Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The writers of the spec script THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII revealed!

In recent years, May the 4th has come to be recognized as an unofficial Star Wars holiday, as in "May the Fourth be with you." The practical result of this is that for the entire day, most geek sites turn into complete advertisements for Star Wars, whether they're posting new Star Wars-related news or reblogging old content it seems no story is too small so long as it's Jedi-related.

This most recent holiday saw the release of an unusual spec script: The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. If you are part of the online circle known as Screenwriting Twitter, you probably saw some discussion about this, spawned by this tweet:

A writer drafted their own spec script about the making of a Star Wars movie that hasn't even finished filming yet, then made it available on the internet via both the Black List and an open download, making certain to put it out on May the 4th. It was clearly an attention-seeking tweet from Making Episode VIII, and in reacting to it by telling everyone, "Don't do this," Mr. Sweeney was clearly giving the author exactly what he wanted. How do I know this?

Because I am "Making Episode VIII."

The script the account was shilling was authored by me and my friend Brian Scully. The whole gag was my idea, and it actually started as an April Fools joke. The last few years, the internet has been a horrible place on April 1st. As one observer noted, it's like people think doing something like "Your mother was just killed! April Fool!" counts as a clever prank. I wanted to do something that was fun, but that wasn't necessarily ruined if people didn't think of it as "real."

In the wake of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I also saw how some sites were so hungry for Star Wars discussion that they'd repost seemingly every scrap of Star Wars content out there. More than one site was regularly building stories around fan theories that originated on Reddit! It felt like nothing was too ridiculous to be spotlit and that was when I hatched my plan.

The final thing that motivated this prank was when I saw several geek sites devote space to the totally nothing story of a guy trying to crowdfund the cost of billboards to promote his WAYNE'S WORLD 3 spec script. I've blogged about my part in spreading that story before. If you Google "wayne's world 3 gofundme" you can see exactly how far this story spread, branching out from a tweet from Geoff LaTulippe after I tipped him off to this campaign. I go into more details in my older post, but for me, the spreading of this story was just a sad comment how a completely irrelevant story got spread just so the phrase "WAYNE'S WORLD 3" could provoke some clicks.

In a way, I guess I wanted to prove how easily an empty-content story could be spread, even if it was clearly some kind of troll or goof. It seemed completely doable that we could get at least a few of these sites to post about The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII.

I sent an email to Brian Scully with the pitch: I'd seen a growing genre on the Black List in recent years - scripts about the "making of" famous films. It seemed ripe for parody, and merging it with my April Fool's idea gave me the notion to do a script about the making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. Because of the ridiculousness of such a script, I insisted that if nothing else, we needed to have fun writing it.

At this point, there were less than two months before April Fools. I pitched to Brian that we would not break out the plot or work from any kind of outline. Instead, we could take turns writing each day. I would write at least three pages, then send it to him and he'd have a day to think about it and get me back at least three pages of his own.

I'd done this sort of "write the other guy into a corner" approach back when I was running a TV show in college, and though I'm a meticulous outliner usually, a few years back I wrote a comedy script entirely by coming up with the high concept hook and just going where the story took me. I found it to be a refreshing exercise because each day started with "What's the most obvious choice? Great - now let's do the opposite of that and see where it takes us." Obviously, that was just for the vomit draft, and I later went back and refined the script.

But Scully and I were both coming off of several very dark feature scripts, so this seemed like a wacky palate cleanser for both of us. Before I go any further, I want to stress how FUN the writing of this script was. Every time my inbox revealed new pages from Scully it was like getting a gift. I couldn't wait to see where he'd taken the story and figure out how to pick things up. It was the most creatively reinvigorating thing I'd done in years. It felt like a great low-stakes way to warm up the writing muscles before getting back in the game on a real spec.

In practice, we ended up not sticking to the trading-pages-every-day thing. Real life got in the way, and soon it was clear we should bump our deadline from April 1st to May the 4th. Even then, as weeks slipped by and Scully and I found our time consumed by day jobs and other projects, we started writing in longer, less-frequent bursts. So when you read the script, don't assume that the writing changes hands every three pages because that's not at all accurate.

We occasionally traded a few emails about future directions, but most of it was on the order of "I've got an idea for Mark, so if you want to set this up..." or "Here's what George Lucas should be up to." Some of my favorite bits in the script came up on the fly, though. Fairly frequently, we not only would advance the script, but go back and rewrite earlier pages as well. There are a couple scenes that are clearly just me or just Scully, but also a lot that are a hybrid of our efforts.

While we made our deadline and turned out a script that - while a bit loose - still is a lot of fun to read, we were only partly successful in our bid. It was easy enough to get Screenwriting Twitter to talk about it, chastising this attention-seeking as unprofessional, all while giving this trolling the attention we wanted. Seeing friends say "Don't do this," all while spreading word of the stunt, it reminded me of my resolve in recent years to not give undue attention to people pulling these stunts. Having said that, I know it's VERY temping when faced with an annoying clueless newbie to make a spectacle out of their lack of tact.

Alas, the conversation on Twitter never broke out in a way that inspired any of the geek journalists to write about it, even in a "laugh at the idiot" sort of spirit that motivated their WAYNE'S WORLD 3 stories. In that sense, my main objective failed I guess I have to give them props for not being completely without integrity, especially since I specifically targeted people who I thought would be easy marks, given that they were the first to post about WAYNE'S WORLD 3. I suppose we could have planned a more elaborate rollout and fake website, ala BALLS OUT, but that seemed like the point where we were going too far and putting too much effort into it. The actual writing was fun. Making a website? That would have been work.

But even if that didn't work as well as we hoped, Scully and I both had fun writing it and seeing the reaction from people who did venture into the script. It got me using some writing muscles that I hadn't flexed in a while, and has made me more energized to dive into new scripts. Maybe we don't give enough credit to just allowing ourselves to be silly sometimes. The next time you're stuck while writing, maybe try something like this... though it probably is more efficient to just write a short film rather than a full-length screenplay.

There doesn't seem to be any reason to maintain the subterfuge anymore, and if you're interested in seeing the result of our insanity, you can find the script online here, and also on The Black List here.

Monday, May 16, 2016

BATES MOTEL: Does this story only work because we know the ending?

I don't know how I'd manage to recruit a control group for this experiment, but I'd love to know how BATES MOTEL plays to someone completely ignorant of Norman Bates's future. Does it work as a TV show if it has to stand on it's own merits, or do some of its flaws get a pass because the audience gets the thrill of seeing TV Norman take big leaps closer to being everyone's favorite cross-dressing serial killer?

In an ideal world, a prequel would stand as compelling without being propped up by Easter Eggs or callbacks (or is that "call-forwards") to its originating art. BETTER CALL SAUL seems to pull this off quite well, proving completely accessible to people I know who've never watched BREAKING BAD. It'll be intriguing for me to see how this plays out because BCS's Jimmy McGill is much more likable and sympathetic as a human being than his future incarnation Saul Goodman. Will people who root for the success of the scrappy Jimmy be disgusted when he evolves into the slimier, unapologetically ambulance-chasing Saul?

That's not to say that I don't feel like you can see the connection between Jimmy and Saul - just that Saul fans are having a rather different experience from Jimmy fans, and I find it fascinating that thus far, the show seems to work on both levels. The same could be said for the Mike character. On BREAKING BAD he was a villain with an occasional sympathetic side. Here, I really feel for the guy in a way that makes his eventual end feel far more tragic for me. (And if I was experiencing Mike's story chronologically, probably less satisfying.)

But BATES MOTEL... I enjoy it, but I'm not sure if it'd seem cohesive if we didn't know the destination. The season four finale airs tonight and the previous episode ended on what appeared to be the major step in Norman's evolution that we all knew was coming - the murder of his mother. As depicted on the show, it was actually a murder-suicide attempt, with Norman attempting to snuff out both him and his mother with carbon monoxide poisoning. It would have worked, if not for the arrival of the sheriff, who vents the room before Norman succumbs, but can only futilely attempt resuscitation on Norman. 

It doesn't help that BATES MOTEL is not a show without many faults. Going back to season one, I've basically zoned out whenever screentime shifted to "the pot storyline" all about the drug trade in the nearby town. I completely understand why it's there - to get five years of story out of this concept, there needed to be larger mythology. Developing the setting is a natural step, but too much of the drama there has felt incidental to Norman's transformation.

Season one also had a brief phase of what I call the "Norman Bates, Sex God" era. I don't find it inexplicable that he'd be appealing to some women. He's got that "lost scruffy puppy" sort of vibe and I can totally buy that some girls would want to take him home and clean him up. I DON'T buy one of the hottest and most popular girls in school hopping into bed with him. (And if I'm not misremembering, he actually had TWO such conquests in season one!)

It feels weird to say this, but there was a point by the second season where I wasn't watching the show through the lens of it being a PSYCHO prequel. I'm not sure what led me to drop my guard, but I remember being blindsided by a midseason episode where Norman suddenly started acting out and it became clear that he was speaking in the Mother persona. I won't lie - it was genuinely cool to see the birth of the character as we know him/her in the Hitchcock film.

But I have to wonder how many plot turns read as acceptable only because the audience knows where the story HAS to go. Having Norman committed this season was a good start because his erratic behavior through season two and three had gone past the point where one can justify Norma as being in denial about how sick Norman is. Of course, this creates another conundrum - if Norman's mental issues are well-documented does that compromise an outcome where he ends up quietly managing the family hotel, with the locals completely blind to his homicidal tendencies?

Hell, just in the short term it seems strange that Norma's death won't get more serious scrutiny from the police. I'm sure the show will deal with this somehow, but Norman's spent four years leaving behind clues to his psychosis so the real trick is going to be making it credible that none of the authorities piece any of this together.

I'm in for the long haul here, regardless. It's nothing short of criminal that Freddie Highmore and especially Vera Farmiga haven't been Emmy winners for their work here, though Farmiga has been nominated once. The wonderful Olivia Cooke might have started getting more mainstream notice from ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but BATES MOTEL had her first. It's not easy to appear alongside Highmore and Farmiga and not get blown off the screen but Cooke holds her own in a quieter role as the one undeniable innocent among the players. That fact is also why I've been dreading the moment the plot requires her death. I've feared the show won't conclude without destroying the last bit of innocence in Norman's world.

As I said, there's a lot I genuinely like about the show, but it's impossible for me to know if I'm rationalizing some of it's larger flaws because of some kind of tunnel vision towards the resolution. Do I have any other BATES MOTEL viewers in my readership? What do you think?

Monday, May 9, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is Marvel at its best

The Captain America franchise has long been the strongest sub-franchise in the Marvel stable. THE FIRST AVENGER was easily the best solo film of Phase One, (yes, IRON MAN fans, Downey is great in that first film and it has a really strong first hour, but the second hour is rather weak and saddled with a pretty lame villain) and the second outing THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of the all-time best Marvel films ever (second only to the first AVENGERS, in my book.) In fact, when you look at it, none of the Marvel series have managed a strong second go-round. IRON MAN 2 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD seem destined to battle it out forever for the title of "Worst Marvel Movie," and even AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was a pretty solid disappointment.

So to say my expectations were high for this third outing with Captain America, would be a massive understatement. The law of averages seemed to dictate that eventually they'd have to drop the ball. Thus far the only truly great superhero trilogy we've gotten is Nolan's Dark Knight series. Could Marvel pull it off with a film that wasn't just a Captain America story, but the culmination of themes and character arcs that have run through several of these films from the beginning?

Let's just say my expectations were not only met, but surpassed by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. This is likely helped in great measure by continuity behind the scenes. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo return after directing the previous sequel, and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely are credited on all three CAPTAIN AMERICA outings.

Despite the fact the movie is loaded to the gills with appearances by other members of the Avengers, this really belongs under the CAPTAIN AMERICA brand. It's not a Cap story in name only. Maybe the most logical alternate title would be CAPTAIN AMERICA VS. IRON MAN. This is where four or five films of prior set-up on each of their parts comes to a head. The movie - and the audience - understands these two so well that when they come to blows, it's agonizing because we can see and understand both sides of the conflict.

Let's get this out of the way - yes, this film has a LOT in common with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, even more than you realize from the trailers. I don't want to waste an entire review comparing the parallels point-by-point, so let's just stipulate to the fact they're there and that CIVIL WAR handily wins every comparison.

Most of you know me to be a DC guy, at least in terms of the comics. The Marvel characters and storylines never held much appeal for me, though for over five years, I lived with a friend who was deep into Marvel. This coincided with storylines like HOUSE OF M and CIVIL WAR, which means it's a rare case of me being VERY familiar with the underlying material. I recall reading CIVIL WAR and being so far on Cap's side that it wasn't even funny. Tony Stark was written almost as a total fascist, a mustache-twirling villain who'd signed onto a sinister plot where every hero had to reveal their identities and register with the U.S. government or be declared outlaws. To side with this would be to side with Bush-Cheney-levels invasion of privacy. When you throw down that gauntlet, how can Iron Man and the government be anything BUT the bad guys?

When it comes to the movie, consider me Team Iron Man all the way. All the way. Things kick off when an Avengers mission results in collateral damage in a sovereign country and the world governments finally decide they've had enough of super-powered types operating unilaterally. The United Nations drafts accords that will force the Avengers to operate with oversight, and anyone who doesn't assign it is benched. Smartly, the entire "reveal your secret identity" issue is sidestepped, mostly because no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has much of a private life at all.

It also helps that Tony Stark's advocacy of these measures doesn't play like him losing his marbles, but feels like the earned outcome of him being confronted with the last several years of his choices. In IRON MAN, Tony thumbs his nose at authority and flippantly reveals his secret identity in a press conference. He doesn't have the luxury of such brashness anymore. This is the man who survived the Battle of New York, who's seen his own creations subverted and used for evil, who ends up fighting his own plans gone out of control almost as often as he's fought the bad guys. Time and again, Tony has been shown there's a cost to people like him making their own rules, and he's finally reached the point where he's smart enough to take a compromise, rather than face the full force of what will happen if they REALLY provoke the world governments.

Cap makes some good arguments about how this agreement could make the Avengers the tools of an agenda they don't want to serve. What happens the next time someone wants to send a strike force into Iraq based on dubious info about WMDs? They've signed up to be heroes, not soldiers. The problem is that Cap is an idealist, and while he's absolutely right, it's an argument that reminded me of a favorite quote from Deep Space Nine's Garak, "I live in hope that you may one day see the universe for what it truly is, rather than what you'd wish it to be."

As interesting as all this is, the Accords take a backseat to the real thread for most of the film. The signing of the Accords is bombed and Cap's brainwashed buddy Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier is the prime suspect. Since Cap's refused to sign the Accords, he can't be an official part of the hunt and when he and The Falcon go after Bucky on their own, the collateral damage he causes only further widens the schism between him and Team Iron Man. By this point, the film mostly abandons the ideological debate about the merits of the Accords and mostly uses it as a plot device to turn friend-against-friend.

Along the way, Iron Man picks up allies in Spider-Man and Black Panther. Both do a good job of scene-stealing and it might be the best example yet of Marvel seeding future films inside current films. If you really look at the film objectively, it becomes extremely apparently that both of these characters could be lifted out in a rewrite. Spider-Man in particular is a lot of fun, both in the battle and in his interactions with Tony Stark and it restored my interest in seeing another Spider-Man film after the debacle that was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.

Thankfully the other franchise outbuilding is equally unintrusive. The Infinity Stones are only alluded to once, I believe and there's nothing that feels like an unnecessary tangent like "Thor takes a bath" in AGE OF ULTRON, or a misfire like spending an entire movie with Thanos as "Guy who ominously sits on an uncomfortable throne." The real teases towards future films come from character. A lot of relationships come out of this changed permanently.

I'm torn about how much to reveal when it comes to the third act, because that's when we realize the movie has played all of us. We've been misdirected with talks of security vs. liberty, and dazzled by superhero slugfests so when the main event arrives, it's a gut punch. The real endgame here is not about a conflict of principles and pragmatism - it's a personal fight that goes right to the core of one of the characters. Even as the road to getting to this point is revealed as the manipulations of a villain, the clash works because everything about the combatants up to this point tells us they can't walk away from this fight, no matter what contrived to put them at odds.

We've seen how a shared universe can lead to bad creative calls in a film - this time the advantage of that larger world is the depth that it brings to a confrontation like this. Marvel often gets flack because as fun as their films can be, they're often too escapist and surface-level. That's a hard point to deny, but CIVIL WAR is the most ambitious of their films in terms of dealing with weightier issues. (And unlike BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, it delivers on that ambition.)

Some shorter takes:

- I respect Cap's loyalty to Bucky, but there's a point where you wish someone would point out to him that no matter how much a victim he is of Hydra, he WAS a brutal assassin. We don't really get a sense of if Cap is willing to accept that he might have to become a guest of the government, particularly if the brainwashing can't be undone. Knowing what Cap planned to do for Bucky once he caught him might have helped.

- I usually use my non-geek wife as a "control group" for movies like this. She didn't go with me and I really regretted that because I'd love to know how this film plays to someone who's not seen any of the earlier films. It feels like there's enough here to help the film stand-alone, even if the juggling act is the most complicated one in comic book films, save for perhaps X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. (Which my wife DID enjoy, by the way.)

- Didn't miss Nick Fury, though I thought there might have been a chance of him covertly popping up to help Cap.

- I hope the Accords aren't forgotten in future films. Using them again will make them feel less like a plot device here.

- In a crowded film, I was glad to see Emily VanCamp get to briefly kick ass as Agent 13. If AGENT CARTER has to go, maybe there's a place for an AGENT 13 series.

- With the way this film ends, it's gonna be a long two-year wait for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which seems to be the first time the most interesting dangling threads will likely be addressed again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

SUPERGIRL soared this season to become the strongest "Super" show yet

I'm pretty sure I remember the first Supergirl comic I bought. I was nine and it was an "80-page giant" back issue of ACTION COMICS (Issue 334 to be exact) from 1966, that compiled seven Supergirl stories from the past into one volume. I, of course, was aware of the character through Superman volumes like THE GREATEST SUPERMAN STORIES EVER TOLD and FROM THE 30s to the 80s, but the then-current continuity I was reading had yet to reintroduce Supergirl. She had been killed off some four years earlier in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #7 and for some reason, that made her all the more fascinating to me.

I've talked at length in other posts about how Superman was my favorite comic character. I have a complete collection of all of Superman continuity from 1986 to 2011, and most of that was bought "new" off the shelf starting with the EXILE story in 1989. I like to think I have a pretty complete understanding of the character, and it always bugged me when my peers would scoff at him as being "too perfect" or "boring" or "too unrealistic." (As I've joked before, this was especially hilarious when they'd then exalt the relatibility of a billionaire orphan trained by ninjas who's also the World's Greatest Detective and never encounters a situation he doesn't have six backup plans for.)

Which is not to say it's wrong to prefer Batman, or Daredevil, or Punisher (even though that's one character that *I* find to be a complete snooze), but I feel like there's a certain amount of ignorance behind the usual criticisms of more straight-up good guys like Superman. When you're the age of people who superhero comics were aimed at, it's not cool to be the good guy. Badass action and angst speaks more to the developing teenage mind. The teen years are where you discover cynicism, and unironic good seems sinister, too good to be true.

The darker, more cynical interpretations of characters certainly can lead to great stories. I love the grounded take of the Christopher Nolan Batman films as much as the less-gritty Richard Donner Superman films. The only problem I have with the so-called "grim-dark" approach is when it becomes the only way people think superhero stories can be told. That's true in comics, film and television.

To me, a grim, moody Supergirl would be completely missing the point of the character. It's true that a lot of her squeaky-clean disposition owes a lot to the fact that she was the product of the Silver Age of comics, but it's an approach that really befits a younger character trying to find her place in the world. Marvel is full of tortured, angsty teens, so it's nice to see a super-powered teenager who has fun with her powers. If you were a beautiful blonde who could fly and lift up entire buildings, wouldn't YOU enjoy the heck out of it?

Superman has always been a big-brother type of character, maybe an even more fatherly persona. He has responsibilities to consider, and obligations to the world. But generally, he knows who he is and he takes his job seriously. But like Batman, we can't really relate to him emotionally. Bruce Wayne grew up the instant his parents were murdered. Clark Kent has the weight of the entire world on him. But Kara Zor-El? She's the kid who sees what her destiny is and still feels like she has to try hard to be worthy of it.

In my fantasies of writing the comics, I always thought it would be fun to write for Supergirl (and later, Superboy - the clone version, not "Superman as a boy") because it presents the opportunity to play with a character who's less fully-matured and has more of an open field with which to develop. For similar reasons, I always found the Tim Drake Robin far more compelling than Batman because was more of a normal kid who found his way into Batman's crazy world. The younger characters have much more of the journey ahead of them and that's very appealing from a writer's standpoint.

After Kara's comic book death in CRISIS #7, there were a couple attempts over the years to revive the Supergirl character under other identities. Eventually, a new Kara was reintroduced by Jeph Loeb in 2004, and if I'm being honest, it doesn't feel like much thought was put into Kara's personality itself. A new Supergirl was on the table, but Loeb didn't give much depth to the character, aside from a few unnecessary layers of angst about her "dark side" and the fact she might have been sent by her father to kill Kal-El. Loeb's run didn't last long, and subsequent writers compounded the problem, seeming to think the solution was to give her personality even more of an edge rather than soften her. It took writer Sterling Gates to bring back a pureheart, unselfish Kara, and give her a civilian identity so she had a connection to the world around her.

It's that version of Kara that forms the basis for CBS's SUPERGIRL. Created by Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, SUPERGIRL is quite possibly, the best "Super" series we've seen on TV yet. It understands its lead better than SMALLVILLE ever did, it can be fun without sliding too far into silliness, as LOIS & CLARK sometimes did, and the stories are more ambitious than anything found on SUPERBOY or THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

Some elements of the show work better than others, but most weeks it transcends any flaws simply by having one of the best examples of superhero casting since Christopher Reeve. This role fits Melissa Benoist like a glove. Her alter egos aren't as clearly delineated as Reeve's depiction of Clark and Superman were, but I like how her awkward, gawky side seem to be the "real" Kara and not a put-on, while she takes on a more assured, confidant demeanor when assuming the Supergirl uniform.

When writing about female superheroes, inevitably one ends up touching on the theme of empowerment. One of the slyer points the show seems to make is that even as Supergirl is an empowering role model to young women, getting to BE Supergirl is empowering for Kara. She no longer has to hide her abilities and embracing her potential imbues her with a confidence she still has yet to find in her civilian life.

Wearing a superhero costume is more of an acting challenge than one might assume. Christopher Reeve was known to say that he didn't try to oversell the character's presence, remarking "I just let the costume do the work." Reeve wore the costume as comfortably as if it were a suit and tie at the office. The ease he brought to that sold the idea that Superman could exist. In contrast, Dean Cain often seemed self-conscious in his super-suit. He'd often assume defensive, arms-crossed postures and he really gave off the sense he was in a regrettable Halloween costume. (His Clark Kent was quite good, though.)

Benoist lands on the Reeve end of the spectrum. I've seen behind-the-scenes shots and footage and it's amazing how even when she's just walking around like any other actor between takes, you still look at her and go "Wow! That's Supergirl!" The next episode you see, study the scenes where she's in costume, but not flying or using any of her powers. She gives off a presence that's almost regal. I've quite enjoyed her predecessors in this role - Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort - but after just one season, Benoist's interpretation is definitive.

Part of this Supergirl's appeal is her innocence. She has a bright, sunny demeanor that can't help but make you smile. She genuinely enjoys not only using her powers, but in doing good with them. A recent story had her fall under the influence of Red Kryptonite, gradually turning more evil. When she was cured, her first question was a horrified, "Did I hurt anybody?" It's a small point, but it underlines where her heart is.

This is the Kara I first met in that back issue. This is the Kara who I knew from Silver Age archives. This is the brave young woman who dove into battle to save Superman, aware it the cost could be her life and then bravely faced her death. (In fact, her death in CRISIS remains one of the few such incidents that remains genuinely moving even after multiple reads.) I missed this Kara during much of my time buying comics and I was elated to recognize her here.

I'm aware other reviewers have mixed feelings about other aspects of the show. I still think most of the CatCo aspect is pretty solid. Calista Flockhart has gotten opportunities to make Cat Grant more than just a boss from hell, and she tends to get the best one-liners. The show seems to be gradually filling in new shades to her personality without losing the sting that made her a standout from the start. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take her in Season Two. (The show hasn't been officially renewed... yet.)

James Olsen is a charming presence, though I haven't quite felt the romantic chemistry between him and Kara that the show obviously wants us to feel. Part of that might be the sense that the show rushed to create a love triangle with him, Kara and Winn. (Or a love rectangle if you add Lucy Lane to that mix). I'm not rooting against a James/Kara pairing, but I'm not quite aching for it yet either.

I was more ambivalent about Winn from the start and with a full season behind us, I feel like Winn tends to be better served as a character when he's the focus of an ep. The Toyman story worked because it gave him more to play beyond being supportive of Kara and mooning over her. It was a smart decision to have him act on his feelings for Kara and to play with the awkwardness that comes with that. In season two I feel like he needs to get the same sort of growth that SMALLVILLE gave to Chloe over time.

In my review earlier this season, I noted I was not sure about the DEO aspect of the show. It felt plain wrong to me to give Supergirl a boss and make her just part of a team. I also didn't much care for Hank Henshaw as a character. This is where patience was rewarded, as before long, Henshaw got a lot more interesting when he was revealed as Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz and Supergirl was left taking orders from the DEO a lot less than I feared at first. In short order, this aspect of the show went from my least favorite to a source of some of the stronger relationships in the series - particularly Kara's relationship with her adopted sister Alex. The core relationship of the show is not Kara and whoever her romantic interest is, but rather Kara and the girl she was raised with. The Danvers sisters give the show its heart and already this season, it's been used to good effect when Alex was forced to kill Kara's aunt to save J'onn's life.

Interestingly the one character we haven't really seen yet is Superman himself. He's been a largely off-screen presence and there are a number of reasons why that makes sense. Since SUPERGIRL isn't a direct continuation of any previous adaptation, there's no "stunt casting" to be done with this Superman. There's no way they were going to use Brandon Routh or Henry Cavill, for instance. That means that the production would be tasked with casting someone appropriately iconic for a role that pops up only briefly. I can see why the creators would want to give SUPERGIRL a season to find its legs before actively using the granddaddy of all superheroes.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if we do see a Superman next season and that his on-screen introduction is part of a larger arc. That's the kind of event where writers want to make sure they're telling a story worthy of that character. It's also likely that with a longer arc, it would be easier to snag an actor who'd be a "get" for the show.

I'm aware some people aren't fans of the way the show name-drops Superman at all. I've seen the argument that doing so somehow undermines Kara as a character. The line of thought is that it's her show, so everyone shouldn't be asking "Where's Poochie?" - I mean, "Where's Superman?" - all the time. I disagree with that pretty aggressively. The Superman name-dropping isn't done to prop up Kara. If we're dealing with a world where Superman exists, the new kid on the block would inevitably be compared to him.

From a character standpoint, it makes sense that Supergirl would be in Superman's shadow and I like that as an obstacle for her to overcome. It's like being the younger sibling when the eldest child is almost perfect in every way. The need for Kara to step out of that shadow and live up to that immense legacy is one element that makes her an interesting character. It's also a great way to present an emotional challenge to a character who's physically impervious. Consider this - by showing that people in-universe compare her to her cousin, the writing team has managed to make Kara an underdog of sorts. How do you not like that?

I love that we have a very positive, uplifting superhero on TV, regardless of gender. That this also means that young girls now have a hero to look up to is even better. It's my hope that there are also a lot of young boys watching this and realizing that female superheroes can be interesting too. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably be forced to cite THE FLASH as the superior show, but SUPERGIRL is right on its heels and is even more all-ages appropriate. In an era where there's an R-rated cut of a film staring Batman and Superman, I feel that's important.

I really don't want to make this about directly comparing SUPERGIRL with the Zack Snyder films, but I feel in a lot of ways, Kara is more representative of the Superman I grew up reading than Henry Cavill is - and I say this as someone who really liked MAN OF STEEL. People complain about how WB/DC has separate continuities for their film and TV properties, but I don't want the darkness of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN to invade Supergirl's world. I'm grateful that keeping the properties separate has given Berlanti Productions the freedom to carve out their version of this world. At this point, I'm more eager for season 2 of SUPERGIRL than I am for JUSTICE LEAGUE.

The only problem is that as of today, only one of those projects is a certainty. Hopefully, CBS will make season 2 official soon.

Friday, April 15, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part IV - showrunning COUNTERPART for Starz

Part I - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER
Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX


My talk with screenwriter Justin Marks concludes. THE JUNGLE BOOK opens in theaters everywhere today. You can find Justin on Twitter at @Justin_Marks_.

I wanted to save a little bit of time to talk about COUNTERPART, the Starz TV series you’re still in the midst of making. I believe this was your second pilot sold, but your first series. Am I right about that?

Yeah, STARZ bought it. We’re doing two seasons for them. J.K. Simmons is playing the lead role. He’s actually playing two roles, two versions of himself. Morten Tyldum, from THE IMITATION GAME, is directing the first two episodes. It’s an original, something I was specing as a feature and I had a meeting at MRC one day and had just been working on this idea. They asked what I was working on, so I told them and they said, “That should be a TV show. We’ll buy that. Let’s develop it together as a script and we’ll see if we can find interest in it.” We brought it out to the marketplace and got J.K. Simmons and Morten attached to it right after the Oscars last year. Starz bought it and they’ve been incredibly supportive throughout the process. We [the writing staff] have been in a room for about a year, writing the entire first season. Then we’re gonna shoot later this year.

So you got to be the showrunner without having to climb any of the usual rungs in TV.

Well, I have a lot of help from really good people. Amy Berg, another executive producer on the show, is really great at that. She’s really experienced and at the same time she’s really open-minded to doing a different process. This show is ten episodes being written before we shoot a single one of them. In our minds we’re writing a 10-hour movie with ten very solid chapters to it. It’s been a learning process for all of us as we go through it.

From what I remember of your tweets that first week in the writers room, you took to having other writers involved sort of like a duck taking to water.

Yeah! And you know what’s funny is a lot of that, I think, is because of THE JUNGLE BOOK experience and what Jon was pushing. He said, “You can’t be a screenwriter who just wants what you want, and you’re gonna do what you write and we’re all just gonna have to react to that because we’re just going to rewrite you,” you know, the director, the art department, the story department. He said, “We’re all going to be a team and you’re just one part of the team responsible for putting the words on the page in a way that makes us actually feel something.”

That process of learning to trust the process, which is the old Disney mantra, “Trust the process,” Let it suck. Let’s just throw something on the wall and let the room give their opinions on it. That’s what we applied to the TV show, and I guess that’s what every TV show does which is why television is so good because you have a lot of brains working on something together. I always used to have such anxiety on features when it was crunch time and you had to get the scene right. I sleep eight hours every night now knowing that I have so many writers with me who are all bent on “If we didn’t get the idea today, we’ll get it tomorrow.”

How did you choose those writers? You’ve never been on a show before so how did you know what to look for to make a strong room with diversely-skilled people?

First and foremost, I think you have to look for people whose writing you love. You love their ideas and the way they write scenes and surprise you and make choices you wouldn’t have made. And then you’ll have this meeting, and I think the important thing there was to find people who were open-minded enough to do a different process.

With the exception of Amy, I think we have a far less-experienced group of writers like me, who has no experience [in TV] and I think it has really benefited us in a lot of ways. We’re also able to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning, or I’m able to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning because we have the time we’ve been given to do the show right. The results have been incredible because of that and I think that was largely what we did.

We have a very female-driven room. I’m one of two men in the room and I really like it. It’s really just a great energy and a great atmosphere to work with the group we have.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part III - Making THE JUNGLE BOOK

Part I - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER
Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX

Let’s jump ahead to THE JUNGLE BOOK. So how did you get the assignment in the first place?

THE JUNGLE BOOK came about as the result of my work on a movie with Disney called CAPTAIN NEMO, which I was doing back in the day when McG was still involved.

This was pre-Fincher, then?

Yes. And I’d worked with an executive named Brigham Taylor and a producer named Sean Bailey, who’s now the head of production at Disney. So the whole team from CAPTAIN NEMO is still at the studio and Alan Horn came to the studio post-LIFE OF PI and said, “I think that the effects were up to par enough that you could do a JUNGLE BOOK movie now. Why don’t we star figuring out how to do it?” Alan really loved the stories and thought it would be a good Disney live-action movie.

So Brigham called me because we’d worked together – and this is really instructive for other screenwriters if you think about what the process is. The idea was “We don’t know what this is yet. We don’t have a movie. Why don’t we bring a writer in to work together and figure it out.” That was largely what we did with CAPTAIN NEMO. So when it gets back to that conversation about how you want to be that person who’s a positive part of the process, probably part of the reason I got the job was, we were just partners trying to figure out a story. Until we have a movie, we’re just talking in the blue sky.

And at that point, they want someone who they can stand to sit in a room with for eight hours a day.

And that’s what I did. They threw me in an office for about seven months. I was there putting scenes on the wall. This was before a director was involved. This happens a lot . The experience of being a screenwriter before there’s a director, you’re not writing the movie in its most brilliant form. You’re like the advance recon guy. They drop him into the jungle a couple months ahead of the army and you’re just in there to be like. “I know which roads we should take. I know we might get some ambushes.” You’re there to know the material very well and to start to paint an answer to the question “Could this be a movie?”

We began to carve out a scriptment, and then a script. Jon [Favreau] came in and as is the process with every director, said, “This is all great. I like this and I like this. I want to do my version of this story and I have a vision for what this is.”So the next question is, does that vision line up with what you can offer as a writer?”

So I had some meetings with Jon and eventually we were ready to give this a try. He was good enough to give me a crack at writing the next draft. He liked that draft. It felt like his movie now. The studio wanted to make that draft, so at that point, he just kept me on for the entire part of the process to be constantly aware of what was going on and to be making the changes. Once you decide to start making a movie, that’s when the real work starts. So that’s kinda how it began.

I remember that a re-release of THE JUNGLE BOOK was one of the first films I saw in the theater as a child. Was that animated version the blueprint for yours, or did you back to the Kipling novel?

It’s a lot of both. It’s an adaptation of two pieces of material – one, the original Kipling stories, and two, the 1967 Walt Disney film. Because if you’re going to do a movie at the Walt Disney company, you’re going to do a remake of the 1967 Walt Disney film. I say that now, but in hindsight that’s not always the case. When I was just a writer alone, I was exploring a thousand different versions of what that could be. It’s really Jon [Favreau] who came into this and said, “I understand what this movie is. I know what it meant to me as a kid and I want to update and evolve that story in a way that feels responsible.”

So it very quickly became a lot more similar to the 1967 film. But we were able – because of the Kipling book – to endow the film with a lot more mythos. Kipling wrote it all to fit atop a very similar coming of age structure, which is why it was a marriage of the two.

Probably the first question you come to when you do it in live action is “How are the animals going to talk?”

Yeah, how’s it gonna work?

Was there a point where you were worried about that? You’ve got photorealistic animals speaking with the voice of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken.

The biggest fear and challenge of the project – and it did affect the script – was would the effects be able to render emotion? Would the effects be able to convincingly portray talking wolves and a talking bear in a way that didn’t make us laugh, or didn’t make us nothing because we’d feel like we were looking at a dead face.

Until you start to see things – and you’re very far down the pipe when you start to see things – it was always a question. It was like "we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we have to play this movie almost entirely off our live action actor’s face, where all the emotions come from him." And so in the script you had to be very careful about that. Then when the effects started to come in, Jon saw it was incredible what MPC, the effects company is doing. Then we loosened up a little.

And also, we wanted to do things like the animals behaving like animals, so a wolf does not cry. These things you have to be very careful about. That was the biggest challenge.

And you’re not even shooting in real environments. It’s all rendered. You have an actor in a blue-screen room. And you’re shooting for months, waiting for the first finished shots to come back. Is that how it is?

Here the thing that no one talks about with what Jon brought to this process and I think that’s why he deserves all the credit for making the movie as good as it is. And I’m really proud of the work. I’m impressed by what he’s made. When he first came into the process he said to me, “Look, I appreciate this script. What I’d like to do, if you’re okay with it, is we’ll just do this as trial-and-error at the beginning. I want to make this movie going back to the process Walt Disney used going back to the old animated films.”

Is it similar to the Pixar process of doing like a pencil test version of the film and refining it?

It’s exactly that. It’s all iteration. That’s all they do. What that means is we’d start with a script that is a story from beginning to end that everyone likes, then hire a story department to work with the script department – which is one person. That’s me. To make it better one scene at a time. The story department is made up of animators, most of whom come from the Walt Disney school of building story where it’s just one image, flipbook, another image, and they draw these animatics, which we look at on a wall, or now with computers they can render it and we all watch it together.

Because they come from this Disney school, they won’t just take what’s in the script. [They add their own ideas and actions] and we’ll test it. Jon has this theory that ten people can read a script and have ten different opinions as to whether that script is any good or will make a good movie. When ten people watch the same scene from a script on a television in front of them, everyone agrees it’s either good or bad. You cannot argue with something you’re watching in front of you.

And yet, we still argued. Jon would bring me in and he built himself a team of rivals, what he called The Lincoln Cabinet Theory. You’d have a bunch of people fighting for different ideas in a scene and he was the ultimate arbiter of which idea was going to win. So we’d do that for every scene and it became a marriage of all of these points of view. That is the Disney process.

So Jon did that to the point where – I’m gonna get my dates all wrong – a year and a half, maybe two years ago, we had a finished version of the movie in flipbook for that we all watched with no actors yet, and we could watch it and ask, “Does this feel good?” Then began what was called the pre-vis process, but really it was the motion capture. Neel [Sethi] was cast to play the role of Mowgli, the other voice actors had been cast, and we were on a soundstage in Playa Vista that was a motion capture stage. That was like a 40, 50 day shoot where the entirety of it was motion capture. Neel himself was in a motion capture suit so Mowgli himself was motion capture.

We’d do that and watch scenes every day where the motion capture process is so amazing where you don’t have to fix your camera in any way. You can choose where your camera is after the fact. [Cinematographer] Bill Pope would have an idea where he wanted the camera, but he could still change his mind later in the process. So that allowed us to see the movie again another time before a single frame of actual live action footage had been shot.

In some ways, that was when the writer was most important to the process because Jon would [call me] in my office, which was about a mile away from where the stages were and say, “Can you come over and watch this scene that we just shot?” And he’d [show me what he felt wasn’t working. I’d suggest something else] and he say, "Why don’t you go write it and we’ll try it tomorrow." Then we’d just shoot the same scene again the very next day. It was an incredible way to see your mistakes in front of you and correct for them in real time.

Another thing I should say about Jon is he is such a generous guy and I have never worked on a movie like this before. He was so willing to allow me as a writer to make these mistakes and to teach me through these mistakes. It was the first time ever that I’ve had a teacher in this process, someone who was able to carry me through what I guess is basic storytelling. It was really fun and amazing and all of that was before they did the 100-day live action shoot downtown when everything really started to happen.

It’s a pretty intense process. I don’t thing any movie has really been made that way. Even AVATAR, which used the simul-cam and all these things, they didn’t have the time that Disney was willing to give Jon to get the movie right.

Cool! Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that. As you said, it’s a very different way of making a film.

People ask, “What are scenes you wrote that ended up on the cutting room floor” and it’s like, there is no cutting room floor for this movie.

It’s like a theater workshop is what it sounds like. You’re working it out and then by the time you’re shooting it for real, everyone knows what their part is.

Yes. And figuring it out and just getting better and better and better. So when they’re doing the live action component, all Jon is focused on is the visual aesthetic of the film, the incredible sets that the art department designed, just the area around Mowgli, like within 30 feet of him. And that’s the first time Neel’s performance is captured. It’s about finding life in that performance and to be able to focus on just that and not focus on “Is this scene boring? Does this scene make any sense? Do we need this scene?”

In that sense it’s the most-efficient and least-efficient process of all time. It’s least-efficient in the way that we shot it multiple times, but it’s the most-efficient in that once you’re doing the most expensive part of the shoot, you’re doing exactly what you need. Jon conceived of all of that. He was like, “We’re taking all the best parts from animation and all the best parts from live-action and mixing them together.” It’s fun.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX

Part 1 - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER

My talk with THE JUNGLE BOOK screenwriter Justin Marks continues.

Well you’ve talked about STREET FIGHTER in so many other interviews that I don’t want to linger on that production, but that’s your most recent produced feature credit until THE JUNGLE BOOK. And it’s my understanding you were supporting yourself entirely on your writing in between those two, is that right?


So explain to my audience what a working writer does when they’re not making movies in that interregnum.

Basically, for every ten jobs you get, one of them gets produced. I know that batting average is different for some people. I would say you average two or three, maybe four jobs a year. Those can be anything from a quick rewrite or a weekly or a polish to a pilot that you sell, a blind script deal or a straight two-step assignment. You’re always working on something, and then every writer should be doing a spec once a year.

So you’re always just generating new material, and I think that’s the hardest thing to see from the outside. And I wish I could say there’s something extraordinary about working four or five jobs a year – every writer does it. Some do even more.

When you’re working on these assignments, it’s probably easy to know when you’re done because they tell you you’re done. When you’re working on a spec, when do you know to give up on a spec?

Yeah, I’ve given up on some things. It’s a conversation you have with your reps and at a certain point we may stop, or we may float it out to a couple producers who we trust and ask, “What do you think? Think we can get anywhere with this?” And if they say no, you’ve gotta be willing to let it go.

It sounds like bullshit but it’s true – you don’t write to make money. You write because it’s a compulsion, that’s what makes you happy. And the ones you get money on, well that just helps you get even more happy.You write because you have to, so those scripts you abandon, maybe you just take them as a tax write-off on time that you’re making money on other things.

And when you’re coming up with ideas, are you working with your management team, like “Hey I’ve got three ideas, which one do you think I should write?”

It’s not even like that with me. It’s like “Hey, I’ve had this idea for a while.” Maybe I’ll share the first ten pages with them, and if they think there’s something there, we do it. If not, we don’t. Most of the time, once you’ve started to create a career as a writer, no matter what level you’re at, specs become something you do to expand on your “brand.” I’m using air-quotes when I say “brand” because it sounds so awful.

As an example, I speced an early 20th Century espionage script for Ron Howard and we worked on it together. I did all the research because it was something I loved and because I knew no one was gonna pay me to write that.

Because at that point, you’re “the HE-MAN guy,” you’re “the STREET FIGHTER guy.”

Exactly. So I decided to do this on it’s own just to see if I can write a movie like that and see if I enjoy it and in that case I did. We never sold it, but I took all that research and I put it into my TV show. You always win, but you do that to prove to people you can do something different.

With SUPERMAX, I want to say it was roughly around the time of BATMAN BEGINS when it became known?

It was soon after BATMAN BEGINS, like within a year that I set up HE-MAN and SUPERMAX at Warners, and they were within a month of each other. It happened very fast, and that was with David Goyer producing that.

And how did you get hooked up with him?

I met David because his wife at the time was an executive on STREET FIGHTER. Jessika Borsiczky, she’s now a writer in her own right and works on HOUSE OF LIES. She introduced me to David just for coffee because I’d mentioned – not knowing that they were about to get married – how David has always been such an influence on me. Then she brought us out to meet at the Chateau Marmont and just over the course of a coffee I pitched this idea that I had for years, sort of a Count of Monte Cristo prison-break story in the world of supervillains.

That was how we first got started together and we’ve worked together a couple times since as well.

And did that become Green Arrow because he’s the most Batman-like character who isn’t Batman?

No, actually when that was conceived, David was adamant that we should pitch it as any hero, probably someone who didn’t have superpowers.

And that cuts it down pretty fast in this universe.

So we pitched it to DC. I gave the whole story from beginning to end. After I finished the pitch, it was Greg Novak at DC who said, “Why don’t you put Green Arrow into that?” Then we brought it to Warner Bros with Green Arrow and they bought it as a Green Arrow movie.

And I think at the time, this is before even SMALLVILLE was using that character. It was like “Green Arrow? Who’s pulling Green Arrow for a movie? They’ve spent almost ten years trying to do Batman and Superman again!”

And I think to this day that might be still one of the biggest problems with it. I want to see it, but maybe the perception is, “Who wants to see a sequel to the Green Arrow story when we haven’t even seen the first one?” That may be what always slowed it down.