Monday, March 31, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Points on Loglines

Loglines aren’t terribly exciting, but they’re crucial to the process of refining your script, refining your pitch, and generally refining your craft. People generally don’t have time to read 100 or more pages. Most people don’t even have time to write that much. So, when you’re meeting with a producer, agent, director, or whoever, for a pitch session the question you’re going to be asked is: “what’s your logline.”

Then would not be the time to stammer, look at your feet, and go “um…” (more about pitching at a much later date. It’s not as much about writing.)

Now, after that whole spiel, you might be asking what is a logline? A logline is 1 or 2 sentences describing the plot of your film. This is different from themes like we discussed last week. Themes are the grand scope of what your story is about, the logline is more an overview of the actual plot. In Neo-Formalist terms (borrowing heavy from those Russian Structuralism,) the theme is the fabula, whereas the plot and the logline are more like the syuzhet. Although I have never used those words outside of discussing Neo-Formalist Film Theory, and it’s much easier to say this: the theme is the story, the logline is the (condensed) plot.

The logline has to be even more economical, even than script format itself is. You have to, in one or two sentences, describe the following: the protagonists, their primary conflict (your “A” story, more on structure next week,) and any major details. In short, it’s like a really, really, summed up version of your story. You don’t have to capture everything (because that’s almost impossible to do unless you use two very long sentences) but you need to capture enough to make the person who hears your logline interested to hear more.

It’s also important to consider genre, and try your best to capture that in the logline as well. If you want someone to think it’s a comedy, try to make the pitch a little funny; if it’s a thriller, make it suspenseful or scary, and so on, and so forth. After your pitch, you should have the person having the same reaction after hearing it the script would give them.

Writing loglines, besides holding a vital function in pitch sessions, are a useful tool for a writer to focus on. Once you write your logline, you can look at it, and go, “That is what, in a nutshell, my story is about.” Whenever you feel yourself straying away from the theme and the logline, you can use them as tools to go back to wherever you’re going (and perhaps excising those scenes that help neither.)

Instead of looking through a script this week, I’m going to try and do five quick loglines of some popular movies. Can you guess the titles?

1. Three bumbling psychology professors in New York City design a system to catch ghosts, using the devices to go into business for themselves as professional paranormal investigators and eliminators. Although they initially aren’t very good at it, their business starts to boom, and they realize the massive influx of paranormal activity has to do with the return of a Babylonian god and the end of the world.

2. A young girl, Sarah, is obsessed with magic and very immature, and is very upset when she’s forced to babysit her little brother. After angrily wishing her brother would be kidnapped by goblins, she finds the Goblin King has kidnapped him, and in order to save her brother, she needs to go into his magical Labyrinth.

3. Robert Parr is an old, out-of-shape, super-hero, brought into retirement due to bureaucratic interference. He has to come out of retirement, along with his super-powered family, to defeat an disgruntled fan from his past.

4. Charles Foster Kane is a complicated man whose life has been full of corruption, compromise, and tragedy. After his death, more questions exist than answers, which are up to a journalist named Thompson to unravel, especially of his last words: “Rosebud.”

5. Jack Burton is a macho truck driver whose truck is stolen by Chinese demons. Although he’s a complete outsider, he has to delve, along with his friend Wang, into the murky mysterious depths of Chinatown’s demonic underworld.

In case you couldn’t guess, the answers are, in order: Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984,) Labyrinth (Henson, 1986), The Incredibles (Bird, 2004), Citizen Kane (Welles, 1943,) and, of course, Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1983).

Next week, I’ll be talking about characterization. Good writing!

Friday, March 28, 2008

It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays 2

Captain Invincible

The Return of Captain Invincible (dir. Philippe Mora, 1983)

Distributor: Jensen-Farley Pictures.
“Everything’s going to be just great again!”
Brief Synopsis: Superhero musical where a disillusioned Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) must return from his exile to battle the evil Mister Midnight (Christopher Lee) steals the Giggle Gun and Hypno-Ray. There’s some singing, some crimefighting, and a lot of general ridiculous.

“This is the American Eagle Network…”

Much like last week’s Forgotten Filmography, I am initially intrigued by this week’s selection. I enjoy musicals, superheroes, and the work of Richard O’Brien (best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) So maybe another film that combines those things might actually be good, unlike Empire of the Ants. Reserving judgment...

It opens with a “News on the March” segment about Captain Invincible busting bootleggers, Nazis, and eventually being blacklisted by McCarthyism and Communist paranoia. Richard O’Brien’s influence is tangible here, there’s a definite sense of genre self-awareness and relish in the goofiness, kitchiness, and melodrama inherent in the superhero genre. This should be no surprise, given his previous projects, like (Shock Treatment [Sharman, 1981,] the “sequel” to Rocky Horror, for example.) Captain Invincible’s nostalgia for the past is something of a reoccurring motif in these works (Dr. Frankenfurter’s cry of “Whatever happened to Faye Wray?” at the end of Rocky Horror.)

When we catch up to “the present day” (with a slide in and out, and the opening credits,) we get a taste of the score, which is pretty good. The shot composition is generally epic in scope, mockingly at times, with Captain Invincible, now a drunken vagrant, stumbling about and screaming “New York, New York” off-key. Alan Arkin is a strange choice for a superhero, but he does an alright job, both as the vagrant Captain and capturing his heroic nature, and his return to heroism.

“Meanwhile in the northern hemisphere…” the narration here expertly satirizes the over-the-top melodrama of superhero comics. Mister Midngiht’s agents are also appropriately absurd (a man with a half shaved head, for example, and a woman who looks like a man in drag.) Christopher Lee, of course, is an awesome supervillain, no surprise to anyone who is familiar with any of his contemporary blockbuster work (Saruman, Count Dooku,) or his work as a darkly comic villain in particular (Doctor Catheter in Gremlins 2: The New Batch [Dante, 1990.]) Nobody can say “Today, New York, tomorrow, the World!” quite like he can.

The special effects are awful, even by 1983 standards, but unlike Empire of the Ants, I think the push was made to be bad and obvious even by 1983 standards. The weapons Mister Midnight steals (the Giggle Gun, and the hypno ray) are appropriate hilarious. The special effects are random and nonsensical (the printer in the police office makes Pac-Man noises, and so does Captain Invincible near the film’s end.)

The first song is synth-heavy and features the President saying “Bullshit” over and over again. It gives me a taste of what we’re looking towards. The singing is not exceptional, a lot of it seems like amateur dinner theater. But it’s pretty funny, especially if you appreciate camp like Rocky Horror. So it’s an acquired taste to be sure. “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” number (a country-western tune) is also similarly hilarious. Mister Midnight’s song number an hour in as also hilarious.

The actor playing the President is a bit of a ham, but that’s hardly a fault here. It’s like the director just kept screaming “More over the top! More! More! Do you still see the top? Then you aren’t pushing hard enough!” The generals are the same way.

The film then chronicles Captain Invincible’s attempts to learn how to be a hero again. He has magnet powers, an “amazing computer brain” and flight. Of course, they don’t work as expected. The script is pretty decently structured, the dialogue is a good mix between cheeky, campy, and dead melodramatic seriousness.


At one point Alan Arkin is literally eating the scenery. I think everybody here had a lot of fun making this movie, and it shows. The flashbacks get a little oblique and bizarre at times. You almost see a girl get taken advantage of by common household appliances.

Just 90 miutes, this film is a series of bizarre set pieces. The deli scene is especially strange.

I’m not sure if I can qualify this as a “good” movie. But it’s a fun movie. If you like kitsch, camp, or Rocky Horror, give this a watch. Is it as good as Rocky Horror? Or as bad? Or as spectacularly campy? No. But it’s passable. You also get to see Alan Arkin shove a midget into a barrel. Nothing beats that. B-/C+.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Theme is the Thing

This is a question you should be asking yourself every day when you sit down to write, when you’re outlining, when you’re writing scenes, and when you’re editing:

What exactly are you getting at?

The earliest screenplays I’ve read by people, and the first feature I wrote shares this as well, typically have a weakness in thematic strength. They’re all over the place. Every scene and every theme doesn’t necessarily strongly support your theme.

What is a theme? The theme is like the topic sentence of an essay: it is what your script is arguing, what it is about. It’s different from loglines (we’ll get into those next week,) in that while a logline describes the major narrative arc of the story for a reader in a concise manner, the theme is more complex. The theme should be weaved throughout the narrative that the logline describes. Every scene should contain the theme in one way or another.

You, as the writer, are trying to communicate a meaning to the audience, and the theme is that meaning. If you want to say “true love conquers all” (like in The Princess Bride [Reiner, 84] or any many other romances,) you should have that meaning explicit in the scenes, possibly even in the dialogue if you can help it. Consider it an exercise in rhetoric: regardless of the theme, every scene you write, every line of dialogue, every single element of your script should contribute to that theme. Your script is essentially an extended argument for and against that theme. To continue with the past example, does true love conquer all? When won’t it? Will it always? If you, as a screenwriter, are doing your job, you should ask many such questions, and they should be answered in such a way that if the audience were asked afterwards, they should know what the answers to those type of questions would be.

That isn’t to say films are purely pedantic. If movies were that way, when people left a movie they’d see things like: “Gee, I really learned a lot in that movie,” or “I really liked the way he proved his argument.” Movies are not like this, and people do not go to movies to learn things. People go to movies for action, excitement, romance, comedy or any number of things (if you believe Aristotle in his Poetics, we’re watching “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”) So, it’s up to you to hide the theme in action, comedy, or whatever, to entertain in addition to educate. The theme is like the delicious coating that contains the medicine (which can be equally delicious, but is often meant to help you more than please you.)

Don’t be afraid to spell it out clearly. You don’t need to be subtle when discussing your theme. Many films include their films very explicitly spelled out.


Death to Smoochy

I’m going to be examining the script to Death to Smoochy (De Vito, 2003.) Before I do though, this is the best advice I can give to anyone: read screenplays. The more screenplays you read, the more you’ll form an innate sense of the forms and conventions thereof. A lot of places online will post drafts of screenplays for free.

Read a lot of screenplays. I can’t stress that enough. The more screenplays you read, the better you understand the forms and functions of screenwriting. Pick up screenplays from movies you like, and pick up ones you hate, and figure out what it is about them that you like and that you hate.

Death to Smoochy, for those who haven’t seen it, involves a look into the dark and seedy underbelly of children’s programming. Sheldon Mopes (played by Edward Norton) is an optimistic bright-eyed performer as Smoochy the Rhino, whose clean-cut and amiable ways are threatened by his disposed rival Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) and the corrupt underworld of kid’s show executives. It’s a dark comedy to be sure. The draft I found is an early one and definitely not the shooting script (you can spot a bunch of minor differences, including Smoochy being orange.) However, you can still catch a lot of the same elements of theme.

A first thing to look at is the length here, almost 120 pages. Most comedy scripts shouldn’t push too far past 100. But this is a draft and things are cut or changed.

The big theme is about integrity, about living up to expectations (or failing to.) So, how is that theme expressed? Let’s look at the first act (the first 30 pages or so) and see how that is.

Page 1: We begin with the scene of a man in a foam rhino suit beaten to death and shot (we’re believed to this point that it’s Smoochy until the beginning of the third act.) This gives us that juxtaposition of innocent material (the children’s TV show) and the corruption (mob violence.)

Page 1-2: Rainbow Randolph’s “Friend Comes in All Sizes” number. It catches the right mix of filth and innocence (“one might says ‘grasp’ while the other says ‘snatch.’)

Page 2-3: Immediately we have a scene of Rainbow Randolph taking a bribe. Remember that theme?

Page 4: “Corruption in Krinkleland.” Remember what I said about it being spelled out?

Page 5-7: Here’s our set-up. We, the audience, are joining the executive Stokes (played by Jon Stewart in the film) for a kid’s show host who’s clean. We then get a list of hosts who are less than clean (abusers, illegal immigrants, mail fraud… no integrity in the whole bunch.) We are then introduced to Sheldon Mopes, who is presented as their only option with ethics.

Page 9: This isn’t a theme device as a personal problem. Never say “We see” anything, or describe camera movements unless you plan on directing the script yourself.

Page 10: Sheldon “I tell 'em, it's not about the old handshake and back slap game. It's not about adding fuel to the
shlock machine. It's about doing good work. Having integrity.” Remember what I said about spelling it out?

Page 11: “This is concrete! This is integrity!” Speaking of spelling it out…

Page 12: Sheldon’s story about his grandfather is about integrity, Nora says Sheldon has integrity.

Page 14-17: Randolph’s meeting with Stokes talks about how much Randolph’s corruption has cost him. Why must we keep our integrity? Those with integrity prosper (Mopes,) those who don’t suffer (Randolph.)

Page 18: Sheldon argues against commercialism in children’s programming. His integrity is the point that it disrupts the goings-on at the studio. Good for dramatic tension. “Can you have too much integrity for a situation? Is this character too good for his own good?” The answer appears to be yes.

Pages 21-23: Seeing the Burke character interact with both Mopes and Randolph shows their levels of integrity (because, of course, being an agent, he has none.)

Pages 23-28: The phallic-shaped cookie sequence, besides being entertaining and hilarious, shows theme and character. Randolph, as a character with no integrity, tries to ruin Smoochy by surprising him with these cookies, and Smoochy is arguing with Nora about changing his lyrics in favor of shilling out sugar and plastic, and singing a song favoring his ideology relating to organic food (remember: integrity.) The final film shows Smoochy being slightly more away of the phallic nature of the cookie than the script shows (“Smoochy gets a big grin” doesn’t capture the nervousness Edward Norton gets in that moment.)

Bottom of Page 30-Halfway Down Page 32: Burke gives Sheldon a gun (morally shady,) and has given him greater power and control in his show. He also gives him access to the corporate penthouse, which Rainbow Randolph has been complaining about losing sine Page 17. So with that transfer, we begin to ask, can someone as integrity-ridden as Sheldon remain uncorrupted by the forces that exercise control in his life?

So, in about 30 pages, we have 13 references to a theme of integrity. Almost every scene touches on this theme (one scene isn’t as strongly about integrity, the scene between Nora and Sheldon where he tries to discuss the future of his show with her and is shot down.) In any script I could look at (I chose Death to Smoochy arbitrarily) you will find a theme waiting to come out. All you have to do is look. And all you have to do as a writer is to decide what your theme is and to write to that theme.

Next week I’ll talk about writing a good logline. Good writing!

Friday, March 21, 2008

It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays 1

Empire of the Ants (dir. Bert I. Gordon, 1977)


Distributor: American International Pictures (released through Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM)
“They will inherit the earth…sooner than you think!”
Brief Synopsis: Joan Collins and a crew of people I can’t recognize are terrorized by radioactive giant ants who herd us like they herd aphids, use us to mine fungus, and use pheromones to control people. Source of the phrase, “I, for one, would like to welcome our new insect overlords,” made famous on The Simpsons.

Alright, for our first installment of “It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays,” I chose to look at this movie, Empire of the Ants, primarily because of the title. Also, if the titles of a lot of these posts aren’t obvious enough, I have a love of kitschy sci-fi, horror, and melodrama that can be almost disturbing. Although ostensibly based on a story by H.G. Wells, this movie is clearly a throwback to the “giant insect” movies of the 1950s (amongst them Them! and Tarantula.) Joan Collins is amongst the cast, although this is before her Dynasty heyday.

“Did you ever take a close look at what the ant is all about?”

The introductory voiceover has barely begun and I already am regretting choosing this film. It begins with a series of close shots on ants cutting up leaves, while a voice-of-God narrator discusses the ant’s ability to cultivate fungus and herd aphids makes it “second to man in terms of intelligence.” Um, what about chimpanzees? Or dolphins? It attempts to describe the ants’ greatness. This kind of shaky pseudo-science, including the use of pheromones, is common for films like this, so we’ll ignore this for right now.

Also, for a story based on an H.G. Welles story, I don’t think Welles predicted nuclear waste as the source of their giantness. So I’m not sure how much of it’s really “H.G. Welles’” Empire of the Ants is really his.

We spend a long time establishing that scientists are dumping white barrels labeled in big red letters “radioactive waste.” The bottom of the barrel reads “do not open.” One of these barrels of waste is, of course, the source of the ants’ gigantism, because that makes things bigger.

Everything in the costuming and props seems dated to specifically 1977 (or maybe late 1976.) Joan Collins plays a crooked real estate developer, but she essentially is playing Joan Collins, that is to say a bitch, although it’s weird seeing her look like a normal person and not look like a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation. She is, of course, trying to sell land on an island that will soon be The Empire of the Ants.

She, the boat’s Skipper, her leads a group of perspective buyers an old couple, a cheap couple, another couple, an older woman and another woman, and Collins’ leisure suit-wearing boytoy Charlie (who looks a lot like Bruce Campbell, but is in fact Edward Power,) and The Professor and Mary-Anne for a three-hour tour... I have yet to hear the names of any of these characters other than Charlie, who they are, or why I should care about real estate development, other than my assumption they’re going to the Empire of the Ants.

Through the discussion of the crew, we learn the extent of Collins’ crooked dealings, and we see the ants getting their first dip in radioactive waste (which looks more like mercury. Wow, no matter how they do it it’s environmentally unsound.) There’s an awkward outdoor dinner party where we’re introduced to these potential buyers. Still barely care about them... Most of this is irrelevant, except the older woman was fired from her job and is looking for investments to make a quick buck. There’s an almost-rape scene involving Charlie and one of the guests where the girl says no, until she starts to say yes, then knees him in the balls. This guy, is of course, the first encounter with the giant ants (who watch unseen.) The “multiple tiny circles” for the ant’s eyes are hilarious.

Something about these characters is intrinsically boring and unsympathetic. I’m waiting for them to all be eaten by giant ants.

After establishing investing here is a bad idea, there’s a tram tour into the wilderness, Jackie Collins on a megaphone. Shots of the eyes watching them repeatedly. Way too many times. The first encounter with the ants is at a picnic, where the one cheap guy realizes the real estate’s a fraud, he gets eaten by giant ants, his wife runs off.

‘70s special effects aren’t terribly good, but it’s painfully obvious when the giant ant puppets are used and the close-up photography of the ants. Watching the old lady get eaten by giant ants from the lady’s perspective is hilarious.

Eventually they realize there are giant ants (about thirty minutes in.) One couple decides to split up to look for the lost couple while the rest go to the boat. This is the couple I think we’re supposed to care about, but this fails. And then the giant ants attack the boat to keep them from escaping, the ants kill the crew except for the captain and blow up the boat.

Useful fact for the day: ants don’t like fire. They’re also second smartest animals on the earth, besides people.

They try to stay by a fire, until it starts raining, they go into the jungle, and run into more giant ants, who are herding them (like some kind of man-sized aphids!) They eat a few people, hard for me to care when a bunch of hairy ant puppets swarm around a person with a huge collar, until there are (I find out later his name is Joe, when he fails to rent a car, seriously,) girl who almost got raped, older lady who got fired, the captain, and Joan Collins. None of the deaths are exceptionally gory, just some blood but no lost limbs or people really ripped apart. What started as kitschy fun is just boring. Most of this film involves screaming and running away from giant ants, which isn’t surprising, but repetitive, like the reoccurring shots from the ants POV.

Then they wander into a town (wait, wasn’t this island undeveloped?) that is obsessed with sugar, and surprisingly blasé about the possibility of giant ants threatening their sugar refinery and unwilling to let the people escape, unsurprising given that the town is actually secretly run by the giant ants and their pheromones (it’s like some kind of invasion, like a group of collective, almost communal, that’s destroying us and our way of life. Hopefully radiation can both cause and solve this problem…)

Captured, the crew is put to work in the town’s sugar refinery. These giant radioactive ants took over pretty quickly... In fact, since we see ants getting exposed to toxic waste before and after the beginning of this cruise, I can only assume it happened within a few hours. The sheriff and his deputies are already enthralled, and infecting the townsfolk with ant pheromones, which looks like fog machine fog. “Every week they must be brought back to be indoctrinated,” which again doesn’t make sense given the timeframe. When did the ants become giant? Joan Collins is gassed to become slave to the giant ants, but too little too late. A flare ends up blowing up the entire refinery, four of the group (the captain, the girl who was almost raped, and the older lady, and Joe, who told me his name when he failed to rent a car to get out of there.) They then escape on a boat out towards where? In any event, this does not resolve anything, or does it?! FREEZE FRAME ENDING! Also, although this may predate the PETA warning, animals may have been harmed during the making of this film. I’m gonna guess some ants. Special thanks are given to the Florida Film Commission (I am equally amazed this exists,) and the Sugar Cane Cooperative of Florida (where I’m guessing they got their sugar.)

Thank God this movie was just 90 minutes. It’s decently made, but hardly what I’d recommend, unless you are a fan of Joan Collins or giant ants (or both.) C.

It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays Rating System

A: A superior piece of filmmaking overall. Excellent script and production, close to technically flawless. A pictures are the ones you list when discussing movies that are your favorites. Accommodates some errors or problems, but generally a cut above the norm.
Examples: Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941); Breathless (Godard, 1955); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Burton, 2007)
B: Better than average, B movies (which are to be distinguished from “B pictures” of a double bill,) are fun, likeable, and showcase some craftsmanship in production. Usually have more technical difficulties or other problems that keep them from being A level. These are movies I can like, but are not so amazing I would rave about them to my friends the next day.
Examples: Across the Universe (Taymor, 2006; which although I dislike I am prone to respect technically); Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1988)
C: Average. Run of the mill. Overall forgettable. Usually they do nothing wrong, but they also don’t do anything right either. The vast majority of films are C pictures.
Examples: You, Me, and Dupree (Russo & Russo, 2006); Get Over It (O’Haver, 2001,)
D: D movies make you cringe in your seat and not because of subject matter. They are bad, but not unwatchable.
Examples: Ghost Rider (Johnson, 2007); Ultraviolet (Wimmer, 2006)
F: I can think of no legitimate reason to recommend this movie. I very rarely give out F’s.
Example: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (Miller, 2003); Norbit (Robbins, 2007)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jack Burton, We Hardly Knew Ye...

On Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1988)

John Carpenter is better known for films like Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. However, of all of his distinguished filmography, including quite a few horror classics, this is by far my favorite film he’s made. I’m reasonably sure I first saw it when I was little on TV as a special Saturday afternoon showing (from one of the UHF stations in LA.) I own it on DVD and have seen it a few times since then. If you haven’t seen this classic of Kurt Russell, martial arts, the 80s, and rampant Orientalism, do yourself a favor and rent it.

What I love about this film is how simultaneously conventional and unconventional it is, and in this article I plan to discuss some reasons why this film disrupts narrative expectations yet doesn’t remain jarring.

1) Jack Burton: Heroic Clown

The first sequence, taking place in a lawyer’s office, shows Egg Shen (Victor Wong) talking to his lawyer, and when pressed about the whereabouts of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his truck, Shen angrily asks “Oh, will you leave him alone?!” This, combined with his rugged CB radio talk, starts to position Burton as who we imagine to be the hero. And we occupy Burton’s position as a “reasonable man who has just seen some very unreasonable things.” Yet is Jack Burton the hero of Big Trouble…? I would argue he isn’t.

For all of Jack Burton’s macho posturing (“And if we aren’t back by morning, call the President,”) he is actually the amiable comic relief to the competent and knowledgeable Wang Chi (Dennis Dun,) who initially due to his slight build and ethnicity would seem consigned to the opposite role to muscular action hero Russell. When escaping from the Wing Kong exchange, Jack Burton fires three shots from his machine gun and ends up with a piece of drywall on his head. His confusion and inability to believe what’s going on (he spends a long time confused about the nature of Lo Pan,) and his later gung ho acceptance of Taoist black magic and sorcery (“A six demon bag? Sensational, what’s in it, Egg?”) both convey a comical exuberance. But he does little to aid in almost every fight, he is almost always knocked over, outclassed, and beaten up, save for the final battle, where he miraculously and unexpectedly kills Lo Pan, bringing back his repeated line “It’s all in the reflexes.” He’s powered primarily by worming his way into Gracie Law’s Kim Catrall, in one of her four non-Sex and the City roles I can name [the other three being Police Academy, Porky’s, and Mannequin,]) pants and acquiring his truck. He has no real motivation, no real reason to be there other than the most superficial.

2) Escalating Exotic Bizareness

Although we get a taste of it in this first sequence with Egg Shen’s lightning and the discussion of a ball of green flame, things get progressively stranger and stranger. At first, Jack Burton’s world appears fairly mundane. The initial kidnapping scene at the airport features Chinese street punks with switchblades to martial artist gangs streetfighting. Then the Three Storms arrive, armed with tonfa, extending monkey paws, and what look like (I’m not kidding) spinning blades attack to his middle fingers, and Lo Pan makes his first appearance disappearing in front of Jack Burton’s truck. Pretty soon we’re lost in a world of Chinese black magic and the occult and the mythical fleshless emperor Lo Pan.

3) “Shut up, Mister Burton! You Were Not Brought About this World to ‘Get It!’”

The dialogue is very fast-paced, almost akin to Howard Hawks films of the 40s, especially the verbal sparring between Jack Burton and Gracie Law. There are phrases like “This is gonna take crackerjack timing,” and “It’s all in the reflexes” and “Indeed!” All in all the writing from a dialogue point of view seems quaint, almost hokey.

But consider for a moment the scene showing the initial confrontation between Lo Pan and Jack and Wang. They’re tied up in wheelchairs after having been caught and tortured. This is the big scene where we get the first real explanation of the plot and Lo Pan’s motivations (he in fact blatantly spells it out.) But the setting, the backdrop, the dialogue (including Lo Pan’s overly excited “indeed!” and “Now this really pisses me off to no end,”) all of it feels off.

5) “You will never come out again?!”
“What?! What will never come out again!”

Before sneaking into Lo Pan’s fortress, Egg Shen throws exploding marbles at a demon coming out of a tunnel, screaming this line and forcing Burton to make the same response. This is never explained and never elaborated beyond this small scene.

“Hold on, hold on, I’m feeling a bit like an outsider here...”

So, if Big Trouble in Little China is drastically against many traditional narrative constructs (the positioning of the audience with the hero, a changing set of audience expectations, anachronous dialogue and bizarre set pieces, unexplained narrative ruptures like “You will never come out again!”) how does it still work? How does this narrative provide pleasure in the way that traditionally arises from clinging to traditional narrative norms? It’s not in these ruptures purely as surprises, but as pleasant surprises that gives their pleasure. The variations are all relatively minor that they surprise us out of the average narrative filmic experience, but not so jarring as to produce effects of disorientation. That is the pleasure, or at least one of the pleasures, I gain from this film.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Screenwriting 101: The Big Secret of Screenwriting...

...It’s just like regular writing.

Unbelievable? Perhaps. There is a lot of arcane secrecy regarding the nature of screenwriting. Other than the screenplay format itself and the media itself being represented, the narrative structures and formats itself are no different than any narrative. Guys like Syd Field and Chris Voggler want to sell you a book. And I’m not going to knock their methods, because I’ve seen them work in the past for my friends and for myself, but they aren’t the only game in town. As a matter of fact, there’re so many different games, and ways and forms, you’ll be hard pressed to not find a way to write. You just need to know the basic rules, and from there it’s a matter of cherry-picking the devices or methods. If you can write at all, you can write a screenplay.

Writing a great screenplay (or even a good one,) however, may be another matter. I’ve been refining my craft for just 5 years now, which really is nothing. I’ve made a lot of leaps and bounds in just that time, and I hope I’ll get even better from here. To that end, I’d like to help you learn from my mistakes (and my successes) to expedite that process for yourself. If you can get through the awkward years one through three in less time than I could, you should really consider yourself blessed.

But, also, don’t be afraid to fail! Odds are you’ll be drafting, redrafting, or re-redrafting any script before it’s even close to good. Odds are you’ll find yourself sucking. And sucking hard. But do not give up. No matter how bad you think it is, you can make it better. Sometimes it just takes the right moment, the right perspective, or just realizing you can tell what you’re trying to a better way. But you can do it.

The screenplay format in and of itself is not that difficult to master. And even if you can’t get it right away, Final Draft or any other screenwriting software you care to use will automatically do the correct formatting for you. Before we get to the big problems of screenwriting, though, we need a very basic understanding of screenplay format.

Screenplay format is designed with a very utilitarian purpose: like a theatrical script, it’s a blueprint that shows the director and the rest of the production crew what they’re supposed to be doing for the next nine or more months. This might make it sound like screenwriting is very dry and technical. In a way it is. Given the space conventions I’ll explain in the next paragraph, you need to try your best to fit the action and the dialogue in a clear and concise way. But that doesn’t totally eliminate literary flourishes, it merely means you have to be creative about getting creative.

The standard convention is one page of script is approximately one page of screen time. So most feature length scripts are somewhere between 90 and 180 pages. Keep that in mind when you’re writing! A question I often ask myself while writing resolves the most important thing in comedy, and the most important thing in general. Timing. It’s everything. You want to engross your audience in the story you’re telling, and you want to hook them fast and hook them hard. (More on that in a later column.)

So, to review: 1) if you can write at all, you can be a screenwriter, 2) it’s hard, so do not get discouraged or give up, 3) formatting is important (1 page = 1 minute.)

Next week I’ll be discussing theme. Or rather, the theme of the column will be about themes. Good writing!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Son of Double Feature! Manifesto

My name is Derek and I have a problem. I am thoroughly and completely 100% addicted to movies. Every day I have to pander at street corners to get my narrative fix. I write screenplays, I write about movies, I talk about movies, I think about movies, I use movies into my everyday conversations, I’ve made movies, I go to school to study movies, forget about watching movies! Celluloid, digital, however I can get my fix in watching that flickering light or that DVD.

That’s one of the big reasons I started this site. I’m going to be writing regularly about movies. Movies I love. Movies I hate. Good movies, bad movies, good bad movies, even some bad good movies.

But, before we get down to the nuts and bolts of what I plan on talking about, I thought I’d explain a little more of myself and my own position. I was born in raised in the San Fernando Valley, was interested in both acting and writing when I was younger, eventually moving towards filmmaking in high school. I’ve made a series of shorts during that time that, hopefully, have been burned to protect myself and the poor people who had to suffer through my frantic Corman-esque productions. I got a BA in Cinema from UCSanta Barbara, and am currently pursuing my MA at San Francisco State University. If all goes according to plan, I’ll have my doctorate within a few years, and teach and write about film, and hopefully become a professional screenwriter, for the rest of my life. My favorite movie of all time is either Citizen Kane or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, I can’t make up my mind which.

Here are some regular features you should expect in the future from Son of Double Feature!:
* Screenwriting 101: Although I haven’t sold any screenplays, I’ve written quite a few, and I won the Dorothy and Sherill C. Corwin Award for one of my feature-length screenplays. In this weekly column, I plan to discuss what I’ve learned from classes, books, and trial and error to help you sharpen your own writing. Mondays will feature a regular update on some topic relating to the craft of screenwriting. I’ll also be discussing some of my favorite screenplays of all time to learn (steal) whatever I can from them, and to help you to do the same.
* It Came From the Forgotten Filmography Fridays: Every Friday, I plan on posting an in-depth review of an obscure or otherwise unknown film. These will be films I have never heard of prior to renting them, and have not been recommended to me by anyone ever. In short, they’re gonna be a lot of B-movies, forgotten treasures, and horrific messes best left forgotten. Hopefully will be a lot of fun, and you’ll get a chance to find a new favorite film (or avoid one worth missing.)

In addition to these, expect to see sporadic essays related to any number of film-related topics, either commentaries on contemporary releases or classics, or about some aspect of the Hollywood scene, or whatever other miscellaneous stuff I care to write about.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about this as much as I’ll have writing them.