Tuesday, October 28, 2008

“Clash of the Titans,” Part II!

“Perseus roams, half-purposefully.”

Friends, let’s get right to it.

Travis Beacham’s January 25, 2007, draft of Clash of the Titans evoked so many thoughts and feelings, I’m not sure I can contain it all in one little script review. The heart of the matter is this – If Mr. Beacham has any aspirations of having a career as a screenwriter, of having HIS scripts filmed and not passed off for others to rewrite, he must address the fundamental flaws in his thinking as a screenwriter.

On the one hand, Beacham is certainly intelligent and imaginative. On the other hand, the necessary strengths of every screenwriter – character, dialogue, story – are Beacham’s weakest elements. Plus, this is yet another example confirming my suspicion that we are in a
screenwriting state of emergency with such a lack of tension and suspense. (Can you imagine a Clash of the Titans that lacks tension?)

Where are the great screenwriters of today? Where are the leaders of the next generation who will bring on a new golden age of cinema, of true cinema in all its heart and drama and visual storytelling?

So let me go through my list of complaints.

First, we established
in the last article that Beverley Cross, the author of the original Clash of the Titans, gave us 3 solid scenes within the first 10 minutes. (If you cut the opening credit sequence with the white bird flying to Olympus, this could’ve been about only 7 or 8 pages.) Briefly, here are the scenes, which we all know so well:

1) In the opening scene, we learn important exposition through emotional high drama the scandalous origin of Perseus. We observe the King of Argos angrily denouncing his own daughter, Danae, for giving birth to a son out of wedlock and sealing her (and child) inside a coffin and throwing them out into the crashing waves to die.

2) This was followed by a scene with Zeus in Olympus that established a) all of the gods, b) the fact that Zeus himself took advantage of Danae, and c) we learn that the gods are powerful but so very flawed in their personalities and can be terribly unjust and unfair to the humans. And thus, Zeus opts to destroy the King of Argos and all of his people despite their zealous, faithful loyalty to him and despite the King’s lack of knowledge about the child’s true father.

3) Thus, he brought on the Kraken.

1, 2, 3. Economical storytelling. These are scenes that get your attention. As soon as the film begins, something’s wrong. Lives are at stake. And you’re drawn in. That’s how good drama works. We’re given exposition through high emotional conflict, which is always effective. It also appears deceptively easy (although it never is – only for perhaps the most schooled playwright), and it's under-appreciated.

So what does Travis do? He gives us nearly 5 pages filled with voice overs to explain two things: 1) the origin of Perseus and 2) lots of backstory about a current war that’s waging between the gods and mankind. Pages FILLED with voice overs! The gods need mankind to worship them, as worship is their source of power, but man has turned their backs on the gods in pursuit of art, invention, self-determination, etc. So the gods have chosen to wage war in order to keep mankind in awe and fear so they will continue to worship them. We’re given so many images of massive war scenes and of minotaurs colliding with human armies that are operating clockwork soldiers (?):

The bronze automata ratchet their arms, raising battle-axes. The storming beast armies crash into the charging humans. The spring-loaded arms of the clockwork soldiers SNAP down in a wave that rolls along the front...

Now, I must point out that the first thing one notices in Kasdan’s revision is that he got rid of all of that insipid, amateurish voice over. He establishes all of these same plot elements in only 3 pages with almost no dialogue. Yes, really. A dog runs through fields of dead soldiers, sneaks into the Palace of Acrisius (and past Acrisius himself who’s arguing about how to achieve victory), and then into the bedchamber of Danae, who in this version is the wife of Acrisius, not the daughter. The dog transforms into a man who looks just like Acrisius and takes advantage of her. Later, the dog leaves and is nearly killed by Acrisius who hates dogs. Cut to a wordless scene where they throw a weeping Danae (and son) into a coffin and toss the coffin out to sea. Then, Acrisius wakes in his bed from a nightmare. An earthquake begins. He’s condemned verbally by Zeus. The foundations of the palace break. The earth opens up and swallows Acrisius.

Kasdan’s opening is, as Hitchcock always called it, pure cinema. I’ll gladly take Kasdan’s opening over the versions by both Travis Beacham and Beverley Cross, although what Kasdan wrote probably wasn’t achievable in Cross’s day. Yet, Cross accomplished similar goals via good, quality craftsmanship that should be admired.

How Beacham fails in his opening sequence is in the way that he was too high-level about this system that exists between gods and man, about a war (and providing many expensive images of that war) and later, an overly-intellectualized debate on Olympus about peace. All of it is cold, uninviting, and hollow to us. None of this moves us emotionally because we have yet to find an entry point into this story through characters, which won’t arrive until at least page 10. That’s where Cross and Kasdan succeeded. Instead of having the birth of Perseus EXPLAINED to us, we EXPERIENCE his origin story THROUGH SCENES, which makes us feel the emotions the characters are feeling IN THAT MOMENT. You cannot glide over it. You cannot be high-level about it. You have to present a story in the trenches through the eyes of the characters. The scripts of Kasdan and Cross are built upon characters we can feel and whose actions push the story forward.

I’m not even done bitching about characters. My biggest complaint has to be the fact that Perseus, the hero destined to bring peace to mankind, is a weak, passive protagonist. The story design makes him weak, which is less satisfying, because you can’t root for a hero that’s un-motivated and not pushing this adventure forward. An example - the king of Joppa agrees to marry his daughter off to a demigod (Perseus) to appease the gods and bring peace to the war. Thus, Perseus is plucked from his home, taken to Joppa, and told he has to marry Andromeda before even meeting her. He does not fall in love with her. And after her mother misspoke in the temple about her beauty just as in the original film, Perseus agrees to save Andromeda simply because he was the chosen one and the hero destined to bring peace. That’s it. He never goes to save Andromeda because HE wanted to save her, because HE was in love with her, or because HE had a personal stake at all in what happened to her or in Joppa.

There is a line in the script that perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Perseus as a protagonist. When he’s taken to the King of Joppa, they discover that Andromeda had snuck out and they ask Perseus to go find her and bring her back. Beacham writes:


Perseus roams, half purposefully.

SCREENWRITING 101 – YOU CANNOT HAVE AN UNDER-MOTIVATED HERO PROTAGONIST. Beverley Cross gave Perseus every reason under the sun to go on this adventure, the highest reasons a writer can give a hero protagonist – TRUE LOVE, PEACE, and a little SEX. Hehehe… Who can’t sympathize with that? Who wouldn’t root for that? He was called to be a hero. He accepted the calling. He obtained supernatural aid. He rose to the challenge. He crossed the threshold, and he succeeded. That’s a hero’s journey. What happens in this script? He does what he is “destined” to do. Pre-destination is a terrible narrative, because it lacks motivation and robs the story of tension. Let me add that essential to a hero’s journey is the threat of death. Here, Perseus is invulnerable as his wounds quickly heal because he’s a demigod, and all this does is rob the story of more tension.

Not only that, Beacham gave us horribly weak antagonists. And there is no careful, loving devotion to suspense whatsoever. Do you recall in the original Clash film that we saw the Kraken in action in Act One so that we would fear his return in the end? Of course, that does not happen here, and Beacham had to resort to SO much dialogue in order to try to instill fear about what he called “the Leviathan.” Cross had it right. Show the Kraken in the beginning so that it requires no explanation and use dialogue to instill fear about Medusa.

The worst scene had to be the encounter with Medusa, which was only a pale shadow of the original film. Remember what we said in the
last article about all the ways they made that Medusa scene great? None of those points are evident here. He has Perseus and another soldier enter the temple wearing blindfolds. Medusa just shows up. No great introduction. She does not have her famous bow and arrow. Nor does she have acid for blood. She simply sneaks up behind the soldiers and unties their blindfolds in order to get them to look at her. Are you kidding me? If you’re going to do a remake, you have to make a scene like this one BIGGER and BETTER and MORE TENSE, not less.

Now, other soldiers are fighting some centaurs outside on the island as Perseus takes on Medusa inside. Some soldiers survive. Because those soldiers are still alive on the island, when Perseus exits the temple with Medusa’s head, we are robbed of the iconic image known around the world of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head.

He walks out with her head in a bag. He couldn’t hold her head up because it would kill his fellow soldiers.

Speaking of Medusa, an ironic thing happens on the way to the meeting with the three witches (and one glass eye). One night by the camp fire, Perseus simply asks Cheops, the singing poet / storyteller, to tell the story of Medusa. OH SO COINCIDENTALLY. In the original film, it wasn’t until after they visit the witches that Ammon, the playwright (
Burgess Meredith), told the story of Medusa, which is the way it should be. It’s not until after we learn that Perseus has to defeat Medusa that we’ll want to know her story. Because we’re asking ourselves, “Who is this monster?” “What’s she like?”

Speaking of the witches, there was ZERO tension in that scene. Perseus asks another soldier: “Will they give us any trouble?” The reply: “No, they owe me,” and he then goes on to explain why. Then the soldier speaks to the witches on behalf of Perseus!

The scenes with Pegasus also lacked tension. They just so happen to come upon a bunch of Pegassi and just so happen to try to mount one for fun (despite the fact the clock is ticking on Andromeda’s life, but Perseus has no real motivation anyway, so who cares, right?). Well, Perseus fails with the horse. Later, for reasons I’m not going to explain, Perseus simply summons with his mind a Pegasus who comes to his rescue and then he flies to Joppa to save the day. In the original film, the moment with Pegasus was far more important and meaningful because Perseus desperately needed Pegasus’ help and they bonded. Here, there’s no emotional connection between them at all.

There is also another problem, which is quite common in amateur scripts. There is an over-emphasis on prosy, novel-like action lines. Beacham gets so caught up in the descriptions of the setting and this world he’s imagining and how everything works, that he loses sight of his scenes. You do not sell your scenes by your action lines. You sell your scenes by what happens in that scene, how it plays out. That’s what’s important, never how well you write the action lines. Only the most minimal words should be used to describe setting and action.

Remember the ferry that took Perseus and a few soldiers to see Medusa? Here’s Beacham’s ferry:


The prow of the trireme cuts the ice sheets. Rows of oars slice the ice with a mechanical rhythm like the legs of a millipede, pulling the boat thru at an arrow's pace.


Sweltering, dark, and loud. SHUDDERING pipes. HISSING steam. RUMBLING gears and pinions.

CHARON, a grizzled old explorer who never went home, shovels coal into the furnace and slams the hatch.

He walks past rows of benches and his "crew"- mechanical oarsmen of tarnished brass, clockwork automata powered by the boiler. Rowing, tireless.

Charon dons heavy furs before climbing out onto the-


Caked in an icy slick. The men huddle around meager coal stoves in a gray mist, slashed by flecks of snow.

No one speaks. Just the STACCATO RHYTHM of the oars, the GROANING of the hull, and the deep SNAPPING of the ice.


Cluttered with barrels and bundles of rope...

How do any of these details matter – the fact that Charon shovels coal into a furnace in order to operate rows of mechanical oarsmen that will play no part in the story or that he’s donning heavy furs? The point of this scene is Perseus - his preparations, his emotions, and you have to concentrate on HIS story, not all these extraneous, inconsequential details. Remember
the Dark Knight script? They had no time for details, sightseeing, explanations of processes, etc.

Another example from pg 29: “Gooseflesh prickles the nape of her neck.” Do we really see this? Is this a close-up of her neck? Does he even know the principles about
writing the shots?

I’m going to stop here. Without giving away the story, and believe me, I avoided so very much, I have to say one thing. I mentioned in
the last article how this is the kind of story where the filmmakers must have the courage of their convictions. That is, they must know what the story is and tell it. It’s that simple. Clash of the Titans has always been a romantic adventure with Perseus fighting for the love of his life. Either have the courage to tell that story or don’t tell it all.

Next, the script review of Kasdan's revision.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Screenwriting News & Links! 10/26/08

Hey guys,

Coming Tuesday, a review of Travis Beacham’s Clash of the Titans script followed by a review of Larry Kasdan’s revision.

Hope you’re well,



Free Online Film Books!

Jonathan Rosenbaum - Moving Places: A Life at the Movies

Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal (eds) - Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes

John M. Frame - Theology at the Movies

William C. Wees - Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film

David Bordwell - Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema

Barton Byg - Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

Charles Musser - Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company

Thomas J. Saunders - Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany

Gene Youngblood - Expanded Cinema

Jennifer E. Langdon - Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood

Robert Philip Kolker - The Altering Eye

Donald Richie - Japanese Cinema

Nöel Burch - To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema

(Hat-tip to
Catherine Grant & Film Studies for Free. Thank you!)


Bono to write for the NYT whose profits have dropped 82%.

Hollywood Movies Still Thrive During Tough Times
"When the going gets tough, consumers go to the movies," said Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan. "Historically, theaters have been fairly recession proof, and this year looks to be no exception."

The art of avoiding writer's block
…Nor should you get hung up on perfectionism. Don't assume you are writing anything more than a draft, and always leave yourself enough time to revise it once you've finished the last sentence. Delay putting pen to paper and you may be forced to complete an assignment by an unachievable deadline, which would be even more daunting. Instead, set yourself easy targets, and once you get going you may find yourself reaching way beyond them. It isn't helpful to have the sneaking suspicion you could be the next Ernest Hemingway, either. You'll find it inhibiting, and anyway you're not. Even if you are, no one will find out unless you write something. Treat it as a job that has to be done, rather than a rare chance to share your genius.

Del Toro on writing The Hobbit:
Can you talk a little bit about the process of working as one of four writers, and maybe it’s a navigation that’s still being borne out, but what is the process literally?
Well the strange thing - as we got to the most - I mean I work in collaboration a lot. I normally write alone in the Spanish Language films, or I - I have even written Hellboys as a screenplay writer alone, but I’m used to collaboration. Sometimes with one, or sometimes with two writers, like in Devils Backbone. I mean it’s not as a cumbersome project as one might think, because in reality Peter, Fran and Philippa are a single person. You know they really are like born out of Catholic dogma - its Father Son and Holy Spirit, [Anthony quietly laughs] - you cannot distinguish them. I mean I can tell you where each of them brings something different to the process - Philippa is kind of the Oracle of the Law - and she knows. But so is Fran! She doesn’t think that she is - she claims “well I don’t remember much but” that preface is always followed by a scholarly citation about the Dwarves mining or whatever subject you want. And Peter, Peter and I come to it always from the intuitive film making audience engaging and so forth. The more I read of Tolkien, analogue Tolkien, and so forth, the more I feel that the task is going to be perfectly balanced because basically what you do is a ping pong. One of the groups finishes one part of the task and then bounces it off the other part of the group. And in this case it’s not four groups, it’s one - its two groups, and eventually it will be completely fused. I mean, that’s happened to me with the other writers...

Bag Lady Turned Screenwriter
But 27-year-old former Sydneysider Kathryn Eismann, who launches her new book What Does Your Bag Say About You with appearances on Good Morning America next week said she's to busy to settle on one man at the moment. "I'm enjoying meeting new people but I don't have a serious handbag at the moment, only a few clutches," she told Confidential from New York. After a stint back in Sydney, Eismann returned to the Big Apple six months ago, a place where she initially tasted success with her first book How To Tell A Man By His Shoes at 21. She has now turned her hand to screenwriting, working on a screenplay of her first book.

Ripley's New Director
The long-gestating Ripley's Believe It or Not! has found a new lease on life at Paramount Pictures. Harry Potter and Home Alone director Chris Columbus is in talks to direct the project, according to Variety. Tim Burton dropped out of the project in 2007. Jim Carrey remains attached to star as Robert Ripley, the titular explorer.

Screenwriter: Movie Racists Meant to be Tar Heels
Recall the dust-up over The Express, the new biopic on the life of Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner. The film portrays a Davis visit to play the West Virginia Mountaineers as an ugly near-riot of racist antics and incitement from the stands. Trouble is, it never happened. This little oversight predictably sent the folks of West Virginia into orbit. The upset reached the halls of state government, including the governor. In an evident attempt to quell the uproar screenwriter Charles Leavitt wrote to Gov. Joe Manchin this week. Don’t blame me for the WVa thing Leavitt wrote, as the AP reports: “But screenwriter Charles Leavitt told Gov. Joe Manchin this week that the scene was supposed to depict a 1958 game at Tar Heels Stadium in North Carolina — a choice that also displayed artistic license. ‘When I saw the film for the first time, I was as surprised as you were to see West Virginia inserted in place of North Carolina,’ Leavitt wrote Manchin in an Oct. 20 letter. Leavitt, who also sent the governor a copy of his script, told Manchin he apologized for the depiction while noting it was ‘something I had no hand in.’”

On John Lasseter’s Success
Heart. Inventiveness. Inspiration. These are Lasseter's own hallmarks, visible in everything from the free education available to Pixar employees to the imaginative way he works with Pixar's "Brain Trust," a group of directors who play a pivotal role on each film. The Brain Trust is critical to Pixar's success. It gets together regularly to look at work done by other directors and comment candidly.

Here’s a blast from the past. In March, 2007, I wrote an article
about Disney’s Rapunzel. We talked about all of the promises Glen Keane, master animator, made to the media about how this would be the most gorgeously rendered animated film ever produced. But then an article on Jim Hill Media pointed out that the story was in trouble, that John Lasseter gave Keane a deadline to fix it or he’s off the project. So we looked at the original story, which is quite awful on so many levels, and people STILL leave comments on that old Rapunzel article with ideas about how to fix the story. Well, we know now from Ain’t It Cool that Glen Keane is no longer the co-director of Rapunzel not only because of story problems but also health reasons, too. The reins have been handed over to Byron Howard & Nathan Greno, who were the co-directors and heads of story on the new Bolt film. Plus, a NEW article on Jim Hill Media tells us that “while Rapunzel's story reels have gotten noticeably stronger over the past 18 months... In the end, Glen & Dean were never able to solve this project's main story problem. Which is that -- once Rapunzel gets trapped in her tower -- this fairy tale goes stale. This is why John Lasseter & Ed Catmull were forced to do what they did on both American Dog and Rapunzel. As the new heads of WDAS, they have a responsibility to deliver commercially viable animated features that will then go to entertain a mass audience.” And now Byron and Nathan have to wade through six years of development and find a workable storyline for Disney's holiday 2010 release.

Bourne Writer Confirmed for Army of Two Flick
We mentioned in passing this morning that Electronic Arts was going to be working on a movie of Army of Two. Well, the company has now confirmed that not only is the project green-lighted (green-lit?) with Universal Studios but that a writer has been appointed. The scribe in question is Scott Z. Burns who is responsible for the not better than James Bond (oh, it is) Bourne Ultimatum. According to IMDB he was also the producer on Al Gore's eco-scary An Inconvenient Truth, so we might get more than usual video game as terrible movie outing. (Here's how the screenwriter described his take on the flick on Variety's game blog: “The ambiguity of these private military corporations lends weight to an intelligent thriller with relevance to what's going on in the world right now. You have contractors with their own agendas, and two guys whose friendship supersedes all the politics. I told EA right off the bat I wasn't a gamer, and that appealed to them because they didn't want to simply replicate the game.”)

The Five Paths for Australian Screenwriters

Here’s an interview with a new, unknown screenwriter and contest winner David Ebeltoft -
Part One and Part Two:
Can you tell the readers a little about You Were Once Called Queen City? How long did it take you to complete?
The script is about Danny Mesersmits, a past-obsessed teenager, who is trying to decide whether to follow in the wrestling footsteps of his deceased father, a local legend. It’s set in a sweet, mid-western town and contains a quirky collection of small-town idiots dusting up situations that sometimes help and other times hinder Danny’s decision. When an unexpected tragedy occurs Danny has to come to terms with his past so he can deal with the present and face his future. It took about two years to obtain the draft I submitted for contest consideration…
(Note to Danny: Don’t ever call your own characters “idiots.” That doesn’t help sell your story. -MM)

MSU film grad says perseverance is key to career in Hollywood

Who knew?

Coming Soon: a
Das Kapital adaptation:
What with the humbling of some of the world's grandest banks, and the improbable success of John Sergeant as a hoofer in Strictly Come Dancing, the world has been moving in mysterious ways. But few as mysterious as the current climb up Germany's bestseller lists of Karl Marx's Das Kapital - a book which, like Finnegans Wake, A Brief History Of Time and À la recherche du temps perdu, tends to be more bought than read. The philosopher whose aim was to “reveal the law of motion of modern society” has become as fashionable as this season's colour on the catwalk. Marx's German publisher says sales have been soaring since the summer. Some people must be reading Marx's fifth step of the ten essential steps to communism - “centralisation of credit in the hands of the state” - and smacking their foreheads in recognition, as if something they read in their newspaper horoscope that day actually has just come to pass. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, has been photographed reading Das Kapital. Germany's Finance Minister, Peer Steinbrück, recently said: “Certain parts of Marx's thinking are really not so bad”. Pope Benedict XVI has praised Marx's “great analytical skill”. So far this year 40,000 tourists have visited Marx's birthplace in Trier. And - are you ready? - director Alexander Kluge is making a movie out of Das Kapital.

Five questions with Beau Thorne, Max Payne screenwriter
Not among the questions: "What the hell were you thinking?"

Final Draft Honors Stephen J. Cannell at Annual Event
(I share this because this was the first event in which they actually put “Mystery Man” on the VIP list, thanks to my dear friend & editor in chief of Script Mag. I didn’t go. I was tempted. Hehehe…)

Cruising: The Sound of Violence
In a famous essay of the early 1980s titled "The Incoherent Text," the British critic Robin Wood drew special attention to William Fredikin's Cruising (1980) - a film which had been vilified by many gay critics - as "extremely audacious" because "its surface is deliberately fractured, the progress of the narrative obscured." But Wood added that, despite or perhaps because of its formal experimentation, the film was "not necessarily artistically successful." In his analysis, Wood compared Cruising to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and Richard Brooks's Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), and this corpus was founded on a gnawing ambiguity: was the incoherence of these texts, their dynamic contradictions, voluntary or involuntary, crafted or merely symptomatic?

The cinema of William Friedkin presents, in fact, a richly ambiguous borderline case within contemporary American cinema. Rather than evoking Scorsese and Brooks, one might place Friedkin's work within a certain cinema of hysteria that includes auteurs like Oliver Stone, Mike Figgis, Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott, and Zalman King - or, further back, Ken Russell. The cinema of hysteria is a mode of filmmaking that actively cultivates incoherence: structured upon moment-to-moment spectacular effect, it aims for the sudden gasp, the revelatory dramatic frisson, the split-second turn-around of meaning or mood, the disorientating gear-change into high comedy or gross tragedy. Many Friedkin films, from The Exorcist (1973) to Rampage (1992), artfully evoke an intense atmosphere of hysteria - within both the fiction, and its spectators. Yet, at the same time, his films also display a level of control that acknowledges a large debt to the classical cinema of Ford, Hawks or Lang. And so it is within the highly coherent incoherence of Cruising that we can locate its substantial artistic success, and evaluate it as one Friedkin's finest works.

Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In, which is currently
at 97% on the Critic’s TomatoMeter (red band trailer above), says in an L.A. Times interview that he found his inspiration in paintings:
FOR SWEDISH director Tomas Alfredson, the eyes have it -- that scary quality just right for horror. So when Alfredson set out to make the eerie film Let the Right One In, about the friendship that develops between two adolescents -- one of whom happens to be a vampire -- he didn't watch any horror movies for inspiration. Instead, he studied paintings to see how they used "eye-to-eye contact," he says. "I studied Renaissance painters; one, called Hans Holbein, has a very strange way of dealing with eyes." Alfredson was especially taken with Holbein's 1538 painting "Edward VI as a Child." The prince, Alfredson says, "is looking outside the frame and under it. It's very strange and very scary." (See also the
GreenCine round-up of articles.)

A few Hans Holbein images:

Q&A with Jonathan Demme
"I think this is the best work that I've ever done," declares director Jonathan Demme of his new film, Rachel Getting Married, and as Demme has done such work as The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense and Something Wild, among many others...

U.S. writers to go on tour de France
Gallic film commission Film France has teamed up with the WGA to launch France Unlimited Access, a program that takes 10 Hollywood scribes on an eight-day tour of Gallic landmarks to encourage them to develop story ideas set in that country. John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Michael Brandt (Wanted), Michael Dougherty (Superman Returns), Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma), Edward Neumeier (Starship Troopers), Duncan Tucker (Transamerica) and Rita Hsiao (Toy Story 2) have signed up for the tour, set to take place in Paris and the South of France from Nov. 6-13.

Times Are Changing for J. Michael Straczynski
With the release of Changeling, Straczynski’s first feature screenwriting credit and the latest directorial effort for Clint Eastwood, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich, Straczynski has turned into a wanted man in Hollywood. His list of upcoming collaborators reads like the guest list at a Steven Spielberg dinner party: Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Paul Greengrass, Tom Cruise, the Wachowski brothers. In between working on numerous scripts for these (now-fellow) A-listers, Straczynski took a break to speak with [us] about his transformation into an in-demand Hollywood scribe and the challenges of trying to make the truly unbelievable real-life story of Christine Collins and her lost son seem believable. (Plus, here’s a Time Magazine interview.)

Shock: Straczynski’s Changeling
a splat on the Critic’s TomatoMeter. The consensus: “Beautifully shot and well-acted, Changeling is a compelling story that unfortunately gives in to convention too often.” This begs the question: “was the writing all that great?” A.O. Scott wrote: “The truth about the case of Christine Collins is so shocking and dramatic that embellishment must have seemed pointless, but in sticking so close to the historical record, Mr. Straczynski and Mr. Eastwood have produced a distended, awkward narrative whose strongest themes are lost in the murky pomp of period detail.”

Malkovich Directs Zach Helm’s Play in Mexico City
Actor, producer and director John Malkovich, who directed a French version of Zach Helm's THE GOOD CANARY in Paris last year, will now direct a new production of the play in Spanish. EL BUEN CANARIO will be open on November 26 at Teatro de Los Insurgentes in Mexico City for a ten-week run…. The Paris production, which was the play's world premiere, received more Moliere nominations than any in 2007 -- six -- and also garnered the French Crystal Globe Award for Best Play. Helm's debut screenplay, STRANGER THAN FICTION, received the PEN USA Award for Best Screenplay...

A round-up here on
I’ve Loved You So Long (Now sitting at 91% on the Critic’s TomatoMeter. Trailer above. I’m SO there! Hehehe...)

Bardem signs up for Iñárritu's Biutiful See also Variety’s article:
Pic is about a man embroiled in shady dealings who is confronted by a childhood friend, now a policeman. (This follows Iñárritu's well-publicized falling out with writing collaborator Guillermo Arriaga over the credit on Babel.)

McG to direct 'Dead Spy Running'
Warner Bros. has acquired "Dead Spy Running," an upcoming spy novel by British author Jon Stock for McG to direct that would serve as a launch of a franchise character. While story details are under wraps, the book, the first of a trilogy, aims to reinvent the spy genre. It tells the origin story of newly trained spy in a tone that mixes The Bourne Identity with the works of John Le Carre. "Running" sold to a HarperCollins imprint in a bidding war and will be published in 2009. (McG also has a blog on the Terminator Salvation production.)

Seth Green told
Moviehole that he’s going to direct a big screen adaptation of Freshmen, the comic book series he co-created with friend Hugh Sterbakov. Green says they’re “writing the feature, and we’re gonna make it when it’s ready”. They are currently looking for a studio to finance, which will likely require a $35 million budget.

Sherlock Holmes Script Review
We just finished the Mike-Johnson-written script of Sherlock Holmes that's currently being shot by Guy Ritchie in London. At best it's fun, harmless romp through the Holmes mythos, revitalized for audiences assimilated with the Bourne-style, action, smarts and authenticity vibe. At worst its Pirates of the Caribbean set in Scotland yard - mindless, escapist entertainment that's trite and hokey. But the Bourne-angle is how they draw you in. 'Sherlock 2000' (what we like to sardonically call it) is no more realistic than say Indiana Jones 3 (its not quite as ridic as Indy 4) and from we get from the script, we shouldn't expect anything much more than a fun PG-13-ish summer popcorn flick with a smidgen of edge unless Ritchie can really dig into this thing, but there's not a ton of depth to mine.

Apparently, there’s a controversy over The Watchmen ending.

Early reviews of Quantum of Solace
are mixed.

Marc Forster won’t be back to direct the next Bond
"They offered me the next one, but at this point the pressure is so intense — it's a year of not having a life. And I don't know if I want to do that again. It's literally not having a life, and I mean that, it's not exaggerated. I feel like life is short, you have to find a balance."


On Synecdoche, New York:

In light of the fact that there is so much noise in the media right now about Kaufman’s new film, I have
re-posted below my script review, which I wrote in May, 2007. Plus, I’ve added new pictures. It was the most agonizingly difficult review because it’s so strange.

I still recall vividly my feelings at the time. Reading that script was a deeply unsettling and exhaustively depressing experience. I felt somehow damaged by it. A feeling of melancholy settled over me. I wrote, “Why put an audience through so much sadness? Is the world so happy right now that we have to pay to be reminded of all this gloom? Is it really admirable and praiseworthy for an artist to do nothing more than to be a bit creative about shit and death? It’s not even the fact that it’s sad that bothers me but that it’s just repetitiously chronicled without any redeeming emotional lift in the end.” In fact, this brings to mind an article on
Fatal Flaws in Screenwriting where I quoted Ebert who talked about Chaos, the most nihilistic film ever made. He said, “As the Greeks understood tragedy, it exists not to bury us in death and dismay, but to help us to deal with it, to accept it as a part of life, to learn about our own humanity from it. That is why the Greek tragedies were poems: The language ennobled the material… What I object to most of all in Chaos is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever. Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender.”

That, to me, is how Kaufman failed in his own unique way.

But I could be wrong.

So far, it has a higher rating
on the Tomatometer than Straczynski’s Changeling, if you can imagine that.

Of course, there is ZERO audience for this film and Synecdoche, New York will tank if/when it gets a wide release. But here’s my question: is it a good story that’s worth telling?

I turned to my most trusted critic, James Berardinelli, and
what he wrote eerily mirrored my own thoughts:

Synecdoche, New York is relentlessly bleak. That in and of itself is not a problem but it eliminates any joy that might result in unraveling Kaufman's mind-benders. The director doesn't want viewers to enjoy themselves watching this movie. It is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging and, assuming those to be his objectives, he succeeds. Kaufman's previous films ventured along the razor's edge separating ponderous from insightful, but always had a strong enough narrative to anchor them. Here, any pretense of a coherent plot is jettisoned midway through the proceedings. We're left with a movie that becomes so bloated and self-important that it's tough to sit through. The final 30 minutes in particular are difficult because, by then, we've lost the connection to Caden. Synecdoche, New York is less a movie than a series of disjointed meditations on art, death, and the connection between the two. Viewers who love to ascribe meaning to the cryptic will have a field day. To me, it seems more like weirdness for weirdness' sake…

…I walked out of Synecdoche, New York feeling frustrated and a little cheated. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I could find something meaningful in the wreckage, but I don't feel compelled to dig through the detritus. Kaufman is inviting meaning-seekers to enjoy his masturbatory ride. He has sacrificed plot, character, and logic on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Yes, parts of the film work. Individual scenes are funny, or poignant, or thought-provoking. But the picture as a whole is a mess. Some will call this art. I'll content myself with thinking of it as an ambitious misstep by a creative individual who failed to realize what he was trying to represent.

But yet, Manohla Dargis
loved it: To say that Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.

So here’s a round-up of critical thoughts:

Jonathan Rosenbaum: It seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realize his surrealistic conceits.

Michael Joshua Rowin: There is little precedent, cinematic or otherwise, for Synecdoche, New York… Sure, early on in his directorial debut, maestro screenwriter Charlie Kaufman namechecks Kafka to prepare us for the increasingly claustrophobic surrealism that engulfs author-surrogate Caden Cotard (a phenomenal Philip Seymour Hoffman), while the character's psychotic, Borgesian obsession with artistic fidelity to real life is approached with the same matter-of-fact bemusement as Buñuel - this isn't entirely unfamiliar territory, at least to begin with. But as it becomes more and more frustrated in its attempt to reconcile personal entropy with creative perfection, Synecdoche proves that even from the ingenious, hilarious and, clearly, tortured mind of the man who might be this country's greatest current contributor to the art of storytelling, it is like nothing else we've quite seen…

Fernando F Croce: The artistic psyche has never been more joylessly explored… Synecdoche is a reminder of what a dead-end brilliant screenwriting conceits can be when left by themselves on the screen.... Freed from the influence of collaborators, Kaufman wallows in his thematic fixations like a dieting matron lunging at a box of bonbons.

Elbert Ventura: A whimper against creeping mortality, Synecdoche, New York can border on the insufferable. Caden flagellates himself with such single-mindedness that you can’t help but want to escape his whiny company. Endless though this hall of mirrors may seem at times, it is also frequently brilliant. Kaufman’s script is a wonder of lapidary craft (only the Coens write screenplays as precise and poetic). Synecdoches and stand-ins, echoes and doubles, projections of a mind desperate for renewal, are seen everywhere. Bird flu in turkey? No—Turkey. A skin disease called sycocis—not psychosis. At one point Caden comes up with a title for his play: “Simulacrum.”

Rex Reed: Charlie Kaufman. Oy vay. I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll. But nothing that has belched forth from his word processor so far—not the abominable Being John Malkovich, the asinine Adaptation (Meryl Streep even worse than in Mamma Mia!), the artery-clogging Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Chuck Barris from “The Gong Show” a secret operative for the C.I.A.?), not even the jabberwocky of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind—prepared me for a bottom feeder like Synecdoche, New York. It is extremely doubtful that you will sit through all two-hours-plus of this obnoxious drivel—in fact, the fool producers who actually put up the money to finance it owe you a prize if you do—but even if Hollywood bought the myth of Charlie Kaufman, the latest Hollywood example of “the emperor’s new clothes,” as a writer … whatever did he do to convince sane people he could be a director, too?

David Edelstein: This epic dream play with its leaps through time and space, its characters and shadow characters, poses a momentous question: Uh... well... I'm not sure what question the movie is posing. The answer, though, is definitely 'Death…'" The best thing to do with one's spatial-temporal bewilderment is get over it and go with the free-associational flow: Synecdoche cannot be diagrammed.

Mark Haslam: No doubt, it's got some great ideas about space and time which seem natural to film; but they're not put together in any cohesive way. Things are jumbled, uneven. Leaving the theater, I couldn't escape the thought of what would've been if Kaufman had given things more time, allowed the form to unfold itself, gradually over time, so that we feel time slipping away from us as it slips away from Caden, so that the approach of the film's end really is that gradual approach of Death.

Karina Longworth: The film "is impeccably acted, inventively designed, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and often devastatingly sad... It was also still such a mystery to me after two viewings that I found it hard to trust my own vocabulary to describe what the experience of watching it is actually like. But [in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert] Burton, rambling on 400 years before the fact, seems to nail it, or at least part of it: a life where the madness of creativity and the madness of love/lust are constantly exchanged for one another, to the point where [pleasure] from either is unattainable. But it's also about the fear of death, the impossibility of romance in the absence of longing, the instinct to project our desires on to others and to seek answers about ourselves in mirror images. In other words, as theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says of his own life's work, 'It's about everything.'"

Jürgen Fauth: ...an overambitious meta-narrative about a director producing an overambitious meta-narrative. From the punny title to the bitter end, Synecdoche, New York is driven by its creator and main character's desperate attempts to address the grand themes - art, love, life, and death. The one self-referential twist that Kaufman didn't intend: both the play-within-the-movie and the movie itself are disastrous failures.

Richard Corliss: The obvious inspiration is Federico Fellini's , in which Guido, a moviemaker with director's block, is beset by memories and fantasies as he dodges all the women in his life, from mother to wife to whore to mistress to muse… Kaufman has constructed a most devious puzzle, a labyrinth of an endangered mind. Yet it's one that - thanks in large part to a superb cast, led by Hoffman's unsparing, sympathetic, towering performance - should delight viewers who both work the movie out and surrender to its spell.

Dana Stevens: Synecdoche, New York is a very sad movie for two reasons. First off, the story, about a theater director who's sucked into the vortex of his own impossible artistic ambitions, is unremittingly bleak, making for one of the most depressing nondocumentary films you're likely to see, well, ever. But secondly - and in the long run, more movingly - Synecdoche is sad because it's a constant reminder, a ghostly double, of the great movie it could have been.

Scott Foundas: ...Synecdoche is a partly confessional, partly satirical investigation into the creative process - and the notion (or the absurdity thereof) that art can lead to understanding.

And now the interviews:

"Oh, God almighty," said
Hope Davis when asked to describe the film. Michael Ordoña meets her for the Los Angeles Times.

From the Kaufman interview at /Film:
Do you typically write your films hoping that audience will require multiple viewings?
Yes. Well, I think it makes it more interesting for an audience to have some complexity in the material, and also, I’ve got this sort of thing where I’m trying to make it feel like it’s a living piece of theater, as opposed to a set, sort of a pre-recorded thing. And it’s sort of a tricky thing to try to make film feel alive because it isn’t. So this way, it can change when you watch it again at a different point in your life, or just seeing it for the second time, you’re going to see things you couldn’t possibly see the first time because you didn’t know something until the end. But, also, you get to look at details. You can watch things that are happening in the background of scenes that are informative that you probably don’t see the first time through when you’re just trying to get the thing. So that’s why.

indieWIRE’s interview with Kaufman:
Can you say something about your mental process when you are writing?
I often have a theme in mind when I'm starting. I know that I want everytihing to be in a world of, say, evolution, or guilt. But also I do a lot of things intuitively. I'm not often consciously aware of what I'm doing. It's like in a dream: There's something going on that's powerful but you don't know exactly why. As I'm writing, though, I start to see connections, and themes I didn't see, and that sparks other things. So then I go back and rewrite things or alter them. It's a combination of intuition and a lot of finessing. It becomes a combination of the rational and the irrational. I always go in circles. I have OCD to a certain extent, so I tend to do a lot of circular thinking. I think I do have OCD a bit.

More interviews with
GreenCine, FilmCatcher, Fresh Air, Michael Guillén, Liz Ohanesian, Brent Simon, Steve Dollar, Jesse Hassenger, Ted Zee, and Andrew O'Hehir.

Official website. And here’s the press kit.


On the Contest Circuit:

Movie Script Contest Announces Finalists

Spec Scriptacular Finalists Chosen

People's Pilot Finalists Chosen

netfilm.com Announces 2008 Split-Screenplay Contest Winners

Slamdance Announces 2008 Contest Winners and Finalists

Austin Fest Announces Contest Winners

CWA Announces Final Contest Results


And Finally

Something happy! “Directed by John Hughes” by one of my favorite YouTubers,
Mr. Barringer82. Be sure to watch it to the very end.

Script Review - Synecdoche, New York

Hey guys,

I thought I’d add to all the noise in the media this weekend about Kaufman’s new film, Synecdoche, New York, by sharing my script review, which was originally posted on May 2, 2007.



MM’s soul-searching metaphysical Synecdoche, NY, experience:


You can do this review, man. There is no script too difficult, right? You can and WILL find a way to get at the heart and soul and TRUTH of this outrageous epic of Charlie Kaufman. You love Charlie Kaufman. You can figure this out. You can find the truth through the process of writing a review. Okay, just relax. Look at it again.

It’s 152 pages. That’s incredibly long. What does that mean? Is this a burning piece of profound inspiration from a great writer? Or is this a first draft from a guy who’s just putting all of his thoughts down on paper? Or is this a matter of unchecked vanity? Has his fame caught up with him like M. Night Shyamalan’s who thinks his shit doesn’t stink when, in fact, his scripts still have to go through the normal process of rewrites until it’s molded to perfection?

Page 1. He forgot to write FADE IN, which is my favorite part of a script. But that’s okay. That’s not a bad sign. You’ll still find a way to love this. You'll get to the truth of it all. It’s Charlie Kaufman, ya know.

The opening kitchen scene is mundane to the point of being almost boring, which is surprising, disappointing, and yet confidence-building, because you know that there is a master design behind it all. I think this might be just a normal point of entry for everyone into what will be a very crazy story. There’s dual dialogue, which you don’t see often from pro writers. A radio talks about a luncheon in downtown Schnectady that I don’t think we ever see. There’s a subtle undercurrent of standard fare marital unhappiness between Caden and Adele. She talks to some woman on the phone. We see Adele wipe the bottom of their 4-year-old daughter, Olive. There are green smears on the toilet paper. Do we really see that? Ew. Caden isn’t feeling well. He seems distant from his family, lost in his own world. He cares more about his own illnesses, his career, the news he discovers about people dying than he does about the lives of the people right in front of him.

He visits dentists and doctors and they all give him worrying news that he isn’t well, although no one knows exactly what the problem is and they all tell him to keep coming back for more tests. There's a freak accident in a bathroom. A trip to an emergency room. Caden notices people screaming. The doctor’s concerned that there’s a deeper problem in him and asks about his bowel movements. You get the sense that this could be the beginning of the end for Caden. He visits an Opthamologist. He endures an MRI. He’s constantly checking his stools, and we, too, are forced to view the many strange incarnations of Caden's feces. Once, it’s “dark and loose,” later it’s “black” and even “grey.” He pees in a sink. His urine is “amber.” Is there value in showing amber urine and grey poop in film? What can it mean? Is it to get a laugh? Or is it about trying to show us physical manifestations of Caden’s inner turmoil? Or is it about showing poop on film?

He's a director of plays and there’s a girl in the box office who wants to have an affair with him. Her name is Hazel. Later, she sees a run-over dog on the road. She actually goes to look at it more closely. It’s a bloody, gory mess. Yet, it’s barely alive. The head moves. She bends down to pet it and says “You’re not going to make it, baby.” I think perhaps, it's an overt reference to Caden himself. It’s a grotesque moment, is it not? It’s horribly ugly, but it has meaning, doesn't it? Should we condemn Charlie for many other moments like this one in the film where we are forced to view stomach-churning ugliness that has meaning? She takes it in. We later see it sleeping in a box in the corner of her apartment.

Caden takes the phrase “passive protag” to new heights. He does nothing but be so self absorbed about his problems and his illnesses and his play-directing that he neglects everyone around him. He fails to fight for the child that Adele takes away from him. He never makes decisions - he only caves in to pressure. He’ll agree to sleep with certain girls only after they practically throw themselves at him for days on end without a care in the world about the fact that he’s married and trying to be faithful. But he caves in anyway, and when the sex is over, he cries like a baby and ruins the affair. In fact, he does this on more than one occasion. Doesn’t this kind of behavior turn off audiences? Why should they care about this man who is so weak? But this pattern continues – after crying and ruining affairs, he flips emotionally and suddenly commits to the girl of the moment and begs her like a child to take him back, which they won’t do. He’s always fighting for the wrong girl and never once fights for his own daughter. By constructing a character that goes against everything every screenwriting book ever told you to do, has Kaufman done something right? Is it always necessary to love the person you’re watching in a movie? By seeing someone make all the wrong choices and lose those things that are most precious to him, do we not benefit so that we will hopefully make the right choices?

But that is only one aspect of Caden’s arc. We see him plummet into an obsession about his death, about death itself, and we also see him become enveloped by his own fears and paranoia about his health and his feces and the end of his life. The world around him slowly transforms from reality to a world of the absurd where you see people living in burning houses and other strange occurrences like that moment when the Salvation Army Santa spastically clawed at his beard and revealed a tortured blue face and then he gasped for air and died. And as the world transforms into the bizarre like a slow-moving wave, all of the imagery points to only one thing, that Caden finds himself surrounded by death and decay everywhere he turns – people are dying or committing suicide or friends of friends pass away or his own parents pass away and we see many funerals. And like a slow-moving wave, I find myself deeply saddened by it all. Why put an audience through so much sadness? Is the world so happy right now that we have to pay to be reminded of all this gloom? Is it really admirable and praiseworthy for an artist to do nothing more than to be a bit creative about shit and death? It’s not even the fact that it’s sad that bothers me but that it’s just repetitiously chronicled without any redeeming emotional lift in the end. It is like watching a man fall to his death and there’s no hope for any new development except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies. Pre-destination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it’s a bit self-defeating, isn’t it?

Yes, Caden reacts to this and does something about it. We find that he’s a theatre director who had put on a strange play that became a megahit. He’s given a genius grant and he decides that he should write one final play that’s big and true and tough. And he puts his own screwed up life into the story and tries to find truth through that process and put that truth into his art. He has an actor play him and other actors play the women he screwed and there is some whimsical confusion about art imitating life imitating art imitating life.

And none of it satisfies me because it comes across as not redeeming (in the sense of the redemptive power of film art) but as self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, self-promoting, and I really hate to say it, but vain in an even more perverse way than when he literally put himself into in the movie Adaptation. Didn’t he already cover the “creative process” in Adaptation? Why do we have to go through this again? And is this really the best approach to Caden’s story? Instead of him channeling all of his anguish and self absorbed problems into a play, shouldn’t he be actively trying to fix the problems in his life? Isn’t that where we find truth about life in films? When the Greeks put on tragedies, was it always their solution to escape into art and put on more plays? I mean, come on, Charlie. I love you, but tell me - is this really about story and characters and themes or is this about Charlie Kaufman showing the world how brilliant Charlie Kaufman can be? Or is this simply about Charlie Kaufman struggling to be inventive and original and so he finds himself forced to go to peculiar extremes to outdo Charlie Kaufman?

God, ya know, I feel like I’m almost there. I think I’m getting closer to the truth. Yet, I still can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know how to convey this core truth in the review. I just have to keep writing. Let me ask this question - how is it that this story went from real to the bizarre? At some point, in the 120s or 130s, the novelty of the concept wore off and I was just waiting for the ending and the answer to what was really going on, which I never got. I think I have an idea. I think, perhaps, in Kaufman’s mind, Caden is a man already dead, a man living in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis and he’s just trying to make sense of his life, which saddens me all the more, because Caden's view is on the one hand entirely selfish and on the other, when he finally looks outside of himself, he ONLY sees a world that's full of death and ugliness and his solution is to crawl into his artwork.

But you know, even that answer doesn’t fully satisfy me. I have to get to the core truth of this story…

Oh my God...

I see it now.

I know what to write. It’s