be the bravest one in the continually have the confidence and skill and knowledge to convince the cowardly that this "risk" is the closest thing to a sure shot. Storyboard. Shotlist. Crew up with the best. Overprepare. Be confident.

This bravery isn't limited to directing, though. It's a part of producing as well...that element of building something solid enough that others feel comfortable, that the movie that screens at the end seems like the result of a most natural evolution. And yes, it is the worst possible time financially to be out here doing what we're doing but if it was easy, everyone would do it.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Movie Night Review: "Pineapple Express"

I have to believe at some point there's going to be a backlash against these Seth Rogen-Judd Apatow brand bromances. I mean, I liked "Superbad" okay, I loved "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", but "Pineapple Express" while funny in parts, made me long for this era to be over.

In all fairness, I'm not the target market. There are, I presume, guys who find all the gay subtext jokes hilarious. (You know the "Ha! Ha! They're trying to free themselves but if you didn't know it it looks like they're doing it!") I also grew impatient with the movie's rambling dialogue after the first act, imploring the story to get a move on. It did, to some extent, when its basic plot kicked in. It goes like this...

Pothead Dale Denton witnesses a murder, dropping his roach at the scene of the crime as he flees. The roach is full of a rare blend of weed called Pineapple Express that only one dealer in town sells. Making things worse, the dealer's only sold it to Dale so the murderer knows who the witness is and stoner and dealer have to hit the road and run for their lives.

The revelation in this movie for me was James Franco. In playing Saul Silver, the kind-hearted, simple minded dope-dealer he shines. This movie has a great central pairing in Rogen and Franco...too bad there's so little plot to keep things going once the guys go on the run.

Hubby tried to watch this movie three times and fell asleep on each attempt. I think it boils down to that lack of tension. Every scene in this movie is too long and saps the story's focus. The stakes don't escalate and the story's saddled with bad guys who are too bumbling to inspire much jeopardy. Also, its introduction of a drug war at the end of Act II feels hurried and there were too few reversals and surprises.

But as always, there are things to admire in the writing. It's hard to not feel affected by some of the movie's fuzzy charm, comic characters and the occasional hilarious exchange. Plus, I enjoyed the "wink, wink" ending where the band of brothers make fun of what is supposed to happen in a movie, i.e "hijinks ensue as we all learn a lesson." Ultimately, however, the movie's so unstructured and breezy that it floats away.

"Pineapple Express" gets three Oscars out of five.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Screenwriting & The Genius Bar

The other day our iPod nano died. Less than a year and it stopped powering on.

And this is how I found myself sitting in Soho's Apple Store, walking up to the Genius Bar, marveling at the house that Steve Jobs built. The brand that is Apple.

The Genius Bar is Apple's repair shop. Sleek, professional, hip, full of smart, diverse, welcoming folks in cool blue T-shirts that declare in tiny print: Not all heroes wear capes.

There was a concierge milling about with his laptop on his arm, checking your appointment, oozing people skills. "I love your name!" he said, as he looked up the roster and told me I was next. I didn't bother to tell him that the appointment was under hubby's name.

As I sat waiting and watching the store's video loop on a row of plasmas, I thought about how so much of business is building the brand. It represents why folks make the purchasing decisions they do...why they choose to do business with some and not others. Hiring a writer, too, is a business decision and it's based not entirely on the cold, hard facts of the product for sale, i.e. the script. They're buying into the brand of the writer.

So what can we learn from Apple? How can we force our way onto the other side of the Screenwriting Genius Bar?

1) Knowledge
I had a chance to listen to the staff talk to numerous customers, from the guy whose Macbook hard drive died to the one with the busted fan. Each "genius" was articulate, able to talk about the evolution of the product, the trends, where things were headed next. Are you articulate about the game? Can you talk the talk? Do you sound like a pro? This isn't to say that you substitute writing for reading how-to books. Hell, if you're talented, brilliant or lucky enough you can not have a clue about trends, never use a common "industry" phrase and have plain lousy communication skills but in a competitive market, these things matter. Sound like you know what you're talking about...or, even better, *know* what you're talking about.

2) Confidence
Knowledge inspires confidence. You know your stuff and you like the opportunity to show it. My genius guy was decisive and assured. He knew the warranty procedure without checking. He anticipated questions I had. He methodically pursued one strategy, then another. Talking you through to the intended goal. He didn't waffle around. Perhaps we should zap the maybe we should do a hard reboot, no...maybe I should delete preferences. Your customers (producers) are reassured when you have a plan and follow through with precision.

3) Appearance
The geniuses looked the perfect sync with Apple's brand. What is your unique selling position? What makes you and your script special? How you convey who you are matters.

4) Listening Skills
The folks at the Genius Bar had great listening skills. They were super-empathetic. I watched the concierge lead up a guy to the bar and in hushed tones say, "This is Pete. Pete had a really bad day yesterday. A cab ran over his I-Phone." Pete sat and nodded as the Genius bar felt his pain. Gently his genius offered, after the moment of silence, "Can I see it...what were you able to salvage?" And then they brainstormed what they could do for poor Pete.

You'll need these listening skills when you take a producer's notes. What are they really saying when they suggest changes...what's motivating the response.

By way of contrast, I had the opposite experience recently at Ikea Brooklyn: a contentious customer service person in returns who seemed to wear her ability to ignore you like a badge of honor. When hubby suggested to the non-genius that she should open the flat-packed box on a table rather than leaning against her register to avoid furniture parts falling to the floor, she pretty much rolled her eyes...whatever.

When she did open the box, of course, the wood pieces did tumble, though in all fairness, she caught them before they hit the floor. But there wasn't a single sympathetic word about how frustrating it can be to put together Ikea's stuff, not a sad shake of the head about the fact that it was our second trip to customer service in two days, that the whole problem had originated at Ikea itself with the parts in the wrong bin. Nope. They were gonna do whatever they were gonna do. And they weren't going to tell you what that was. And they were gonna take their damn time about it.

In short, don't be this screenwriter. Or if you're determined to be, have an amazing, must-have product/script that can survive you acting like an ass.

Friday, February 13, 2009

There are More Hours in The Day. They Just Exist When You Don't Want To Be Up.

I've been known to say "There's just not enough hours in a day..." and I've been known to say it lots. Recently, however, I've discovered, there are enough hours. They just exist when you don't want to be up.

I've been trying with mixed success to get up at 6.00 AM to do a couple hours of writing before the rest of the house wakes up. The first couple of days was heaven. Contrary to my thinking that it would be tough to get out of bed, it was a least in the beginning. I had that starting a new draft buzz, that high you get in the first 15 or so pages before the self-doubt kicks in.

But then I had to put said first draft on the backburner to get a rewrite done on the crazy Bollywood musical and the momentum dipped. Slowly but surely I've fallen back into my old writing pattern of trying to get a little done at night after Chicklet goes to bed. But it's sporadic and by that time of the night the brain's a little frazzled so I'm desperately trying to go back to getting the most important item of my day,writing, on the agenda when I'm fresh.

Problem is the Chicklet seems to adjust to my earlier wake-up time and just gets out of bed earlier. (I still love hearing her feet hit the floor and come pitter-pattering into the office to ask "What you doing on the computer?".) But that first morning when I got up at 6.15 and wrote for three hours was like falling into a time warp, like being in a writing program again. It was so good to be so focused, to have the leisure of some quiet time to think. I long to experience it again, even with the trade off: me being so tired towards sundown I feel nauseous.

Photo by twob

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why Am I So Confusing?

Some days I hate myself as a writer.

I try to be too cute, too subtle, too layered and end up confusing everyone. (Tonight at writer's group I swear I heard a scene collapse under all that weight.)

I guess it's just part of the process. It's been a while since I wrote a God's honest first draft and in the immortal words of Hemingway "the first draft of anything is shit."

Friday, February 6, 2009

More On the Subject of Fairy Tales

David Denby in the New Yorker magazine and online gives his take on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire as fairy tales for adults in writing about this year's Oscar movies.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Fairy Tale Business

I had a professor at film school who used to tell us we're in the dream business, which was a nice antithesis to all the curmudgeonly folks telling us that we stood a better chance of winning the lottery than selling a spec.

He would then go on to say that every movie begins with "once upon a time" and that our craft stretches back to the cave dwellers who told stories around campfires to explain the world around them and the values they held.

Sometimes I find it helpful to frame everything I'm writing in this way. I'm able to see the big story beats from the minutiae of the details, to separate the forest from the trees. It can also help underscore the archetypal characters in your story and press you to kick your conflict up several notches. Thinking of your obstacles as dragons, your antagonist as the evil villain, I'm reminded that a story runs on conflict, on BIG problems.

(Also, doing this exercise helps later on when you come to the pitch stage so you don't get bogged down explaining cool asides that aren't essential to the story.)

I like to do this with current movies too to see how they mirror these ancient stories. Take Slumdog Millionaire for example.

It might go a little something like this.

Once upon a time, there was a lowly young pauper who fell in love with a beautiful girl but the two were separated by a rich evil prince who built a fortress for the girl and put her in it. But the pauper refused to give up faith in his first love and decided to enter a dangerous joust in the hopes that fame would lead him back to his lost love. But when the pauper improbably progresses to the final stages of the contest, the king's dragons descend on him, convinced he is a trickster who must be punished. Can he stay the course despite ever decreasing odds that he'll win the joust and be reunited with his love?

Ta-da. There's the heart of the story without getting sidetracked into our hero's relationship with his boyhood friend or mean gangsters, the funky soundtrack, or the dance scene at the end in the train station. Viewed this way, it's clear that the "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" stuff is merely an easy tool to ratchet up tension, not nearly the heart of the story.

What I find interesting about "Slumdog" is how the first decision screenwriter Simon Beaufoy took to depart from the novel completely changed the film. Recently the novelist Vikas Swarup has been complaining about not being given more deference this awards season because he wrote "Q&A" the source material behind "Slumdog Millionaire"... But the Swarup novel was all about a pauper's rise to the top on India's version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire." End of story. It was a successful and sought after literary property, a fairy tale in its own right, but for Beaufoy it lacked heart. And so he introduced a love story and put a princess in a castle. Fable upon fable makes it truly resonate.

So, is there a fairy tale in your script...aside from the part where you sell it for a million dollars?

Illustration by artista blog

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Third World Moment

Yesterday morning as I channel-surfed over breakfast I heard a familiar sounding accent that made me stop on BBC World where they were having a roundtable on the economy.

The accent was Guyanese. The man responsible for its thick flat timbre was none other than the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo, who I learned from the moderator's introduction once sat on the boards of the IMF and the World Bank.

I didn't listen long. I'm currently buried under a ton of work...the non-creative business stuff that pays the bills...but there was one great moment in all the handwringing about the current economic crisis. Bharat Jagdeo found a silver lining.

He said the thing that struck him was that if this economic crisis had happened in the developing world there would have been lecture after lecture in forums like this (i.e. the BBC's slick studio) about cronyism and inefficiency in the developing world. The one good thing about the crash to his mind... no more lectures from the West about how the developing world should run their economies.

He said this to stony-faced silence from Sweden's minister of finance and a former A.I.G. bigwig but to warm applause from the studio audience.